Chinese political donations highlight Australian anxieties, lax law
Are donations from Chinese businesses and individuals to Australia’s two major parties being used to curry favor and gain influence? A recent ABC investigation revealed that donors poured over $5.5 million into Liberal and Labor party coffers between 2013 and 2015. But more than the money, the question is why Australian law did nothing to prevent outside meddling in the political process. Efforts to tighten the political finance laws in recent years have sadly failed. Australian states should better follow New South Wales which has capped all party donations at $5,000.
MELBOURNE–An influx of political donations from Chinese concerns has focused anxieties about the rising superpower’s growing influence here, while sparking calls for reform of the country’s lax political finance laws.
Companies and individuals with strong links to China donated more than $5.5 million to the country’s two main political parties between 2013 and 2015, Australia’s national broadcaster revealed on Sunday.
The donations included large sums to the governing Liberal Party, which lies on the center-right, and its center-left rival, The Labor Party, the ABC reported. The biggest single amount, $850,000, was given to Labor by an individual whose address houses a branch of China Construction Bank and a Chinese government office.
“Why would a businessman be giving money, particularly into a foreign country, except to curry and ingratiate, at a minimum, some favor?” Graeme Orr, an expert in electoral law at the University of Queensland, told Asia Times.
“The idea that it is not one vote, one value, that you can buy access through donations — it corrodes people’s faith in the system and it also distorts the way the politicians allocate their time,” Orr added.
Unlike most developed countries, Australia does not place any limits on political donations at the national level, including funds coming from overseas. In addition, federal law only requires that donations over $13,000 be made public.
“It really lags beyond other comparable democracies and that’s, I suppose, made clear when you look at this issue of foreign donations,” said Marian Sawer, an emeritus political science professor at Australian National University.
“I mean the majority of democracies do not allow foreign donations to political parties, for obvious reasons… They don’t want foreign interests influencing their own electoral processes.”
The revelation that Chinese entities have funneled millions to political parties comes as Australia finds itself torn between maintaining good relations with its biggest trade partner and stymieing what some fear is Beijing’s excessive influence.
Canberra, a key defense partner of the United States, has increasingly found itself at odds with Beijing on geopolitical issues, particularly the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative government last month endorsed the findings of an arbitration panel in The Hague that dismissed China’s claims to most of the waters, provoking a strong rebuke from Beijing and many Chinese residents here.
While the Australian economy has never been more dependent on Chinese investment and trade, the government has repeatedly demonstrated wariness about opening up major infrastructure to Chinese control.
Earlier this month, the government rejected separate bids by Hong Kong and Chinese state-owned firms to buy a majority stake in the electricity network of New South Wales, reportedly on national security grounds.
The decision came after Canberra blocked the sale of a huge tract of agricultural land in the Northern Territory to Chinese interests earlier in the year. Under the previous government, telecom Huawei was denied any involvement in the country’s fledgling broadband network, also for ostensible security reasons.
Many ordinary Australians, meanwhile, feel resentful of Chinese property investment, which they believe is fueling rocketing house prices — even though a parliamentary inquiry in 2014 found the inflows helped keep costs down.
While it focused the bulk of its ire against Islam this time around, One Nation, a far-right party that formed in the mid-1990s with warnings about the country being “swamped by Asians,” had its best-ever election result in July, winning four seats in the Senate.
Orr said the real issue wasn’t the source country of the money, but the fact Australian law did nothing to prevent outside meddling in the political process.
“I don’t see it as a particular problem, other than in the sense that China is such a big player now, it’s such a powerful, powerful force,” said Orr. “There was a time when we had similar concerns and debates; say, the Irish were very concerned about the kind of levels of English inward investment and political influence and direct legal influence in Australia in the 1910s and 20s. There used to be Catholic-Protestant battles in the streets.”
Efforts to tighten the political finance laws in recent years have gone nowhere. The previous Labor government proposed a ban on foreign-sourced donations, but failed to get the measure past the upper house. On various occasions, both major parties have voted against reform.
“They certainly have become somewhat reliant on all kinds of corporate donations and reluctant to turn off the tap of private money coming to the political parties,” said Sawer.
Orr said it would be difficult follow money coming from overseas, while a blanket ban on donations by foreigners — such as in the U.S. — risked disenfranchising politically-engaged people in Australia such as permanent residents.
A guide to national reform could come from the state level. Since 2010, New South Wales, the most populous state, has capped all party donations at $5,000.
“I think the better approach, which we are hopefully inching toward, is simply having a cap on all donations and then the question about foreign-sourced donations becomes less problematic,” Orr said.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.
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