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Each year on February 1, a deluge of incomplete and out-of-date data is dumped here on the AEC website at 9am.

That means that this Thursday we will finally be given a partial look at who funded Australia’s registered political parties in the 2016-17 financial year. Yes, 19 months after the 2016 federal election, Malcolm Turnbull will belatedly formally disclose the $2 million personal donation he made to the federal Liberals.

By calling the snap winter election for July 2, 2016, the Prime Minister ensured we would have later-than-usual disclosure of who financed it.

Any donor who wanted maximum cover simply had to wait until election eve — Friday, July 1, 2016 — before making the payment.

Therefore, to get a full picture of the major financiers of the 2016 federal campaign, journalists and analysts will need to add the 2015-16 figures with what is disclosed on Thursday morning.

Crikey produced four stories on the 2015-16 donations data in the February 1 edition last year and the broader media coverage was more comprehensive than usual, perhaps reflecting a Crikey campaign of name and shame for under-reporting.

Indeed, as this Crikey story explains, the ABC has historically been one of the worst offenders; AM and 7.30 barely ever cover the story, even though it only happens once a year.

Part of the problem for journalists is the way donors and the major parties all run for cover on donations day. The issue lends itself to longer form investigative journalism, such as this long-overdue Four Corners piece in May 2016.

Unfortunately, there still hasn’t been any federal reforms pass through the Parliament and the Turnbull government appears to be instead using a push to ban foreign donations as a backdoor way to attack GetUp and other not-for-profits that are politically active.

New South Wales and Queensland have both moved to faster, state-based disclosure laws in recent years, and the federal and Victorian governments are promising long-overdue legislation this year.

However, it will need to be much more than real-time online disclosure, because the current disclosure threshold of $13,000 means that the vast majority of donated funds will remain undisclosed to the public.

To illustrate just how incomplete these disclosures are, consider this 2015-16 return filed by the Victorian Nationals, which declared total revenue of $841,590 but only disclosed four sources of those funds totalling $109,327. None of them were external donors.

This means that $732,263 — or some 87% — of total revenue was not disclosed. Most of this would have been revenue from donations, events and fundraisers where the individual contribution was less than the $13,000 disclosure threshold.

The same trend can be seen in Tasmania where the Liberals disclosed total revenue of $2.81 million in 2015-16 but only identified specific donations worth $356,500.

Transparency over just 12.7% of revenue is a complete joke. Which rent-seekers contributed the other $2.45 million in undisclosed income received by the Tasmanian Liberals?

With the South Australian and Tasmanian elections coming up next month, Thursday’s disclosures will only serve to highlight how hopeless their systems are because voters will be told nothing about who is funding the current campaigns.

This issue is particularly poignant in Tasmania given the big campaign underway from the pokies industry urging voters to return the Hodgman Liberal government after Labor, the Greens and Jacqui Lambie all committed to removing pokies from pubs and clubs.

Steve Old from the Tasmanian Hospitality Association admitted yesterday that the blatant campaign in favour of the Liberals was being partly financed by mainland gambling interests, but he wouldn’t disclose who.

It’s one thing to have completely unlimited and un-regulated outside commercial interests determining a state election in Tasmania, but surely the Tasmanian media and voters will at least extract a commitment from their politicians before March 3 that Tasmania will improve its disclosure regime.

*Stephen Mayne is part-time communications adviser for the Alliance for Gambling Reform

 

Peter Fray

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