Donations law is in limbo

by Chris Griffith
Published 14 June 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


It is official. The list of companies and individuals who donate to Queensland's political parties may not be released until after this year's state election.

This may seem a pessimistic view, given the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) next week is expected to release its report covering political donations, political advertising, and the public funding of elections.

Yet this prognosis seems inevitable despite the Fitzgerald Report's stirring call for a public register of political donations.

In his report, Tony Fitzgerald QC presented graphic examples of "co- incidences" between those who donated to the National Party, and those who were awarded prestigious government contracts, often in controversial circumstances.

It said Citra Pty Ltd donated $90,000 in 1983 to the National Party while the Government considered its tender for the enormous task of electrifying Brisbane's suburban railways. Citra was awarded this project, and other contracts followed other donations.

There was also the famous "brown paper bag" affair, where a businessman handed Bjelke-Petersen $100,000. According to the former premier the man said: "... we want to help the party. We're interested in the way you operate."

While finding no evidence of misconduct, the Fitzgerald Report said: " ... there were other occasions when persons or organisations engaged in business with the government, or seeking business from it, made substantial donations to its political party."

The report recommended a public register and delegated the details and fine-print to EARC.

Yet EARC has found this originally straightforward exercise a nightmare because the declaration of political donations, election funding, and political advertising are also federal issues.

Recent changes to the rules governing all three federally has affected the conduct of state elections, which in turn has provided an unstable political environment for EARC's deliberations on Queensland.

For example, in December 1991, the Federal Parliament passed the "Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures Act" which forced EARC at the last minute to withdraw consideration of donations, funding, and advertising from its report of recommended changes to the Electoral Act.

"What we had to do was stop what we were doing and proceed merely to complete the other electoral act proposals and put that forward," said EARC acting chairman, Prof. Colin Hughes.

Of course, there has been disturbing evidence at federal level of parties concealing significant political donations and getting around the old federal disclosure laws.

The WA (Inc) Royal Commission heard evidence from Perth businessman Laurie Connell that he had donated $250,000 to the Labor Party, and $100,000 to the Liberal Party, yet the parties' books showed only $1000 and $5000 respectively.

Queensland Labor MHR Arch Bevis, the new chairman of the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, said the old rules allowed political parties to avoid declaring donations made for "machinery or administrative purposes".

Mr Bevis said the new law required political parties to declare annually ALL payments and receipts, no matter the source. Parties were now subject to spot audits, he said.

Given this change, EARC may have thought its worries were over. The new laws would automatically catch donations to state election campaigns.

However on June 4th, the Federal Parliament passed more changes allowing political parties 20 weeks (instead of eight) after the end of the financial year before furnishing annual payments and receipts.

As a consequence, any list of donors to Queensland's political parties since December '91 will not be released until after the state election - unless the Goss Government goes to the polls after mid-November. EARC could contemplate this new problem only at the last moment.

Despite this volatile environment, Prof. Hughes has promised a "comprehensive report" that will consider "the whole of the big picture" on funding, disclosure, and advertising.

He said the issue of election advertising in particular had caused his Commission problems. The High Court was still considering a challenge to federal law banning TV and radio political advertising during federal and state elections, he said.

Of course, a High Court decision against the federal advertising ban could torpedo EARC's recommendations on this issue. And this in turn would affect the argument for a need for public funding of election campaigns.

Yet EARC would be brave to recommend any diversion of taxpayers' money to political parties' campaigns; the Goss Government presently seems so short-strapped it cannot even fund adequately-staffed parliamentary committees. Surely the needs of parliament must come first.

Meanwhile, the Goss Government has made an outrageous decision to increase the number of members for groups to attract official political party status - and consequently a right to have their group's name on the ballot paper.

EARC made a recommendation consistent with virtually every other state; it recommended groups must have a minimum of 150 members. or have at least one member in any Parliament in Australia.

The Goss Government has increased this minimum to 500.