Political donations: Victoria’s smugness is misplaced

Guardian Australia: Political donations: Victoria’s smugness is misplaced. Gay Alcorn, theguardian.com, Thursday 28 August 2014

Victorians look across the border to NSW with a mixture of horror and complacency – look at those ex-convicts with their grubby corruption! But things aren’t much better here

Protestors outside of the Independent Commision Against Corruption (Icac) hearing in Sydney. Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

Victorian Greens MP Sue Pennicuik rose in the Upper House in May to propose that the major parties refuse to accept donations from property developers, and to legislate a cap on political donations.

One would have thought she had suggested legalising incest, such was the spluttering from the major parties. Neither the Liberals nor Labor have any plans to change Victoria’s political donation laws, considered among the most lax in the western world.

Labor’s Adem Somyurek declared Pennicuik’s motion “nothing but a cynical political stunt by the Greens political party”. The government’s Richard Dalla-Riva cried hypocrisy, accusing the Greens of “vilifying certain sections of industry, whatever they may be, we do not have the same vitriol that we have about the Greens receiving financial donations from, for example, renewable energy.”

Victorians look across the border to NSW with a mixture of horror and complacency – look at those ex-convicts with their dirty money and their grubby corruption. How outrageous that these MPs are pocketing developers’ money, when the potential for conflict of interest is self evident. Let alone a bottle of Grange Hermitage bringing down a premier. How very Sydney.

The latest hearings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) were all about, as its counsel assisting Geoffrey Watson SC put it, “the systematic subversion of the electoral funding laws of NSW”.

Two Liberal MPs, Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell, resigned from parliament this month after admitting accepting thousands of dollars from developer and now Newcastle mayor, Jeff McCloy. On Wednesday, another Liberal MP, Bart Bassett, resigned from the party over allegations – which he denies – of improper donations. NSW has banned property developer donations since 2009.

Victoria’s smugness is misplaced. Owen and Cornwell would have been perfectly at liberty to accept developer money in Victoria. There’s no ban on developers or anyone else donating to political parties (although the Liberal and Labor parties no longer accept donations from tobacco companies).

In NSW, donations of more than $1,000 have to be disclosed. As well as developers, the tobacco, liquor and gambling industries are prohibited from donating to political parties because the potential for corruption is too high when governments are required to make decisions affecting those industries.
But in Victoria – which effectively mirrors the loose federal system – only donations more than $12,400 need to be publicly revealed, so a $10,000 gift from a developer would remain secret. Pennicuik told parliament that the Liberal party had received around $686,000 from property developers in the past 10 years, and the Labor party $566,000.

In NSW, donations to political parties are capped at $5,000. In Victoria, anything goes – there are no caps at all. The only exception is that holders of casino and gaming licences may not make political donations of more than $50,000 in a financial year. Pennicuik noted that Melbourne’s Crown Casino had donated $50,000 to the Liberal party, and $70,000 to Labor in Victoria, gifts that would be unlawful in NSW.

You can argue that NSW’s tough laws haven’t worked, that political parties will always find a loophole. Indeed, one of the key disclosures at Icac has been the federal Liberal party potentially subverting NSW laws by directing money from developers to the NSW party.

Laws are inconsistent around the country, and there’s no doubt we need stronger federal measures that complement those of the states. That’s Labor’s excuse in Victoria, while the Liberals appear content with the way things are.

Ken Coghill, a former speaker in Victoria’s parliament and now an associate professor at Monash University, says NSW is “one of the world leaders” in political disclosure and donation laws, and “Victoria is way, way behind, lagging severely compared with most contemporary jurisdictions”.

“Reform is something Victoria needs to do urgently if it’s to sustain a reputation for integrity in government,” he says.

There may be a diverting rivalry between Victoria and NSW but, football codes aside, life is not that different. Coghill states the obvious when he says there is no reason that the potential for corruption is less in Victoria than it is in NSW. Former Labor planning minister Mary Delahunty told The Age recently that developers who had made substantial donations were “quite blatant” about pushing their agendas when she was a minister. They expected a return on their investment.

And if there is a real or perceived conflict of interest? Who would know? Who would investigate? Victoria’s version of Icac is the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (Ibac). It was a core Liberal promise before the 2010 election to establish an Icac-style commission, but it has proven an embarrassing imitation.

It can only investigate “serious corrupt conduct” where there is already evidence that an indictable offence may have been committed – a very high threshold. It cannot investigate misconduct in public office, which means it would be prevented from commencing an inquiry into NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid if he had launched his political career in Victoria.

So weak is Ibac that its own commissioner Stephen O’Bryan pleaded with the government in April to grant it more powers. In a report to parliament, O’Bryan said that the legal threshold before an investigation could be launched was “vague, too high and liable to challenge in the supreme court.” He also sought powers to be able to investigate serious allegations of misconduct in public office.

To date, the Napthine government has indicated that it will consider Ibac’s recommendations, although it has given no details. Labor has pledged to boost Ibac’s powers if it wins office.

Who is going to make this an election issue? Political donations are hardly sexy, and the political parties have benefited from lack of restrictions. But as Victorians sneer at the scandals in NSW, they might start questioning whether everything is really so much better here, or whether our own dirty laundry is merely hidden from view.

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