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Why, only now, are we finding out who the biggest donors in an election year were?

Malcolm Turnbull’s rumoured personal donation to the Liberal Party was not disclosed as part of the AEC’s donation disclosures for 2015-16. AAP/Lukas Coch

The Australian Electoral Commission has released disclosures on political donations for the financial year 2015-16.

The Electoral Act requires donors, candidates, political parties and associated entities to give details to the commission about the political donations they received for each financial year. All donations above A$13,000 must be disclosed. Parties and candidates must also disclose the total amount of donations and number of people who donated to them.

So, what do the disclosures for 2015-16 reveal? And is the system in need of further reform?

You can check out our interactive graphics on the 2015-16 donations data here.

Who were the big donors?

In the 2015-16 financial year, the Liberal Party received $14.7 million in donations. Labor received $10.4 million. The Greens received $2.9 million. As 2016 was an election year, this is an increase from 2014-15, when the Liberals received $10.4 million and Labor received $7.2 million.

The largest donors for Labor were unions. The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the Health Services Union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and United Voice donated a total of $3.7 million across various branches.

Progressive Business, Labor’s fundraising arm, channelled donations worth $400,000 to the party.

The largest donors to the Liberals were mining entrepreneurs and property developers. Mining magnate Paul Marks donated $1.3 million, while Aus Gold Mining donated $460,000. Former Liberal minister Stuart Robert’s alleged involvement in Marks’ business dealings led to his resignation from the ministry.

The Cormack Foundation, a Liberal fundraising entity, channelled $2.9 million to the party.

The Liberals also received major foreign political donations. Hong Kong Kingson Investment and Kingold Group, two companies owned by property billionaire Chau Chak Wing, gave $700,000 in total. Kingson Investment also gave $100,000 to Labor.

The Waratah Group, a Chinese-Australian company with mining and property development interests, gave the Liberals $300,000. Pratt Holdings donated $500,000.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rumoured personal donation to the Liberal Party was not disclosed. This means it will be yet another year before we know what the donation was. In the last election, donors who donated on July 1 can escape scrutiny for 20 months after the vote.

Wotif founder Graeme Wood donated $630,000 to the Greens.

What can we learn from the disclosures?

Disclosures add to transparency. They allow us to follow the money and scrutinise who has made large donations.

But mere disclosure does not remedy the inequity in Australia’s current system. Rich donors can splurge millions on a political party or candidate in the hope of securing future favours in the form of access or influence on public policy or decisions.

If money indeed does talk, this compromises the principle of political equality by unfairly giving the rich a more prominent voice in our democracy.

How can we fix the system?

To entrench equity, the best way to reform the system is to have a yearly cap on donations to each party and candidate of, say, $1,000. There are caps in New South Wales, which the High Court has ruled as constitutionally valid.

At the very least, the glaring loopholes in the system must be closed. The disclosure threshold of $13,000 is too high and should be reduced. In Queensland and NSW, donations above $1,000 must be disclosed.

The rules should be tightened so donations can’t be split among associated entities to avoid disclosure. Donors can currently give multiple payments of $12,999 to different branches of a party to escape scrutiny. They can also channel money through associated entities, like unions, think-tanks or party fundraising groups.

Another loophole is that the law does not force parties to accurately classify the funds they receive.

Parties divide the money they receive into “donations” or “other receipts”. Donations are cash and non-cash payments made without enough consideration – that is, transactions not at market value. Everything else is an “other receipt”. Parties have previously been found to have wrongly categorised gifts as “other receipts”. So, reported donation figures are lower than the reality.

Disclosures should be published in real time to avoid a large time lag between donations and disclosures. Queensland will implement real-time disclosures this month.

And finally, to police the system, a federal body modelled on NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption should be introduced. This way, any illegal donations can be thoroughly investigated.

Currently, the regulation of political donations is weak at the federal level. It is time to institute enduring change.

A parliamentary committee investigating the political donations regime will report later this year. The government should seize this opportunity to comprehensively reform Australia’s flawed system.

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