So much effort for so little action on political donations


About 2½ years after the green paper, the Australian Senate asked JSCEM to examine “options to improve the system for the funding of political parties and election campaigns” and to have a close look at the issues raised in the green paper.

JSCEM got to work and in December 2011 the committee published a 268-page report that was tabled in Federal Parliament. When writing this report JSCEM members disagreed and split along party lines. This led to the Liberal-National Coalition and the Australian Greens issuing dissenting reports.

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You may not be surprised to learn that this JSCEM report produced exactly the same outcome as the green paper. It, too, gathers dust in the region of Political Inaction and the only outcome has been to spend more taxpayers’ money on achieving absolutely nothing.

By this stage, voters and others in the land of Hope were losing faith in the people they pay to represent them. They kept on telling them they wanted the entire political donations regime significantly overhauled but they are ignored.

Because of this inaction, and dithering in other policy areas, optimism in the land of Hope started to turn to despair, especially when in October 2015 taxpayers heard that the Senate had referred an inquiry into the political donations regime to the JSCEM.

I can hear you asking, but isn’t that the same committee that published the 268-page report some four years earlier? Well, yes it is. But this time JSCEM was asked to inquire into, among other things, “How many of the recommendations made by the joint standing committee on electoral matters in its 2011 report … into the funding of political parties and election campaigns were accepted by government and how many have been implemented?”

In December 2015, JSCEM requested an update and the taxpayers heard the following disheartening news from the government: “Given the passage of time and the change of government, the government does not intend to respond to the report.”

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If you are wondering why people in the now renamed land called Dwindling Hope are disillusioned, pay attention, as the story gets worse.

People in the land of Dwindling Hope expected that parliamentarians would take seriously appointments to JSCEM, particularly to the role of chair. Unfortunately, it seems they don’t. You see, JSCEM has had many chairs with some taking on the role for less than a month and others for a few months. In one 12-month period there were five, yes five, people taking turns in the role.

This revolving door approach to heading the JSCEM changed when senator Linda Reynolds took on the role. She diligently served for about two years, a recent record.

In 2018, JSCEM issued another report but it didn’t make any meaningful recommendations about reforming the entire political donations regime.

It did, however, note the changes to foreign donations and while the amendments are not ideal, the good news is they will apply to the forthcoming federal election.

What will not change is the amount of money that can be donated to a political party without having to identify the donor (now standing at $13,800). There will be no real-time disclosure, which means voters will not know who gave how much to what party until February 2020. And the arms race will continue.

This story hasn’t ended with everyone living happily ever after and the land of Dwindling Hope has now been renamed Little if Any Hope.

You see, people no longer trust their representatives and do not understand why those in the Big House on the Hill are incapable of reforming crucial elements of the political donations regime. They also wonder why the small region of Public Interest is constantly under attack. Is it because the parliamentarians, whose salaries and work-related expenses taxpayers fund, don’t really care about what the people think, unless it’s election time?

While this may have sounded like a fairy story, it isn’t.

Dr Colleen Lewis is an adjunct professor at Monash University and author of the report Come Clean! Stopping the Arms Race in Political Donations.

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