QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Slack electoral regulations and the arrogance of power

Senator Pauline Hanson denies any impropriety.  We are told there is nothing to see in the Liberal Party siphoning cash from their MPs’ taxpayer-funded electoral allowances purportedly to fund the party’s voter analysis entity Parakeelia Pty. Ltd. ALP Senator Sam Dastyari’s failure to disclose that a party donor had paid a personal invoice was nothing but a regrettable over-sight. Labor leader Bill Shorten, exposed by evidence at the unions royal commission that he had failed to disclose a $40,000 donation from labour hire company Unibilt is allowed to make a ‘corrected’ disclosure years after the event.  

The statute of limitations in the Electoral Act prevents the AEC from investigating breaches beyond three years.

The New South Wales Electoral Commission last year withheld $4million in public funding to the Liberal Party after it failed to open its books on money from property developers routed through its federal slush fund entity, the Free Enterprise Foundation. Developer donations are illegal in NSW. After disclosure $586,992 was withheld.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared this week that public trust in the integrity of Australia’s electoral system was paramount, the persistent allegations of breaches indicates regulatory slackness has been breeding arrogance from the powerful.

All are entitled to the presumption of innocence, of course.

Neither the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) nor the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) to which the latest allegations against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (PHON) have been directed, have adequate enforcement powers to instil any fear of the consequences of non-compliance. Instead they can issue notices to candidates, donors, politicians and political parties to produce requested documents after which it’s lawyers’ letters at 30 paces. The AEC and ECQ have an ‘entry under warrant’ power rarely used. Prosecutions are unheard of.

Current penalties are wrist slaps almost always avoided by corrections to disclosure or the refund of disputed monies.

The allegations against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party

On Thursday night AEC commissioner Tom Rogers confirmed to Senate estimates that for the first time in five years the commission had instigated Section 316 (3) notices, this time to produce documents from PHON. This formal investigation arose from the ABC Four Corners’ Please Explain program which, through documents, emails and on-camera informants, alleged non-disclosure of a Jabiru light plane used by candidate Pauline Hanson in the 2016 double dissolution Senate election. It was piloted by PHON director James Ashby.   The AEC has used the only ‘coercive’ power it has through Section 316 (3). Commissioner Rogers would neither confirm nor deny to Senator Hanson or Labor’s Senator Murray Watt that PHON had produced log books or other evidence in an attempt to prove its compliance with disclosure requirements.

It will be interesting to observe how the regulators now get to the truth of the Hanson allegations. 

Four Corners and its string of disgruntled party members and officials alleged that Victorian property developer Bill McNee was linked in some way with the provision of the Jabiru.

Two party officials who raised questions about the plane had resigned.

One of these officials, Queensland treasurer, Ian Nelson, also told Four Corners that James Ashby had asked him not to declare the identity of the source of a large donation and to list it as ‘anonymous’, in breach of the disclosure rules.

Four Corners also produced evidence and material supporting allegations that candidates in both Queensland and Western Australia were being financially pressured to hand over large sums of money to One Nation by way of fees payable, printing charges, mandatory donations, the mandatory forfeiture of 25 per cent of moneys raised per vote from running at the WA election.

Four Corners revealed how candidates who had found cheaper printing quotes had these quotes either knocked back by the party and/or were dis-endorsed.

Great Australian perception of snouts in the trough

The AEC and the ECQ do not have provisions in their legislation for public hearings which, as has been seen with the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, has the great public benefit of bathing any corruption concerns in the disinfectant of sunshine. Invariably more witnesses and evidence emerges from the public hearing process leading to educative lessons, legislative reform and future compliance.

And this week Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail newspaper, which had bagged the ABC as biased against Senator Hanson, joined the ABC’s public interest journalism by publishing the audio and transcript of a tape recording involving James Ashby in discussion about invoicing creatively to maximise public funding. Both Mr Ashby and Senator Hanson dismissed the ‘illegal’ tape as mischievous, any such “bad choice of words” not being acted upon by the party, its members or officials.

Should we be expected to simply accept this denial of impropriety?

The Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Police are reportedly examining the leaked tape posted online by The Courier-Mail.

The tape is an evidentiary lead to possible criminal offences. When can we expect AFP or Queensland Police search warrant raids of PHON offices and bank accounts?

Just when the public will get to find out if their electoral system is being systematically gamed by PHON or any other candidate or political party is unknown.

The 24 hour news cycle can be relied on to quickly change public attention to other events and incidents, sensations and scandals.

But such is the consistency of allegations that there is now momentum for enforcement teeth to be added to the powers of the guardians of our electoral integrity.

It has happened with new financial controls now being implemented over ministerial and MPs’ expenses after the resignation of Turnbull Government minister Sussan Ley.

In the 2016 federal election taxpayers forked out $62,778,375 in public funding to all political parties and candidates. That includes around $20m each to the Liberal and Labor parties and $1.7m to One Nation. Public funding was introduced in part to reduce the risk of ‘brown paper bag’ corruption or vested interests actually ‘buying’ an MP or party by audaciously bank rolling candidates and MPs.

The great Australian perception of snouts in the trough will continue unless the regulators have real enforcement power … or there is a federal ICAC.

Quentin Dempster is contributing editor at The New Daily. An edited version of this article was posted on May 27th.

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