A number of NSW donors may have failed to disclose the full extent of their political donations, a comparison of NSW and Commonwealth electoral disclosure data shows. But the extraordinary disparities between disclosure requirements, and the high level of confusion about what different jurisdictions require from donors, means it is impossible to determine if breaches have occurred.

The Federal Government’s Electoral Reform Green Paper, released late last year, spells out the remarkable disparities in reporting requirements for political parties and donors in relation to political donations, with no consistency on even basic questions as to whether donations should be disclosed at all — Western Australia, for example, does not require the disclosure of donations by donors.

However, most jurisdictions have a significantly lower reporting threshold for donations (around $1,000) than the Commonwealth’s, which is now nearly $11,000 and destined to keep rising until the Coalition or Steve Fielding agrees to the Government’s reforms to disclosure requirements. This allows an insight into political donations unavailable from Commonwealth records since the Howard Government’s assault on electoral transparency in its final term.

A comparison of recent NSW disclosure data and Australian Electoral Commission data for 2007-08 (which, under the current disclosure framework, remains the most recent data) shows significant disparities between what donors are reporting in NSW and what they tell the AEC — even when the amounts concerned are over the $10,500 threshold applying in 2007-08.

However, in many cases it is because NSW and the Commonwealth interpret donations differently. The legislative definition of donations at the Commonwealth level excludes payments for which a consideration is received — whether it be a meal, membership of a business forum or an opportunity to network with senior party figures. In contrast, NSW requires all donations to be disclosed whether a consideration was received or not. The Commonwealth law requires only that parties report such contributions — usually as “Other” or “Subscription” –- rather than donors themselves.

The distinction may be legitimate for businesses but seems a peculiar one for the ALP’s biggest donors, trade unions. NSW records show the union movement donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ALP — but don’t declare it to the AEC because it is provided as “subscriptions” or for purposes that can be classed as receiving some form of return for the union involved.

And there are questions over the disclosure of a number of donors or their handling by the parties involved. For example:

  • The NSW branch of the Australian Hotels Association provided an extended list of donations to both sides of politics but failed to lodge a disclosure with the Australian Electoral Commission even for amounts the ALP — a prime benefactor of the AHA — reported as donations rather than “other receipts”, which “for consideration” payments would be listed under.
  • Singapore-controlled minibus joint venture ComfortDelgro Cabcharge gave $23,000 to the NSW ALP, including a $12,000 donation in April 2007, but neither the party nor the donor has apparently informed the AEC.
  • Controversial property developer Gazcorp spent $15,000 at a NSW Liberal dinner without either the donor or the party apparently disclosing it.
  • The Guinness Peat Group “sponsored” an ALP “business dialogue” in July 2007 to the tune of $19,500, with no declaration from donor or party.
  • Neither Kindilan Investments, a significant Liberal donor, nor the NSW Liberals appeared to have declared a $15,000 contribution in May 2007.
  • News Ltd contributed $11,000 to the NSW Liberals in November 2007 without an AEC disclosure, although the NSW Liberals peculiarly list it as a donation when, according to News Ltd, it was for a consideration (meaning, it should have been categorised other than as a donation).

No impropriety or breach is suggested of those companies — indeed, the only reason they can be identified is because they have complied with the requirements of the NSW laws on political donation disclosure. Moreover, any breach that did occur could be plausibly put down not merely to human error either by donor or political party, but to confusion over the requirements of different jurisdictions, particularly if a donating company doesn’t have the resources for a full-time corporate affairs position.

To avoid confusion, a number of companies simply disclose every donation or transaction with a political party to avoid having to work out exactly what the specific requirements of each jurisdictions are.

Nevertheless, impropriety does occur.

Lobbyists whose companies disclose appropriately notice those that do not, because they see representatives at the same political functions. As one veteran lobbyist told Crikey, “companies that have ‘no political donations’ policies are handing over money at these events. Their shareholders think no donations are being made but they are, it’s just that they’re not disclosed.”

And there remains the vexed issue of in-kind donations, which appear to be grossly under-reported at all levels.

If political donations are to be retained, a uniform, or even unitary, system of disclosure and enforcement is needed across all levels of Government, to remove both confusion for business and the opportunity to avoid disclosure that comes from jurisdictional differences. Given the Coalition’s track record of opposing reform, however, the chances of effective change are minimal.