From Australian superstars such as Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Chris Hemsworth and Nicole Kidman to Hollywood heavyweights including Ellen DeGeneres and Bette Midler, a lengthening list of celebrities are helping to shine a spotlight on Australia’s bushfires.
Some have donated large sums of money and used social media to publicise their donations, encouraging fans to follow suit. Some have used their profile and platforms such as the Golden Globes awards to draw attention to the fires. Others are donating items for auction or appearing in charity events.
For attracting attention and money to a cause, celebrity-driven attention is hard to beat. But there’s also a downside. If that interest is superficial and fleeting, it may actually hinder recovery efforts in disaster-ravaged regions.
Our research into disaster recovery efforts for Victoria’s Gippsland region after the deadly “Black Saturday” fires in 2009 suggests celebrities’ best contribution needs to be in the weeks and months to come – and requires them putting “boots on the ground”.
It’s great that celebrities want to use their influence for good causes. Not all celebrity advocacy, though, should be applauded uncritically. One study has suggested it is less effective than sometimes supposed for development causes, and can simplify a complex issue to a single outcome – usually giving money. This fails to address how people can make an ongoing difference in other ways.
In terms of natural disasters, a very practical way to help communities recover is the resumption of tourism. Perceptions play a big part in this, and celebrities can play a big part in forming images. It’s why they have long featured in tourism campaigns, from Paul Hogan in the 1980s to Kylie Minogue and others in the humorously idealised imagery presented by Tourism Australia to Britons a few weeks ago.
Even if celebrities have the best of intentions, their emotional appeals and shared of images of red skies and smoke-filled cities along with heartbreaking images of devastation and loss can contribute to fans cancelling holidays plans, even while they’re donating to bushfire appeals.
There are already reports, for example, of tourists aborting plans for visits months away. The Australian Tourism Industry Council says cancelled bookings in towns unaffected by the bushfires are up to 60%. The Australian Tourism Export Council estimates the loss of international bookings will cost the nation at least A$4.5 billion in 2020, hurting regional areas the most.
It doesn’t help when misleading information is spread, as the American singer Rihanna inadvertently did when she shared an image on Twitter that exaggerated the size of the bushfires. This image suggested huge swathes of Australia were no-go zones.
Ellen Degeneres did something similar in telling her audience “nearly a third of their habitat has been destroyed”. This was an exaggerated misstatement of Australia’s environment minister saying a third of koala habitat in New South Wales had been destroyed.
Our research confirms the further someone is from a destination in crisis, the more likely they are to be confused about the location and think a greater area is affected.
Fires in the Blue Mountains area of New South Wales, for example, were called “the “Sydney fires” elsewhere in Australia. Overseas they were referred to as the “Australian bushfires”, confusing domestic and international tourists.
So while celebrities might have the very best of motivations, their contribution in generating donations in the short term might be offset by the longer-term effect of amplifying the misconception that Australia is not safe for tourists.
This is demonstrated by past experience. After Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday fires, the the Gippsland region experienced a major tourism downturn, despite just 5% of the region being directly affected.
But celebrites can also use their mass-pull to aid tourism recovery.
Our research suggests their star power is unmatched as a means to encourage tourists back to regions recovering from disaster.
In the case of Gippsland, we surveyed 691 people with nine different advertising messages. Themes included solidarity, community readiness and even short-term discounts. We found celebrity endorsement made the greatest impression, with test subjects indicating it made them more likely to visit the region.
In the months after the Black Saturday bushfires, former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins and legendary cricketer Shane Warne visited affected towns. These highly publicised events sent the message these towns were ready to welcome visitors again.
So celebrities can definitely help in the coming weeks and months.
They can share positive stories about local communities’ resilience, and maybe even visit.
This is likely to do more for recovery efforts in the long term than helping to spruik for donations.
Gabrielle Walters, Associate Professor, School of Business, The University of Queensland; Judith Mair, Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Monica Chien, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland
With 26 fatalities, half a billion animals impacted and 10.7 million hectares of land burnt, Australia faces a record-breaking bushfire season.
Yet, amid the despondency, moving stories have emerged of phenomenal fundraising conducted through social media.
Presenting shocking visuals, sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have been monumental in communicating the severity of the fires.
But at a time when experts predict worsening climate conditions and longer fire seasons, short bursts of compassion and donations aren’t enough.
For truly effective action against current and future fires, we need to use social media to implement lasting transformations, to our attitudes, and our ability to address climate change.
Links between social media and public engagement are complex. Their combination can be helpful, as we’re witnessing, but doesn’t necessarily help solve problems requiring long-term attention.
Online spaces can cultivate polarising, and sometimes harmful, debate.
If you’re stuck in an echo chamber, Harvard Law School lecturer Erica Ariel Fox suggests breaking the mould by going out of your way to understand diverse opinions.
Before gearing up to disagree with others, she recommends acknowledging the contradictions and biases you yourself hold, and embracing the opposing sides of yourself.
In tough times, many start to assign blame – often with political or personal agendas.
In the crisis engulfing Australia, we’ve seen this with repeated accusations from conservatives claiming the Greens party have made fire hazard reduction more difficult.
In such conversations, larger injustices and the underlying political challenges are often forgotten. The structural conditions underpinning the crisis remain unchallenged.
First, we should acknowledge there is no quick way to resolve the issue, despite the immediacy of the threats it poses.
Political change is slow, and needs steady growth. This is particularly true for climate politics, an issue which challenges the social and economic structures we rely on.
Our values and aspirations must also change, and be reflected in our online conversations. Our dialogue should shift from blame to a culture of appreciation, and growing concern for the impact of climate degradation.
Users should continue to explore and learn online, but need to do so in an informed way.
Reading Facebook and Twitter content is fine, but this must be complemented with reliable news sources. Follow authorised user accounts providing fact-based articles and guidance.
Before you join an online debate, it’s important you can back your claims. This helps prevent the spread of misinformation online, which is unfortunately rampant.
A 2018 Reuters Institute report found people’s interaction (sharing, commenting and reacting) with false news from a small number of Facebook outlets “generated more or as many interactions as established news brands”.
Also, avoid regressive discussions with dead-ends. Social media algorithms dictate that the posts you engage with set the tone for future posts targeted at you, and more engagement with posts will make them more visible to other users too. Spend your time and effort wisely.
History has proven meaningful social and political progress requires sustained public awareness and engagement.
These issues affect people constantly, but fixing them required debate over long periods.
We should draw on the awareness raised over the past weeks, and not let dialogue about the heightened threat of bushfires fizzle out.
We must not return to our practices of do-nothingism as soon as the immediate disaster subsides.
Although bushfire fundraisers have collected millions, a European Social Survey of 44,387 respondents from 23 countries found that – while most participants were worried about climate change – less than one-third were willing to pay higher taxes on fossil fuels.
If we want climate action, we must expect more from our governments but also from ourselves.
Social media should be used to consistently pressure government to take principled stances on key issues, not short-sighted policies geared towards the next election.
There’s no denying social media has successfully driven home the extent of devastation caused by the fires.
A clip from Fire and Rescue NSW, viewed 7.8 million times on Twitter alone, gives audiences a view of what it’s like fighting on the frontlines.
Images of burnt, suffering animals and destroyed homes, resorts, farms and forests have signalled the horror of what has passed and what may come.
Social media can be a formidable source of inspiration and action. It’s expected to become even more pervasive in our lives, and this is why it must be used carefully.
While showings of solidarity are incredibly helpful, what happens in the coming weeks and months, after the fires pass, is what will matter most.
The devastation of the Australian bushfires has generated an outpouring of generosity amongst Australians.
We have been giving directly to charities such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and others working on the ground to support survivors. Many of us have contributed to appeals such as Celeste Barber’s, which, at the time of writing, has raised A$42 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service.
The fact that so many of us have been reaching into our pockets during this difficult time is not surprising. Australia is the fourth most generous nation in the world, according to the most recent edition of the World Giving Index and emergency relief is a common cause to which we give.
But it’s worth thinking carefully about how to give, to ensure you’re not wasting your contribution or inadvertently making things worse.
One thing to be mindful of during times like these, is that unfortunately some people may seek to prey on the generosity of others. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has issued a warning about fundraising scams associated with the bushfires.
If you aren’t sure about an organisation that you’ve been approached by, you can always check whether they’re a registered charity using the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission’s online register.
It lists all charities registered in Australia, and details their operations, finance and governance.
Generally, it’s best to give money. The organisations you give it to can then decide how to use it best.
We may be tempted to give goods like blankets or clothes, but organisations often get overwhelmed by donations of goods.
The idea of donating while also clearing out unused items at home may seem tempting but many organisations don’t have the resources to sort through donations. Often, the goods donated just aren’t fit for use.
Research by the federal and South Australian governments examined this problem, saying of the 2009 Victorian bushfires:
The Victorian Bushfires resulted in the donation of in excess of 40,000 pallets of goods from across Australia that took up more than 50,000 square metres of storage space. The costs for managing these donations i.e. three central warehouses, five regional distribution points, approximately 35 paid staff, material handling equipment and transport costs to distribute the material aid, has amounted to over 8 million dollars.
In addition, volunteer numbers reached 1,500 during the first three months provided through over 40 store fronts. Resources in the fire affected areas immediately after the event were severely stretched as a result of material aid arriving without warning and without adequate resources to sort, store, handle
The report highlighted how this is a consistent problem during disasters, leading to the development of the National Guidelines for Managing Donated Goods. These guidelines reinforce the point that donating money is the preferred way to help out during a disaster.
If specific requests are made for certain goods, however, then you can respond by donating accordingly. The charity Givit acts as a broker that facilitates the donations of goods that meet the needs of charities and those they are seeking to help.
Always make sure that what you donate is of reasonable quality. It’s important not to use donation appeals an excuse to clean out items that probably should go in the rubbish or recycling bin.
We’re facing a long and hot summer, with the prospect of ongoing bushfires. At some stage, they will subside and with them the appeals for donations will also end.
But it’s important to remember that even once the immediate crisis has passed, rebuilding after a disaster takes a long time and requires considerable resources.
Governments play an important part but there is also a role for philanthropy both large and small. For example, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal has a Disaster Resilience and Recovery Fund which makes grants to local not-for-profit groups for community-led projects that address the most pressing needs that emerge 12-18 months after a disaster.
Supporting the immediate response and rebuilding efforts is vital, but it’s also important to consider how as a nation we collectively address the factors which are increasing bushfire risk.
Climate change is increasing the risk that we will see more frequent and intense bushfires.
Charities provide vital support to those in need during times of crisis. But they also have an important advocacy role putting pressure on governments and businesses to change policies and practices.
There are many environmental charities doing exactly this, to push Australia toward a more comprehensive response to climate change.
So it’s also worth thinking about how your donation can help support the policy change needed to address climate change and to mitigate the risks associated with it – including more bushfires.
Australians should be able to see who donates to political parties, but our political donations laws fall far short of this ideal. Recent reforms in New South Wales and Victoria mean that voters will have much better information about who is donating. But when it comes to donations at the federal level, voters remain largely in the dark.
Money in politics is regulated to reduce the risk of interest groups “buying” influence. Explicit quid pro quo is probably rare: as the saying goes, “you never bribe someone when you need them”. But the risk is in more subtle influence: that donors get more access to policymakers, or their views are given more weight.
Publishing information about larger donors creates a public check on this behaviour. Voters are able to see who political parties rely on for funding, and MPs are more accountable for their subsequent decisions.
The trend in the states is promising. Victoria and NSW both increased the transparency of political donations last month.
In Victoria, donations of $1,000 or more will have to be disclosed to the Victorian Electoral Commission within 21 days. Anonymous donations of $1,000 or more are banned. Victoria even capped donations at $4,000 and increased public funding for election campaigns, which might help reduce the reliance of parties on larger contributions (but also comes with other risks).
NSW’s already extensive donations regime was tightened from July 1 this year. NSW political parties are now required to disclose donations of $1,000 or more within 21 days during election campaigns (as in Victoria), and within six months otherwise.
When it comes to transparency, Queensland does one better: the 2017 state election was Australia’s first with “real time” disclosure. Donations of $1,000 or more are lodged through an online portal and are made public within seven working days. The Queensland Electoral Commission even provides interactive maps of donations by electorate.
Most other states also have decent disclosure requirements. In South Australia, parties are required to disclose donations of $5,310 or more every seven days during an election period (and every six months otherwise). The disclosure threshold in Western Australia is $2,300.
Tasmania is the only state with disclosure laws as weak as the Commonwealth’s.
These laws mean voters can know, before they go to the ballot box, who is funding parties’ election campaigns.
The states are taking political donations reform seriously – and that’s a good thing. But state reforms are limited by state boundaries. Until the Commonwealth catches up, we won’t be able to “follow the money” across all jurisdictions.
Under Commonwealth regulations, it can take up to 19 months for donations to be made public. That’s why Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.75 million donation to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2016 election was not officially made public until the start of this year.
Only donations of more than $13,800 are required to be disclosed. And there is no requirement to aggregate donations, which means an individual donor can make a series of donations below $13,800 without disclosure.
The result is a huge amount of money in the federal system that we know nothing about. Parties received more than $100 million from undisclosed sources in the two financial years spanning the 2016 federal election. Without this information, it is difficult for public scrutiny to provide a “check” on the possibility of donor influence.
Some of this money no doubt came from “mum and dad” donors contributing $100 to their preferred party. But some is probably the result of “donations splitting”, where people or organisations make multiple donations below the threshold. Some might also be income from fundraising dinners and business forums, for which attendees pay thousands for an opportunity to “bend the ear” of elected representatives.
Donations can also be filtered through associated entities of the parties. This makes money (and influence) even more difficult to track. These entities – unions, investment funds, or fundraising organisations – occasionally frustrate donations restrictions by taking money on behalf of “their” party.
In a particularly egregious case, investigations uncovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars in unlawful donations had filtered into NSW Liberal Party accounts through a federal associated entity.
Growing public cynicism about special interest influence is partly born of secrecy. Simple changes could vastly improve what we know about money flowing to Commonwealth political parties.
The disclosure threshold should be lowered as the states have done. The current threshold of $13,800 is well above the amount that a regular voter could afford to contribute to a political cause. A lower threshold of around $5,000 would still protect the privacy of small donors while improving transparency and accountability.
Disclosure of donations should be much quicker. Queensland and South Australia now have “real time” disclosure during elections; the Commonwealth can clearly do better than a 19-month turn-around. Disclosure within three weeks – as in NSW and Victoria – would be far superior to the current system.
The states’ political donations laws aren’t perfect, but they are heading in the right direction. It’s time for Canberra to catch up.
Preventing foreign influence over Australian elections is important. It is also important that legislation designed to achieve this is effective and does not impose collateral damage or leave itself open to constitutional challenge.
How well does the Turnbull government’s foreign donations bill stack up? Does it achieve its aim of preventing foreign donations from affecting Australian elections?
Not at all. It permits foreign citizens to make as many political donations in as large amounts as they wish, if it is done by a permanent resident or a foreign-owned company that is incorporated in Australia.
To be fair, there are constitutional reasons for this. It is unlikely that a ban on donations from permanent residents or companies incorporated in Australia would survive a constitutional challenge. But it also means any foreign government seeking to influence Australian elections can still easily do so.
The only effective way of destroying the undue influence of large foreign donations is by placing a cap on all donations, as occurs in New South Wales. But the federal government has chosen not to go down this path.
It is ironic, then, that Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann says exempting charities from the bill would render the ban on foreign donations “entirely ineffective”. It is ineffective at preventing foreign influence anyway, so excluding charities could hardly make any difference to achieving that aim.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argues that only seven out of 55,500 registered charities reported political expenditure last financial year, and that the bill “has no effect on foreign funding for charities’ non-political activity or charities’ political campaigning where it is funded by Australians”.
This is misleading for two reasons.
First, the bill relies on a greatly broadened definition of political expenditure. It now includes any expenditure on the expression of public views on an issue that is “likely to be before electors in an election”, regardless of when the election is held. This could include anything from expenditure on ads supporting same-sex marriage to books on climate change and websites supporting Indigenous constitutional recognition. Given the wide range of issues that may be before electors in an election, the bill is likely to catch a large number of charities, along with universities, corporations and others.
Second, it does not matter whether a charity actually receives any foreign donations or not. It may only receive donations from Australian sources and still be seriously affected by the bill. This is because onerous reporting obligations attach to bodies deemed to be either a “political campaigner” or “third party campaigner”.
For example, spending as little as A$14,000 on the public expression of views on an issue that is likely to be before electors is sufficient to be categorised as a third party campaigner, regardless of whether or not the person or body receives any foreign donations.
A third party campaigner must lodge annual reports detailing:
If a third party campaigner has received gifts that allowed it to engage in political expenditure, and the amount of at least one such gift (or cumulative gifts from the same donor) was above A$13,500, then it also has to provide an annual return that sets out the amounts of such donations, the date they were made and the name and address of each donor.
Most burdensome of all is the requirement to identify the source of every gift it receives. This includes very small donations, as it has to be able to identify whether the gifts from any single donor cumulatively exceed A$250. It then has to obtain a statutory declaration from each donor of more than A$250 that they are an “allowable donor”, such as a citizen, a permanent resident or a body incorporated in Australia. The penalty for breaching these requirements is up to 10 years imprisonment for the financial controller of the third party campaigner.
If you were a charity, which only collected donations from within Australia, and you wished to spend money on advocacy about government policies on homelessness, what would you do? Would you send lawyers out to accompany every door-knocker when you collect donations? Would you risk insulting your donors by requiring them to sign a legal document declaring that they are citizens or permanent residents?
Would you spend a considerable portion of the donations you receive on administering a complex reporting system, with the risk of imprisonment if you breach the rules? Or would you decide that the only rational solution is not to spend any money on advocacy about homelessness?
If the purpose of this bill is to prevent foreign donations from influencing elections, it manifestly does not achieve that outcome. Foreign citizens can still donate as much as they like to Australian political parties by donating through a company they have incorporated in Australia.
But if the purpose of the bill is to deter charities and other third parties (regardless of whether they have received a single cent of foreign money) from spending money on the public expression of views that might entail criticism of government policies, then it would very effectively achieve that outcome.
This disconnect between the bill’s claimed purpose and likely effect may cause problems for the government if the legislation is passed and then challenged before the High Court. The Court has already held that limiting the sources of political donations imposes a burden on the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication.
Such a law will only be valid if it passes a proportionality test. That is, the law must be reasonably appropriate and adapted to achieve its claimed legitimate purpose. If its effects go far beyond that purpose, are unnecessary to achieve that purpose and disproportionately damage political communication, then the law will be held invalid.
On that basis, this bill is highly vulnerable to a constitutional challenge and needs to be redrafted so that it achieves its aim but does not impose unnecessary collateral damage on charities and other bodies.
The big story about the Australian Electoral Commission’s annual release of political donations disclosures is how little they really tell us. Over the last decade, the major parties have routinely only transparently disclosed 10-20% of their incomes as donations.
There is another 20-35% of party incomes that falls into a grey area, where accounting enables them to conceal the source of the money. Then there is another 50-70% of party incomes the public knows absolutely nothing about.
The precise splits for 2016-17 are:
This situation is able to happen because, federally, Australia has some of the most lax political donations laws in the developed world.
Political parties in Australia at the federal level only have to disclose payments of more than A$13,200. They are requested – but not required – to distinguish between “donations” and “other receipts”.
There are no caps on how much people can give, or who can give. And the disclosures are only released annually, in February each year, with no more than a name and address attached.
This might not sound too bad. But it is actually a system full of holes that can be exploited to hide where parties’ incomes are really coming from.
The first problem is what parties declare to be “donations” and what they declare to be “other receipts”. In many cases, parties claim more than half of the payments they receive over the threshold are “other receipts”, even though the payments come as round numbers from those you would expect to be lobbying government.
One journalistic analysis found 80 cases where the donor had declared a payment as a donation, only to have the party claim it as an “other receipt”. An academic study concluded that most “other receipts” should be treated as donations for analytical purposes. However, there are some legitimate “other receipts”, such as union fees, share dividends, and proceeds from property sales.
There are also some crafty schemes parties use to make donations technically qualify as “other receipts”. They hold fundraising dinners, charging people large sums to attend, then report the payments as a fee for a service rather than a donation.
The second problem is parties using fundraising bodies to effectively “launder” the donations they receive. Donors give money to a fundraising body that then gives it to the party. This makes it difficult to work out where the money originally came from.
The very high disclosure thresholds also enable parties to engage in “donation splitting” – when a large payment is split into smaller amounts and paid to different party branches so each payment comes in under the reporting thresholds. Parties don’t even need to aggregate payments made on different days.
Donors are technically supposed to declare their payments if the combined value of their donations is over the threshold. However, they don’t have to disclose payments to fundraising bodies. And if a donor doesn’t disclose, there’s no way to know if anything is missing. The disclosure laws are notoriously weakly enforced.
Finally, a year’s worth of donations data is released in one huge data dump on one day. Thousands of lines of data are released. The data cannot be meaningfully sorted, or tallies that mean anything easily calculated.
In today’s resource-starved media environment, journalists are reduced to identifying the biggest payment that hasn’t been split or concealed, and attempting to make hay of those unsophisticated enough to have allowed themselves to stand out.
The story fades after a day or two, and the real secrets of who is funding our political process remains buried.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the disclosure process is that the payments are only revealed months after they were made.
While small businesses have to pay tax quarterly, and the Australian Tax Office has apps that enable us to collect our receipts in real time, politicians only have to release their accounts annually. This means we only get to see the money that changed hands between stakeholders in the midst of major policy battles months after the issue has disappeared from the headlines.
The annual February festival of lampooning the largest visible donor lulls Australians into a false sense of security that there is a functioning political donations disclosure regime in place. Few realise how ineffective our political donations disclosure regime is, and how badly it is in need of reform.
The government has announced a suite of reforms targeting foreign interference and espionage in Australia’s political process. This will include a bill imposing a ban on political donations from foreign bank accounts, non-citizens and foreign entities.
The ban will apply broadly – not just to political parties and parliamentary candidates, but also to trade unions and advocacy groups such as GetUp!.
These proposed reforms follow revelations that Labor senator Sam Dastyari had warned Chinese Communist Party-linked donor Huang Xiangmo that his phone might be tapped by intelligence agencies. Both the Labor and Liberal parties have benefited from donations by Huang to the tune of almost A$3 million since 2012.
But it’s not just foreign donations that can skew the system. If the government is serious about restoring faith in our politics and politicians, there’s much more to be done.
The rationale for banning foreign donations is to stop the threat of foreign interests undermining Australian democracy. The concern is that foreign people or entities could exercise an unduly large influence on our politicians through generous donations.
Internationally, Australia is among the one-third of countries that allow foreign political donations. This is in contrast to comparable liberal democracies that ban foreign donations, such as the UK, US and Canada. New Zealand caps them at NZ$1,500.
Banning foreign donations will certainly reduce the ability of foreign people and entities to influence Australian policy and decision-making. In turn, this will reduce both actual corruption and the perception of corruption in politics. Ultimately, this may improve public confidence in the Australian political system.
The proposed reforms follow the recommendations of a Senate committee majority that foreign citizens and entities be banned from making donations to political parties, associated entities (such as trade unions and dedicated fundraising bodies), and third parties (such as GetUp! and other campaign groups).
Labor and the Greens supported a ban on foreign political donations to political parties and their associated entities, but rejected extending it to third parties. They argued that banning foreign donations to third parties would restrict the capacity of NGOs to draw attention to their causes, and endanger robust public discourse by civil society.
There may be constitutional issues with such a broad ban on foreign political donations. For instance, banning donations to advocacy groups may be found to stifle the implied freedom of political communication protected by the Australian Constitution.
Advocacy groups are one step removed from being able to directly change government policies and decision-making. It may be disproportionate to ban these groups from raising funds to robustly debate controversial policies.
If ruled constitutional, a ban will certainly reduce the impact of overseas interests on domestic policy.
But the proposed ban is both too broad and too narrow. It is too broad because it may stifle legitimate public debate by targeting activist groups. It is too narrow because it does not capture all donations that might corrupt our political system.
Foreign donations are but one element of influence in our political system. The rhetoric on donations to date has focused on the fear of foreigners – the Chinese, in this case – exercising undue influence on Australian politics.
Yet, in 2015-16, foreign donations were a paltry 2.6% of total donations to political parties. In the last seven election periods from 1998-99 to 2016, foreign donations have amounted to between 0.03% and 6.13% of all donations.
Donations from rich Australians, unions or corporations can also influence our politicians to behave in corrupt ways. There have been concerns over donations by big business influencing mining, alcohol or gambling policy. Large donations have been followed by government decision-making that benefited these industries.
Caps on political donations of, say, A$1,000 that apply to all individuals, unions and corporations would better level the playing field. New South Wales already has caps on political donations of A$5,800 per party and A$2,500 for candidates. The state also bans donations from property developers and those in the tobacco, liquor and gambling industries.
Victoria has announced that it will implement a cap on donations by individuals, unions and corporations of $4,000 over a four-year parliamentary term.
The Australian government has started to take action to reduce the pernicious influence of money on our democracy. But more needs to be done to restore faith in our political system.
New South Wales senator Sam Dastyari has been appropriately disciplined by Labor leader Bill Shorten for exercising poor judgement in his interactions with a Chinese businessman who is not an Australian citizen.
Dastyari has been sacked from his position as deputy Senate whip. This is his second demotion in little more than a year after having fallen foul of acceptable standards of political conduct.
On that first occasion – confirmed by the release this week of a tape recording – Dastyari contradicted his own party’s policy that is critical of China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Compounding his difficulties, he had also accepted a A$5,000 donation from the Chinese businessman mentioned above to meet personal legal obligations.
On this latest occasion, it’s alleged that Dastyari went to the businessman’s house and advised him that conversations between the two needed to be conducted beyond the range of their mobile phones so as to avoid eavesdropping by Australia’s intelligence services.
Dastyari insists that he was not passing on classified information, but the very fact he was alerting a foreign businessman to the possibility of his phone being tapped by the security agencies justifies his sacking.
This was an act of stupidity, if not disloyalty, for an elected representative who claims he has nothing to hide.
The episode also calls Shorten’s management into question. Dastyari should not have been returned to a leadership role so quickly after his first display of poor judgement.
After his earlier demotion he spent just five months on the backbench. He should now remain there for a long time.
In all of this there is a much bigger issue, and one that requires urgent attention. This is especially so given China’s continued rise, and its persistent efforts to influence politics among its neighbours.
As an important regional player, Australia is far from immune from Chinese “money” politics.
What is required as a matter of urgency is legislation that bans all foreign political donations, along with a separate register of lobbyists who are operating on behalf of foreign entities.
The Dastyari episode should have brought home to the government of the day the need for clear-cut protocols to preclude the possibility of foreign money tainting the political process.
Labor and the Greens have proposed legislation that would ban all foreign political donations. The government is now saying – belatedly – that it will advance legislation in the new year to bring this about. No reasonable argument exists to delay this process.
At the same time, government and opposition should prioritise the establishment of a National Integrity Commission – similar to state-based independent commissions against corruption – to bolster public confidence in the political process, now at a low ebb.
In a research paper, the Parliamentary Library points out that Australia is “one of the few countries where donations from foreign interest political parties or candidates is not prohibited”.
In defining “foreign interests”, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance includes entities that “contribute directly or indirectly [and who] are governments, corporations, organisations or individuals who are not citizens; that do not reside in the country or have a large share of foreign ownership”.
That wording would seem to be a reasonable model for Australian legislation.
Of English-speaking democracies, only New Zealand allows overseas donations to parties, but these are capped at NZ$1,500.
The Dastyari episode underscores the need for clear-cut rules to prevent those with links to foreign governments from using money to influence the political process.
The Chinese businessman in question, Huang Xiangmo, recently stepped down as chairman of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), a front organisation for the United Work Department of the Chinese State.
The billionaire Huang, whose applications for Australian citizenship have been blocked by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has deep connections in China’s ruling Communist Party.
None of this should be viewed as surprising, or necessarily cause for alarm, but what should be regarded as completely unacceptable is the use of money by foreign donors to influence policy in the service of a foreign government.
In Huang’s case, he withdrew a $400,000 funding pledge after Labor’s then-defence spokesman Stephen Conroy sharply criticised China’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.
What is required is clarity around foreign political donations. Politics and self-interest should not be allowed to stand in the way of reasonable steps to put in place regulations that ban all such donations.
In the Senate today, in several personal explanations, Dastyari insisted that he had not passed classified information to Huang, and that indeed he had never received briefings about relations with China that would have enabled him to do so.
That may well be the case, but perceptions in this case are fairly devastating.
Questions remain, such as:
Why did Dastyari need to go to the Chinese businessman’s house in the first place?
What did he need to tell Huang out of range of their mobile phones?
Who leaked the information about the encounter to Fairfax Media?
Was it leaked by a government agency for political purposes?
The point is this story has, potentially, some way to run, and may yet result in unexpected further developments.
What the whole unfortunate episode demonstrates is that public officials need to avoid carelessness in their interactions with anyone who might represent a foreign government. This is especially so in the case of a country whose methods of doing business politically are not aligned with those of Australia.
Finally, in his interactions with Huang, Dastyari may have served his interests better if he had familiarised himself with the example of the former Labor national secretary during the Gough Whitlam era.
David Combe served in the contentious period between 1973 and 1981, during which, it is alleged, he had sought financial assistance from Iraq for Labor’s losing 1975 election campaign. That support did not materialise, but revelations that it had been canvassed at all severely embarrassed Labor.
After he relinquished his role as national secretary, Combe developed a lobbying business and in the process was befriended by a Soviet embassy official in Canberra whom it later emerged was a KGB agent.
In 1983, Prime Minister Bob Hawke expelled the Soviet official. A cloud descended on Combe, who was later found by the Hope royal xommission not to have compromised Australia’s security.
However, if there is a lesson in the Combe and Dastyari episodes it is that those in positions of public trust cannot be too careful in the company they keep.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced a suite of reforms to the state’s political donations system. It includes:
a cap on donations by individuals, unions and corporations of A$4,000 over a four-year parliamentary term;
public disclosure of donations above $1,000;
a ban on foreign donations; and
real-time disclosure of donations.
Harsh penalties will be imposed on those who breach the rules, with fines of up to $44,000 and two years in jail.
These proposals follow several dubious events, including Liberal Party fundraiser Barrie Macmillan allegedly seeking to funnel donations from a mafia boss to the party after Opposition Leader Matthew Guy enjoyed a lobster dinner with the mafia leader.
According to Andrews, these changes are intended to:
… help put an end to individuals and corporations attempting to buy influence in Victorian politics.
The proposed reforms will significantly improve Victoria’s donations system.
The caps on donations will level the playing field and reduce the risk of corruption in the state’s political system. It will prevent rich donors from exerting greater influence over politicians than those who lack the means to do so. Parties will no longer be able to rely on these wealthy donors to fund their election campaigns.
The caps equally target individuals, unions and corporations, meaning that money cannot be channelled through shady corporate structures to evade the rules. However, donations can still be channelled through the federal level, where there are no caps.
Real-time disclosures, which have already been introduced in Queensland, will improve the timeliness of disclosures. Combined with the lower disclosure threshold of $1,000, these are commendable steps towards enhancing transparency.
The move to ban foreign donations may face constitutional issues.
The tough penalties may deter people from breaching the rules. But proper enforcement by the Victorian Electoral Commission is still essential for the laws to be effective.
Election campaigns are currently funded by a mix of public funding and private donations. As there will be caps on private donations, public funding of Victorian elections from taxpayers’ pockets will need to increase.
There will be debate as to the level of public funding that should be given. Public funding should adequately compensate parties, but not be overly generous or allow them to rort the system.
Detractors may argue that, in the age of social media, there may be cheaper ways for political parties to get their messages across, so less public funding would be needed.
It is tricky to work out how to allocate public funding between established political parties, minor parties and new parties. There is also a question of whether public funding should cover activities such as policy development and party administration.
But public funding is already part of Australia’s system. In the 2016 federal election, $62.8 million of public funding was provided, which is about half of federal campaign costs.
Victoria’s move toward more public funding is not unprecedented. New South Wales already has caps on political donations of $5,800 per party and $2,500 for candidates, as well as a ban on donations from property developers and those in the tobacco, liquor and gambling industries. This was accompanied by an increase in public funding of elections, amounting to about 80% of campaign costs.
In Europe and Canada, there are high levels of public funding: between 50% and 90% of costs.
Another worry is that enterprising people and businesses might still circumvent the rules through creative means.
In the US, super PACs (political action committees) are special interest groups involved in fundraising and campaigning that are not officially affiliated with political parties. These groups can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, and then spend this money to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.
If this possibility is not regulated in Australian jurisdictions, then our system will remain broken.
Australia’s political donations system remains fragmented. Ideally, we would have a uniform system with tough rules at both the federal and state levels, so that donors cannot easily evade the rules by channelling their money through more lax jurisdictions.
The time is ripe for reform. A federal parliamentary committee is looking into how to improve the federal donations rules. The committee will issue its report by December 2017.
Victoria has thrown down the gauntlet – and it’s now time for the federal government to take heed.