How bad was Bill Shorten’s convenient failure to declare a donation in kind to his election campaign in 2007 from a company? At eight years after the event, it is almost certainly the latest declaration ever. But for $40,000-odd, it’s an also-ran. When it comes to our political donation “laws”, late declarations and amendments are normal. Political parties routinely get away with declaring hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations years later, long after anyone has stopped scrutinising them. And it’s deliberate.

Shorten’s example was unusual not just because of the epic delay, but because it related to a particular type of donation, “in kind”, where instead of cash you give a service of some kind — you let a party use a couple of floors of your office block as campaign HQ; you print some election material, you give fast food to campaign workers — or, in Shorten’s case, you pay for a campaign staffer.

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Having a union or employer group or business pay for someone to work on your campaign, or even work in your office once you’re elected, is widespread across both political parties. At one stage in 1994, for example, then-health shadow Bronwyn Bishop actually had a staff member in the pay of the health insurance industry working for free in her office. If someone else employs your staff, that still counts as a donation and should be declared by the parties (the major parties are supposed to provide a single return for all candidates and MPs, so that each individual does not have to lodge one themselves).

And you can bet that all the parties and every MP will now be checking to ensure that any campaign worker or office staffer paid for by someone other than the party at any point has been covered off under the relevant declaration. Expect over the next few months a few updates on the AEC’s disclosure website.

But Shorten has plenty of company in the rogue’s gallery when it comes to late declarations. Indeed, the most famous recent one involves the Prime Minister himself: a donation by Tony Abbott’s own fundraising body, the Warringah Club, to the NSW Liberal Party in 2010 was only declared, out of the blue, by the NSW Liberals in April last year, four years late.

Indeed, the NSW Liberals for many years have been the worst offenders when it comes to late and amended declarations. They routinely submitted four and five — in 2005-06, six — amendments months and years past the filing deadline of October 20 after the end of the relevant financial year to add additional donations running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And doubtless it is coincidental that some of the most notorious donors tend to be the subject of late filings. The year 2010-11, which included the NSW state election that brought the O’Farrell government to power, was especially interesting. It wasn’t until December 2013, for example — more than two years late — that the NSW Liberals revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional donations, including $80,000 from Australian Water Holdings. The NSW Liberals had initially reported a $21,000 donation by AWH, which would later star in its own ICAC investigation and wreck the career of Arthur Sinodinos. And that was separate from another $52,000 donation from AWH that the NSW Liberals declared in April 2012, months past the original deadline. It was reminiscent of their failure to declare a $9000 donation from Australian Wheat Board in 2004-05 until April 2008.

There’s also the matter of another ICAC star, Buildev — the NSW Liberals failed to disclose a donation from 2009-10 until well into 2011. A couple of years earlier, NSW Labor had also failed to disclose a Buildev donation. NSW Labor, for that matter, isn’t much better than the NSW Liberals, although its late declarations tend to come in the months after the deadline, rather than years. In July 2010, for example, it revealed an extra two hundred thousand dollars from 2007-08. The federal parties are a little better — although it wasn’t until 2013 that the Liberals declared $69,200 from Ron Walker’s Parakeelia in 2010-11, and Federal Labor is often months or up to a year late in advising of additional donations.

Another regular offender is the WA Liberal Party. It amended its 2004-05 declaration four times, including twice in 2007, involving the small matter of over a hundred thousand dollars in extra donations; it was still amending its 2007-08 returns in 2010. WA Labor isn’t much better — it was only in April that it revealed a $130,000 loan from Trades Hall in 2012-13. Both Victorian Labor and Liberals parties, despite being major branches of their respective parties, are much better at their filings.

And don’t have any sympathy for political parties in preparing this stuff. If the Victorians can do it properly, there’s no reason why party officials elsewhere can’t. It may seem challenging to accurately compile a complete list of donations and other revenue and get it right the first time. But it’s a requirement that most companies seem to cope with fine, and the laws provide all the help they can: parties only have to report once a year; they have nearly four months to prepare their returns; John Howard lifted the level of reportable donations to from $1000 to over $10,000 (it is indexed, and this year is $13,000); Labor reports donations over $1000, while the Liberals avail themselves of the higher threshold.

You can understand a party, perhaps after an election year in which it has enjoyed tens of millions in donations and other revenue (often, donations disguised as revenue for buying something, like a seat at a dinner with a minister), struggling with the paperwork and perhaps needing to submit an amended declaration once. But five and six times?

And there’s an art to late declarations. Parties know the media only really focuses on donations on the day the Australian Electoral Commission releases them, the first working day in February. The easiest way to hide any embarrassing details is amend your declaration right before that day (so it won’t be processed by the AEC in time to appear on February 1), or shortly afterwards. That virtually guarantees the media won’t spot something embarrassing: April is a particularly popular month for parties to submit amendments. And amendments submitted for previous financial years stand next to no chance of being spotted by journalists.

So what will almost certainly happen to the existing requirements as a result of Shorten’s embarrassment? Nothing. Both recent attempts at improving the Commonwealth donation disclosure laws — John Faulkner’s 2009 effort and then the Gillard government’s effort in 2013, when Tony Abbott reneged on a signed bipartisan deal for reform — have come to nought. And while the media will pursue Shorten for his eight-years-late-and-forty-thousand-dollars-short declaration, the Coalition won’t have much to say, knowing that there are likely to be plenty of embarrassing disclosures of its own that might emerge from any thorough examination of what parties are being paid.

Instead, we’ll be stuck with disclosure laws that border on a joke and leave us in the dark about who is trying to buy influence over our politicians.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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