Premier Mike Baird speaks to the media following release of the Operation Spicer report. Photo: Edwina PicklesWhen Premier Mike Baird faced the media following the tabling of the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s Operation Spicer report into Liberal party fundraising, one of his most important responses went largely unnoticed.
Baird apologised on behalf of the NSW Liberal party for the findings that nine of his former colleagues had sought to evade political donations laws during the campaign to win the 2011 election.
But it was his call for further reform of political donations laws that deserved more attention.
In an effort to show he was taking the findings very seriously, Baird nominated real time, online disclosure of donations as an issue the government was working on “and close to bringing in a timetable to implement”.
The idea has a lot of merit. Instead of waiting for more than a year to learn who has donated to a political party, donations that are accepted would immediately be made public.
In non-election years this would be particularly important for the party in power, given the capacity for timely donations to influence access to government and its decision-making.
But it would be just as crucial for opposition parties in the lead up to a poll.
In its final report in December 2014, the expert panel on political donations chaired by Kerry Schott commissioned by Baird recommended the government introduce such a system “as soon as possible”.
Yet 20 months later, we are still working with what the expert panel called “an archaic paper-based disclosure system”.
The government is focused on getting a real time disclosure system in place in time for the 2019 NSW poll. But Baird, of all people, should realise why this is an unacceptable delay.
A week ago the NSW Liberal party state director Chris Stone fired off invitations to what promises to be a lavish fundraising lunch at the Westin Hotel at Martin Place.
The star attractions are Baird and Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, but the lunch will also feature a host of cabinet ministers.
Seats are priced at a relatively modest $375 per head, but invitees are urged to inquire about “premium seating with ministers” – presumably at a significantly greater cost.
The message is clear: a larger donation can buy access to the Premier and senior ministers. The more you bid the more likely you are to get within earshot of the minister of your choice.
Baird has been busy as a donations drawcard. On August 5 he was billed as the star attraction at a fundraiser organised by Drummoyne MP John Sidoti.
Again, the standard ticket price was just $100 each on a table of 12.
But the invitation states: “Limited tickets available for ministerial tables @ $3000 per table. Premier’s Table $1000 per person.”
While all of this has and will be conducted within the existing donations laws, how much was earned and who paid will not be public information for more than a year, likely at the end of 2017.
Perhaps due to a federal election also falling due in 2019, the NSW Liberals are ramping up their state-based fundraising well ahead of time.
Viewed in this light, the delay in ushering in a real time disclosure system takes on a more sinister shade.
It’s not just the Liberals; Labor is at it as well ahead of the September 10 local government elections.
An August 22 fundraiser for Labor’s candidate to become mayor of Fairfield, Del Bennett, advertised tickets priced at $950 each.
This is strategically priced just below the $1000 threshold for mandatory public disclosure. The attendance of opposition leader Luke Foley was advertised as a drawcard.
It gives the strong impression that Labor is offering donors the opportunity to remain anonymous while still currying favour with a potential mayor.
Foley should have had nothing to do with it, given he is trying to convince the electorate he is more serious about donations reform than Baird.
Foley has committed to NSW Labor introducing its own system for real time disclosure of political donations in 2017, which he has said would make it the first Australian political party to do so.
If we are to believe his apology over Spicer is genuine, Baird needs to beat him to it and make it happen now.