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Parliament’s donations committee has not been formed, has no brief and is routinely ignored

The committee Malcolm Turnbull insists is the best way to reform Australia’s political donations system has not been formed, has not been asked to examine the issue and routinely had its past recommendations ignored.

A day after Labor senator Sam Dastyari fell on his sword after revelations he asked Chinese donors to pick up bills and that he contradicted Labor’s South China Sea policy, Mr Turnbull and his ministers have dodged questions about donations reform, insisting it is a matter for a little-known committee of Parliament.

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Shorten slow to act: Government

The Government is piling the pressure on Bill Shorten over his decision not to sack Sam Dastyari who instead resigned. Courtesy ABC News 24.

Speaking in Laos, Mr Turnbull said he had long argued for donations to “ideally” be restricted to people on the electoral roll – a move which would ban unions, corporations and foreigners from tipping in money to politicians and political parties.

But the Prime Minister added that donations reform was ”

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a very complex issue and it is something the JSCEM [Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters] should look at carefully”, a line he has repeated all week.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says a parliamentary committee should consider donations reform.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says a parliamentary committee should consider donations reform. Photo: Sanghee Liu

Treasurer Scott Morrison said on Thursday the committee would “pursue this matter as they see fit and I’m sure if the Special Minister of State has any suggestions for them, then they will be more than happy to look at that”.

Some Liberal MPs, including Cory Bernardi and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, have suggested the time has come to change donation rules in the wake of the Dastyari scandal. 

But there is no guarantee the  committee will undertake a specific review of donations in its 2016 election review, unless there is a direct request. 

WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, a former party official, has been tipped for the job of chair of the committee but this will not be confirmed until next week at the earliest.

Senator Linda Reynolds.

Senator Linda Reynolds. 

And there is a long history of the committee’s election reports not examining donations reform or, when it has done so, those recommendations being ignored by the government of the day.

After the 2013 election,  the committee undertook a routine review but devoted just 10 pages of the 192-page report to the issues of donations. It made not one recommendation to reform the system or improve transparency.

After the 2010 poll,  the committee examined how the political donations system in Australia could be improved and made a sweeping series of recommendations – including lowering disclosure thresholds and banning foreign money.

Two years later in May 2103, then prime minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott struck a deal to reform donations that would have seen parties and elected MPs receive 33 cents a year, or $1 over the electoral cycle, for every primary vote they received.

The plan would have also reduced the disclosure threshold for private donations from $12,000 to $5000 and backdating would have handed the major parties a $2 million taxpayer-funded windfall ahead of the 2013 election. But that deal fell apart and no changes were made.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said on Thursday he would introduce a private members’ bill to ban all foreign donations as soon as possible. He called on the Coalition and Labor to support the plan.

“The only reason they wouldn’t get behind this bill and move quickly is if they think the money they are enjoying from foreign individuals and companies is more important than public interest and the public clamouring we’re now seeing,” Mr Wilkie said.

Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm backed changes to donation rules that would see near real-time disclosure of donations and a lowering of the disclosure threshold.

Labor’s donations reform policies include reducing the disclosure threshold from $13,800 to $1000, banning anonymous donations over $50 and banning foreign donations.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrote to Mr Turnbull this week urging cooperation to change the system and increase transparency.

He said Labor would introduce legislation to ban foreign donations, for the anonymity of donors to be lowered to $1000 and for real-time disclosure of donations by parties. 

“I say to Malcolm Turnbull: be prepared. Next week you can either work with us or oppose us but, by hook or by crook, Labor is going to propose legislation which will ban foreign donations,” Mr Shorten said.

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