AEC cracks down on Twitterati, lets breaches by major political parties slide

by | Feb 6, 2022 | Government

 

While the AEC has been blocking its critics on Twitter, it is not so diligent when it comes to policing myriad breaches by the major political parties. Stephanie Tran reports.

The once-a-year data dump by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) often conceals more than it reveals, as the major parties are afforded loopholes such as high disclosure thresholds and the enigmatic “other receipt” which serve to conceal the true nature and extent of their political funding.

Year after year, political parties receive tens of millions of dollars in “dark money”. 

This week, The Centre for Public Integrity, published research showing over $1.38 billion (29.5%) of political party funding since the 1998-99 financial year is of unexplained origin. In the 2020-21 financial year, some $68 million (38.6%) of party income was of unexplained origin.

You won’t see who has been funding this year’s federal election as the donations data only happens once a year. By the time the February disclosures come along they are already at least 7 months old. We won’t see this until next February.

Despite the poor disclosure laws and – this to be revealed shortly – rampant compliance failures by political parties, the AEC has been blocking its critics on social media this week. The independent government agency has come under fire for an alleged lack of independence. We won’t go into the detail of the Twitter spat but suffice to say blocking critics on social media is an unusual step for a government agency.

Mired in secrecy

As reported by Michael West Media last year, dozens of large corporations are actually members of the major political parties. We are talking about Woodside, PwC, Wesfarmers, ASX and dozens of other large domestic and multinational companies; actual members of political parties.

Information regarding the corporate members of the major political parties is not publicly available, with the parties evading questions about their membership packages and the nature of access afforded to their corporate donors.

It seems that their corporate financiers remain a touchy subject for the major political parties.

This article is the first part of a two part series in which we’ll take a look at the 2020-21 corporate members of the major political parties. In this article we’ll examine the members of the National Party.

A National disgrace

Although the members of the National Party are not publicly disclosed, our analysis of 2020-21 AEC Transparency data reveals 15 corporate members of the National Party, raising a total of $470,000.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is among the National Party’s top tier ‘Foundation’ members for a second year in a row. Both Labor and Liberal have stopped accepting political donations from the tobacco industry, leaving the Nationals an outlier among the major parties.

Other notable members include fossil fuel lobby groups LET Australia (formerly COAL21) and the Minerals Council of Australia. 

Fossil fuel giants Adani Australia, Woodside Energy and Santos Limited have also joined the ranks of the National Party.

According to the National Policy Forum’s website, top tier “Foundation” members are afforded the following privileges:

 

The membership fees were paid to “Laneway Assets Pty Ltd” a company set up by the Nationals in 2015, with two former deputy prime ministers, John Anderson and Warren Truss listed as its shareholders. 

The amounts are classified as “other receipts” by Laneway Assets on the AEC register as money paid for membership to a political party and attendance of political fundraisers does not fit the definition of “gift” within the Commonwealth Electoral Act and thus does not have to be disclosed as a “donation”.

This ultimately serves to obfuscate the true nature of political funding, with membership fees and political event tickets getting lumped together with bank loans and inter-party transactions under the ubiquitous banner of “other receipt”.

Discrepancies in disclosure

Once again, the AEC disclosures come with a myriad of discrepancies.

Looking at the National Party’s disclosures alone, 

  • Mineral Resources Limited made a $50,000 donation to the National Party, however, the Nationals have declared it an “other receipt”.
  • Manildra Group of Companies, owned by secretive rich-listers the Honan family made a $40,000 donation to the National Party. Again, the Nationals have listed it as an “other receipt”.

Like the National Party, the Liberal and Labor parties are also routine breachers of the donations regime. They persist in declaring donations as other receipts even though the companies declare them as donations. Why they do this is not entirely clear but may be due to the fact that they are deeming things like fundraising lunches and dinners not to be donations.

Stay tuned.

Quid pro quo: donations data shows billionaires and corporations fix politicians for another year

Stephanie is the editor of the Revolving Doors series. She is studying a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism)/Bachelor of Laws at the University of Technology Sydney. She was a finalist for the 2021 Walkley Student Journalist of the Year Award and the winner of the 2021 Democracy's Watchdogs Award for Student Investigative Reporting.

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