Taxpayers should fund multi-million dollar political campaigns, Senate hears

The Australian public's distrust of political donations means federal election campaigns worth up to $60 million will soon be fully funded by taxpayers, a senate inquiry has heard.

Ian Smith, a leading business lobbyist, conceded the only way to remove the negative views on political donations was to remove them from the political landscape completely.

"There is an inexorable move towards full public funding," he said in Canberra on Monday.

"What is the public prepared to pay when it comes to funding the full cost of elections? Ultimately we are moving to a situation where that is going to be the only way to remove the negative views."

The 2013 election cost up to $200 million to run, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, while the 2016 election figures are yet to be released, based on previously available data the total campaign bill for the Labor and Liberal parties would have exceeded $60 million. Half of that was spent on advertising.

Both major parties have relied on donations to fund their campaigns, arguing this helps save taxpayer dollars, but the inquiry was called following growing concerns over the effects of big business donations on mining, alcohol and gambling policies and a series of scandals linked to wealthy Chinese donors.

Mr Smith, the managing director of lobbying firm Bespoke, acknowledged that in days past company profits "had been the motive of business donations", but business was now aware it had to take a broader role in society.

"There seems to be a focus on business, but similar questions need to be asked of unions and non-government organisations," he said.

The senate committee heard up to 50 per cent of political donations to the Labor party and 66 per cent of political donations to the Coalition remain undisclosed, with opaque regulations facilitating a regime "that is failing us", and a "system that is broken", according to former Howard government adviser and UNSW lecturer Belinda Edwards.

"It's occurring entirely behind closed dorrs and out of public view," she said. "The risk of corruption in such opaque circumstances are extremely high."

Dr Edwards called for wholesale reform of the disclosure system that would allow thousands of lines of data to be sorted in a meaningful way.

"We need to be able to see trend the data across jurisdictions and years," she said.

According to a report presented at the inquiry by left-wing activist group GetUp!, 18 businesss groups including the Australian Bankers Association and the Business Council of Australia, spent $1.9 billion in the past three years on lobbying.

The report details the total revenue figures of the organisations and goes well beyond the cost of donations.

"Corporations are pumping billions into the hidden machinery of political influencing," national director Paul Oosting said.

The Foundation for Alcohol and Health Research gave evidence the alcohol lobby was among the most prolific donors in the country.

A report from the group found three multimillion-dollar donation pushes to state and federal governments at the same time as alcohol-related legislation was being debated over the past two decades.

"It is no secret that the alcohol industry's profitability is dependent on selling consumers more alcohol," said chief executive Michael Thorn.

"It's also well understood that alcohol harm is directly associated with the amount of alcohol consumed, it is this conflict that makes alcohol industry involvement and influence in the political process so dangerous."

This story Taxpayers should fund multi-million dollar political campaigns, Senate hears first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.