By David Crowe
The way cash is raised to run political campaigns is resulting in “shocking” levels of corruption, Australians are being warned, in a new push for drastic reforms to donation laws, including swift disclosure of big donors.
The call for reform includes a warning about “war chest corruption” as the federal election campaign begins, with voters unable to discover who is paying the political parties at fundraising events in the weeks ahead.
Former Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles, a key adviser in the formation of the state’s corruption watchdog, said Australia needed the stricter laws to curb “payments for access” to elected leaders.
“Elections shouldn’t be bought,” Mr Charles said.
This view is echoed by Geoffrey Watson, the former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, who said his work had shown the scale of the problem in politics.
“It was shocking to see just how willing some of our politicians were to participate in illegal conduct,” Mr Watson said.
“I was absolutely stunned at the venality. You would not believe just how often it was that very small sums were involved.
“Some $10,000 was regarded as well and truly sufficient to warrant a politician turning a blind eye or actually becoming personally involved in facilitating money changing hands.”
Mr Watson said the problem occurred on all sides of politics and has set out five steps to change the system, starting with a cap on election spending by political parties and other organisations, such as unions and activist groups, to reduce the demand for finance.
In a call backed by others, Mr Watson also wants a cap on donations to parties and third-party organisations to stop “badly motivated people” gaining influence over politicians.
Other measures included real-time disclosure of donations, enforcement by a new national integrity commission and a ban on foreign donations, as legislated last November.
Donations made during the election campaign will not be revealed to voters until February 1, under current rules that ask political parties, unions, activist groups and donors to lodge annual returns in November. Left-wing activist group GetUp discloses donations more swiftly on its website.
Former Western Australian Labor premier Geoff Gallop said voters should know of the donations soon after they were made.
“It’s now technically possible to have real-time disclosure and therefore it should be done. There’s really no excuse for not doing it,” he said.
“What we need is the underpinning of a corruption commission, because when you get individual episodes that need examination, that involve politicians, there’s just no avenue at all at the national level in Australia to do that.”
Melbourne University professor Joo Cheong Tham said it was “beyond scandalous” that politicians were not taking stronger action against corruption, while Monash University professor Colleen Lewis said history showed that vested interests would always push back against disclosure.
Transparency International director and Griffith University professor A.J. Brown said finance reform was now a problem for the election campaign because of the big promises being made by all parties.
“There’s no question that the electorate is genuinely ready for reform that will clean up politics and a national integrity commission is one of the big steps to achieving that outcome,” he said.
The comments came at the release of a Transparency International report into the creation of a national integrity commission, an idea backed by both major parties but with no agreement on its rules or donation reform.
While curbs on political expenditure have triggered claims of a restraint on freedom of speech, Sydney University professor Anne Twomey said recent High Court decisions showed there could be a way to impose fair limits without breaching the constitution.
Professor Twomey said the court accepted that laws could limit the political communications of some in order to enhance political communication overall.
“And what that means is that you can legitimately place restrictions and caps on political communication of the most well-funded in order to expand the diversity of communications,” she said.
“So you just don’t end up with one well-resourced body flooding the airwaves and taking up all the room so that nobody else gets a say.”
The Liberal Party spent $66 million and Labor spent $48 million in the year before the 2016 election, according to annual returns to the Australian Electoral Commission, although the paper-based disclosures are unreliable. The Nationals spent $10 million and the Greens spent $14 million.
This story was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on April 16 2019.