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Sky New Australian Agenda: Tony Sheldon

Release date: 11/05/2014

Interview with Tony Sheldon

Australian Agenda program, 11 May 2014

Peter Van Onselen:
You are watching Australian Agenda where I am joined by Simon Benson and Paul Kelly, and we are now joined by the National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, as well as the National Vice President of the Labor Party, Tony Sheldon. Welcome to the program. 

Tony Sheldon:
Good morning. 

Peter Van Onselen:
Can I just ask you right off the bat, there has been a lot of discussion about our political donations, particularly here NSW, what do you think about the issue of donations disclosures as well sources of political donations, do the rules need to change? 

Tony Sheldon:
Absolutely the rules need to be changed and they need to be transparent where the funds are coming from for all political parties. We need to have real time disclosure. The internet has been around for a long time now, you can data-enter real time disclosure so people can make decisions about who is donating. Not only the name of the donor but who is behind the donations. We have seen these bogus groups that have been set up and nobody knows who they are from. Some of them don't even have phone numbers, like the Free Enterprise Foundation and the list goes on. 

Peter Van Onselen:
How would you put that into practical effect? 

Tony Sheldon:
I think there are a series of ways. There are systems already in the US where real time donations can be accessible to see when they are made. You can actually have the capacity to turn around and demand through legislation that anyone making a donation has to identify their directorships, has to identify who is on the committee, have to identify their charters so people can make decisions about "Is that somebody that I would support that has made a donation to a particular politician? Is that the sort of people that I think are associated with a politician that I want to vote for." 

Paul Kelly:
What is the real issue here? Is it a need for greater transparency or is it a need to actually move into banning a lot of private donations and shifting towards public funding? 

Tony Sheldon:
Look I think … my view is it is transparency. People need to be able to say what should happen in regard donations. I have the great fear, I think many in the community would have a realistic fear that so-called public funding means that those donations, those funds, go somewhere else through some other means. We have seen ways and means of people getting around, or attempting to get around, legislation in NSW in regard developers' funds. We have seen both sides of politics being rightly labelled and having to get their acts together. And the State ICAC has exposed that. Transparency is important and making sure that we actually have the accountability of those donations are critical. 

Simon Benson:
Would you agree that if you are banning corporate donations, which clearly some people may think is an attack on the Coalition and Liberal, they rely heavily on them, shouldn't the trade unions be banned from donating to the Labor Party? 

Tony Sheldon:
Look, I am not a supporter of banning donations. What I am a supporter of is transparency. I also say that political parties should also be vetting the money that they receive. If you have a community group that is a member of a political party which espouses and promotes ideals within their community, to be able to swap politics people may hold with that political party, then why shouldn't we be testing against the donations that have been made? 
In the case of the Labor Party we should be testing to say: is the donor from whatever source, are they donating within the policies of the party? Are they environmentally sound? Do they have proper governance standards? Do they have proper labour standards? 

Peter Van Onselen:
What do you think of the whole practices of in a sense buying time with a minister? Both sides of politics do it. The idea that you can go for a run or have a dinner with a minister as an auction item at a party fundraiser, we have even seen a cruise on Sydney Harbour as one of the items that happens. Both major parties do it, it is a way of getting around disclosure. But I just wonder what you think about the practice, because I know a lot of politicians who partake in this privately don't like having to do so but of course the party needs the funds? 

Tony Sheldon:
I think it is combination of things. Donations - I think from one side of politics is in terms of the Labor Party, the amount --    I will come back to your question but I think it needs to be in this context $12,500 as the amount above which, $12,400, to be donated to a political party, you have to actually say where it came from. It can be through a bogus second party, which we are finding out the NSW ICAC. But it should be $1,000. Which is what the Labor Party does now, discloses publicly on its own initiative. I think what is critically important, is we should have standards that means that small donors, large donors have access. I would argue, certainly in the case of the Labor Party but not exclusively to that party, the party that I am a member of, that they do have access to trade union leaders, corporate leaders, pensioners, truck drivers. Unlike what happens with the Joe Hockey foundation where you have got to $5,000 to get access and up to $22,000. Looking at Joe's web site, it is not about policy, it is about donating to Joe, which is a little bit ironic as well. 

Peter Van Onselen:
But we have seen Bill Shorten as well with thousands of dollars for access to him at dinners and so on. Both sides of politics do this, you are worth more when you are in government than when you are in opposition. I just wonder what you think of the practice of a political party receiving a donation, from wherever, for a direct return of a one on one meeting or a dinner with the relevant minister? 

Tony Sheldon:
Look, I think what is a critical thing here, it has to be transparent. The donation itself has to be transparent and people can make a decision about it, is it appropriate or is it not appropriate. Also, for example, we are having a very long fight regarding some legislation the previous government brought in, we have an industry where 15 times the national average of people are killed in the trucking industry than any other industry, and yet Coles donates to the Liberal Party $500,000 in the last 10 years, and in the last 18 months they have donated $125,000. Now I would question: is this a connection? I don't know. But is there a connection between the legislation that Coles is opposing that gives safeguards for truck drivers and road safety, and a national government that wants to get rid of that legislation. 
I think that there should be a national ICAC to actually look at these questions of transparent donations and whether they have they bought favours. Have they gone to a function that has bought favours? Have they engaged practices which have bought favours? 

Peter Van Onselen:
So you would like to see a national version of the independent commission against corruption established because that is something that both major parties at the federal sphere have avoided saying? 

Tony Sheldon:
Bill Shorten hasn't ruled it in or out, but I would say to the Australian Labor Party: they should rule it in. It should actually be a requirement. I say it quite clearly. And certainly from all indications from the Prime Minister he is opposed to it. 

Peter Van Onselen:
Have you spoken to Bill Shorten about this? 

Tony Sheldon:
I have certainly communicated to his office my strong view about having a national ICAC, it is something that we spoke at the National Press Club about over a week ago. It is a public position that I have held for a very long time. 

Paul Kelly:
Do you think it is realistic to think that the Labor Party will come on board in terms of that position? 

Tony Sheldon:
I think it is appropriate that the Labor Party comes on board. The Labor Party outlawed donations from developers. They don't take donations from tobacco companies. They voluntarily also make available the donations over $1,000. All those initiatives are something that the Labor Party have successfully done in the past, and they should lead the way on this one. 

Simon Benson:
We should cut to the chase here, really in terms of ICAC. ICAC has exposed these issues that you are talking about, donations and sponsorships and all sorts of things. But really at the heart of is the calibre of people that both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, particularly NSW which is behaving like the rum corps at the moment, is the calibre of the people in the parliament. Surely that is the major issue? 

Tony Sheldon:
I think with any group within society, whether it be in the corporate sector, whether it be in community groups, including unions, whether it be politicians, there is always going to be some degree of somebody manipulating the system or potentially acting corruptly. 

Simon Benson:
ICAC in NSW has -

Tony Sheldon:
I would certainly argue very strongly that there is a weakness: there aren't ICAC-similar organisations in other states and territories. The one in Queensland now, its investigating powers have been substantially reduced. And the one in Victoria doesn't investigate politicians. We need to have a capacity to investigate bureaucracies and politicians. We have seen in NSW, it doesn't stop at the borders, attempts at corruption, it doesn't stop at the border when somebody is trying to buy a favour, and whether it be in local government or in state politics. There have already been a number of federal politicians that have been implicated. I would say this, when you set up a foundation, money comes through that foundation, you don't get told where the millions of dollars comes from. You see the Greenfield's Foundation give a $3.5 million interest free loan to the federal Liberal Party. Where did that money come from? Does one plus one equal two, that something corrupt has been done?

Simon Benson:
On this issue, you have thought about it, a national ICAC, have you thought about the sort of model of the ICAC that you would have? Would you base it on the model NSW which has public hearings on everything? NSW has become virtually ungovernable at the moment with the stuff that ICAC rolls out every day in public. Would you advocate that sort of model for a national ICAC or would you prefer to see private hearings and then public discussions of the outcomes of them? 

Tony Sheldon:
This is a capacity to have a real debate about some of the finer details. But what is clear in the NSW ICAC, I don't believe it has made NSW ungovernable in itself. What it has done, it has actually exposed where there is corrupt practices or inappropriate practices. That is something that is ultimately healthy for politics and healthy for democracy. What we have to be saying is, how do we move beyond announcements? How do we create the appropriate dialogue? How do we hold corporate and community groups and unions accountable and the community accountable? If they are buying influence under what circumstances are they doing it? Under what arrangements are they doing it? 

Peter Van Onselen:
If you are in favour of a federal version of ICAC, with that sort of level of powers and investigation, you must also be comfortable and in favour of the Royal Commission into union activities that Tony Abbott has put forward, similar powers ensuring that any wrongdoing would be rooted out. 

Tony Sheldon:
This is a critical thing. First of all we are fully cooperating with the Royal Commission into unions. What happens with Royal Commissions is that there is an executive decision of government on what the terms of reference are. The national ICAC has the capacity to look at all parties, all organisations without the confines of politics. That is not an executive decision, there is just a Royal Commission into corruption. What we are seeing now of course with … and I support Dave Oliver's call, and that is that the Royal Commission into unions should be expanded to include all donations to political parties. It has been exposed in ICAC in NSW and it should be run nationally. We should be looking at where the funds are going, where the investigation should be followed through and broaden it. Not just make it politically centred on one group but expose the whole system that applies. 

Peter Van Onselen:
We are out of time. Tony Sheldon, National Vice President of the Labor Party, as well as National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union. Thanks very much for your company. 

Tony Sheldon:
Pleasure.

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