Labor and Coalition leaders keen to dismiss Premier Anna Bligh’s move on political fundraisers — either as a stunt or as unnecessary because the problems she is responding to "are isolated to Queensland" — are exposing their own double standards on electoral funding reform.
The Queensland Premier in one bold move has cut through the promises and fine talk on political donations that have dominated this debate in recent years. She has promised to ban MPs from attending fundraising functions with businesspeople and to ban success fees for lobbyists. Furthermore, she has also called for a national ban on political donations. Until Bligh made her move this week in response to Tony Fitzgerald’s charges of endemic corruption in Queensland, reform in this area had effectively stalled.
Senator John Faulkner’s Electoral Reform Green Paper examining political donations, funding and expenditure was released last December and held great promise. But eight months later, the Federal Government still has not clarified either what the reform process entails or when they will respond to the submissions received.
Bligh’s actions have put the spotlight on new Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig — who has been largely silent on the critical issue of donation reform since taking over from Faulkner in early June. In the wake of events in Queensland, Minister Ludwig promised that he wouldn’t let the grass grow under his feet, saying "this is an area that does need reform". It is now time for him to reveal his timetable for reform and the Government’s response to the submissions received to the Electoral Reform Green Paper.
Arguably, however, Joe Ludwig was never the best choice for the job of leading political funding reform. His base is the Australian Workers Union — an organisation that wields its power in the ALP partly through its regular donations. Over the past decade, the AWU’s support has amounted to more than $1 million.
The promotion of John Faulkner from Special Minister of State to Minister for Defense was a significant step for advancing political funding reform at the federal level. At last week’s ALP conference, it was reported that in his new role as Defence Minister, Faulkner refused to meet with arms dealers and defence company executives who had paid up to $110,000 for special access to government ministers at a party fundraiser.
So now we have one state premier and one federal minister who have both called a halt to participating in political fundraisers. Their decisions will turn off the taps to some donations but the actions of these two MPs, Bligh and Faulkner, more importantly will help restore people’s faith in the democratic process. But these small advances will soon be forgotten if more substantial changes are not achieved.
Right now the prospects for reform are not looking good. Rather than moving to electoral funding reform, both Labor and the Coalition have been bending the rules on fundraisers.
Activities uncovered by a recent Greens Democracy4Sale investigation suggest that the major parties remain focussed on boosting their election war chests rather than meaningful reform. The study of the first six monthly donations disclosure data released earlier this year by the NSW Election Funding Authority revealed that neither Labor nor the Coalition parties disclosed who donated at their party fundraisers. These returns also reveal that most major party candidates funnelled their donations through their party head office so they did not have to reveal the identities of their individual donors.
In 2008, major NSW Labor fundraisers Paul Gibson, Matt Brown and Noreen Hay stated to the NSW Electoral Funding Authority (EFA) that they received no donations. In the 2007 EFA returns, Gibson revealed he raised $336,355, Brown $221,647 and Hay $231,232. What these three top Labor fundraisers are now doing is not illegal — but their actions hardly embody the spirit of transparency and funding reform.
In the six months from July to December 2008, the Labor Party disclosed $3,421,278 in donations in NSW, plus $1,792,349 raised at 17 separate fundraising events. For the same period the NSW Liberal party disclosed $2,569,863 in donations, but failed to disclose what proportion of that money was donated at 167 fundraisers.
This is not the first time the Liberal Party has failed to meet its disclosure obligations. In August 2008, the NSW Liberals failed to disclose $14 million worth of donations before the September 2008 council elections.
Premier Bligh’s action on political fundraisers has re-initiated the debate about these dubious political funding activities but it looks like Labor and the Coalition are waiting for the heat to die down so they can resume their business-as-usual approach.
But when the next political funding scandal breaks — and there will be another scandal — the heat will be on again. Maybe we should take bets on how many scandals it will take before we achieve Canadian-style electoral reform.
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