Next week, Australians will finally be allowed to learn who gave money to political parties in the months leading up to the 2013 federal election. Annual donations disclosures for 2013-14 for parties, associated entities and donors will be made available by the Australian Electoral Commission, including information about donations and other contributions to parties in July, August and the first week of September in 2013. Up to 19 months after the money was paid or the goods and services rendered, with the government elected in September 2013 now midway through its term, voters will learn who was trying to curry favour with it.
Don’t like the absurd delay? Thank the Coalition and Steve Fielding, who blocked Labor reforms that would have required six-monthly reporting.
But the bigger problem is that what we learn from the Australian Electoral Commission’s returns is, literally, and almost exactly, half the story. Under Commonwealth donation disclosure rules, and courtesy of changes in the way political parties are tapping donors for contributions, we’re only being told about the source of half of revenue flowing to all political parties.
The primary reason — as Crikey explained last week in relation to Queensland — is the massive damage the Howard government inflicted in donations transparency with its 2005 changes, which dramatically lifted the threshold for disclosure of contributions from $1000 to, for the 2013-14 financial year, $12,400. Labor also tried to fix these changes, but the Coalition and Fielding blocked its efforts.
But another anti-transparency mechanism for donations is the increasing reliance by the major parties on non-donation contributions, such as annual subscriptions to “business forums” or events at which access to ministers is “sold” to donors. Donors are only required to make a disclosure to the Electoral Commission if they’ve donated to parties or candidates — not if they’ve purchased a good or service with their contribution. Accordingly, many companies elect not to disclose the often sizable contribution to Labor and Liberal fundraising groups or events.
New South Wales state laws require donors to declare contributions whether they’re donations or not. So did Queensland laws brought in by Anna Bligh, until they were Howardised by Campbell Newman last year. Newman dumped six-monthly returns and lifted the threshold to over $12,000. Bizarrely, however, there was one accidental way in which the Newman laws slightly improved transparency: his laws allow parties simply to lodge their Australian Electoral Commission return with the Queensland Electoral Commission for the financial year, but the ECQ publishes those returns long before the AEC does, giving us a slightly earlier insight into Queensland political party finances.
So apart from the checking enabled by NSW laws, the Commonwealth laws mean huge numbers of donors are never revealed to the public (though some corporate donors, like Macquarie Bank, report everything, regardless of legal requirements, for the sake of transparency). The sheer scale of this credibility gap is demonstrated by looking at the revenue claimed by parties compared to the total of their acknowledged donations, in-kind contributions and other forms of fundraising and revenue (such as public election funding, which the parties report). In 2012-13, the federal branch of the Liberal Party said it had received $11.4 million in total revenue, but its returns only accounted for $8.3 million. The NSW Liberal Party said it had received $14.1 million in total, but only accounted for $3.6 million in its returns. The Victorian Liberals acknowledged $13.6 million but only declared $5.6 million in donations, contributions and other revenue. The South Australian Liberals had nearly $4 million in revenue but only reported donation and contributions of just over $300,000.
On average across all divisions of the party, for 2012-13, the Liberals reported just under $75 million in revenue, but identified the sources of only $32.6 million, or just over 43% of that. So just under 60% of Liberal Party revenue was not accounted for under John Howard’s rules. It’s even worse for 2013-14 for the LNP in Queensland — since we don’t need to wait til next week to see its 2013-14 return. The LNP had revenue of $18.6 million in 2013-14 but only acknowledged the sources of less than $7.5 million.
This credibility gap is much less for other parties. Most Labor branches report all donations and contributions over $1000, instead of the legal threshold. As a result, in 2012-13, federal Labor said it had received $14.5 million overall and reported $10.5 million in contributions. Across all divisions, Labor reported 60% of its revenue, compared to 43% across Liberal branches. The Nationals, who only report above the threshold, reported 53% of revenue across the country, though just 40% federally. And the Greens actually reported less on average than the Nationals, at just 45% of their funding across all state and territory divisions. Both the Greens and the Nationals divisions obtained around $8 million in 2012-13 across the country.
Of those four parties across all their divisions, accordingly, we know the sources of only 50.3% of their funding in 2012-13. So you got half the story. And it’s only that high because Labor volunteers more information that it is required to.
It’s a similar situation with the debts and borrowings of the parties, which they also have to report but which are subject to similar rules. The credibility gap is smaller, but still there. Liberal Party divisions’ returns account for the sources of only 74% of the party’s $13 million in borrowings in 2012-13, on average, compared to 92% for Labor’s $8.4 million.
This is democratic transparency and accountability exactly as the Liberals want it — these are their laws, and they use them to full effect to hide more than half of their donors. Remember next week when we see the 2013-14 returns — you’re not being told anywhere even close to the full story.
*Additional research by Crikey intern Rochelle Brown