Zali Steggall at Final party at the Spit with a Thank You sign, to thank the voters for their votes at Seaforth, Sydney, NSW, Australia on May 20 2019. Photo: Kate Zarifeh

COMMENT: What an interesting and distressing conundrum the Zali Steggall/Kinghorn family donation issue has been this week.

Steggall, the independent MP who in the last federal election unseated former prime minister Tony Abbott from his seat of Warringah on a platform of climate action and political accountability was fiercely blasted in national media headlines because she did not disclose a total of $100,000 in donations from eight members of the Kinghorn family that made its fortune from coal.

There are two sides to the issues here – disclosure and the background of the donors.

On Tuesday morning Steggall went live on ABC’s Radio National to tell journalist Patricia Karvelas her version of events.

First, the decisions to donate to her campaign were made by eight individual members of the Kinghorn family, she said. They decided to keep their donated amounts under the $12,500 threshold for fear of precisely what happened this week – that they would be pilloried for their past investments and somehow “outed” for their support of Steggall.

You can imagine how their former friends and associates who still supported Abbot – assuming they were from that side of politics – would react to their switching sides. 

The second point was the most potent – that Stegall did not disclose the sum of that donation, which in the end came by way of a single cheque through the family trust – despite her campaigning for full disclosure of donations to all political parties.

She said the decision to keep the donations under the disclosure threshold was not hers, but that of the family members. When the total sum was revealed early last year the record kept by the Australian Electoral Commission was amended. It was only now picked up by Nine-owned media channels.

At first blush it’s a serious blow to Steggall and the uncomfortable whiff might linger, as we know even fake news and false accusations can taint reputations.

Steggall maintains she was unaware of the form the donations took. She was aware of the eight pledges to donate and that the amount promised was paid, but not until later did she realise the single cheque format of the payment.

And besides, she says, it’s not a corporation, it was a decision by eight individuals who happen to be members of the same family and happen to be in the same family trust that they agreed should make the payments on their behalf.

What’s fair though?

Steggalls’ call for disclosure of donations to political parties stems from her desire and that of most other independents and their supporters to tear open the secrecy of donations in the millions of dollars made under blind trusts or other foundations to major political parties and which remain secret. But not so secret when the favours are returned by way of policies or actions that suit the donors – coal and other fossil fuels for instance.

On face value, if you don’t believe her, it might look like Steggall has succumbed to the same pattern, with the exception that the point of the donations to her work is to achieve more rapid climate action – which she has done her best to advance, she told Karvelis. 

Mistake? Fear of “outing” her supporters to certain retribution? It’s hard to be both the judge and jury here.  

More interesting is that there’s something wrong, it’s suggested, with accepting money from people who were previously part of the cohort trying to smash the planet with coal mining.

Switching sides is never viewed well in our tribalistic society.

So what of a former coal investor turning to climate action? What’s actually wrong with changing your mind and joining the revolution? It’s hardly new and it’s exactly the wealthy who need to lead the charge because they can most afford to do so.

In Tyson Yunkaporta’s amazing book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World if I read it correctly, Indigenous social groups deal with transgressions with clear rules. Everyone’s an idiot at some point of their life, Yunkaporta says, but in Indigenous circles there’s a clearly defined penalty to be meted out. Once that’s done, the transgressor rejoins the group with a higher status than before because they have agreed and supported the structures that support the social fabric. 

Typical punishment in western ways is to punish and then keep punishing by exclusion. Which might mean it’s too easy then for the transgressor to fall deeper into crime.

If we’re to save this planet we need to embrace everyone and anyone from any past who wants to help; let them join the cleanskins. 

Especially when our politicians are determined to keep herding us towards the cliff.

If the level of maximum donation disclosure reduces even further or is disclosed in real time, as many independents want, and people are fearful of being ostracised by their social group, or worse, what happens to the ability of citizens to organise and challenge the incumbents?

Maybe the answer is to fund political parties from the public purse.

We already waste a huge amount of public money on wasteful things (like sporting stadiums that don’t need rebuilding, new facilities in shooting ranges that don’t want them and school halls for wealthy schools that don’t need them).

What’s happened to Stegall is either a mistake or deliberately misleading. From what we’ve seen of Stegall we think she deserves the benefit of the doubt and we hope that all the other independents campaigning to put the wind up the Morrison government won’t blink.

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  1. The definition of a conundrum is: a confusing and difficult problem or question.
    There is nothing difficult or confusing about this case, the money was paid and the amount was illegal under the Law of Australia.
    I suspect the views of the author would far different if the money had been paid to Senator Canavan or another supporter of the coal industry.
    This is just plain hypocrisy and cheating, no wonder she won if these are her standards.

    1. What’s hypocritical is that the coal industry’s almost complete capture of our government and national economy isn’t plastered across the news headlines on a daily basis. But good to read today that Steggall’s electorate is generally supportive of her, in an SMH article today: ‘She’s a star’: Warringah voters back embattled Zali Steggall.
      Wouldn’t it be nice to know how they felt about the coal industry’s unceasing donations to Matt Canavan et al? Oh that’s right, they voted Tony Abbott out.
      For years Abbott actively tried to destroy the sustainability industry and we watched as countless businesses folded.
      Your judgment is easy to make using a black and white argument but more helpful is context and giving good people a second chance.