If you want to learn about about the problems with our system, and my proposed solutions, have a read.
Originally published in The Mercury 5/2/2020
Political donation reforms are aimed at catching the big boys
This week, the Liberals finally told the Australian public about the nearly $23 million dollars they received in political donations. The ALP released information about nearly $18 million. This funded an election campaign that happened eight months ago.
Political parties have to disclose who authorises a political advertisement in real time. They don’t have to disclose who pays for the advertisement until the eight months after you’ve voted. There’s something wrong with that.
I’ve introduced a Private Senator’s Bill to fix it.
Under current law, if you give $13,900 to a party, you don’t have to declare it.
If you donate $13,900 twice on the same day, the parties don’t have to declare either of those donations either. In fact, you can donate as much as you want and they’ll never declare any of it, so long as none of your donations go above $14,000.
My bill requires donations to be aggregated together so what matters is how much you’ve given in a period instead of how much you’re giving in one go.
But $14,000 is still too high. That’s a year’s worth of Newstart, by the way. If someone on Newstart didn’t declare $14,000 on income they’d be cut off. But for political parties, it’s business as usual.
So I’m lowering the threshold to $2,500, in aggregated total, over a six month period. 90% of small donors will never get even close to that threshold. They’re not the problem. The problem is the big boys, with money to throw around. They’ll be caught by this new threshold, and damn right they ought to be.
One way these big players get around these donation disclosures is to go to fundraisers instead of making direct donations. Apparently paying $10,000 for soggy chips and undercooked fish at a crappy dinner doesn’t count as a political donation. It’s considered an “other receipt”, the same as money from loans or money paid in interest on your bank balance. Well, my bill breaks up the ‘other receipts' category and tightens up what counts as a donation so you can’t hide these quasi-donations in a huge mess of vagueness anymore.
That’s going to capture a lot more people, and you don’t want to make it so hard to follow these new rules that the ones who are trying to do the right thing get accidentally caught up because it’s suddenly too complicated. So at the centre of my bill is a completely new idea: a central disclosure portal.
When you donate to a party at the moment, you put your details in, click donate, and the money goes to the party directly. Under my bill, donors don’t do anything differently, but the money is held very briefly in a third stage before being distributed to the recipient. While it’s being held the donation is automatically checked to make sure everything’s filled in correctly. If it’s fine, nothing changes.
But if the donor hasn’t filled in their information properly, the donation gets flagged and refunded. Try again. If the donation value would put the donor over the disclosure threshold, they’re asked to tick a box and the paperwork is all filed for them automatically.
The money from the portal goes to a bank account nominated by the party. This is the only account that’s allowed to receive donations that will be used to fund a political campaign. All electoral expenditure gets funded from here too. So if a party tries to get around these rules, the regulator will know that more money is being spent than is in the account, and can investigate.
We have the technology to do this now. Different elements are in place in different states and territories already. I’ve taken what’s working around the country and I’ve designed a way to make it work federally. A way that treats all sides equally and doesn’t favour unions over big business, or big political parties over small ones. It’s fairer, and it’s what the public wants.
Now, I’ve been up in the Senate long enough to learn a thing or two about how things get done. I know the chances of a Private Senator’s Bill becoming law are normally pretty slim. But when you’re on the balance of power, sooner or later someone needs your vote. And when that happens, I’ll back you if you back this.
Because when the Australian Hotels Association gives over a million dollars to both parties, and our parliamentarians let pokies ruin the lives of gambling addicts, donors make it impossible to vote for change.
When both parties take money from Crown and then join together to vote down an inquiry into allegations of corruption centring on the casino, donors make it impossible to vote for change.
Big money is making it impossible to make big change. And it’s happening in the dark. Half the money that's fuelling our politics is never disclosed. Not anymore.
Elections should be decided by voters, not donors. Let’s get on with it.
Jacqui Lambie is an independent senator for Tasmania.