Why donations disclosure is more an exercise in cover-up than show and tell

By Michael Yabsley

February 1, 2022

australian dollars pile
The disclosure of federal and state political donations in Australia is so opaque as to be utterly useless. (RomanR/Adobe)

When the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) releases its disclosure of political donations tomorrow it will be more about what it doesn’t say than what it does.

Think about this for starters. Only donations over $14,300 to political parties will be disclosed. An educated guess tells us that this means more than half the money donated to political parties in Australia does not see the light of day.

It’s simply not disclosed. It’s below the radar because of the magic worked by the so-called disclosure threshold which gets ratcheted up like clockwork every year. 

Then think about this: given that the reporting period commences on July 1, 2020, many donations that will be part of the AEC data dump, prepared by an army of public servants, are old news. Too old to be of interest. 

Hmmm. Half the income is not disclosed and what is disclosed is ancient history in terms of political relevance. Do we smell a rat? You betcha! 

The disclosure threshold and delayed reporting mechanisms directly and positively affect the payday upside for political parties across the spectrum. That’s why I call it dark money. Australian politics is awash with dark money.

Imagine if government departments and agencies said to all $100 million-plus businesses — which is what the larger political parties are — don’t worry about declaring half your income and we’ll also give you another year’s grace to file your return. What a bonus!

As an exercise that has been around for the best part of 50 years, the disclosure of donations in Australia federally and around the states and territories is largely a cover-up, a blatant exercise in subterfuge, distraction and distortion. 

So here we go again.

This system of political fundraising is beyond reform. The political fundraising house requires total demolition and rebuilding. Tweaking donation thresholds and timetables for disclosure is not the answer. It amounts to more of the same window dressing that we’ve had for decades.

In Australia, we need what’s known in the trade as “low-value-high-volume” political fundraising. That’s how many of the major charities operate. As a result, they are in touch with a large number of small donors rather than a small number of large donors — a perfect model for contemporary political parties and candidates.

If you get around to reading tomorrow’s AEC disclosure — which very few Australians will — don’t get too excited about what’s optimistically referred to as the “transparency register”. In a process that is all about opaqueness, having a transparency register is a bit of old-fashioned spin in a world where spin plays a big role.


Donations for influence at the heart of Australian politics

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