Australia Parties to Amend Donor Laws With New Threshold

Australia’s Labor government struck a deal with the opposition coalition to amend political party funding laws, agreeing to a new threshold for disclosure of donations to move long-stalled legislation through parliament.

“The government has reached agreement with the Liberal Party to put forward a compromise bill,” Treasurer Wayne Swan told reporters in Canberra today.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority government will reduce the requirement for disclosure of political donations from A$12,100 ($11,678) to A$5,000, not as low as its earlier proposal of A$1,000, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said.

Labor, trailing the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National coalition in polls before the Sept. 14 election, introduced legislation in 2010 in a bid to improve the transparency of campaign funding. Those laws, which sought a A$1,000 threshold while preserving rules where donations could be disclosed months after an election result, have languished in the Senate.

While the threshold will be lowered “it’s disappointing it’s not going to be reduced much more significantly,” said George Williams, a professor of law at the University of New South Wales. “The proposed law has been idling for a while and has now re-emerged in a much diluted form.”

Biannual Disclosures

Other changes in the revised laws to be introduced to parliament tomorrow include biannual disclosures on donations, from yearly now, while political parties won’t be able to accept anonymous donations of A$1,000 or above, Dreyfus told reporters in Canberra.

Donations of foreign property to political parties will be banned, while public funding of parties and independents elected to parliament will be allocated at a rate of 33 cents per vote per year, he said.

“If you’re going to have disclosure regimes you have to have an element of public funding as well,” Swan said. “This bill has been in discussion between the parties for some time. It needs to be concluded.”

Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis wasn’t immediately available to comment, spokesman Travis Bell said by phone.

Under former Prime Minister John Howard’s coalition government the rules were amended in December 2005 to lift the disclosure threshold to more than A$10,000, rising annually to reflect inflation, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The current level of A$12,100 expires June 30.

Collecting Donations

With the major Labor and Liberal parties having separate branches at federal, state and territory level they can now collect donations of more than A$100,000 from an entity without it being declared, according to Joo-Cheong Tham, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne’s law facility.

“Lack of transparency in Australia’s system of political donations is a concern and increasingly so,” Tham, the author of books including “Money and Politics: The Democracy We Can’t Afford,” said in e-mailed comments today.

The Australian Electoral Commission has only been required to release data on donations once a year, sometimes months after elections have been held, Tham added.

Labor’s various branches received reported donations of about A$3.6 million in the year to June 30, according to data released by the commission Feb. 1. That compares with about A$7.3 million in reported donations for the coalition.

Big Donors

Major parties “should do more to provide timely information on donations,” said Williams, who edited and contributed to the book ‘Realizing Democracy: Electoral Law in Australia.’ “When we do find out who has donated to the parties this year, it will be months after the election. There’s nothing wrong with raising campaign finances but the system needs to be transparent, and it’s not.”

Among the biggest reported donors in the year to June 30 for Labor were the Canberra Labor Club, which runs four food and entertainment venues in the capital, with more than A$1 million; Labor-affiliated John Curtin House with about A$800,000; and various contributions from unions. The coalition received A$2.3 million from a foundation set up for fundraising; the Australian Hotels Association donated A$250,000; and Ramsay Health Care Ltd. contributed A$100,000.

“Many advocates for reform argue that this need for funds for campaigning and administration places candidates and parties in a vulnerable position, leaving them open to the perception that their decisions could be influenced by donors who make significant financial contributions,” a December 2011 parliamentary report said.

Labor trailed the opposition by 12 percentage points on a two-party preferred basis, designed to gauge which party will probably win enough seats to form a government under Australia’s preferential voting system, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper May 20.

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