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Public “rightly suspicious” of NSW political donations

Wednesday, 31st December, 2014

By Darrin Manuel

Locals are growing ever more suspicious of their political leaders’ motivations at State level, and a new report shows they’re not alone.

An independent panel yesterday slammed the dishonest behaviour of NSW politicians in a report on political donations.

The panel was established by Premier Mike Baird in May to investigate and recommend further reforms to NSW election funding laws, and was led by Dr Kerry Schott and included former Deputy Premier John Watkins and former Shadow Attorney General Andrew Tink.

The report’s executive summary stated that people were “rightly suspicious about donations and their potential to influence policy and government decisions.”

That suspicion has been heightened by recent Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigations concerning both major political parties, which involve everything from allegations of rigged mining lease tenders to favouritism in awarding business leases.

Panel Chairman Dr Schott said after consultations with the public and those working within the political sphere, there was a definite feeling of disenchantment with the conduct of politicians when it comes to finances.

“What stands out are the feelings of shock and disgust at the brazen way in which some candidates and MPs have apparently sidestepped political donations laws for personal and political gain,” said Dr Schott in the report’s preface.

“These sentiments are shared by my fellow panel members, the Hon John Watkins and Mr Andrew Tink AM, both of whom have expressed utter abhorrence for what is alleged to have occurred within their respective parties.”

The panel has requested a number of reforms, some of which include tighter expenditure limits for third-party campaigners, real-time online disclosure of donations, heightened roles for the Electoral Commission and Auditor General, and even tougher penalties for politicians who do the wrong thing.

However, Dr Schott said there was little point in changing legislation if politicians maintained a culture of dishonest behaviour.

“Even if our recommendations for legislative reform are adopted, nothing will change unless the major parties behave ethically and act lawfully.”

In the four-year period that includes the 2011 election, political parties and candidates in NSW put about $50 million into electoral expenditure, according to the report.

About $22 million of that was funded by the public and the remainder by private sources.

Over the four years total administration costs appeared to be around $50 million, with about 60 percent of all administration expenses of parties and candidates covered by public funds.

“Other recipients of public funds must abide by well-established rules for accountability and acquittal and parties should be no different,” said Dr Schott.

“If the political parties of our State fail to do so, the public’s contempt for politics and politicians will only increase.”

On a local level, a number of residents have voiced their suspicions online about the possibility of dodgy deals when it comes to politicians and water allocations upstream of Menindee. 

Greens water spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham said he could understand locals’ frustration, and urged them to keep the major parties’ behaviour in mind at election time.

“There is a well-founded view that a lot of politicians in senior leadership roles are working for their own and vested interests, and that’s because of the revelations with ICAC,” he said.

“There’s just a conga line of Liberal and Labor MPs being dragged through ICAC...  and the number of Greens MPs there is zero.

“We don’t take donations from corporations, trade unions, or anything other than individuals, we believe it to be a massively corrupting influence.

“We’ll be running in the State election on ‘clean water, clean energy, and clean politics’ - they’re the three things we need to restore the faith of the people in politicians.”

Mr Baird welcomed the findings as the first step in his own plan to restore trust between voters and politicians.

“This is precisely why I gave the Panel the broadest possible terms of reference so that nothing would be off limits, and the implementation of the Report would help to achieve my stated goal of cleaning up politics in NSW,” said Mr Baird.

The Panel has made 50 recommendations on long-term reform of political donations, and the Government will consider them in detail and respond before the March election.

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