Soon after his election in October 2004, in an email to a Greens Woollahra councillor in February 2005, Malcolm Turnbull wrote that he believes “no political donations should be allowed unless they are: from citizens and/or persons on the electoral roll (ie, no companies, unions, associations etc); subject to a cap; and donors should certify that the donation is either their own or their spouse’s money and has not been given to them by a third party”.
After the Liberals lost the NSW and Federal elections in 2007, then shadow federal treasurer, Malcolm Turnbull, joined the NSW Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, in calling for changes to the laws on political donations, and a ban on corporations or unions donating money to parties.
This followed the Herald’s revelation that NSW Labor raised $24 million in the four years leading up to the state election in 2007 and spent $16.7 million on the election campaign, while the state Opposition was only able to spend $5.3 million.
Mr Turnbull said the democratic system was not working properly when there was such a disparity between what government and opposition could muster for election advertising.
This was somewhat hypocritical as, in 2007, when the electoral boundaries changed making Turnbull’s electorate potentially a less safe seat for the Liberals, the Wentworth Forum was established as a “corporate marketing” enterprise carried out by Mr Turnbull’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, and the NSW Liberal Party.
Regarded as Australia’s most sophisticated political fund-raising machine, the forum offered membership packages that rewarded the most generous supporters with greater access to Mr Turnbull.
It cost $5500 to be a “member”, $11,000 to be a “sponsor”, $16,500 to be a “patron”, $25,500 to be a “benefactor” and $55,000 to be a “governor”. In 2007-08 the forum raised over $1.4 million.
Former Liberal Party Treasurer, Michael Yabsley, was instrumental in setting up both the Millenium Forum and the Wentworth Forum, fundraising bodies which raise millions of dollars by selling access to Liberal leaders. After resigning after the 2010 election, Mr Yabsley called for a complete ban on political donations by big business, trade unions and property developers.
“The only donations that should be allowed should be from real people, Australian citizens. And those donations should be capped by legislation at a modest amount … maybe $500.”
In an email sent to Peta Seaton, then Premier Barry O’Farrell’s cabinet chief, Yabsley cautioned that political scandals may otherwise force the change.
“It is an accident waiting to happen,” he warned.
“I am not contending here that there is wholesale political corruption based on the payment of money, or even that political donations provide some cheap and easy way to get a result from government,” Yabsley’s email continued. “Suffice to say there are perceptions, and occasional realities that … call into question the integrity of public policy and decision making.”
“I think it fails the smell test,” he told The Power Index more bluntly. “I’ve always felt somewhat queasy about the whole process. As I have gone through more than three decades of political funding I have always worried about the perception [of it]”.
Yabsley was adamant that spending should be cut back. “I actually believe that the money and the messaging involved is pretty unseemly. I think it’s out of control. We’re not selling soap powder, we’re not selling pet food. This actually goes to a fundamental question of the integrity of government.”
As the NSW ICAC hearings revealed, Mr Yabsley’s concerns were justified.
On Wednesday, the Liberal Party was refused access to $4.4m in government campaign funding after the NSW electoral commission ruled it operated a huge, illegal slush fund during the 2011 state election campaign.
The dispute panel said the NSW Division of the Liberal Party was still refusing to supply details of donors who made payments of $787,000 via the Free Enterprise Foundation which was “used by senior officials of the Liberal Party and an employed fund raiser to channel and disguise donations by major political donors some of whom were prohibited donors.” The panel rejected the Liberal Party’s claim that the Free Enterprise Foundation was a charity.
ICAC has been prevented by a series of legal challenges from releasing its own findings on the epic inquiry into NSW political donations which resulted in the resignation of 10 MPs including premier Barry O’Farrell over a gift of wine.
The Electoral Commission said it had offered the Liberal Party the opportunity to make a full disclosure of donors for the 2011 election campaign but decided to freeze access to the $4.4 million because the Liberals had not complied.
And they want to call a double dissolution election on kickbacks, corruption and union governance?
What a joke! Get your own house in order Mr Turnbull.