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Another year, another round of media failures on campaign finance

The release of donations data should be one of the year’s biggest dumps of hot political news. It’s high time the mainstream media stopped turning a blind eye and started asking questions.

Another year, another woeful effort by most of the media in reporting the deluge of donations data released by the AEC at 9am last Friday.

Apart from the federal budget, there is no bigger, single-day avalanche of political news in Australian politics because the information includes donations to every division of every party, state and federal, over a 12-month period. Despite having the information all day, none of the state-based versions of 7.30 which went to air on Friday night covered the story. Why not?

News Corporation is a company which culturally rates good governance as a low priority courtesy of the standards set by its 60-year CEO and controlling shareholder Rupert Murdoch. Every year it consistently underplays “donations day” relative to the treatment given by Fairfax Media, and Saturday’s papers were no exception.

The Herald Sun produced one miserable story buried at the bottom of page 6 and The Weekend Australian somehow thought a union boss and failed ALP presidential candidate complaining about corruption was more worthy of the splash on Saturday.

The Age got it right in splashing the paper (“Pokies pay out to parties”) on the gambling angle. The pokies industry did indeed favour the Coalition by almost $1 million in terms of donations in 2011-12, although the ALP extracted a record $1 million dividend from its party-owned pokies venues in Canberra.

Courtesy of this data, we now all have a clearer picture of the financial pressure on the ALP which prompted Julia Gillard to yield to the NSW Right and embrace Peter Slipper so she could dump her pokies commitment to Andrew Wilkie 12 months ago. In hindsight, it would have been a whole lot simpler politically to plough ahead with the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a maximum $1 bet.

Given Australia still has the weakest campaign finance disclosure rules of any sophisticated democracy, this is an issue crying out for strong editorials or opinion pieces. There’s been nothing yet from any News Ltd paper and only one short piece by Lenore Taylor in the Fairfax broadsheets.

As an interesting test of News Ltd’s ability to run governance stories, I gave Herald Sun city reporter John Masanauskas a scoop in today’s paper about Melbourne City councillors agreeing to a new protocol that none of us are to meet with any developers without a senior planning officer present. To the paper’s credit, it ran as the page four lead under the headline “Planning’s out in open”, with the kicker reading “Councillors and developers can’t meet in private”.

This prominent placement partly reflected the traditional struggle reporters have in filling a Monday paper, plus the fact that it was a scoop on the issue of developer donations which The Age arguably went over the top on during last year’s council elections.

In effect, this was a marginal campaign finance story related to a new voluntary code for one of Victoria’s 79 councils. So why won’t Australia’s biggest-selling paper get behind any broader push for campaign finance reform and disclosure?

Part of the problem is the lack of any co-ordinated effort pushing for greater reform. The two major political parties always go to ground on the question of donations, so there are few prominent political figures to feed the media beast with colour and movement.

There are also multiple problems with the annual dump of donations data, including that nobody gets a scoop. As Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey on Friday, the presentation is “inconsistent, out-of-date and confusing information”. One obvious solution would be for the AEC to conduct a three-hour media lock-up beforehand.

It also remains completely astonishing that political parties exempt themselves from having to release balance sheets and profit and loss statements, let alone information about their cash flows. The parliamentarians impose accounting and reporting standards on every last kindergarten and bowls club in our wide brown land, but keep their own financial affairs completely secret. No wonder corruption, kicks backs, insider trading, nepotism and slush funds prevail.

Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have at different times attempted to let the sun shine in, but the Coalition have disgraced themselves by opposing moves to take the governance high road.

If News Ltd was serious about governance, it would relentlessly demand Tony Abbott improve Australia’s disclosure laws. Instead, we are continuing to get nothing short of a biased cheer squad as evidenced by recent page one headlines about a campaign “farce” and government “chaos”, contrasted with Phil Hudson’s pathetic picture story with Abbott on the banks of the Yarra last Wednesday which opened as follows:

Tony Abbott says he appreciates Melbourne far more than he did three years ago. He says the city that could be crucial to his hopes of becoming prime minister in this year’s election campaign feels like his second home. Making his 84th visit to Victoria since becoming Liberal leader …”

Campaign finance reform is sitting in Abbott’s hands. If New York-based Rupert wants to back him in, can’t we at least get some governance improvements along the way?

6
  • 1
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 4 February 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Rupert is only 60 years old? (Para 3)

    That was surely a typo worthy of attention.

  • 2
    Microseris
    Posted Monday, 4 February 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Donations buy ministerial access and leverage and can be rightly considered legalised corruption.

  • 3
    CML
    Posted Monday, 4 February 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Stephen - what you say is correct, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon. The Labor party should be all over this like a rash, and the Greens. Why can’t they get legislation through the HoR? Should be no contest in the Senate.
    The more we allow any political party to withold this type of info from the general population, the greater the risk of us ending up like America where the wealthy “buy” their own politicians. Do we really want that to happen in Oz?

  • 4
    marant
    Posted Monday, 4 February 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Well-directed article, Stephen, but I would like to know the criteria you use to call our Australian democracy “sophisticated”.

  • 5
    Peter Young
    Posted Tuesday, 5 February 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    How can the the looney nasty party(L.N.P.) claim that there for transparency but they are just as bad . we need honest disclosure and a comittment from all parties for full disclosure of donations to all political parties. because follow the money heaviest donors show where policy didn’t go like the pokie reforms failed . our democracy is becoming like the U.S.A. and not for the better the biggest donor recipient wins. excellent article Stephen iv’e been thinking on for this for a few years. also we need a crime and misconduct commisson in canberra a.s.a.p.

  • 6
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Tuesday, 5 February 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    John Bennetts:

    read it again….

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