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Donations to political parties for 2014-15 revealed -

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MARK COLVIN: It's that one day of the year when Australians get a chance to see who's paying our political parties, and how much.

Despite frequent calls over years for transparency and continuous disclosure, we only have February the first as D for Donations day.

In this year's release, property developers, resource tycoons, unions and industry lobby groups figure prominently.

But big miners, feeling the pinch of a commodity price crash, have tightened their purse strings a lot.

This year's donations to the two major parties were down overall by $100 million.

Even usually media-friendly donors and recipients tended to be unavailable to talk about the much-criticised system today.

The exception was the Greens. They're demanding an overhaul to let voters see more, and more often, about who is giving what to whom.

Peter Lloyd.

PETER LLOYD: It's donations day, a sacred, secular, once-a-year chance to know who has been bankrolling politicians.

But the information is limited to lists and PDF summaries, and efforts to disguise the money trail are enabled by a system that allows donors to retain anonymity.

Parties and donors only need to declare donations over $13,000; cheques cut for less allow privacy-seekers to avoid transparency.

The shareholder activist, Stephen Mayne.

STEPHEN MAYNE: These figures are very old, they're already up to 19 months old.

They're very big, they're very important, but the politicians conspire to release them in a not very useful and not very timely way.

PETER LLOYD: When you say conspire, what do you mean?

STEPHEN MAYNE: Well, they just never seem to be able to agree federally to reform.

So we've got some better laws in New South Wales, state-specific, better laws in Queensland, but between the Labor and the Liberals in 2013, there was an agreement, there was some improvements, and then the Labor Party started fighting with Rudd vs. Gillard.

Tony Abbott then pulled the pin on what was a prominent deal, and so we've still got these pathetic laws where a whole lot of stuff is not revealed because the threshold is $12,800, and there's a lot of money coming in below that threshold, and it's not very timely, and it's not described very well.

We still don't even have basics, like parties don't have to release their balance sheets, I mean your local kinder[garten] has to release a balance sheet, but a political party for some reason is exempt from these basic disclosures.

PETER LLOYD: And just to emphasise the point, the reason we don't have real-time revelations isn't mechanistic, is it?

STEPHEN MAYNE: No, I mean, with online disclosure, I mean open government is all about fast data in usable formats.

So Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten really do have a job to actually get together and put some sensible reforms to bring our disclosure laws into the 21st century.

PETER LLOYD: So far today, not a single person on the donation register has volunteered to speak to PM. Why are people so reluctant?

STEPHEN MAYNE: Well, I think that each year, this day comes and everyone seems to keep their head down and get away with it.

PETER LLOYD: What do you think the value proposition is of donating?

STEPHEN MAYNE: Well clearly if you're a government-dependent company or industry, you want to get favours in regulation or policies or licensing.

So that's why you see Cabcharge giving $150,000 just before the Queensland election to both sides, that's why you see the Hotels Association, with Woolworths as their biggest member, putting in over half a million dollars across the system, because they want pokies policies which allow, you know, Australia to retain its position as the world's biggest gamblers at the poker machines.

So, it is an influence-peddling thing, and the more government-dependent a company is, the more likely it is to donate, and similarly with the Labor Party, the unions are hugely influential, so continuing the trend of tens of millions of dollars coming from the union movement to be the prime backers of the Labor Party.

PETER LLOYD: One of the more mysterious donations is a Melbourne man named Jianping Zhang, who gave $100,000 to the Liberal Party.

Now he's not a publically known name.

STEPHEN MAYNE: No, and this is the whole thing. A lot of the donations you cannot tell who they are.

I mean, many of these donors do appear to be property developers, but I guess this is the point, there's also one, a Chinese company registered in Kowloon, Kingold, which has given $200,000 to the WA Liberal Party.

So unlike the US, which has a complete ban on foreign donors, we have an anything-goes system, so anyone can donate. I mean, Islamic State could give $10 million to someone if they wanted to, there's just no rules about it.

And so often you have to ask, 'Why are these people donating?' And often it comes back to property development or any sort of government-dependent business, and I think the example you cited probably falls into one of those categories.

PETER LLOYD: And yet again the old familiar, the Free Enterprise Foundation, donating to the Liberal Party. What's that about?

STEPHEN MAYNE: Well, it's often a way of just hiding who the actual donor is.

So you set up some sort of foundation, you have events, people go along and pay $1,000 for a seat at a lunch, and that can be sort of laundered, if you like, through that, and therefore not attributed to specific donors.

So the Victorian Liberals have done a lot of that, there's sort of almost eight or nine different funding vehicles, which have those sorts of names.

Some of them are also investment vehicles.

So the Cormack Foundation in Victoria has given over $4 million to the Liberal Party, and they are an investment fund that owns more than $50 million worth of shares, it goes back to the party's ownership of the 3XY radio station in the 1980s.

So they've literally just got a pile of cash, pile of shares, and they give $3-4 million a year to the Victorian Liberal party through the Cormack Foundation.

PETER LLOYD: We should also mention that Alan Jones is a donor this year.

STEPHEN MAYNE: Yes, Alan's production company, Belford Productions, has obviously weighed the cost of the $15,000 worth of production spending for the Liberal Party.

So I guess no surprises there, although interestingly he did have that massive fight with the Campbell Newman government, which dramatically outspent the Labor Party at the election 12 months ago, and then surprisingly lost, despite having very little money up there.

And that was partly because Alan Jones ran a massive campaign against the Liberal Party up there.

So he's a donor in one state, and he's massively campaigning against them in another state, so, hard to follow the rationale of Australian politics, but it’s one of the more interesting ones to watch.

MARK COLVIN: Stephen Mayne ending Peter Lloyd's report.