Corruption scandals prompt overhaul of NSW election funding laws

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Published October 14, 2014.

Jamie Parker, a NSW Greens MP, said the changes were “a step in the right direction” but said donations made in the “high-spending” two-month period before the March state election should be disclosed prior to the poll.

“People that are wanting to make donations will just do it after 1 February, because it’ll be secret until well after the election,” he said.

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New South Wales politicians who funnel illegal donations through a slush fund could be jailed for up to 10 years under measures announced by the state premier, Mike Baird.

The changes, announced Tuesday, would see penalties for breaking most election funding laws doubled, and the statute of limitations for most offences increased from three to 10 years.

Baird said the changes would “clean up politics in this state”, after a series of corruption inquiries that have seen 10 state Liberal MPs move to the crossbenches and cost the state’s former leader, Barry O’Farrell, his premiership.

O’Farrell resigned after insisting under oath that he never received a 1959 bottle of Penfolds Grange from a Liberal fundraiser, only to have a thank-you note for the wine in his handwriting surface the following day.

The most recent inquiry heard that Liberal candidates on the NSW central coast allegedly used a slush fund named Eightbyfive to channel money from banned donors to their 2011 election campaigns.

Baird’s reform package will also require parties to disclose any donations they receive from July this year to February 2015 before the state election next March.

In a move believed to be aimed at Labor’s union base, registered third-party campaigners will only be able to spend $250,000 instead of $1.2m.

Caps on political donations will revert to the 2011 limits of $5,000 per party and $2,000 per candidate.

Public funding would also increase and be determined by a dollar-per-vote model similar to that used for elections in Queensland and South Australia, which the premier said would curb “the corrosive influence of donations in the political system”.

The announcement follows the release last week of an interim report outlining long-term reforms to the system, authored by an expert panel led by Dr Kerry Schott, who was herself a victim of corrupt politics after allegedly being targeted by former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.

The panel strongly backed donations being disclosed online “as soon as possible” after they were made. But Schott indicated that she would not back full taxpayer funding of elections, saying the idea would “undoubtedly raise constitutional issues” and be “practically difficult”.

Baird said the measures reflected what was “achievable prior to the 2015 election”, but has flagged more substantive changes after the release of Schott’s full report, due at the end of the year.

Jamie Parker, a NSW Greens MP, said the changes were “a step in the right direction” but said donations made in the “high-spending” two-month period before the March state election should be disclosed prior to the poll.

“People that are wanting to make donations will just do it after 1 February, because it’ll be secret until well after the election,” he said.

The opposition leader, John Robertson, said the laws should apply retrospectively to cover politicians currently under scrutiny by the corruption watchdog.

“Mike Baird and the Liberal party are giving a get out of jail free card to any MP found guilty of breaking the law at the last election,” he said.

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