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There’s no escaping the fact that Australians’ faith in politicians is at an all-time low, but just how do we rebuild this dwindling trust? Overhauling our political donations framework would be a good start and that’s exactly why I recently introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning up Political Donations) Bill to Federal Parliament.

Designed to strengthen the transparency and accountability of political donations, it follows the recent release of Centre for Public Integrity figures showing that over 30 per cent — or $1.38 billion — of donations received by the major parties since 1999 came from unknown sources. The latest figures from the Australian Electoral Commission paint a disturbingly similar picture. In the last financial year alone, more than $68 million of unexplained money flooded into political party coffers. That’s almost 40 per cent of all donations.

Akin to wads of cash in brown paper bags, this secretive system needs to be fixed. That’s why I propose lowering the disclosure threshold to $1,000, from the existing $14,500, and requiring aggregation so that multiple donations received from the same donor must be disclosed if the sum of all donations meets this threshold.

It’s worth noting the situation is particularly bad in Tasmania, which has the dubious honour of having the worst donations disclosure laws in the country. Despite repeated promises from the Gutwein Government to legislate for greater transparency, both the Liberal and Labor parties went to 2021 state poll backed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dark money. Indeed, in the last financial year the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party only disclosed the source of $260,000 out of $3.4 million — a pathetic 7.6 per cent. The Tasmanian branch of the Labor Party was marginally better, disclosing the source of 15.4 per cent of funding.

To make matters worse, donation disclosures are only required once a year. This means up to 19 months can pass between a political entity receiving a donation and the public becoming aware of it. That’s why my Bill requires real-time reporting of donations to the AEC. This is not a new concept as several states already require real-time reporting. Under the existing federal regime, however, voters will have to wait until 2023 to track the Federal Election 2022 money trail.

The depressing reality is that government policy is shaped by political donations. As one of my former parliamentary colleagues once said: “If someone donates $1,000, they support you. If they donate $100,000, they’ve bought you.” When someone hands over a huge amount of money it obviously comes with an expectation of a return on that investment. We see it time and again.

Donations from certain industries continue to sully policy and decision making. I’ve no doubt the reluctance of both major parties to implement meaningful gambling reform is a direct result of the huge money they receive from the industry. In the last financial year alone, the Coalition received over $540,000 from pro-gambling stakeholders, and Labor $516,000. Again, this is just the money we know about.

MPs should be serving their communities but instead are bending over backwards to please corporate and industry donors. Big money in politics is a massive problem. The Centre for Public Integrity notes just 10 donors accounted for more than $4.2 million, or 23 per cent, of all political donations in the last financial year. That’s why my Bill implements a cap of $50,000 on the total amount any one donor can donate during an electoral cycle. It’s also why it places a cap on the total amount that candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns.

Parliamentarians should be elected on their policies, their values, and what it is they can offer their community. But our current system facilitates election based on who has the biggest war-chest. Let’s not forget that Clive Palmer spent an obscene $80 million on the last federal election and is expected to splash even more cash ahead of this year’s poll.

Moreover, politicians and parties should not be accepting donations from sectors whose business causes direct harm on Australians. That’s why my Bill prohibits donations from fossil-fuel entities, gambling companies, liquor companies and the tobacco industry. Finally, it expands the definition of gift to include any expenditure which benefits a party, such as the cringeworthy “Love Your Local” campaign we saw from the poker machine industry during the 2018 Tasmanian state election.

Time and again we hear about improper political donations, but the major parties seem intent on protecting the status quo. This opaque arrangement remains a real and present danger to democracy.

This opinion piece was published in the Mercury on 23 February 2022