The Feds Just Weakened Political Donation Laws While You Weren’t Watching

As Australians were distracted last week by the end of Melbourne’s lockdown and the final days of Queensland and US elections, the two major parties joined forces in the Federal Parliament to weaken political donation laws .

This will make it easier for federal politicians to accept secret donations from real estate developers.

What is the backstory?

In 2019, the High Court confirmed Queensland Laws ban real estate developers donate to political parties. The ban was introduced by the Palaszczuk government after a recommendation by the State Crime and Corruption Commission.

The Queensland ban applies to donations made to national and local political campaigns as well as general donations to political parties. A general donation may be used for federal, state, or local political purposes or party operating expenses.

Read more: Fundraising issues have halted the Queensland LNP election campaign. What the law says?

At the same time, the High Court also struck down a federal law 2018 that real estate developers could ignore state laws prohibiting them from making general donations to political parties. (Yes — the federal parliament did pass a law anti-corruption superior statepowers!). The High Court said the Federal Parliament had no power to regulate political donations which ‘could simply’ be used for Federal campaigns.

Property developers are also prohibited from making political donations in New South Wales and the ACT.

Allow secret donations from dodgy donors

the legislation passed last week reverses state bans on donations from real estate developers in two ways.

First, the legislation introduces a new provision to replace the Federal Act 2018 struck down by the High Court. This new provision allows real estate developers (and others prohibited from donating under state law) to ignore state laws prohibiting them from making political donations when the donation is “for federal purposes.”

The High Court struck down a federal donations law in 2019.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Second, the legislation allows real estate developers and political parties to ignore state laws requiring disclosure of donations. In New South Wales and Queensland, donations of $1,000 or more must be disclosed. Under the new federal law, only donations of $14,300 or more made by developers “for federal purposes” must be disclosed.

The explanation given for the new laws is that state laws should not apply to federal donations.

According to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, the new laws “better clarify” the interplay between federal and state election laws.

The revised provisions ensure that federal law applies only to donations expressly intended for federal purposes, while fully respecting the application of state laws to amounts used for state purposes.

Labor’s Don Farrell, who is the special shadow minister of state, told the Senate:

Labor has no intention of weakening any of these provisions already in place in the states, but the Commonwealth parliament should be able to legislate in relation to Commonwealth elections, and such laws do not should not be canceled by States.

Why it’s bad for integrity

If you are a property developer looking to curry favor with the NSW Labor Party or the National Liberal Party of Queensland, you are now allowed to donate $14,299 and no one will ever know. All you have to do is tell the party the money is “for federal purposes”.

While the law requires parties to keep money donated “for federal purposes” in separate bank accounts, a “federal purpose” donation frees up money from other general donations to be used for state purposes.

the Green vegetables and independent deputies line up to criticize the new law. As MP for Indi, Helen Haines told Parliament

this bill locks in the status quo with respect to the current culture of political donations at the federal level.

Meanwhile, Tasmanian Lower House MP Andrew Wilkie describe the law as allowing “brazen money laundering”. Senator Jacqui Lambie noted the law was “a doozy” of a way “to hide big donor money from voters” and “the latest in a long line of betrayals of public trust”.

Federal integrity laws are too weak

The Federal Parliament has had the opportunity to introduce better measures of federal political transparency. They could have lowered the disclosure threshold for federal donations so the public knows where federal politicians get their money. They could have introduced real-time reports donations so that the public does not have to wait after each election to find out the identity of the biggest donors.

The work has introduced invoices on these two measures. Instead of dealing with it, both major parties have taken the time and effort to override state anti-corruption laws.

To add icing on the cake, the Morrison government has now released a bill for a federal integrity commission with proposed powers so much weaker than existing state anti-corruption commissions that a former judge has said. qualified for “feather duster”.

Australians deserve much better than this.

Read more: Explained: What is the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission and how would it work?