By David Crowe, originally published in SMH on 17 June 2020.
A crossbench coalition will try to stop a looming change to electoral law out of concern it could blur the lines between state and federal donations and skirt new controls on who can bankroll the major political parties.
The move aims to force a Senate inquiry into the changes to test the Morrison government’s assurance the law will guarantee integrity in the way parties report donations worth millions of dollars.
The government is negotiating with Labor on the changes after introducing the bill last Thursday, raising fears on the crossbench that the two major parties could rush the changes through the Senate this week.
Greens leader Adam Bandt and crossbenchers including Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie are planning a joint bid to stop the bill, one day after many of them also called for a national integrity commission to investigate corruption.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann introduced the bill last week with the promise it would clarify the different state and federal rules in response to a High Court decision last year.
The court upheld a Queensland law that banned donations from property developers, raising questions about whether these donors could make payments to a state branch if the purpose was to fund a federal campaign.
Senator Cormann said the new bill would apply “exclusively” to donations for federal purposes.
“The revised provisions provide that if a donation is initially made for federal purposes but is subsequently used for a non-federal purpose, then the recipient will lose any immunity from state or territory law for receiving or keeping the gift,” Senator Cormann told the Senate.
“For example, a political party may need to disclose the amount under state law and may be liable for penalties if the donation was not permitted under state law.”
Senator Lambie called for an inquiry into the changes given the scandal in Victoria over branch-stacking within the Labor Party.
“Australians are sick of politicians buying their seats rather than earning them. These political donors have so much influence they are virtually running the country,” she said.
“After another week of Labor’s chaos, now is the perfect opportunity for them to show they have some integrity left by sending this bill to an inquiry.”
Critics fear the law will create a “backdoor” for donors who are banned under state law but give money to a state branch by claiming the cash is for a federal purpose.
“The federal donations regime is really quite weak in Australia compared to the state and territory laws, so the strength of those state and territory laws is at risk from any federal change that could undermine them,” said Grattan Institute fellow Kate Griffiths.
“There is a real case for strengthening the law at the federal level, but this bill is not trying to do that.
“It is about access and influence. We should all care about who is influencing public policy and we don’t have enough transparency about that.”
Queensland and NSW electoral law bans donations from property developers, while these and other states also impose lower thresholds on donations to force parties and donors to disclose the payments.
“The commonwealth already has the weakest political donations and spending laws in the country,” said Centre for Public Integrity executive director Han Aulby.
“The federal government is this week trying to weaken them further by allowing commonwealth laws to override stronger state laws.
“This undermines efforts of states including Queensland, which is tomorrow voting to strengthen their electoral laws.”