SYDNEY, Australia – When Dr Ken Coghill served in the Victorian state legislature in the early 1980s, he joined a movement to reform Australia’s campaign finance system, which allowed donations to spill over into politics, as most donors can hide their identities and contributions.
Dr Coghill, a Labor leader at the time, said he was outraged because the so-called black money undermined the principle of equality for all voters, giving to unidentified donors and their chosen candidates or parties” a very considerable advantage”.
Almost 40 years later, Dr. Coghill is still outraged because little has changed. But now, this culture of paid secrecy is suddenly defining the start of the federal election campaign that will determine whether the current Conservative prime minister stays in power.
With an election slated for the end of May, Australians are not entitled to political debates, but rather to accusations of shadowy Chinese funding, failure to report major donations and payments to climate change warriors by the barons of the coal.
“The flow of money is increasing, but the political culture is also eroding,” said Han Aulby, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. “There’s a feeling that if you can get away with things, you do.”
Compared to the United States, Australia’s election campaign is shorter and less costly, as is the case for many countries with parliamentary democracies. But even among its peers, such as Canada and New Zealand, Australia lags behind in campaign finance regulation. Center for Public Integrity Research shows that over the past two decades the source of nearly $1 billion in party revenue has been hidden.
Some scholars argue that Australia’s opacity reflects a distinct set of cultural idiosyncrasies: a belief that transparency is not an obvious social good and a sense that those in power should decide what the public needs to know.
“The prevailing view in Australia is still that the government owns the information – it’s not held on behalf of the citizens – and if people want it, it shouldn’t be automatically available,” said Johan Lidberg, media professor at Monash University. “That is at the very core here. We haven’t got away from it yet. »
The silver battle this time follows a period of heightened public concern on bribery.
In a country much richer than before, where we know that the money for infrastructure stream to political friends, and where government secrecy continues to expand, polls show overwhelming support for a federal anti-corruption body. A majority of Australians believe now corruption is a common phenomenon.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s centre-right Liberal Party promised to do something about it after winning the last election, in 2019, but never followed through. Now, with support for his government’s handling of the pandemic waning, he has begun to use black money as a theme on which to attack his political opponents.
The effort began with accusations of money and support from China.
This month, Mike Burgess, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, warned in his annual threat assessment that authorities had foiled a foreign interference plot involving a wealthy individual who “had direct and deep ties to a foreign government and its intelligence agencies”.
The “puppeteer”, he said, had hired someone in Australia and given them hundreds of thousands of dollars from an offshore bank account.
Speculation immediately turned to Beijing. In Parliament the next day, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said the Chinese Communist Party had chosen to support Anthony Albanese, the leader of the Labor Party, “as their choice”. Mr Morrison went on to refer to Labor leaders as ‘Manchurian candidates’.
Critics called the remarks alarmist. Labor said it had done nothing wrong and Mr Burgess pushed back against partisan attacks.
“Attempts at political interference are not limited to one side of politics,” he said last week.
Nor the charges of hidden money.
Zali Steggall, a political independent who entered parliament in 2019 after beating Tony Abbott, a former prime minister, with a campaign focused on tackling climate change, has had her own problems. A review by the Australian Electoral Commission found it had incorrectly reported a $100,000 donation in 2019 from the family trust of a former coal company executive.
The commission’s review found that the donation – the largest donation it had received – had not been reported because after the check was received the money was split into eight separate contributions below the disclosure threshold of $13,800.
Ms Steggall called it a ‘rookie mistake’. She argued that past coal investments shouldn’t stop someone from donating to candidates supporting a greener future, and insisted she didn’t know the donation had been misreported. Corrected last year, it has now been revealed that several independent candidates are threatening to unseat Liberal incumbents in part with money from centralized issue-focused organizations.
The financial controller of the Steggall campaign is now a director of one of these groups, Climate 200.
“What this highlights is that there are a lot of people who are happy to throw rocks, but they are often in glass houses,” Mr Morrison said.
What this actually shows, according to proponents of a more transparent approach, is how the current system has encouraged a spiral of misbehaviour.
Federal election donation disclosures are still released only once a year, as non-searchable scans of documents riddled with errors and omissions. Reform supporters have called for real-time reporting and lower thresholds for reporting donations.
“It’s been a problem that has been bubbling since the early 1970s,” said Dr Coghill, professor of government at Swinburne University of Technology, as well as a veterinarian.
“In a way it reflects Australia’s relative isolation,” he added. “We don’t have frequent contact with people in other countries who have more stringent regimes in place.”
But Ms Aulby, who founded the Center for Public Integrity in 2016, said many Australians were beginning to wonder what happens in the shadows where favors and funding intertwine.
She said one of the most egregious tactics to hide money involved “associated entities” – essentially front companies that distribute donations.
Both major parties are counting on them. Labor, for example, received 33% of its revenue from 1998 to 2021 from associated entities, totaling more than $120 million.
The Liberals brought in even more from their associated entities — about $140 million over the same period, according to the center, which represents 42% of all reported party revenue.
“They do a lot of business, but I don’t know who their directors are or if they and their money come from the resource sector or from the banking sector,” Ms. Aulby said.
However, the consequences of this approach are increasingly visible. Last month, Transparency International recorded a drop for australia in its annual Corruption Index, giving the country its lowest score since the organization adopted its current measures in 2012.
Polls in Australia also show growing concern. This became especially true after the current government earmarked public funds for sports infrastructure projects in districts it was expected to win in the last election, even though no one asked for the grant money.
In these cases, the Morrison government abstained and refused to release its final internal report on what happened with over $70 million in grants. The minister in charge was only temporarily demoted.
“Scandal after scandal is happening without any consequences,” Ms Aulby said.
But once the accusations start, the cycle can be hard to stop. Last week, Mr Morrison was busy attacking opponents and their supposed financiers; this week his own coalition partner was dragged in the media for failing to disclose a payment of A$1 million ($721,000) from an influential landlord in the capital, Canberra.
“There have to be consequences – electoral consequences, because there are no other consequences happening,” Ms Aulby said. “I hope voters will bear that in mind in the next election.”