It’s a big call and it may yet prove mistaken but yesterday probably witnessed the low point in political accountability in this Parliamentary term.
In the Senate, the Coalition combined with Steve Fielding to block the Government’s electoral reform bill, which would have reversed some of the Howard government’s savage attacks on political transparency, such as returning the donation disclosure threshold from $10,900 to $1000.
The return of the donation disclosure threshold to $1000 was a well-advertised election commitment by the ALP in 2007. It has been blocked by the party that lost the election and a senator elected on the vote of 1.77% of Victorians.
The bill also tightened donation reporting requirements to end the farce that meant we didn’t find out who had donated to parties before the 2007 election until February this year and banned foreign donations.
Shadow special minister of state Michael Ronaldson, who has not supported a single one of the Government’s efforts to increase political transparency and accountability, immediately issued a gloating press release declaring “Labor has only itself to blame” for the defeat of the bill. Well, actually Senator, the people who voted against it are to blame. You and your colleagues and the fragile fundamentalist from Victoria.
Fielding, at least, had a sort of reason why he blocked the bill. Fielding complained that public funding of political parties “has been rife with rorting”. You’d think that, given the bill specifically includes a Pauline Hanson-inspired limit so that parties can only claim funding for their actual expenses, Fielding would therefore support it. Instead, Fielding wants a separate cap on public funding of political parties of $10m, an entirely separate issue. And a limit on public funding — the Labor and Liberal parties got about $20m each for the 2007 election — would, one would expect, further encourage reliance on donations. But, nevertheless, that was Fielding’s excuse for voting against it.
Perhaps he’s grumpy that the Government will no longer be participating in the death of women in developing countries who are forced to seek unsafe abortions.
The Opposition, however, have been trying to block this bill from the get-go. They referred it to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Affairs, which is conducting the usual inquiry into the last election. This was an attempt to ensure it wasn’t even considered before June this year. Labor circumvented that by bringing forward the inquiry into the bill. To demonstrate how important they thought the inquiry was, the Liberal Party lodged a contemptibly brief one-page submission demanding the bill be withdrawn. Nevertheless, the Joint Committee recommended some amendments to the bill, which the Government accepted. It was good enough for the Greens and Nick Xenophon, but Fielding and the Coalition killed it.
Ronaldson was recently joined by staffer Peter Phelps, from the far right of the NSW Liberal Party, best known for his disastrous attack on Mike Kelly in the lead-up to the last election. Phelps crafted the Howard Government’s assault on electoral transparency as Chief of Staff to then Special Ministers of State Eric Abetz and Gary Nairn, part of which the bill would have overturned.
The media reaction has been bizarrely muted, with only flat media reports that the bill failed to pass. Given the normally febrile press reaction to any issue about political donations or politicians rorting public funding, you’d expect the Coalition and Fielding would be attracting savage criticism for blocking the most basic of electoral disclosure and funding reforms.
Faulkner will reintroduce the bill as soon as possible — possibly next week. The Coalition has placed on record its utter contempt for transparency and accountability. Will Steve Fielding do the same again?