Analysis: Rockliff’s failure to answer questions on Liberal corporate fundraising dinner shows donations bill flaws

Secrecy over $4400-a-head event casts a shadow over public consultation requests
 February 6, 2023
Published:  February 6, 2023
Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff. Image: Bob Burton.

Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff’s repeated refusal to directly answer questions over a recent Liberal party fundraising dinner should serve as a cautionary tale for Legislative Council members considering the government’s political donations bill.

It highlights the profound flaws in the bill and how behind-the-scenes assurances to donors can undermine government requests for citizens to contribute to public consultation processes.

First, a quick recap.

On November 10, Greens’ environment spokesperson Rosalie Woodruff asked Rockliff whether he had attended a $4400-per-head Liberal Party fundraising dinner on November 2.

She then asked Rockliff if Glenn Cooke, the chief executive of Cooke Aquaculture, the company that recently bought Tassal, and one of the Batista brothers from JBS that now owns Huon Aquaculture, were also there. She alleged they were, and that Rockliff had told the salmon industry executives: “We have a 10-year salmon expansion plan. It’s not going to be popular, but I’m here to tell you we will back your industry all the way.”

Rockliff could have confirmed that he was at the event, acknowledged the Liberal Party charged attendees $4400-per-head and addressed the issue of the specific comments attributed to him. Instead, he restated his well-known support for the salmon industry and sat down. Woodruff’s follow-up attempt to get a direct response was unsuccessful.

How are such fundraising events compatible with the government’s political donations bill, which states that one of the objects is to “help prevent undue influence” by “significant political donors”?

At a December 9 media conference, Tasmanian Inquirer asked Rockliff the central questions he hadn’t answered in parliament. (The audio is here.)

Rockliff said there were “inaccuracies” in the questions and that he was “not going to go into that now”.

“Of course I attend fundraisers. Of course I was at a dinner,” he added. “All political parties do attend fundraising events. But the fundraising arm is a matter for the Liberal Party organisation.” But Rockliff didn’t address who was at the event, how much attendees paid, or dispute the quote that Woodruff attributed to him.

Let’s assume for a moment that the comment reassuring salmon industry executives - which Rockliff hasn’t disputed on the three occasions it has been put to him - is correct. If so, it highlights an issue the government’s political donations bill will leave largely untouched.

It also casts doubt over the sincerity of the government’s request for public comments on the draft salmon industry plan. Key community groups responded by deciding to boycott the consultation process. Gerard Castles, from the Killora Association, a community group on Bruny Island concerned about the impacts of salmon farms, said: “This is a sham consultation just designed to be a rubber stamp, and we can see straight through it.”

Fishy business

The Tasmanian Liberals’ corporate fundraising events with ministers have been operating since at least 2014. They have been so successful that the party now enjoys a considerable funding advantage over its rivals.

The Labor party has launched a similar program. Invitees to a $550-per-head event in December 2021 with Rebecca White and Dean Winter were told they would “hear about and have input into Labor’s policy focus and direction”.

How are such fundraising events compatible with the government’s political donations bill, which states that one of the objects is to “help prevent undue influence” by “significant political donors”?

Under the government’s bill, payments to political parties would be disclosable only if they exceeded $5000 in a year. Former premier Peter Gutwein and attorney-general Elise Archer selected this threshold based on South Australia’s, the highest of any state. The Tasmanian Integrity Commission recommended $1000 as the threshold for disclosure.

The high threshold in South Australia has meant the Liberal party discloses the origin of less than 30 per cent of its income. A similar outcome in Tasmania could result in the Liberal party having more than $2 million in undisclosed revenue, with much of it coming from selling hundreds of tickets to company representatives and lobbyists for events attended by ministers and government MPs. Alarmingly, the Tasmanian government’s code of conduct for ministers provides no guidance on managing risks associated with party fundraisers with major donors.

The Liberal party’s November 2 fundraising dinner would be illegal in South Australia, where electoral law bans political parties or MPs from charging more than $500 for entry to events that promise “access” to ministers, MPs or ministerial staff. Civil society groups want “cash-for-access” events banned altogether.

If the donors attending these events do not influence party policies, Tasmanians are entitled to wonder why the Labor and Liberal parties are so secretive about them. The secrecy reinforces the perception that donors’ voices are privileged over those of voters, and that all public participation opportunities are a sham.

A critical question for the Legislative Council will be whether it will close a loophole that risks undermining one of the core purposes of Tasmania’s first legislation regulating political donations. The bill is likely to be debated in late March.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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