Mayne: stars aligning for campaign finance reforms, but media will be key
If the media get on the political donations reform bandwagon, it will hard for Turnbull and Shorten to twiddle their thumbs.
Surely, after waiting all these years for some decent reforms to Australia’s pathetically weak federal system of campaign finance regulation, the stars will align in 2016. NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird is fully signed up to these comprehensive improvements, including a commitment to use the Council of Australian Governments to try to come up with some consistent national regulations. The Queensland Labor government last year unwound the Campbell Newman attack on what were previously Australia’s best campaign finance regulations. Queenslanders now get their donations data earlier, and everything above $1000 must be disclosed. And when Melbourne Liberal lord mayor Robert Doyle has promised to disclose his donors before the council elections in October, surely Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull won’t be able to sustain the position that financiers of their respective campaigns later this year will be kept secret until February 1, 2018. Labor’s shadow special minister of state, Gary Gray, admitted the system needed a good spring clean on Radio National yesterday, and that Labor’s leadership brawls in 2013 had effectively torpedoed the last attempt. He also gave his enemies in the Western Australia Maritime Union Australia a spray over this dodgy undeclared donation from a Dutch shipping company. Given recent policy moves -- such as banning the sale of the Kidman pastoral empire to foreign buyers and forcing non-resident home owners to sell up -- there’s a legitimate question as to whether foreign sources of campaign funding should be tolerated. They are banned in the US. At the moment, there is nothing stopping Islamic State offering up $20 million of dirty oil money to fund Clive Palmer’s re-election campaign. Throw in Bill Shorten’s undisclosed $40,000 Unibilt donation and those Four Corners revelations about alleged mafia figures donating to the Liberal Party and you have some fertile ground for change. With both the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team pushing strongly for change, there is now a community of interest for Labor and the Coalition to be seen to be doing something to fix the system. The agreed reforms from 2013 -- which were initially driven by independents and the Greens -- fell apart with the Rudd insurgency, partly because Australia’s straightest political reformer John Faulkner was shifted from special minister of state to Defence in mid-2009. Tony Abbott used the Rudd destabilisation campaign to opportunistically bin the proposed changes from 2013, and the Coalition’s three special ministers of state have done sod all to improve the system since then. However, now that Mal Brough has been forced to the backbench, it will be very important to see who becomes the Coalition’s fourth special minister of state in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle. If Turnbull wants to both embarrass Bill Shorten and differentiate himself from Tony Abbott, then a package of campaign finance reforms makes a lot of sense. The PM is previously on the record calling for corporate and union donations to be banned, although that will never happen. Whatever Turnbull’s personal opinions, he’s also got close advisers like Arthur Sinodinos, a veteran of the political system who probably won’t want his own history in the campaign finance field brought into focus by a reform package and public debate. However, if the media get on the reform bandwagon, it will hard for Turnbull and Shorten to twiddle their thumbs, and that’s where this week’s journalistic choices are important. Donations day is traditionally underdone by the media. It would be different if a lock-up were held with senior officials from the major parties there to explain all the data. Instead, the political classes duck for cover and hope for a diversion or two, or the fact that there aren’t many pictures or talking heads that can sex up the story for the evening news. There are dozens of interesting stories in today’s data, and it should be leading 7.30 tonight and then running all the way through into some comprehensive feature pieces in the Saturday papers. Victorians, in particular, should be crawling all over the state figures because we are finally getting to see who funded the November 2014 election campaign. The Liberals certainly received plenty of support from property developers who benefitted from the permissive approach of then-planning minister and now Opposition Leader Matthew Guy. Queenslanders got their data for 2014-15 in September last year (see this Courier-Mail piece on the CFMEU’s contributions) thanks to pro-disclosure state laws, but the Victorians are still using the woeful federal system and timetable. I emailed Victoria’s two most powerful journalists, Jon Faine and Neil Mitchell, yesterday with a plea that they give the story a solid run on talk back radio this week. Faine gave it a burst just after 10.30am this morning. Mitchell covered it just before midday. But too many in commercial media are yet to touch it. There is no more fundamental governance question than who controls our elected politicians. Voters and preselectors have considerable power, but the financiers are also a huge factor and we need more disclosure, regulation and public discussion on this vital aspect of our politics. For this, we need a media campaign like we’ve never had before, calling for reform. And that means News Corp, particularly The Australian, belatedly getting on board the change train.