Under federal laws, if a company considers the commercial value or benefit of attending a political event to be worth more than what it paid, then the transaction is not considered a donation.
There are also different disclosure thresholds for companies and parties.
The point of the disclosure scheme is to shine a light and to prevent corruption and undue influence.”
University of Melbourne Professor Joo-Cheong Tham
Political parties do not have to declare individual payments under a $13,800 disclosure threshold even if they receive multiple donations from the same entity that add to more than $13,800.
Companies do have to declare donations when they add up to more than $13,800. The commercial value exception though can allow them to limit their tally below this threshold.
That creates what some experts see as a loophole at the federal level. Some of the payments can still be tracked at state level where there are tighter laws. Also some parties and companies choose to declare payments voluntarily.
A Telstra spokesman said the business did not make financial donations to political parties or candidates but did “pay fees to attend or facilitate events which allow for discussion of major policy issues with policy makers and opinion leaders”.
“We fully disclose such payments in accordance with electoral disclosure laws,” he said.
University of Melbourne professor and director of the Electoral Regulation Research Network Joo-Cheong Tham said the loophole meant some companies that did not make declarations were still paying political parties.
“A number of companies have said they’re not doing political donations anymore. But if you read the fine print essentially they’re saying that fundraising events are not a donation,” Professor Tham said.
Telstra’s federal returns to the AEC show no donations in almost two decades.
But declarations from political parties and at state level show it has paid at least $100,000 to the major parties.
For example, in 2016, state records show Telstra paid $475 to attend a breakfast with then-NSW premier Mike Baird. Telstra also disclosed it paid thousands of dollars to attend the Labor and National party NSW state conferences, which were attended by federal opposition leader Bill Shorten and deputy premier John Barilaro, respectively.
Labor federally has a policy of declaring all donations of over $1000 and its receipts show Telstra has paid the party about $78,000 since the 2013-14 financial year (including more than $22,000 in 2017/18). A Labor spokeswoman confirmed this figure was for “donations or events”.
The Liberal Party’s federal branch follows the $13,800 threshold and its declarations reveal no donations from Telstra in the same period. The Liberal Party said it disclosed all donations in accordance with the law.
An AEC spokesman said whether a payment to attend a functions was a donation that should be declared was a matter for those involved.
Telstra has declared a further $27,000 in donations to Labor and the Coalition in NSW since 2013-14 under the state’s rules which require all donations over $1000 to be declared.
Under NSW rules payments to attend to functions are treated as donations and multiple small donations, totalling more than $1000 a year, must also be reported.
Professor Tham said companies’ “different views” on what counts as a gift were a long-standing issue.
“It gives rise to this bizarre [outcome] … The point of the disclosure scheme is to shine a light and to prevent corruption and undue influence.”
Some other major Australian companies have different policies to Telstra.
A spokeswoman for rival telco Optus said the company “declares all payments made to attend political party functions as a donation since this is clearly required … such disclosure is also consistent with the principle of transparency that the community expects”.
The Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths both said they would declare payments for attending business forums and fundraising events.
“Under our current policy, we would treat any payments to attend political events or associated forums as declarable to the AEC,” a Woolworths spokesperson said.
National Australia Bank said it had stopped making political donations, including attending fundraising events, in 2016.
A Westpac spokeswoman said the bank did not make cash donations but participated in activities like business observer programs and other political functions and made disclosures in line with the rules.
Victoria tightened its disclosure laws last year, banning donations from any one source totalling more than $4000 a year and requiring disclosure of all payments above $1000.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.