By Christopher Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 11th February 2020.
More than $100m in political donations from hidden sources was donated to the major parties during the election year, the greatest single amount in two decades.
The Centre for Public Integrity has analysed the volume of so-called “dark money” – political party income with unknown origins – used to bankroll political parties since 1998-99.
It found that in the 2018-19 election year, the major parties received $103m in income from hidden sources, about 31.4% of their total income.
In the past two decades, the major parties have received $1bn in dark money, representing about 35% of their total income.
The analysis suggests the Liberal and National parties have hidden about 40% of income over the two decades. Labor hid about 28% of its income.
The figures again highlight glaring weaknesses in Australia’s donation laws, which remain inferior to state-based regimes.
Donations only needed to be declared in 2018-19 if they were above $13,800, allowing smaller contributions to be hidden from public view. Advertisement
Donations are not aggregated, meaning multiple donations of less than $13,800 can be made and still kept secret, even if they add up to more than the threshold.
Donations that are declared are only done so once a year. Parties report to the electoral commission in October and the donations data is published in February each year, creating a huge time lag between donations, elections and eventual transparency.
That compares poorly to states like New South Wales and Queensland, which have donation disclosure thresholds of $1,000 and much faster reporting to the public.
Labor has voiced support for lowering the federal threshold to $1,000 and declaring receipts within seven days. The Greens also support far greater transparency on donations.
Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Watson, a former counsel assisting to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, said there should also be a cap on donations of $1,000.
He said that would remove the ability to influence parties financially, and could be accompanied by a campaign expenditure cap.
“We want the ability to be able to donate to a point where you can participate but not influence,” Watson told the ABC.
The analysis comes as the federal government delayed voting on a motion to pass the Greens bill for a national integrity commission. The Greens had proposed a federal integrity commission with broad powers compared to the Coalition’s model, which critics say is weak and narrowly focused.
Larissa Waters, the Greens democracy spokeswoman, said the government had “dodged scrutiny and integrity” by delaying the vote.
“The government did not even allow any debate on the motion, just gag and delay so they can continue the dodgy conduct of their ministers without any independent body to hold them to account,” Waters said in a statement.
“The procedural games can’t conceal that this government is running away from integrity and transparency as fast as new corruption scandals emerge.”
The government is yet to produce draft legislation for its proposed federal anti-corruption body, despite promising to do so last year.