The Queensland election has suddenly focused attention on that state’s political donation disclosure (or more correctly, non-disclosure) laws.

Amid controversy over Queensland Labor’s fundraising practices and access to ministers being sold to raise funds, in 2009 then-premier Anna Bligh elevated Queensland’s political donation restrictions and reporting requirements to best practice. In 2014, Premier Campbell Newman mostly neutered Bligh’s reforms.

ABC’s 7.30 last night and particularly The Australian’s Michael McKenna today focused on how Newman’s 2014 changes to donation laws have enabled donors to give large amounts — up to $12,400 — in secret, as well as exploiting the gap between what is legally a donation and what is a fee for a good or service.

In effect, what Newman did was to “Howardise” the Queensland laws, mimicking the Howard government’s massive 2005 increase in the reporting threshold for federal donations from $1000 to an indexed level that, federally, is now $12,800. Efforts by Labor’s John Faulkner to reverse the federal changes were blocked by the Coalition and Steve Fielding, and later by his own colleagues. Instead of being reversed, the Howard changes metastasised into Queensland.

The difference as a result of Newman’s gutting of the Bligh laws is remarkable. Compare the disclosure reports for the Liberal National Party for 2012-13 and 2013-14. For a start, there’s only one for the latter year, compared to two for the former, because reporting is now annually, not every six months. The two 2012-13 reports (here and here) show the LNP declaring revenue of just under $17.8 million for the full year and include a total of 61 pages, many of them closely printed, detailing hundreds of sources of funding. Much of this funding involved has nothing to do with donations or even pseudo-donations like subscriptions to “business forums” or purchases of dinner table spots for access to ministers — it includes candidate nomination fees, tax refunds, funding from the Queensland Electoral Commission and allocations from one section of the party to another. But it provides a comprehensive description of where nearly all LNP funding, apart from contributions below $1000, has come from.

The 2013-14 report, however, has just six pages of detail for the LNP’s declared $18.64 million in revenue, covering declared donations and other reportable payments totalling $7.5 million. What’s missing is many hundreds of donors and businesses that have given the LNP between $1000 and $12,400 in 2013-14 — in just the six months from January 1, 2013 to June 30, 2013, the LNP’s return shows over 900 donors contributing amounts within that range — excluding non-donation funding. No one within that range was reported in 2013-14 by the LNP; they can now contribute in secret to Newman’s government.

This is the multimillion-dollar credibility gap at the heart of Newman’s political donations laws. The gap is significantly less for Labor: like federal Labor, the Queensland Labor Party reports all contributions above $1000 regardless of legal requirements, so its returns still provide copious detail about sources of (mostly union) funding. But Labor does so on a voluntary basis, and it could cease to do so at any time. For the LNP, Newman’s laws have hidden from public view the vast majority of donors, many of whom are seeking to influence the Newman government to achieve policy outcomes that suit their commercial interests.

As the pre-Bligh Queensland laws demonstrated, such lack of transparency is ripe for exploitation by party mates seeking to obtain access and influence. If Newman’s changes aren’t undone, history tells us it will invariably lead to scandal and corruption. And as we’ll see in coming days, the problem is every bit as acute at the federal level.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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