POLITICAL DONATIONS HIDDEN FROM NSW PLANNING AUTHORITIES BY BIG CORPORATIONS

The former Anti-corruption Commissioner Anthony Whealy QC said he suspected the important transparency measure was “often ignored” and went largely unenforced.

Whealy said it would be preferable if corporations did not see it necessary to make political donations at all.

“The perception, and sadly sometimes the reality, is that the donor expects favourable treatment … this is totally unacceptable.”

Serena Lillywhite, chief executive of Transparency International Australia, said the failure to declare donations was “fundamentally bad for our democracy”.

lobbying and undue influence increasingly characterising the political landscape in Australia

Note that which CAAN has marked with an * throughout …

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Political donations hidden from NSW planning authorities by big corporations

Exclusive: some of Australia’s biggest companies have failed to declare sizeable sums when seeking approval to develop property

The Transparency Project Australian political donations

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Susan McKinnon Foundation

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Christopher Knaus and Imran Ariff @knausc

Mon 7 Oct 2019 

New South Wales Parliament House
 Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations have been hidden from NSW planning authorities by 13 companies, a Guardian investigation has found. Illustration: Getty

Some of Australia’s biggest corporations have hidden political donations from planning authorities, which is a criminal offence in New South Wales, a Guardian investigation has found.

Woolworths, Caltex, Origin Energy, AMP and Incitec Pivot are among 13 companies that declared sizeable political donations to the Liberal and Labor parties to the Electoral Commission, but failed to declare them when seeking approval to develop property in NSW.

The revelations have prompted an investigation by the state’s planning department, which pledged to “take action” if it confirmed breaches detected by the Guardian.

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The law compels companies to declare recent donations above $1,000 when lodging applications to develop or modify property in NSW, a measure designed to prevent property developers from corrupting the political process.

The former anti-corruption commissioner Anthony Whealy QC said he suspected the important transparency measure was “often ignored” and went largely unenforced.

“You can have as many prohibitive laws and regulations as you like,” Whealy told the Guardian. “However, the absence of an efficient regulator, and the absence of effective oversight, leads inevitably to the law being disregarded. Apparently this is what has happened in these instances.”

Guardian Australia cross-checked property records against donations made in NSW and found hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations had been hidden from planning authorities by 13 companies.

Woolworths failed to declare more than $100,000 in donations to the NSW Liberals and Nationals while seeking to secure minor approvals for a supermarket at Mullumbimby, near Byron Bay.

After being contacted by the Guardian, the company acknowledged the error, committed to a full review of its past planning applications and referred itself to the NSW planning department.

“While we fully disclosed historical political donations to the NSW Electoral Commission as required, it would appear that parts of our business which manage planning applications were regrettably not aware of these disclosures,” the company said.

For Graphic: Number of undeclared donations by company

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In another case, the wealth manager AMP, which endured a torrid time at the banking royal commission, failed to declare a $1,650 fee for membership of the Liberal party’s Millennium Forum and several other small donations to the NSW Liberal and Labor parties while seeking approval for a luxury apartment development at Sydney’s Circular Quay.

*The Millennium Forum – which facilitates interactions between corporate Australia and the Liberal party – gained notoriety at the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2014 over allegations it was used to funnel prohibited donations to the Liberal party from property developers.

AMP said it did not believe it needed to disclose the Millennium Forum membership fee to planning authorities because it “was not considered to be a political donation”, and noted the development application and the donations were lodged by separate AMP entities.

Other companies have previously been prosecuted for failing to declare payments to attend political party events.

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The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said it would launch an investigation into the undeclared donations after the Guardian passed on its findings.

“In the event that any breach is identified, the department will take action in accordance with its compliance policy,” a spokesman said.

“Applicants are responsible for disclosing their own political donations at the time of submitting their application, and face penalties for failing to do so.”

The spokesman said the department’s compliance team had carried out annual audits of donation disclosures since 2016, investigating dozens of cases and taking appropriate action where required. It has also recently improved disclosure processes to prevent “inadvertent failures” to declare donations, and prosecuted companies including AGL and Optus.

Most of the companies said the errors were “administrative” in nature, and said the donations had been declared to electoral authorities, just not to the planning department.

But failure to comply with the laws can still have significant consequences, regardless of whether the error was deliberate.

Most recently, Optus was convicted of a criminal offence, fined $25,000, and ordered to pay $40,000 in legal costs for accidentally failing to declare six donations worth $5,400 to the Liberal and Labor party while seeking approval for work in the Snowy Mountains ahead of the ski season.

The donations it failed to declare were described as “small payments to attend events”.

*Whealy said it would be preferable if corporations did not see it necessary to make political donations at all.

*“They would not be made unless the donor expected to get something out of it. This is the reality,” he said.

“The perception, and sadly sometimes the reality, is that the donor expects favourable treatment … this is totally unacceptable.”

Fuel giant Caltex failed to declare $16,727 in donations to the NSW branch of the National party in applications made in 2010 and 2013 to modify its Kurnell fuel refinery.

A spokesperson for the company said it was policy to disclose all donations to the relevant electoral authorities, but “it is not clear why there are discrepancies between these disclosures and those made in development applications in 2010 and 2013”.

Origin Energy, which left $4,565 off forms requesting approval to modify the Eraring ash dam, said an “administrative oversight resulted in us not detailing our attendance at a small number of political events when we lodged our application”.

The company said it had “subsequently updated [its] donations disclosure”.

*ABC Tissue, whose then managing director Henry Ngai sat on the board of the Huang Xiangmo-founded Australia-China Relations Institute, admitted it made a $25,000 donation to the NSW Liberal party without filing a disclosure form in an application to modify its Wetherill Park paper mill.

A company spokesperson said that “at the time [it] completed the application” the company was “not aware” of the donation, even though it was declared to the NSW Electoral Commission.

Scott Nash, a barrister practising in local government and property planning law who has experience lodging disclosures, said transparency measures were key, as a “development application may be determined by the elected [local] councillors”, and a record of donations assisted them in identifying any “conflict of interest preventing them from voting”.

“It would be naive to say the source of funding doesn’t affect decision-making in the political process.”

Serena Lillywhite, chief executive of Transparency International Australia, said the failure to declare donations was “fundamentally bad for our democracy”.

“Lobbying and undue influence is increasingly characterising the political landscape in Australia,” she said.

Beef suppliers Teys Australia, ski resort operator Kosciuszko Thredbo and waste management specialists Veolia Environmental Services combined for $8,898 in undisclosed donations on planning applications. Veolia said the matter was under review, but had no further comment. Teys and Kosciuszko Thredbo declined to comment.

*Riverina Oils and Bio Energy, which manufactures consumer oil products, conceded that an “administrative error was made” in a 2015 application that omitted $2,000 in donations to the NSW Liberal MP Daryl Maguire.

“We have officially informed the planning department of the administrative error,” a spokesman said.

SOURCE: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/oct/07/political-donations-hidden-from-nsw-planning-authorities-by-big-corporations?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX01vcm5pbmdNYWlsQVVTLTE5MTAwNg%3D%3D&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=MorningMailAUS&CMP=morningmailau_email

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