So the Senate crossbench has teamed up with Labor and the Greens to call a snap Senate inquiry into political donations. The main agenda? Grilling cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos to generate some politically useful embarrassment. This is all good theatre for the Labor fundraising machines and factional heavies in the Senate, such as Sam Dastyari and Stephen Conroy. But what about some actual campaign finance reform? We all know the Greens support major reforms and the Liberals generally fight transparency, but what is Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s policy after the departure of Gary Gray as the shadow minister responsible for this area? Is Shorten a John Faulkner-esque reform advocate, or a cynical backroom operator who doesn’t believe sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to political donations? Sinodinos is clearly an experienced political operator and key adviser in Malcolm Turnbull’s inner circle. However, he really shouldn’t hold the sensitive governance role of cabinet secretary given the revelations about his role as chairman of the Eddie Obeid-linked Australian Water Holdings at a time when he was treasurer of the NSW Liberal Party. AWH was making big Liberal Party donations. His claims to not know about this stretched credulity. He’s asking everyone to believe he was incompetently ignorant about his own obvious conflict of interest, which is not what you want in a cabinet secretary. Similarly, the ongoing issue with the NSW Liberals and disclosure of those prohibited developer donations -- made through the Free Enterprise Foundation and the federal division but then used to fund a NSW state campaign -- remains an embarrassment for Sinodinos and the NSW Liberal machine as it strives to recover $4.4 million of withheld public funding. All of this will no doubt be trawled over by Arthur’s political opponents in the Senate. The media will no doubt report every last punch and counter-punch with their conflict-based approach to reporting. Given the complete failure of our federal politicians to introduce even the most basic reforms to Australia’s anything-goes campaign finance system, it would be better if some enterprising media outlet showed some initiative and repeated the early donation disclosure campaign run by The Age during the 2012 City of Melbourne elections. The Age challenged all candidates to reveal their donations before polling day, hosted a register for those who did and produced seven front-page stories focusing on incumbent lord mayor Robert Doyle’s $400,000-plus in donations, which were only revealed after the election was completed. Doyle was comfortably returned but he lacked a majority and he lost some paint courtesy of The Age campaign which made it a lot easier to push through a sweeping program of transparency reforms at the City of Melbourne. Last night, to his credit, the Liberal mayor even voted in favour of this unanimously supported motion at council:
That the Future Melbourne Committee resolves that: 1. Council assists with the establishment of an online register of campaign finance information related to the 2016 council elections which:  a) Is first published immediately after nominations for elections have been announced by the VEC and then is removed from the public website after a council report on all the information declared is noted at the November 29, 2016 council meeting;  b) Is acknowledged at the outset represents a voluntary disclosure tool which candidates are encouraged, but not legally bound, to follow; c) Publishes voluntarily supplied information from candidates for election to the City of Melbourne (both leadership teams and council tickets) related to any cash or in-kind campaign donations equal to or above $500 received between April 19, 2016 and Friday, November 18, 2016. d) Updates the information on the register in batches based on information supplied by candidates as at October 3, October 14 and November 11, 2016. e) In each batch of updates, candidates are encouraged to include an additional figure for the total value of contributions below the $500 threshold; f) Discloses the value and nature of any campaign self-funding provided by individual candidates to their leadership or council tickets.2 2. Requests the CEO write to the Local Government Minister seeking permission to publish the register on council’s website or, failing that, write to an independent body (such as the MAV or VLGA) to secure their support in hosting the register in order to comply with council’s election period policy and relevant state legislation. 3. Officers are to prepare a report for the August council meeting outlining the publishing format and template proposed, along with a communications plan for candidates and the proposed host organisation for the public register.
This unanimous vote in support of voluntary, comprehensive and timely campaign finance disclosure is unique for local government and a big achievement for The Age after the paper's strong campaign in 2012. However, with council stepping up to run the register, The Age has lost some of its ability to generate exclusives on this issue during the campaign. If Liberal, Green, Labor and independent City of Melbourne councillors can all agree, why on Earth can't the federal parties initiate at least some basic campaign finance reforms rather than retain a system that can delay disclosure for up to 19 months after a donation is made? Over to you Bill and Malcolm, and here’s hoping the media puts some pressure on. As Crikey has documented, the ABC has been woeful in the past when it comes to covering campaign finance, so it is good to hear on the grape vine that Four Corners has gun reporter Quentin McDermott on the job for a piece scheduled to air before the federal election. With the Libs focusing on union governance and Labor countering with attacks on bank governance, surely both parties will have to commit to fixing up their own campaign finance governance before we got to the polls on July 2 ... *Cr Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance Committee at City of Melbourne and was not paid for this item