Bill Shorten will seek to deflect the Sam Dastyari affair onto the broader question of donations reform when parliament resumes next week. Meanwhile the government wants to keep the heat on Shorten to extract maximum mileage from an issue that has diverted attention from its own troubles.
Dastyari was forced to quit the frontbench on Wednesday after Shorten decided his position was untenable. This followed revelations that Top Education Institute, which has strong links with the Chinese government, had paid a A$1,670 bill for the overspend of the senator’s staff travel budget.
He was also in trouble over his comments, reported in the Chinese media, about the South China Sea, which were at variance with Labor policy. He made the remarks at a news conference with a donor who had previously paid his legal bill.
Shorten on Thursday said he would pursue the issue of foreign donations and challenged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to work with him.
“I say to Malcolm Turnbull, be prepared. Next week you can either work with us or oppose us, but by hook or by crook, Labor is going to propose legislation which will ban foreign donations.”
Shorten will seek other changes to the donations laws, including reducing the threshold for public disclosure of donations from more than $13,000 to $1,000, and having them declared in “real time”.
“I say to Mr Turnbull, senator Dastyari has stepped down now, so we can focus on the bigger picture of donations reform. And it starts with banning foreign donations,” Shorten said.
But Turnbull homed in on Shorten, saying Dastyari’s resignation underlined his failure of leadership.
“Bill Shorten was defending Sam Dastyari and his conduct right up to the moment Dastyari chose to fall on his sword. The real issue … is what is it about Sam Dastyari and his hold on Mr Shorten? What is it about this Sussex Street operator’s control of the numbers within the Labor caucus that Mr Shorten was not able to make a move?” Turnbull said.
Pressed on his own opinion about foreign donations, Turnbull said his long-held view had been that, ideally, donations to political parties should be limited to people on the electoral roll. This would exclude foreigners but also corporations and trade unions.
But he said it was a very complex issue and something the parliamentary committee on electoral matters should investigate.
“Ideally I would like – if we can manage it – for financial participation in the electoral process to be limited to those people who can vote. That’s where we should get to, but we do have big legal issues and indeed some constitutional issues. That’s why it needs to be looked at very carefully.”
Speaking at a news conference in Laos, Turnbull said there had been an evolution in campaigning, particularly on the ALP side. “The Labor Party itself has become in many respects just a brand,” he said, with the real players in the election campaign the unions and organisations such as GetUp!
“Now if you pass a law that affects donations to political parties that does not address the full range of financial involvement in the political contest, then you may actually be achieving very little indeed,” Turnbull said.
Quizzed again on why he asked Top Education Institute to meet the travel overspend, Dastyari said: “I didn’t want to pay the bill”.