Never mind Vaile of Arabia’s Middle-Eastern sojourn and Labor’s links with AustChina, it seems some MPs just can’t stay away from privately-funded travel.
Crikey favourite Michael Johnson (he’s definitely a Queenslander, this time I checked) has updated his Register of Pecuniary Interests entry to reveal that the Australia-China Development Association — Johnson’s own pet project run from his electoral office — has been funding more of Johnson’s international travel. In December, it part-sponsored a three night stay in Bali for Johnson, and then in late February-early March it paid, along with the Asia Society, for Johnson’s trip to Phuket for the Society’s “Young Leaders Conference”.
Before going to Thailand, however, Johnson visited India for several days, all of which was paid for by the Association. Johnson has previously travelled extensively overseas with help from the Association, which has paid for round-the-world trips and visits to the US by Johnson.
The Association is a non-profit organisation that appears to draw most of its revenue from Johnson’s Australia-China Business Forum, an annual event that in recent years has attracted support from Liberal Party heavyweights, including John Howard, as well as extensive corporate support. Whether Johnson’s Forum attracts quite so much support this year now that he’s an Opposition backbencher remains to be seen.
Not all of the burden of Johnson’s globe-trotting falls on his pet organisation, however. Mining company Mineralogy — run by National Party stalwart and billionaire Clive Palmer — paid for a trip the US for Johnson earlier this month. Shortly thereafter, Johnson intervened in the AustChina affair to reveal that Ian Tang had boasted to him of his connections with Rudd.
Johnson was less eager to comment today, declining to return Crikey’s calls.
Meanwhile, the Government moved today to seize control of the political donation issue by flagging a reform Bill to reduce the campaign donation disclosure threshold to $1000, ban donations from overseas or foreign companies, link election funding to verified expenditure, remove separate donations for individual party divisions, and reducing the disclosure timeframe to six months.
Special Minister of State John Faulkner indicated the Government wants passage of the bill before the start of the 2008-09 financial year, putting the Opposition under pressure not to delay or reject the Bill in May and early June.
The Government is also preparing a Green Paper covering all other aspects of the electoral process, including the possibility of banning all donations and shifting expenditure to public funding. The paper will be released in two parts, in July and October. The Prime Minister will also be writing to his State and Territory counterparts seeking their involvement – inevitably – in a ministerial review process, as well as seeking input from the Parliamentary committee responsible for electoral issues.
Expect the media to focus on the Pauline Hanson issue – funding paid to candidates well in excess of their actual expenditure, allowing the likes of Hanson to practically live off election campaigns. But the package represents the most significant electoral accountability reforms in decades, and will place Michael Ronaldson – Faulkner’s shadow – under real pressure to prevent the Coalition from being wedged on the issue.
But whether the Green Paper is a means to get real reform – including bans on donations and the regulation of third party election advertising – off the agenda remains to be seen.