This morning at 9am, information about political donations for 2007-08 was released by the Australian Electoral Commission. Throughout today and the next couple of days, as journalists immerse themselves in the figures, there’ll be a regular flow of stories about who donated what to whom. Provided it was above $10,500.

Such is the state of our electoral disclosure laws that donations to political parties made in July 2007 are only now going to be revealed.

That we will only learn about donations over $10,500 is because of the Howard Government. The Coalition set some pretty low standards when it came to political accountability, but its assault on the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 2006, which lifted the reporting threshold from $1000 to an indexed $10,000, was especially grubby and remains a lasting stain on Australian public life. But they can’t be blamed for the time it takes to find out about donations.

If you donate directly to a political candidate, you have to report that donation — as long as it’s over $10,500+ — to the Electoral Commission within 15 weeks of polling day, and the AEC compiles them and makes them available 9 weeks later.

But the vast bulk of political donations are to parties themselves. If you donate to a party, even in the lead up to an election, you don’t have to report it until 17 November the following financial year. The AEC then compiles them and makes them available in February. Candidates, political parties and associated entities face similar requirements, albeit with tighter deadlines.

This is absurd. There is no reason why donations couldn’t or shouldn’t be made reportable much more promptly. That voters won’t find out until this week how donors were trying to buy influence in the lead-up to the 2007 election — in particular, who was trying to get in the good books of the ALP, which was cruising to victory — is a scandal that we all seem to have readily accepted.

Well, not all, as John Faulkner’s slate of amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act currently before Parliament include six-monthly reporting, and gives donors and parties only eight weeks in which to lodge returns. If Faulkner’s amendments had been in place in 2007, parties and donors would have had to have reported their pre-election donations by the end of February last year. We would have known about them not much less than twelve months earlier.

As I’ve previously lamented, however, the Coalition continues its grubby resistance to the most basic accountability. It used its Senate numbers to refer the bill to committee before the changing of the guard in July, with the goal of locking it up until mid-2009. Shadow Special Minister of State Michael Ronald, whose idea of accountability consists of attacking Government staffers and bullying Estimates witnesses, called it “policy on the run” (the none-too-imaginative Ronaldson says “policy on the run” a lot).

Incidentally, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which considered the bill, looked at the exact issue on which the Coalition bases its opposition to lower disclosure thresholds — that people or companies who donate to the Liberal Party might get victimised by unions or otherwise discriminated against. We all know the Liberals like to conjure up the vividly 1970s image of Neanderthal unionists standing over plucky small businessman who want nothing more than the opportunity to create jobs, but the blood in this piece of industrial relations Grand Guignol looks particularly fake.

The Electoral Commission told the Committee “the AEC is aware of general allegations having been made of such unlawful conduct… However, in the past three years, the AEC has not been provided with any evidence that would indicate that such discrimination has actually taken place. Neither has the AEC been provided with any details of allegations that could be referred to the AFP for investigation.”

Steve Fielding has added a childishly populist amendment on the entirely-unrelated issue of capping public funding of parties at $10m, which would have the perverse effect of making them more dependent on donations than before.

In December, Faulkner tabled amendments to his bill designed to address concerns raised by the committee, particularly relating to types of election expenditure that could be claimed, and allowing anonymous donations of up to $50. Faulkner wants to bring the Bill on for debate in the Senate as soon as possible. Leaving it too late will affect the chances of it commencing on 1 July 2009, if Fielding can be convinced to return to earth long enough to vote sensibly on the issue.

The only problem with Faulkner’s proposals are their lack of ambition. There is no reason why disclosure of donations shouldn’t and couldn’t be required far more often than six-monthly. Nick Xenophon has called for continuous online disclosure during election campaigns. That model could be extended to all donations to political parties and candidates. Why does anyone need more than a few days to report that they’ve given politicians some money?

Then again if we got rid of political donations it wouldn’t be an issue.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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