In the wake of Sam Dastyari’s resignation from the frontbench, now we have a new and welcome standard in political donations in Australia. But what that standard is, exactly, isn’t clear — because Dastyari didn’t do anything that wasn’t perfectly legal.
The Coalition and some in the media (where there is gloating about their role in his resignation, even though the mainstream media relies on political donations, channelled into political advertising spending, to prop up their businesses) insist that it’s somehow different that Dastyari had a bill paid by a donor. That appears to assume that money given for one purpose somehow magically can’t be used for a different purpose — cash is funny like that.
Or is it that Dastyari — though he denies this — appeared to adjust his position on the South China Sea to suit that of his donors? In which case, what about the Liberals receiving millions from the big banks and protecting them from a royal commission and trying to dismantle the Future of Financial Advice reforms? Or Labor receiving millions from manufacturing unions and trying to prop up manufacturing? Once you admit that donations can influence policy positions, there seems an awful lot of it about.
But even if we don’t know exactly what the new standard is, rest assured that someone else is going to come under the same pressure as Dastyari, because there was plenty of worse behaviour under the old standard than that of the junior senator from NSW, and the sums involved have a lot more zeroes in them. Here’s a bunch of people who behaved perfectly legally and broke no rules but who should have considered their positions given the ethical issues involved.
Kevin Rudd: Not merely did Rudd, like his Labor colleagues, take a trip to China in opposition with the tab picked up by ALP donor and Chinese Communist Party-linked Beijing Aust-China, but he took a trip to Africa on their dime as well (and scored that honourable source of political gift controversy, a bottle of Grange). Of course, those close links with Chinese tycoons didn’t help China’s cause once Rudd was in government, but it’s the principle, eh?
Tony Abbott, Stuart Robert and Ian Macfarlane: All three were given Rolex watches worth tens of thousands a pop by Chinese billionaire Li Ruipeng in the lead-up to the 2013 election, and kept them, claiming they thought they were fake and only worth a few hundred dollars. Macfarlane spoiled the giggle when he was told they were genuine and they had to return them.
Andrew Robb: Robb led the charge against Rudd over Beijing Aust-China in 2008, but his fundraising body accepted $100,000 from Chinese businessman Xiangmo Huang while Robb, as trade minister, was negotiating Australia’s trade deal with China. Hypocrisy, much?
Brian Loughnane: as federal director of the Liberal Party, Loughnane oversaw the acceptance of three massive donations to the Liberal Party from one of the UK’s most famous tax exiles, Michael Ashcroft — $1 million in 2004, $250,000 in 2010 and $250,000 in 2013. Did Ashcroft’s donations encourage the Liberals to resist efforts to improve global tax transparency?
And what about donations from domestic sources? Where were the resignations here?
Bill Shorten: Right before Bill Shorten’s appearance before the trade union royal commission, the Victorian branch of the ALP suddenly remembered a donation to Shorten from eight years before, of what turned out to be nearly $70,000. Eight years is now the new all-time record for late disclosure and looks set to be the record for many years to come.
Tony Abbott (again): It wasn’t eight years, but in 2014, Tony Abbott’s fundraising body made a disclosure four years late of donations to the NSW Liberal Party. Like Shorten, there were no consequences for the failure.
Arthur Sinodinos: Stood down while Australian Water Holdings was investigated, ‘Alf-a-Recollection Artie “I don’t recall”ed his way through his Independent Commission Against Corruption evidence and claimed not to know that the company of which he was a director didn’t donate to the party of which he was treasurer. He’s now a cabinet minister again. Sinodinos was also copied in to emails about the use of Free Enterprise Foundation donations to the Liberal Party and mentioned in the NSW Electoral Commission’s report on the use of the FEF to get around NSW donation bans, but unsuccessfully tried to get the NSWEC to omit him from the report. It’s OK, Arthur — if your ICAC evidence is any guide, you’ll soon forget this indignity.
Honourable mentions: the WA Liberals accepting donations from Chinese businesses with no interests in that state and the federal ALP for taking $850,000 from a mainland Chinese property developer just before the 2013 election.
But apart from Shorten’s and Abbott’s respective state branches, no one in any of these cases did anything in any way illegal or inconsistent with the relevant electoral laws — although the use of the FEF remains subject to a dispute between the NSW Liberals and the NSWEC (Simon McInnes of the NSW Liberal Party stood down in March). And in nearly every case, Dastyari’s $1600 bill is a pittance compared to the sums involved. But if we’re going to start imposing some sort of ethical test in the absence of real reform, then look out for some turnover in politics.