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‘Dark currency’ unexpectedly dominates the Australian election

SYDNEY, Australia – When Dr Ken Coghill served in the Victorian legislature in the early 1980s, he joined a movement to reform Australia’s campaign finance system, allowing donations to be passed through through politics, with donors largely able to conceal their identities and contributions.

Dr Coghill, a Labor leader at the time, said he was outraged that the so-called dark currency undermined the principle of equality of all voters, giving financiers unspecified support and their chosen candidate or party “a very significant advantage.”

Nearly 40 years later, Dr. Coghill is still outraged, because little has changed. But now that culture of cash secrecy suddenly defines the start of the federal election campaign that will determine whether the current conservative prime minister remains in power.

With an election due at the end of May, Australians are not treated to policy debates but instead accusations of shady Chinese funding, a failure to report. massive donations and payouts to climate change fighters from coal tycoons.

“The cash flow is increasing, but the political culture is also eroding,” said Han Aulby, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. “There’s a feeling that if you can do it, you can.”

Compared to the United States, Australia’s election season is shorter and less expensive, as is the case in many parliamentary democracies. But even among peers, such as Canada and New Zealand, Australia is still a laggard in campaign finance regulation. Research from the Center for Public Integrity shows that over the past two decades, nearly $1 billion in party income has been hidden.

Some scholars argue that Australia’s opacity reflects a set of distinct cultural traits: a belief that transparency is not an obvious social good and a sense that those in power should decide what the public needs to know.

Johan Lidberg, professor of communications at Monash University, said: “The prevailing view in Australia remains that the government owns the information – it is not kept on behalf of the people – and if people want it, it should not be automatically available”. “That is at the core here. We haven’t left that yet. “

The money war this time took place after a while increase public interest about corruption.

In a country far richer than it used to be, where infrastructure money is known to be flow towards political friends, and where government secrecy continues to expand, polls show overwhelming support for a federal anti-corruption agency. Majority of Australians now believe Corruption is common.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s centre-right Liberal Party promised to do something after winning the last election, in 2019, but never delivered. Now, with support for the government’s pandemic management dwindling, he has begun using the dark currency as a subject to attack his political opponents.

The effort began with allegations of asking for money and support from China.

This month, Mike Burgess, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, warned in annual threat assessment that authorities have foiled a foreign interference plot involving a wealthy individual who “maintains direct and profound relationships with the foreign government and its intelligence agencies. ”

He said the “puppeter” hired someone in Australia and set him up with hundreds of thousands of dollars bought from an offshore bank account.

Speculation immediately turned to Beijing. The next day, in Parliament, Australia’s Defense Minister, Peter Dutton, said the Chinese Communist Party had chosen to support Anthony Albanese, leader of the Labor party, “as their choice”. Mr Morrison went on to refer to Labor leaders as “Manchurian candidates”.

Critics called the comments intimidation. The Labor Party said it did nothing wrong, and Mr Burgess repelled partisan attacks.

“Attempts at political intervention are not limited to just one side of politics,” he said last week.

Nor are accusations of hidden money.

Zali Steggall, a political independent, joined Parliament in 2019 after defeating Tony Abbott, a former prime minister whose campaign is focused on combating climate change who has run into problems of his own. me. An Australian Electoral Commission review found she incorrectly reported a $100,000 donation in 2019 from a family trust to a former coal company executive.

The committee’s review found that the gift – the largest donation she received – was not reported because, after the check was received, the amount was split into eight separate contributions below the $13,800 disclosure threshold .

Mrs. Steggall called it “a rookie mistake”. She argued that previous investments in coal shouldn’t prevent someone from donating to candidates advocating a greener future and asserted that she was unaware the donation had been misreported. Corrected last year, it has come to light now that several independent candidates are threatening to topple the Liberal incumbents partly with money from issue-oriented organizations. central.

Campaign finance controller Steggall is currently the director of such a group, Climate 200.

“What this highlights is a lot of people are happy to throw stones, but they’re usually in glass houses,” Mr Morrison said.

What it really shows, according to advocates of a more transparent approach, is how the current system has encouraged a vicious cycle of misconduct.

The disclosure of donations to federal elections is still only released once a year, in the form of unsearchable scans of documents with errors and omissions. Reform advocates have called for real-time reporting and lower contribution reporting thresholds.

“This is a problem that has emerged since the early 1970s,” said Dr Coghill, a professor of government at Swinburne University of Technology and a veterinarian.

“In a way, it’s a reflection of Australia’s relative isolation,” he added. “We don’t regularly communicate with people in other countries that have stricter regimes.”

But Ms Aulby, who founded the Center for Public Integrity in 2016, says many Australians are starting to question what happens in the shadows when support and finances are intertwined.

She said one of the most blatant tactics for hiding money involves “affiliated entities” – essentially shell companies that distribute donations.

Both major parties rely on them. Labor, for example, received 33 percent of its income between 1998 and 2021 from affiliates, totaling more than $120 million.

The Liberals brought in even more from their affiliated organizations — about $140 million in the same period, according to the center, representing 42% of the party’s total reported income.

“They do a lot of business, but I don’t know who their director is or whether they and their money come from the resources industry or the banking industry,” Ms. Aulby said.

However, the consequences of that approach are becoming more apparent. Last month, Transparency International noted a drop of Australian water in its annual corruption index, giving the country its lowest score since it adopted current measurements in 2012.

Polls in Australia also show growing alarm. That became especially true after the current government allocated public funds to sports infrastructure projects in the districts it needed to win the last election, even if no one applied for the grant.

In those cases, the Morrison government prevented and refused to release Its final internal report on what happened to more than $70 million in funding. The minister in charge of them was only temporarily demoted.

Ms Aulby said: “One case after another is happening with no consequences.

But once the accusations begin, the cycle can be difficult to stop. Last week Mr. Morrison was busy attacking rivals and their alleged financiers; This week, his own alliance partner was pull through the media for failing to disclose a payment of A$1 million ($721,000) from an influential Canberra property owner.

“There needs to be some consequence – election consequences, because there are no other consequences,” Ms Aulby said. “I hope that voters will keep that in mind in the upcoming election.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/22/world/australia/federal-election-dark-money.html ‘Dark currency’ unexpectedly dominates the Australian election

Fry Electronics Team

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