Parties fail on donation reform

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The Age: Parties fail on donation reform November 19, 2014 Royce Millar Investigative reporter

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Former Liberal Party leader Dr John Hewson says it is time Victoria caught up with NSW on transparency in political donations. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Companies contracted to build the Napthine government’s contentious East West toll road are among the many political donors hidden from the view of Victorians as they prepare to vote in next week’s election.

Financiers Capella Capital and Spanish-based energy and infrastructure firm Acciona are key members of the Lend Lease-led East West consortium. Both companies have contributed to Liberal and Labor coffers through attendance at fund-raisers and/or membership of the parties’ fund-raising bodies since the 2010 poll.

Such contributions – amounting to tens of thousands of dollars – are among the millions of dollars given to political parties each year in Victoria which do not appear on public records. Nor is such campaign funding likely to become more transparent soon, with both the Coalition and Labor silent on donation reform, and both refusing a request from The Age to reveal donors, before next week’s poll.

Mounting public anger over the lack of transparency has led to strident calls for change, including from former federal Liberal leader John Hewson.

The NSW-based Hewson described the oft-cited claim that Victoria has a cleaner political culture than other states – and therefore not in need of the tough donations laws – as “bullshit”.

“The system in Victoria is corruptible just like elsewhere,” said Hewson. “Indeed, as the formal rules in Victoria, in relation to both donations and lobbying, are generally lagging well behind the other states, the scope and risks are that much greater.”

Mr Hewson said it was time Victoria caught up with NSW on donations. “Both major parties are increasingly on the nose. The issue of money, lobbyists, and possible corruption is important in that. We have to clean up this area of donations and lobbying to help resurrect trust in government, and raise the standing of politicians.”

Unlike NSW and Queensland, Victoria does not regulate political donations and disclosure. Federal laws require only that any single donation over $12,400 be declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Political parties coach contributors on how to avoid disclosure. And the scant donor information disclosed is not published until seven months after the end of the financial year in which the payments were made.

In the absence of laws in Victoria,The Age asked all four major parties – the Liberals, Nationals, ALP and Greens – to open their books and allow voters to see who is funding their current campaigns. Only the Greens agreed to do so. Only the Greens have promised reform in this area.

The vast bulk of donations to the Greens are from individuals.

Some companies – especially larger infrastructure firms – are more transparent than the parties they donate to. Both Capella and Acciona confirmed they had contributed in the past to the major parties.

Both also said they had reviewed policies and no longer made direct donations or attended functions clearly intended to raise political funds.

Construction giant Lend Lease, which heads the East West Connect consortium, has a policy of not donating to political parties, insisting its projects should be “judged on their merits”.

Building heavyweight Grocon provided The Age with information not required of it by law, disclosing it had contributed just over $30,000, shared between the Liberals and the ALP nationwide, for the financial 2014.

But such voluntary transparency by both donors and parties is the exception rather than the rule.

Liberal insiders have confirmed the party is awash with property industry money ahead of the election, including a big increase in donations from cashed-up Asian developers who have plunged into central city property with enthusiasm. The Age understands the Liberal campaign budget is about $10 million.

Developers have been prominent at the many fund-raising soirees hosted by Coalition drawcards including Premier Denis Napthine, Treasurer Michael O’Brien and Planning Minister Matthew Guy, and also at similar events held by their Labor counterparts.

The Age specifically asked Labor planning spokesman Brian Tee to name the developers who had attended fund-raisers at which he had been the drawcard. He refused to do so.

In both campaigning and fund-raising, the Liberal and Labor parties have focused on marginal seats, including those around Geelong, where local developers have been under pressure to attend a a string of fund-raising events.

Local developer Lino Bisinella confirmed he had been invited to about eight fund-raisers during the campaign. He confirmed attending two.

Labor’s fund-raisers in the area have included an intimate, $500 “morning tea” with shadow ministers including Tim Pallas in October, the the day of the Labor campaign launch.

On Friday, Premier Napthine will host a $150 breakfast at the Geelong Fishersmens Pier after a $2200 drinks and canapes soiree at the Toorak residence of Liberal treasurer Andrew Abercrombie on Thursday evening.

On Monday night, Jeanne Pratt, the wife of former paper recycling mogul Richard Pratt, hosted a $5000-a-head fund-raiser in support of the Labor campaign. Labor is expected to outlay $7 million on its bid for a return to power in Victoria.

In NSW, donations from developers, gambling, liquor and tobacco interests have been banned since 2009. Both NSW and Queensland have their own state-specific electoral laws, requiring detailed disclosure of donations.

But in Victoria, both major parties have resisted reforms on donations and disclosure. Experts have repeatedly described Victoria’s answer to the NSW ICAC – the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission – as toothless.

Both the Liberal party and the ALP noted they complied with federal electoral laws around disclosure.

Greens Victoria director Larissa Brown said her party was running a “people powered campaign” with almost all our funding coming from small donations from ordinary Victorians. “While the old parties fill their coffers with corporate donations, the Greens are running a people powered campaign.”

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