Gambling company’s gift shows up our gamed donations system

The revelation that online gambling company Sportsbet has made two donations totalling $19,000 to Communications Minister Michelle Rowland provides yet more evidence of the gaping holes in federal laws on political campaign finance.

As The Age’s Paul Sakkal revealed this week, Rowland’s campaign received the donations while she was in opposition shortly before last year’s federal election.

Michelle Rowland was the recipient of donations.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The first donation of $8960 in March was made at a fundraising lunch at Sydney’s swish Rockpool restaurant, and the second of $10,000 in May was paid to Rowland’s campaign via the NSW branch of the ALP. The disclosure of the donations was the subject of a lively debate in federal parliament this week, with some MPs calling for her to resign.

It stretches credibility that Sportsbet did not make the donations in order to influence Rowland, who was highly likely after the election to have direct responsibility for regulating its controversial activities given she was communications spokeswoman in opposition.

Rowland certainly welcomed the cash because she was fighting for the seat of Greenway in Sydney’s north, which she had won on a margin of just 2.8 per cent at the 2019 election.

Sportsbet would have wanted to curry favour with Rowland because it was waging a battle against anti-gambling groups that want the federal government to limit Sportsbet’s ability to market itself via sporting events to problem gamblers and children.

In fact, the donations to Rowland were part of a broader strategy. Sportsbet was giving to both sides of politics, making donations of more than $278,000 last year alone.

Australian voters should have been told before the last election about the donations to Rowland, which create a potential conflict of interest in her portfolio. But unlike most states, which require donors and political parties to disclose donations in real time, at a federal level disclosure is still made annually. This means voters have to wait a year to learn who paid the piper.

The Rowland saga reveals equally worrying gaps in the rules which mean that significant donations are sometimes not disclosed at all.

Once again, federal laws on disclosure thresholds are far weaker than thos in most states, where parties must disclose the source of all donations over about $1000.

At a federal level, the threshold was $14,500 last year – this is set so high that many significant donations go undetected. And that is without considering loopholes that allow some donors to remain hidden even when they are over that amount.

At a federal level, there is no requirement to disclose donations made as payment for attendance at fundraisers such as the Rockpool lunch attended by Rowland, if the value falls under the threshold.

And it is possible to make multiple donations of under-threshold amounts that end up exceeding the threshold, without needing to disclose any of the individual payments. In the case of Rowland, the NSW branch of the Labor Party has still not disclosed the donations, even though together they add up to more than $14,500.

Crucially, neither the ALP or Sportsbet disclosed the fact that both payments were directly linked to Rowland’s campaign. The Age was able to determine the donation made at the Rockpool dinner, and the final beneficiary of the subsequent $10,000 donation to the NSW ALP, only through its own sources familiar with the event and the direct cash transfer.

ICAC, the NSW anti-corruption commission, has previously argued that lax federal donation laws effectively allow groups such as property developers, tobacco companies and bookmakers to circumvent that state’s laws, which ban donations from all of these groups. State parties can accept donations from prohibited donors provided the cash is not spent on state campaigns.

Donors and parties are growing ever more adept at exploiting these and other holes in federal campaign finance law to avoid exposing their influence peddling to public scrutiny.

A report by the Centre for Public Integrity on Friday said that last year more than $91 million or 22.7 per cent of political parties’ income was of unexplained origin, hidden in the chasm created by weak federal disclosure laws.

In fact, the Coalition makes even more aggressive use of the holes in federal law than the ALP. Last year, it did not disclose the origin of 36 per cent of its income, while ALP did not disclose 25 per cent.

The Age believes that the donations call into question Rowland’s ability to make impartial decisions about gambling regulation affecting Sportsbet. This situation is a reminder that the Albanese government must deliver on its promise for a complete reform of campaign finance laws backed up by stiffer penalties.

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