Democracy Is Damaged When Policy Can Be Bought

It is often difficult to discern where politics starts and business ends.

22/07/2016 11:31 AM AEST | Updated 22/07/2016 1:59 PM AEST
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All donations received in the lead up to this election will not be disclosed until February 2017.

This week the Queensland Government announced their intention to move to real time reporting of electoral donations. It is the sort of system that we need at a national level. Instead, what we have is a sluggish, opaque, and notoriously corruptible political donations system.

The political donations problem is most blatant around election time, when certain political parties engage in a game of private fundraisers, rent seeking and pork barrelling. All donations received in the lead up to this election will not be disclosed until February 2017 -- unless parties have voluntarily adopted their own disclosure regimes. As far as we know only the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team do this.

Often the best examples of the need for reform are inadvertently made by Liberal and National party politicians. So ingratiated are they with the private sector, with vested interests and with powerful, wealthy fundraisers, these parties do not appear to realise that the enormous donations they accept, the cosy industry relationships they cultivate or their dodgy fundraising efforts are disturbing to those who see that a government's sole purpose should be to act in the public interest.

This week, former Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald complained that the Coalition's proposed superannuation changes "severely impacted [Liberal] fundraising" as it damaged their relationship with their "very good donors". Earlier this month, Senator Eric Abetz made similar complaints. He said that the proposed $500,000 non-concessional cap had "occasioned... upset" among wealthy donors to the point that they were not inclined to participate in fundraising this time around.

This is a crystal clear example of how major party policies are guided by donations. Another key example is the recent donations from Australian Hotels Association to the Coalition and to Labor in an attempt to undermine other parties and candidates working towards installing limits on unfair gambling. Last year, Clubs NSW donated $20,000 to Kevin Andrews, who, as the relevant Minister, led the Coalition charge to wind back anti-gambling measures.

As former Greens leader Christine Milne noted, our democracy has been bought. We are at the point where anyone can predict which issues the major parties will take up, drop or renege on by looking at who they receive the most donations from.

Back in May, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked the mining sector to "acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude" to Ian Macfarlane "in his years of retirement" from parliament, as recompense for his loyalty to the sector during his time as a Minister. His role in scrapping the mining tax was singled out as an achievement for which the sector should be duly grateful. It is, of course, no secret that major party Ministers provide the industry with secure frameworks, grants and subsidies -- and that many also expect jobs when they finally shuffle out of politics.

In the same speech, Mr Abbott revealed he had been offered $5,000 "cash in an envelope" by a "well-known millionaire" after he was first elected. On advice, he refused the cash and recommended that the money be made out in a cheque to the Liberal Party instead. It was another reminder to the public that policy can be bought, and that politicians consult their chequebooks when drawing up policy -- rather than considering the public interest.

The threat of reputational -- or electoral -- damage appears to be the only motivation for change, as well. This year, former Liberal party fundraiser Michael Yabsley admitted on Four Corners that in 2010 he was aware that prohibited donations were being made to the Liberal party via the infamous associated entity, the Free Enterprise Foundation. Mr Yabsley decided to buck the Liberal party trend and call for an overhaul of the electoral funding system, admitting that the political donations were "wrong". Significantly, he described the problem as being one about "reputational damage", as opposed to damage to our democracy.

Our democracy is deeply damaged. Public confidence and trust in political parties is understandably eroded. Many feel alienated not only from politicians and major parties but from the entire political process. It is often difficult to discern where politics starts and business ends. And the problems are much broader than just political donations.

During the election period alone there were no less than five scandals ripe for investigation by a federal anti-corruption body (if we had one): the Liberal Democrats' 'cash for candidacy' scandal, Sophie Mirabella's Victorian hospital pork barrelling, the alleged rort of public money via Liberal software company Parakeelia, the reports that Joe Hockey misused his Cabcharge account, and the Federal Government's removal of a live export vet from the Department of Agriculture after she blew the whistle on animal cruelty.

Along with Eric Abetz and Ian Macdonald's comments around potential donors perturbed by superannuation proposals, in the past week we have also heard that developers in NSW, despite adverse findings before NSW ICAC, simply side-stepped the state ban on developer donations and avoided disclosure obligations by sending them to Liberal branches in other states. Strong state donations laws cannot work properly if they are not reinforced by national, uniform donation laws.

When parliament returns, the Greens will put our donations reform bills to parliament once again. Our Donations Reform Bill seeks to ban political donations from serial offending industries -- developers, tobacco, alcohol, gambling and mining. Our Political Donations Enhancing Transparency Bill would expose all donations to greater scrutiny by resetting the threshold at $1000, requiring all donations from a single donor in one financial year to be accumulative, ban donations from foreign interests, ban all anonymous gifts above $50 and tighten up penalties for breaches.

Stronger donations laws won't fix everything but they would be an excellent start towards cleaning up our democracy, and to ensuring that political parties are beholden to the public rather than rich patrons. For their own sake, and for the sake of our democracy, all political parties should back these reforms. Until then, donations scandals will continue to dog us all.


Lee Rhiannon is the Australian Greens spokesperson for democracy.

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