It’s probably redundant to express bafflement at Steve Fielding’s actions in the Senate, so instead I’ll state that I’m flabbergasted at the Family First Senator’s decision this week to block an attempt to restore some transparency to political donations in Australia.  It’s hard to see how Australian families benefit from enabling the wealthy to keep huge political donations secret.

It’s no great surprise the Coalition voted against the move, given it was reversing changes they made to make it so much easier for large donations to be kept anonymous, but it’s surprising that there’s been so little outcry about it.

Here’s a reminder of  what the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 [2009] would have done:

reduce the disclosure threshold (for donations to political parties) from the current CPI indexed amount of $10,900 to a non-indexed amount of $1,000. ….

The bill will improve transparency in the funding and disclosure regime by requiring participants in the electoral process to report every six months rather than every 12 months.

The bill will also provide consistency by reducing the deadline when the participants in the political process have to lodge disclosure returns with the AEC to a consistent period of eight weeks. This measure will replace the haphazard deadlines currently in the Electoral Act which range from 15 weeks, 16 weeks or 20 weeks, depending on the person or the entity.

To ensure that the new $1,000 disclosure threshold is not avoided by a person giving multiple amounts below the threshold to various branches or divisions of the same political party, the bill will treat donations to different branches of a political party as if the donations were given to the same political party.

The bill prohibits the receipt of a gift of foreign property or an anonymous gift outright for some people and entities while for other people and entities it will be unlawful to receive a gift of foreign property or an anonymous gift if that gift is used for political expenditure.

The bill seeks to prevent the possibility that some candidates and other groups may obtain a windfall payment of election funding by tying electoral funding to the actual electoral expenditure incurred.

Senator Fielding did not express opposition to any of these measures, but none the less voted against all of them.  His remarks focused on his view that there should be a limit of $10 million on the public funding any political parties can receive from one election.  This is a view worthy of debate, although in my view it’s not the best way to try to limit or cap election expenditure by political parties.

He also made the curious statement that “one of the biggest opportunities for corruption arises under public funding for federal election campaigns.”  It is actually private donations that provide by far the biggest opportunity for corruption – a key reason why public funding was brought in in the first place.

Senator Fielding concluded his remarks in the Senate by saying that “Family First is moving to cap the amount that each major political party can claim from the public to fund their election campaign to a maximum of $10 million.”  Barely fifteen minutes later, he then voted against the Bill, not only providing the crucial vote which enabled it to be defeated, but also preventing himself from being able to move the amendment he said was so essential.

Regardless of whether or not a cap on public funding is a good idea, this decision has left open a scandalous legal mechanism which allows anonymous donations of close to $90 000 to be made to political parties, for major donations to come from foreign interests and for long delays in disclosure of donations.

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