The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has gone against its own rules to green-light the billionaire Lowy family's $550,000 in secretive “donations” to the Liberal Party via an obscure subsidiary.
In a startling admission — which favours the Lowy Family — the electoral body has given the green light to political “donors” masking their true identity by funnelling money to political parties and candidates via little-known corporate affiliates.
As we revealed last month, shopping centre tycoons the Lowy family made $550,000 in “donations” to the Liberal Party, just weeks out from last year’s federal election, through a company which has no website, no address and no employees.
The “donations” were among the nation’s biggest, and made from one of Australia’s best-known business families, yet they were made through an obscure company called Oryxium Investments Limited.
Our investigations show Oryxium Investments Limited is part of an extensive web of related companies controlled by the Lowy family, which operates and conducts business as the Lowy Family Group, or LFG.
Yet on the signed, legal, “donation disclosure” form, when asked 'Do you operate or conduct business under any other names?' the answer 'No' is given.
Donation disclosure forms state:
'Submitting a false or misleading return is an offence.'
Yet the AEC, after multiple approaches from Independent Australia, has waived through the “disclosure”.
It has told Independent Australia 'disclosure in this case has still occurred' because there is no 'legislative requirement' to include the "other business names" information, despite it being a stated requirement on the AEC’s donor disclosure forms.
It is also despite the AEC’s official rules that this information 'must be disclosed'.
The AEC’s 25-page 'Financial Disclosure Guide for Annual Donors' states donors must disclose 'any other names under which it conducts business'.
'For an organisation', the material states, 'the following information must be disclosed in the return: other business names'.
'Part 1(a): An organisation should list any other names under which it conducts business.'
When asked whether this was improper for a company to fail to do so, even if not technically “illegal” because of this little-known loophole, the AEC refused to comment.
“There is a section in the disclosure return to record ‘other business names’ and ‘related bodies corporate’," said AEC spokesman Evan Ekin-Smyth.
He said, further:
“There is no legislative requirement for an entity to provide those details in the return. So disclosure in this case has still occurred”.
Geoffrey Watson SC, director of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former NSW Court of Appeal Judge, told Independent Australia $550,000 was “huge money”.
“That is far too much money for one donor to be able to give to a campaign,” he said.
Watson SC also communicated:
“It’s the type of money that could influence politicians and political parties. It’s very important the legislation provides to prevent against a related entity giving money under different names.”
The AEC has been heavily criticised for failing to do its job and enforce the law.
In September 2020, the nation’s top auditor, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), found:
'The AEC does not appropriately act upon identified non-compliance [and] it is not making effective use of its enforcement powers.'
In its 84-page final report, the ANAO said:
“The purpose of the financial disclosure scheme is preserve the integrity of the electoral system, maintain public confidence in the electoral process, and reduce the potential for undue influence and corruption."
Yet the report, overseen by Australia’s Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, found the AEC’s 'management of the disclosure scheme' was only 'partially effective' and that the AEC 'is not well placed to provide assurance that disclosure returns are accurate and complete'.
The ANAO investigated disclosure forms over four financial years, 'spanning two federal elections and eleven by-elections'.
It found 'not all required returns have been obtained'; there was 'limited analysis of the returns that are obtained”; and there was “evidence that some returns are incomplete'.
The ANAO found that over one-fifth of annual returns were 'lodged after the legislated due date'.
It found the AEC had obtained 5,882 'annual and election returns' over the five years from 2015 to 2020 - and completed just 110 reviews.
Of those 110 reviewed, a massive 78 per cent 'required amendment'.
'Yet, rather than increasing its scrutiny…the AEC significantly reduced the number of planned reviews, narrowed the scope of planned reviews, and reduced the value of the transactions being tested,' the ANAO said.
The report found:
'There is insufficient evidence that annual and election returns are accurate and complete.'
The AEC is the body tasked with policing the “foreign donor” laws introduced in 2019 in a bid to curb foreign interference.
The AEC is overseen by Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, who was appointed in 2014 by the Abbott Federal Government. In December 2019 he was appointed to another five-year term by the Morrison Government.
Remarkably, in response to the ANAO’s findings, the AEC not only said it would not take key actions stated by the ANAO, it refused to admit there was a problem.
Rogers has repeatedly refused to respond to questions when contacted by Independent Australia over the past month.
Last financial year he received a taxpayer salary of $598,624.
Donation disclosure forms state 'submitting a false or misleading return' is 'an offence under Division 137.1 of the Criminal Code Act'.
We asked whether any action would be taken over Oryxium Investments Limited having falsely declared it did not conduct business under any other names.
Rogers and the AEC refused to comment.
Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of ''The Klaxon'. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan.
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