The Coalition appears set to demand environmental groups be treated like political parties when it comes to transparency over donations.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held a hearing on the issue of foreign donations on Wednesday, ahead of its report due back to government early next month. The report is expected to recommend that donations to political parties and associated entities or third parties from non-Australian citizens and businesses based outside Australia be banned.

While the focus of the hearing was supposed to be on foreign donations, many Liberal members of the committee (in particular Ben Morton and Linda Reynolds) remained focused on the campaigning activities of GetUp and the recent news that three environmental groups — 350.org, Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Sunrise — were targeting Coalition MPs in their electorates in Queensland over the controversial Adani coal mine.

Reynolds asked Erickson if the rules around financial disclosure for political parties were changed and foreign donations were banned, whether that should also apply to groups like GetUp or the ACF.

They’re actually actively involved in these self-declared political activities. Shouldn’t they be involved in the same ban or disclosure?” she asked.

Erickson said if that campaigning in specific electorates was done around election time, it might be appropriate that they be treated the same as political parties.

Nutt said there should be a level playing field where all groups participating in the democratic process were bound by the same rules and obligations in regards to where their money was sourced, and what had to be disclosed.

There shouldn’t be loopholes or ways for people to use money or resources … We’ve got a lot of people now who are aggregating a lot of resources,” he said, adding that the new third-party players like GetUp were “highly aggressive” in their political campaigning.

One suggestion from the Coalition senators was for groups like ACF and 350.org to report not only their donations related to political activity, as they have to declare today, but also donations made in relation to their administrative work, payroll and other general expenses. Reynolds indicated that environmental groups had received $600 million in donations over the past 10 years, but very little of it had been publicly disclosed.

Morton complained that GetUp had been invited to appear before the committee — the group did appear late last year — but had declined three times. It will be making an appearance in another committee later this week. Morton said 350.org, Sunrise, World Wildlife Fund and ACF all also declined to appear. The trip to Canberra, he said, was much less than the groups’ travel expenditure.

I think it is quite shameful.It’s a $90 bus ride from Sydney to Canberra.”

In what is surely just a coincidence, the Minerals Council of Australia’s submission to the inquiry — uploaded to the committee page shortly after the hearing — contains many of the same criticisms of the environmental groups levelled by the Liberal senators:

“The MCA is not questioning the right of environmental groups to pursue political objectives or to raise money for this purpose. However, these groups should not be exempt from reasonable disclosure obligations that help maintain public confidence in Australia’s political system.”

Labor’s assistant national secretary Paul Erickson and Liberal national director Tony Nutt both agreed that there should be restrictions on foreign donations, both saying that their view was in line with what the community now expected. Nutt said the law must not be “vague with draconian penalties” and said dual nationals, Australians living overseas and businesses operating in Australia but with ties overseas, should not be banned from making donations.

The committee will today hear from the Minerals Council of Australia, fresh from donating Treasurer Scott Morrison a lump of coal he used as a prop in question time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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