Another year of donations data has passed and, sadly, we’ve had another disappointing effort by the mainstream media in terms of covering the news, seeking reaction and calling for reform.
This is especially so given 2018-19 was a federal election year with record revenues and spending reported by both sides.
Unlike Crikey, which produced five stories on the data yesterday, and several more today, News Corp and the ABC put in disappointing performances.
The data dropped at 9am. Three hours later ABC radio’s flagship program The World Today failed to cover it at midday, although PM got on board later in the day, leading with the record $83 million Clive Palmer spend.
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ABC online put together some state-based packages but there was nothing on the main 7pm news out of Canberra, or 7.30, which is partly explained by the news cycle being swamped by the Bridget McKenzie resignation and leadership issues inside the Greens and the Nationals.
With issues that major parties are not keen to talk about, it all comes down to journalists using their access to ask probing questions of both party officials and political leaders.
The Greens weighed in at state and federal level, but was there any on-the-record comment by leaders from the two major parties yesterday? Not that I saw.
ABC Melbourne’s Virginia Trioli had Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on for half an hour leading into the 9am news yesterday. He was not available for the rest of the day to answer questions about why the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) donated a record $761,000 to the Victorian ALP in 2018-19.
Rarely does an industry association so heavily back Labor ahead of the Coalition. There were no public complaints out of the Victorian Liberals or Nationals, probably because the AHA also gave them more than $300,000, presumably to keep them quiet and on board with the new 20 year pokies licences which start in August 2022 and were legislated with bipartisan support two years ago.
Frankly, from here on the media should be insisting on an Australian Electoral Commission lock-up ahead of the data release, and then access to party officials and political leaders for explanations of specific donations.
That’s if we don’t get the obvious reform of moving to real-time online disclosure of donations which would end the farce of the belated annual data-dump on the first working day of February each year — seven months after the financial year ends.
I met with a former premier recently who said that News Corp never covers donations reform properly because it enjoys the advertising windfalls come election time. It doesn’t want to undermine corporate influence over Australia’s political system.
Sky News showed little interest in the issue yesterday, particularly the Sky After Dark conservative commentators. The News Corp tabloids generally managed a single story with no commentary.
The Australian pulled together a single story on page two of the paper which was accompanied by a table which misleadingly labelled the gross revenue reported by the major registered political parties as “donations”.
With Labor and the Coalition parties declaring gross revenue of more than $300 million between them after battling a tight federal election, the media should do better than this.
Where is the commentary calling for reform, such as UK-style spending caps so no vested interest can ever repeat the $83 million spending splurge by fossil fuels billionaire Clive Palmer?
And where was the Labor attack on the Coalition for brazenly pocketing $247,300 from foreign mining company Adani, mostly in the month after federal approval for its project was rushed through shortly before the election?
Would it be worth pointing out that foreign donations were supposedly banned in November 2018, and asking the question as to how Adani was able to make these contributions without breaking the law?
The donations data should present a field day for political and business gossip columnists. However, both The Australian’s Margin Call and The AFR’s Rear Window columns ignored the story yesterday, although at least Nine’s CBD column produced something.
Across all the coverage yesterday, the only additional information ferreted out by media was that Clive Palmer had paid his $8 million debt to Google in full and that Sydney rich lister Isaac Wakil donated $4.1 million to the Liberals because, according to a spokesman quoted by the AFR:
He supports [Scott Morrison’s] policies, his integrity and what he stands for. Mr Wakil had a strong conviction that Mr Morrison was the best person to lead Australia and therefore was pleased to be able to contribute to the Liberal Party’s campaign. The donations were made with no conditions attached.
Given that every single donor above the $13,800 threshold has to disclose an email, postal address and phone number on their donation return, journalists can easily track them down and ask why they did it, how it happened and whether they were happy with the result.
For instance, if you want to know why foreign-owned gambling giant BetEasy split $55,000 between Liberal and Labor in 2018-19, check out this return lodged with the AEC and then email corporate affairs boss Daniel Bevan and ask him.
It’s not hard.