So who purchased access to senior Labor ministers at the ALP national conference? Which businesses paid $7500 to receive a one-on-one meeting — albeit brief — with a minister, and attend presentations from the likes of Julia Gillard and Penny Wong? The “access” available to donors at the ALP conference was, by all accounts, derisory. Indeed there were plenty of lobbyists saying before the event that they were only going to be seen, rather than have any meaningful interaction with a Minister. But that’s not the point.

Under Commonwealth electoral disclosure laws, however, we may never find out — and if we do, we’ll be waiting a very long time.

Courtesy of the changes made by the Howard Government in 2005, the “Business Observer” entry fee is below the reporting threshold for donations. And in any event, under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, such sums are not considered “donations” but as fees paid for goods and services. Donors don’t have to declare them. That had nothing to do with the Howard Government.

Political parties are required to disclose not merely donations but fees of the sort charged in Sydney last week, if they’re over the threshold. The Federal ALP has also declared it will reveal donations and fees over $1000, rather than observe the Howard-era threshold.

But under current reporting requirements, we won’t know until the 2009-10 disclosure reports are released by the Australian Electoral Commission.

That will be in February 2011. Yes, February 2011.

Fortunately, NSW electoral disclosure laws are much tighter. Donors are required to disclose fees as well as donations. And they have to report every six months. We’ll be able to see the NSW report covering this period around about April 2010.

So courtesy of the fact that it was held in Sydney, we can learn who was buying access. But the conference might just as easily have been held elsewhere, and we would have been in the dark.

John Faulkner’s electoral reform bill will lower the threshold for disclosure at the Commonwealth level back to $1000. It will impose six-monthly reporting. It won’t fix the donation/fee distinction but as political parties have to report both, it still enables transparency of the purchase of access.

That bill was rejected by the Coalition and Steve Fielding earlier this year. Nick Xenophon and the Greens supported it. It will be back in the Senate next week or shortly thereafter. The Coalition rejected it ostensibly because it wanted the Government’s separate electoral reform Green Paper process completed before it considered the reforms. It has also argued that there should be less transparency about political donations because unions will target small businesses who give to the Coalition. No evidence of this has ever been produced, the AEC says.

Why Steve Fielding rejected the bill is unclear. The man is hopelessly unfit for his position and the sooner he is turfed from the Senate the better for Australian public life.

Despite much ado about the purchase of access and suggestions of some vague form of corruption in Queensland, Australia’s political media have shown little interest in the fate of the Faulkner bill. It’s hard to take campaigns like “Australia’s Right To Know” seriously when such a blatant act of political opportunism by the Coalition on the critical issue of electoral transparency has been ignored or considered only in the context of whether it will afford a trigger in the spurious double dissolution debate.

The Coalition is right to be concerned about the advantage the ALP has from union donations. It’s a problem that will be magnified at the next election because many traditional Coalition donors will be contributing to the ALP, partly as a case of realpolitik, partly because many are pleased with the Government’s handling of the economic crisis and dismayed at the Coalition’s economic obstructionism. There are some in the commercial property sector — traditionally generous donors to the Liberals — who won’t forgive the blocking of the Australian Business Investment Partnership.

The best way to solve that is to go further and ban all donations and publicly fund election campaigns.

But the Coalition refuses to engage on the issue. This is the Liberal Party’s laughably short submission on the electoral reform bill.

The media can’t have it both ways. Either reforms to increase transparency should be supported, or the incessant carping about corruption and access-buying should stop.