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Law expert says political donations in Queensland should all be capped

Graeme Orr says outlawing donations from only the mining industry would not solve inappropriate influence.
 
‘Caps on donations are not easy to enforce, but if they’re across the board you are dealing with political equality’, says Graeme Orr. 

The mining lobby’s influence on Queensland politics would better addressed by capping all donations rather than outlawing the industry’s contributions, an independent expert says.

The controversy around coal company donations that dogged the Liberal National party’s ill-fated election campaign has raised the question of whether a ban on mining donors – like that on property developers in New South Wales – would check inappropriate influence.

However, Graeme Orr, a political donations law expert from the University ofQueensland, said the key question around mining influence was about “political equality” rather than corruption risks specific to property developers.

It comes as an analysis by Guardian Australia of 2013-14 Queensland donor records – the first year in which donations under $12,400 were secret – reveals modest contributions from either mining or property developers.

Orr said the massive swing against the LNP – which had a campaign war chest likely topping $10m, taxpayer-funded advertising and editorial endorsement from News Corp and Fairfax – “just goes to show that money and institutional support is not everything”.

“They had the whole system on their side as incumbents and they’re still falling short because they were a bit cack-handed and there were deeper structural reasons why people were swinging against them,” he said.

Katter’s Australian party MP Robbie Katter revealed on ABC radio on Tuesday that mining groups were among those already lobbying his party, which is involved in discussions over a possible minority government in Queensland.

That followed a call from Media Watch host Paul Barry on Monday for Queensland to ban donations from mining companies as NSW had done with property developers.

The program examined the influence on the election of broadcaster Alan Jones and his claims that large political donations affected the LNP’s decision on the Acland mine near Toowoomba.

An analysis by Guardian Australia shows the LNP took only $67,000 from resources companies or industry figures in 2013-14.

However, it took $3.3m from the federal Liberal party – the entity which, for example, received about $950,000 from the Acland mine owners over about four years.

The LNP also took $351,500 from property developers and associated businesses.

Queensland Labor, which declared all donations over $1,000, took just $3,000 in resource company donations.

But it took about $470,000 from the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which Orr said was “a voice in the mining industry”.

Labor also took $87,192 from property developers and associated businesses.

Orr said influence of big mining was better addressed by restoring “across-the-board” limits on donations and campaign spending that were abolished by the LNP.

This was “the biggest scandal” of the electoral reforms, which also included lifting the limit on secret donations to include those under $12,400.

Under the previous Labor government there was a cap of $5,000 a year to party campaign accounts, $2,000 to candidates, and a formula that limited campaign spending to about $10m.

There was no cap on party “administration” contributions which allowed unions and then LNP backer Clive Palmer to bankroll the major parties.

“In terms of banning mining donations, my concern is it’s just like every time there’s a powerful industry, what are you going to do?” Orr said. “Are you going to have a roving set of rules and say, ‘No, you can’t donate’?

“Caps on donations are not easy to enforce, but if they’re across the board then you are dealing with the question of political equality.”

Orr said property development had a higher corruption risk than mining because it often came “down to that smaller scale, local government, state members of parliament subject to influence”.

“They’re not in the same category as tobacco or ‘bikie money’ or whatever you want to say is morally tainted but they’re certainly in a different category to mining in the sense that there’s more corruption risk with land transactions that are much more discreet,” he said.

Real time reporting of political donations is one of the electoral reforms supported by the independent Peter Wellington, who may form minority government with Labor if the election delivers a hung parliament.

Wellington said the one-year lag between parties taking donations and publicly revealing them was “just not on”.

He and Labor both propose returning the limit on secret donations to $1,000 or less from the LNP’s $12,800 limit.

“It’s about transparency,” Wellington told Guardian Australia. “No one makes those sizeable donations unless they want something in return.”

Orr said real time donation reporting had existed in New York for almost 20 years, and NSW and South Australia were also moving towards it.