Political donations: time for reform?

As the scandal surrounding political
donations continues, calls for reform are growing louder. Analysis with
Fairfax political correspondent James Massola
Members of a secretive fund-raising body associated with
Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey are being invited to pay $3000 each to be
part of an exclusive budget day event attended by his most senior staff
and key ministers.

The fund-raising body, the North Sydney Forum, offers
exclusive access to Mr Hockey, often in private boardrooms, in return
for political donations in the form of annual membership fees of up to

But the forum and Mr Hockey refuse to disclose the names of
its members. Mr Hockey has declined to say what meetings and discussions
he has had with them because his diary is ''confidential''.

Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The invitation to the May 13 budget day event – which
features pre-budget briefings, lunch at Parliament House and dinner in
the Great Hall – was sent in February by chairman of the North Sydney
Forum John Hart, who is also chief executive of hospitality industry
lobby group Restaurant and Catering Australia.

The industry group lodged a pre-budget submission calling for
the removal of fringe benefits tax from ''business meals'' and an
increase to the threshhold above which employers must pay superannuation
to $600 a month.

Mr Hockey has refused to say what discussions he has had with
Mr Hart or his association as part of forum activities about these or
other issues.

The budget day program.
The budget day program.

In the invitiation, members and non-members (who may attend
for a $4000 donation) are offered the chance to hear Small Business
Minister Bruce Billson, Mr Hockey's chief economic adviser Tony Pearson
and economist Ian Harper discuss ''Australia's economy now and into the

Professor Harper was recently appointed by Mr Billson to head the government's review of competition policy.

After lunch Mr Hockey's chief of staff Grant Lovett and
chancellor of the University of Western Sydney Peter Shergold will speak
on ''government's role in the economy of the 20-teens''.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.
Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

The invitation lists another speaker as ''Arthur Sinodinos
– Assistant Treasurer''. But Senator Sinodinos' office confirmed he is
not scheduled to attend after standing down from the position in March
following his appearance at the Independent Commission Against

Separately at ICAC on Tuesday, a barrister representing
Senator Sinodinos argued against adjournment of the present inquiry, in
which he is expected to be called as a witness.

The inquiry is examining claims the NSW Liberal Party – of
which Senator Sinodinos is a former treasurer and president – disguised
illegal donations through the party's main fund-raising body, the
Millennium Forum, and a separate entity, the Free Enterprise Foundation,
to bankroll its successful 2011 state election campaign.

The invitation to the North Sydney Forum budget day event
directs donors to make cheques payable to ''Liberal Party of Australia
(NSW Division)''.

Making out the payment to the party instead of the forum has
the effect of preventing donors being identified as forum members on
public disclosure documents.

As well, under federal laws, donations of less than $12,400
to a party in a year do not have to be declared to the Australian
Electoral Commission.

Fairfax Media has previously revealed members of the forum
include National Australia Bank and the Financial Services Council,
which stand to benefit from proposed changes to the Future of Financial
Advice Act that would weaken consumer protections.

Mr Hart did not respond to a request for comment.