Has the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) just made it easier to hide political donations? It doesn’t appear to know, really. What’s the scam?
The scam is a total lack of clarity about who funds political parties has just become even more unclear; perhaps another leg-up for corporate influence over democracy.
Political donations that sit above the $14,300 threshold are meant to be disclosed in the AEC’s Detailed Receipts database. Until recently, these payments were categorised into three receipts types; ‘donation received’, ‘subscription’ and ‘other receipt’.
In its 2020 release of data, total payments made to recipients including political parties, campaigners, associated entities and peak bodies such as the Business Council of Australia was $587 million, with 94.3% listed as ‘other receipts’.
According to the AEC, ‘other receipts’ are amounts that do not fit the definition of “gift” (donation) as outlined in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.
Even though the AEC is the governing body for political donations, it is left to the discretion of the recipient or their donor to determine whether any given payment constitutes a gift or simply something ‘other’, with no further detail provided to the public.
Now the AEC has introduced two new receipt types, one of which is simply ‘unspecified’.
Asked what constitutes an ‘unspecified’ political payment, a spokesman for the AEC told Michael West Media:
“After a conversation with a colleague in the business area we believe the term ‘unspecified’ likely refers to the fact that someone lodged a hardcopy form and did not indicate on that form whether the money was a donation or an ‘other receipt’. Although this is hard to confirm that without looking at an individual instance. We have a compliance program that seeks to have full disclosure in line with the legislation, which includes liaising with people and entities if an incomplete return is lodged”.
Has the AEC afforded political parties an added layer of secrecy or obfuscation for their corporate donors? “Unspecified”, like “Other”, would seem to cloud the picture even more.
Further, is the introduction of “Unspecified” at odds with the AEC’s compliance program, especially given that ‘unspecified receipts’ have been allocated to payments as far back as 2006/07?
Why is the AEC not following up on these payments and enforcing better disclosure from either the donor or the recipient? Ironically, the Detailed Receipts are part of a wider database known as the ‘Transparency Register’.