Tasmanian Labor’s $550-a-head fundraiser prompts call for a ban on cash-for-access forums

ALP promises donors ‘input’ into the party’s ‘policy focus and direction’
 December 21, 2021
Published:  December 21, 2021
Labor leader Rebecca White and Maylands Lodge. Image: Bob Burton

A Tasmanian Labor promise that people who paid $550-a-head to attend a dinner with senior MPs could have input into its policies has reignited calls for a ban on “cash for access” political forums.

Labor hosted what was touted as an “exclusive end of year dinner” with the state leader, Rebecca White, and the shadow minister for finance, Dean Winter, at the luxury Maylands Lodge in inner-city Hobart on December 2.

The invitation said the dinner would provide donors with an opportunity “to hear about and have input into Labor’s policy focus and direction”.

Tasmanian Inquirer sought clarification from Labor party state secretary Stuart Benson, who was listed as the contact on the invitation, on how often dinners were organised and whether business owners and executives were the target audience. He did not respond.

“Events like this just confirm a perception in voters’ minds that the ALP, like the Liberal Party, is at the mercy of the wealthy.” Roland Browne

The Centre for Public Integrity, a Sydney-based advocacy group, says a ban on “cash for access” schemes is needed to limit the impact of money in politics.

Roland Browne, a director of Election Funding Reform, a Tasmanian group pushing for greater political donations transparency, agreed. He said the Labor party event “confirms the critical need for reform”.

“At $550 for a dinner, attendees would expect something in return for their money. These events corrupt the political process. They should be banned,” he said.

“Politicial parties must be publicly funded to end this market for political influence. Why should those with deep pockets get the opportunity to influence politicians? What about those who are disadvantaged?

“Events like this just confirm a perception in voters’ minds that the ALP, like the Liberal Party, is at the mercy of the wealthy.”

Tasmanian Inquirer asked White why it was appropriate to use access to Labor MPs and discussion of policies as a fundraising opportunity. No response was received.

A copy of the invitation was leaked to the Liberal party, prompting Attorney-General Elise Archer to claim it proved the Labor party “have simply run out of ideas”.

However, the Liberal party also hosts a regular forum for corporate donors that is shrouded in secrecy. Earlier this year, the salmon farming company Petuna revealed it contributed $12,000 to Liberal Party in 2020 to attend these events.

Kinetic, the new owner of Tasmanian Redline bus service, did not explain why it donated $20,000 to the Liberal party early this year and whether executives attended its forum for corporate donors. The company confirmed it has also contributed to the Tasmanian branch of the Labor party.

Tasmania has no legislation regulating donations to political parties or candidates at state elections There is federal legislation requiring disclosure from parties and independents contesting national elections, but it does treat payments for attendance at business forums as a donation. They do not have to be disclosed even if the amount paid is above the threshold of $14,500.

The situation is different in New South Wales. The Centre for Public Integrity’s research director, Catherine Williams, said that the state’s Electoral Funding Act 2018 included an “exemplar provision” that ensured disclosure applied to gifts and fundraising forums.

She said it captured gifts and amounts paid as a “contribution, entry fee or other payment” that granted any person a benefit from a fundraising venture or function.

The Gutwein government recently released a draft election funding bill with a proposed disclosure threshold of $5000, five times higher than recommended by the Integrity Commission and 1000 times higher than is required for local government councillors. Labor has proposed a disclosure threshold of $1000.

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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