Paul Murray: Independent’s tense stance on campaign money
One of the threads that unites the supposedly disparate group of well-funded independents running against Liberal MPs in the upcoming federal election is their demand for a Canberra-based anti-corruption commission.
The anti-corruption push among ‘Voices Of’ independents has its roots in former AMA national director Kerryn Phelps’ successful campaign for Wentworth’s Sydney seat, which she held for just seven months after the ousted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull resigned, before the Liberals won him back in 2019.
Phelps chose three main policy goals: climate change, asylum seekers and a federal body loosely based on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
A federal ICAC is likely to play a role in this election because the Labor Party also sees an interest in the Coalition’s intransigence in advancing its plans for a national integrity commission.
So a report released last month by the NSW ICAC should be of interest to those trying to improve integrity standards in Australian politics, particularly in the controversial area of campaign donations.
WA’s most prominent independent candidate, Curtin’s Kate Chaney, tells potential voters she supports a ‘robust’ Federal Integrity Commission and is appalled at the ‘destructive influence of vested interests in Australian politics’.
She has a weird way of showing it.
As I pointed out in a column in February last year, political donations that would be a criminal offense in New South Wales and Queensland are accepted as a celebrated involvement in the democratic process in WA.
It’s as if human nature – and therefore political behavior – changes dramatically as you pass through the Nullarbor. Who knew?
But it’s something Chaney might do well to consider as she continues to campaign on integrity issues while successfully courting powerful businessmen for donations.
NSW’s ban on property developers making political donations was part of a series of transparency measures designed to expose and prohibit vested interest influence on politics that had been uncovered by the ICAC.
In its latest report, the ICAC explains the laws with this quote: “These reforms are intended to put a limit to the political arms race, in which those with the most money have the loudest voice and can simply drown out everyone else’s voice.
The High Court has twice upheld the validity of the New South Wales and Queensland laws and, in the most recent judgment, argued strongly for their widespread imposition.
“Property developers are sufficiently distinct to warrant specific regulation in light of the nature of their business activities and the nature of the public authorities they might seek to influence in their own interests, as the NSW story shows” , the High Court said.
The ICAC report noted that the High Court had said that “guaranteeing the ability of a few to make large political donations in order to secure access to those in power” would appear to run counter to the principle of political equality.
One of the questions raised in the recent ICAC report was whether a Labor benefactor who disguised a $100,000 campaign donation fit the narrow definition of a property developer in the legislation.
Although the report found that Huang Xiangmo, chairman of Yuhu Group, “was a real estate developer in the ordinary sense of the term”, he did not fall under the strict definition of one in the legislation.
However, the ICAC discovered that the attempted concealment of his $100,000 donation was made on the grounds that Huang was a person prohibited by law. Yuhu develops commercial and residential properties in Sydney.
Unlike either major party, my campaign clearly lists all donations received in real time. I have the most transparent fundraising campaign in Australia.
And the report also revealed how developers could avoid state bans by donating to associated federal and state entities instead.
The ICAC said its concerns about the lack of harmonization of election finance laws across Australia were raised as early as a 2014 report:
“Operating at the national level, parties, third-party activists and associated entities could take advantage of discrepancies between the laws of different state and federal jurisdictions.
“Funneling donations through different jurisdictions is a way to circumvent the intent of the rules in New South Wales. Consequently, tracking the flow of money – and influence – from donors to activists to campaign spending is extremely complex.
And last month’s ICAC report noted that former NSW Labor Party General Secretary and disgraced former Australian Senator Sam Dastyari – a central figure in the inquiry – proved that accepting funds on the federal party account, which would otherwise be prohibited at the state level, was common practice.
Assistant Council: “And that was your practice when you were general secretary, I suppose?”
Dastyari: “Of course, I mean, yes, you, the rules, the rules are very, very clear. You take they are not, let’s be clear, prohibited state donors are not prohibited federal donors. You take the money, accept the money into the federal campaign account, and you fully disclose it.
And Dastyari went on to show how easy it is to circumvent property developer bans:
“To me, what’s incomprehensible about this whole investigation, to be honest, is that if the series of events that have been alleged are true, they could have just accepted the money from the federal campaign account, what is it, how you normally take money from banned donors or people over limits.
Amazing. And a pretty good case for a federal ICAC to police such deceptive jurisdiction-hopping behavior.
And this clearly shows the difference in effect between disclosure and prohibition.
The ICAC’s response was to suggest that all states – and the Commonwealth – act together in a united front to increase political integrity:
“In the Australian federal system, it is not uncommon for there to be nine separate sets of laws governing many areas of public policy.
“Although the Commission cannot make recommendations to the Commonwealth Government, it would nevertheless be useful if there was greater coordination between the Federal Government, the States and the Territories to ensure that reforms aimed at strengthening legislation in one jurisdiction do not unduly create legislative gaps in another. ”
Which brings us to the dinner attended by wealthy and powerful businessmen in Cottesloe last week for Kate Chaney, hosted by property tycoon Nigel Satterley.
This newspaper reported that Satterley “prompted and paid for dinner”.
It is well documented that Satterley fell out with the Liberals in 2016 over the Barnett government thwarting a land development he was involved in in Kwinana.
Satterley and other developers were behind an opinion poll that was used to try to force Colin Barnett to resign as Prime Minister. Satterley has since become a strong supporter of Prime Minister Mark McGowan and a financial benefactor of the Labor Party.
Chaney explained the dinner by saying Satterley lived in his constituency and expressed interest in helping out.
“I attend many functions every week organized by people interested in my campaign and I prefer to describe my platforms first,” she said.
“If people decide they like what I stand for, they can donate to the campaign and it will be visible on our donor wall.
“Mr. Satterley is free to meet and dialogue with any or all of the candidates and politicians. In any case, at no time was there any contact between my campaign and the Labor Party.
“Unlike any of the major parties, my campaign clearly lists all donations received in real time. I have the most transparent fundraising campaign in Australia.
But Liberal Senator Ben Small said Ms Chaney had a major problem.
“With overdevelopment a significant issue at Curtin, why is the ‘independent’ involved in fundraising with property developers who support working people?” said Senator Small.
The West also reported that one of the Cottesloe attendees, businesswoman Diane Smith-Gander, donated $1,500 to the Chaney campaign after the meal, suggesting it was actually a a fundraiser.
So I raised the issue with Chris Merritt, a Sydney-based lawyer, former legal editor of The Australian and vice-president of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia.
“If, for the sake of argument, Satterley is a property developer under NSW law, the state’s election finance law would make it illegal for him to make a political donation and for a political party to accept his money,” Merritt said.
“According to the NSW Electoral Commission, it would also be illegal for him to solicit any other person to make a political donation. A court would therefore have to determine whether paying for a fundraising dinner amounted to soliciting others to make political donations.
“The question would then have two stages. Is he a property developer under NSW law? And is paying for a fundraising dinner the same as soliciting people for political donations?
“If Satterley is a property developer as defined by NSW law, and has encouraged people to make political donations, his actions could attract the interest of the Electoral Commission.”
Which brings us back to the Nullarbor Plain.
Property developers are not restricted in their political activities by WA law. And political candidates are free to benefit from their largesse.
So everything is completely above board.