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Federal

Feb 15, 2016

Mayne: can Cormann (and Stuart Robert) fix our broken campaign finance system?

As a previous advocate of campaign finance reform, it shouldn’t take much to get Turnbull over the line.

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When the February 1 donations dump landed two weeks ago today, I optimistically predicted in Crikey that the stars were aligning for some long-overdue campaign finance reform in Australia.

At the time, we didn’t know who would be Australia’s next special minister of state — the minister responsible for campaign finance — and we were a week away from the game-changing scandal that engulfed Stuart Robert.

On Saturday, Malcolm Turnbull appointed Finance Minister Matthias Cormann to permanently replace Mal Brough. He’d been acting Special Minister of State since December 29.

We await to see if Cormann will be anything like John Faulkner, who released this comprehensive 102-page green paper on electoral funding reform in December 2008. Eight years later, nothing has changed and Australia still has the weakest system of campaign finance regulation and disclosure of any Western democracy.

With a centralised executive chairman model of governance in Canberra, it was Turnbull, not the special minister of state, who took the running on the Stuart Robert scandal last week, although he avoided committing to any reforms of the donations system.

The PM quickly deflected to his departmental secretary Martin Parkinson, and within three days a report had been produced that ended Robert’s ministerial career, presumably for good.

However, it was really the universality of the views across the media and Labor opposition that finished Robert off at a political level. When Murdoch tabloids are putting you on the front page all week and editorialising for your resignation, there is nowhere to go.

The Robert issue has led to unprecedented media discussion about Australia’s woeful system of campaign finance regulation and disclosure.

Seven Network political editor Mark Riley told Insiders yesterday that the system needs reform. Host Barrie Cassidy complained the previous week that it lacked transparency.

However, none of this has translated to any direct questioning of relevant federal ministers or the PM. Cormann has been silent and invisible during the public debate about donations, campaign finance and ministerial behaviour.

Remarkably, Robert has seemingly got away with his breaches, with no suggestion that his future as an LNP member of Parliament is in question. He hasn’t been forced to provide detailed answers to questions in Parliament or in public, and the Parkinson report has not even been publicly released. Scott Morrison is presumably happy to keep him on as a Canberra flatmate with intimate access to the pinnacle of Treasury policy-making.

The Robert scandal is a strong example of the governance gap in Canberra from the failure of successive governments of both colours to establish a federal anti-corruption watch dog. With Robert now on the backbench, it leaves Labor with the only option of going to the federal police, which it did over the weekend. However, these police investigations are long, controversial and don’t operate in public, as is demonstrated by the current situation with Brough.

Robert’s selfish decision to tough it out all week, rather than resign on the morning of Ellen Whinnett’s first remarkable Herald Sun splash last Monday, has further dented the whole political class in the eyes of the public.

The overall narrative has now become “a pox on both your houses” and “you’re all a bunch of rorters”, which was best captured in this Peter van Onselen column in The Weekend Australian. The Herald Sun’s Shaun Carney was almost as tough in this column, which flogged Morrison for his defence of Robert. Even Joe Hildebrand lampooned Robert in this piece for The Daily Telegraph.

Unless the Lib-Lab duopoly get together and tackle the voter perception about rorting, campaign finance and entitlements, the Greens, independents and Nick Xenophon’s new party will have some rich anti-establishment turf to work over in the coming federal election campaign.

Don’t be surprised if Bill Shorten gets out there early on campaign finance reform, similar to his front-footed work on the tax debate this weekend.

Xenophon has achieved his staggering popularity in South Australia on the back of staunchly respecting public funds and keeping the bastards honest. He always flies economy, abhors special interests and has long campaigned for donation reform.

Based on his roll-out of candidates against the likes of Tony Abbott and Jamie Briggs, you would expect the Nick Xenophon Team to stand a candidate against Stuart Robert. His safe Gold Coast seat of Fadden enjoyed a 14.19% margin at the 2013 election, although this was distorted by Palmer United polling 14.67%.

There are some processes underway that could lead to campaign finance reform, but as The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor lamented last month, these are often frustrated.

Liberal-friendly developer Jeff McCloy failed in his 2015 High Court challenge against the ban on NSW developer donations.

However, Turnbull seemed cautious when independent Senator John Madigan got another campaign finance investigation up in October last year.

This is in complete contrast to NSW Premier Mike Baird, who is fully committed to this package of recommendations from an independent review panel in NSW.

As a previous advocate of campaign finance reform, it shouldn’t take much to get Turnbull over the line. An editorial in The Australian, a Laurie Oakes column in next Saturday’s News Corp tabloids, some inquiries by Four Corners, a 60 Minutes special report would all potentially do the job.

As Crikey recently noted, the media is as much to blame as anyone else for Australia’s woeful donations laws. If there is no commitment to change from both sides going into the federal election, it will be another media and political failure for the Australian democratic project.

Let’s not waste the Stuart Robert scandal.

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