Political donations reporting is broken

Australian political donations reporting is broken. It wouldn’t be hard to fix, but there’s bugger-all will to make it better.

Let’s start with the good news. We do have a system of donations reporting in Australia. That’s the good news in it’s entirety.

The basic rules are flawed

From there we descend into two layers of problem. The first is systemic: There’s a ridiculously high lower limit on what has to be reported; and there are numerous ways of dodging reporting a donation by calling it something else. There’s really no practical reason in the modern world that all donations couldn’t be reported – every party has an accounting system and tracks donations for their own purposes.

These things could be changed easily at a parliamentary level. But, strangely, there seems to be no real interest in donations reform from the parties that benefit to the tune of many millions of dollars annually. A lot has been written about the basic flaws in our system, so enough said here.

We have an opaque transparency register

The practical implementation is stuffed

Let’s put what should be reported to one side and look at how donations are reported. This second layer of problem is what you hit if you’re trying to actually understand what has been reported. And it’s a mess.

The reporting is done by someone in an office filling in a form. Filling in a form using the name of the donor and the recipient as accurately as they can be bothered typing it in. And that means that the party’s and the donor’s name can appear in multiple different ways. In turn that makes it ridiculously difficult to work out who’s giving what to whom. Yes, we have an opaque transparency register.

As an example, a donation to the Australian Labor Party could be written down as a donation to “ALP”, or “A.L.P.”, or “Aust Labor”, or ‘Labour”, or, well the list goes on pretty much for ever. On the other end the same applies to “Deloite Pty Ltd”, or “Deloittes”, or “Deloitte Consulting”, or…

Would this be hard to fix. Well, no.

The government already gets past this exact problem in other environments – by giving each person and each company a unique public number. What a surprise – in the context of tax or social security the government does not find it acceptable to just fill in a form with a idly checked name, they insist in a unique identifier. So it’d be child’s-play to either insist on a unique donations number or, even, just go wild and insist on the use of the existing tax and company numbers.

Using a unique number would do two things. First it would allow for complete clarity on how much was being given and received by each organisation. Second, it would allow the donations and the receipts to be reconciled – because right now there’s no way to see if they really match up.

And there you can see the problem – who really wants clarity?

So why don’t we have a system with a simple form of reconciliation? I’d argue because the people in charge of the system at a practical level don’t use it for anything and so they have no incentive to make it easier to use: They’re just collecting and passing on data and can tick that box as completed. And at a policy-setting level those making decisions see absolutely zero benefit in making it easier for voters to see where the political money is coming from.

If you want to dig into the half a billion dollars in political donations made in the last 20 years take a look at our donation gadgets. We’ve programmed to get past some of the obvious confusion and then made everything searchable so you can use your own judgment. It all makes the window into political donations a little more transparent.

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