The letter was also emailed to Special Minister of State Alex Hawke, Shadow Special Minister of State Don Farrell, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters chairman James McGrath and deputy chairman Andrew Giles.
Optus attached to its email recent reports from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealing inconsistencies in disclosure between big businesses that potentially meant tens of thousands of dollars in political donations were undisclosed, government relations sources who had seen the email said.
Telstra has not filed any federal political donation disclosures since 2000, despite attending events and functions that other companies like Optus report to the AEC. This was due to companies’ varying interpretations of what counts as a donation when a company gets some value from paying to attend an event, such as a lunch with senior political figures.
There is no suggestion Telstra has broken any disclosure rules and in a statement said it would also welcome further clarity.
Mr Sheridan’s letter said AEC advice would be very helpful “for Optus – and indeed all Australian corporates – in determining whether we are required to lodge financial disclosures in future”.
Other large companies, such as the Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths, declare payments for attending forums and some, such as National Australia Bank, do not attend fundraisers.
We have taken the view that declaring any and all payments made to political parties is an integral element of transparency within the political process in Australia,
Optus executive Andrew Sheridan
Mr Sheridan said his company had spent “considerable” time and cost to ensure it was compliant with the rules.
“We have taken the view that declaring any and all payments made to political parties – whether it be to attend political events, fundraisers, business forums or as a membership or sponsorship fee – is an integral element of transparency within the political process in Australia,” he said.
“We believe the community expects a transparent and comprehensive level of disclosure of the relationships and flow of monies between corporates and political parties”.
Optus, which declined to comment on the email, is waiting on a judgment after pleading guilty in the NSW Local Environment Court over undisclosed political donations on development applications.
A Telstra spokesman said that the telco had not considered spending to attend parties and events to be “donations under the relevant guidelines”.
“We would welcome further clarity on whether political party events need to be declared as donations and more detail on how to calculate value,” he said.
An AEC spokesman said the letter had been received and would be reviewed, with the commission regularly working with political groups and companies “where clarification is required”.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.