The Public Deserves To Know Who Is Bankrolling Their Candidates

The source of their funding matters.

27/06/2016 12:00 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST
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"A fairer, more equitable system would ensure that money can't buy access and laws aren't shaped by special interests."

Back in 2004, John Howard famously declared that year's election campaign would be about trust.

Fast forward to 2016 and the idea that voters trust politicians about anything much is more fantasy than fact.

It's not news that the electorate is disengaged and frustrated with day-to-day politics. What's more interesting is why the public has lost faith in the political class.

According to focus group researcher and political strategist Tony Mitchelmore, the reasons for voter's disenchantment are many and varied. A loss of belief in the system; too many changes of Prime Minister in too short a timeframe; the calibre of people in politics and a strong sense that politicians aren't governing for the public interest, they're governing in their own interests. Many see Turnbull as a "rich guy" looking after the big end of town; the same people believe the unions fund Labor.

And even though participants describe politicians as "puppets controlled by other forces", they're not talking about political donations and reform -- that's perceived as an insider's issue. Only it's not.

The strength and integrity of the democratic process depends upon transparency and accountability in the political funding regime: the Australian system is deficient on both counts. Donations under $13,000 don't need to be declared and disclosure happens many months after the transaction. There are no prohibitions on certain types of donors such as unions and mining companies, and no way of monitoring whether donations influence policy direction and ultimately, legislation. A fairer, more equitable system would ensure that money can't buy access and laws aren't shaped by special interests.

There is some evidence that voters want change, and they're prepared to do something about it. In March this year, concerned residents on Queensland's Sunshine Coast decided to take steps to improve funding transparency in their local government elections. The Organisation of Sunshine Coast Associations of Residents Inc set up a website and urged candidates to use it to disclose donations. Of the 43 candidates, only 10 declined to use the website. The group was motivated to act, in part, because of developer donations at the last council election.

To kick-start a national debate, the John Cain Foundation commissioned a report which examined deficiencies in the current funding regime and made recommendations to overhaul it. The paper's author, Professor Colleen Lewis, advocated a national approach through uniform legislation, bans and caps on donations, real time disclosure and a limit on election spending. The Foundation released the report in early June -- the fourth week of the national campaign -- and urged candidates and MPs to disclose donations to their own campaigns before polling day.

As it turns out, the independents and the Greens had already made a start. Member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, posts the names of her donors and when they donated on her website. The Nick Xenophon Team discloses donors and contributions above the federal $13,000 threshold on their website, and the Australian Greens list their donors, their state and donations above $1,500 online.

In May, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told The Conversation's Michelle Grattan that political funding reform was a "big and complex issue, and one that deserves closer attention". He conveniently foreshadowed that it would get that attention from the next parliament. Months earlier, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrote to Turnbull proposing changes to improve transparency in the system. At the National Press Club last week, Richard di Natale gave the issue another nudge by declaring the Greens would insist on reform, as well as the establishment of a national anti-corruption body if they have the power and the opportunity in a hung parliament.

Throughout this marathon campaign, the issue of political funding has received some attention, but not sustained scrutiny. Former Federal Liberal Party Treasurer Michael Yabsley's call to do away with the current of the system on Four Corners, questions about the Free Enterprise Foundation and revelations about Parakeelia -- have all pushed the topic to the fore, at the same time reinforcing voter's perceptions that politics isn't about them, it's about the people running the show.

Despite the rhetoric, it's clear the parties have positions, not policies. Without ongoing public pressure there is little impetus for change, particularly when the political machine has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If there is no mainstream push for reform, it won't be high on the agenda.

This final week of the campaign is when traditional political advertising reaches a peak. The parties open their war chests and spend up big to make their final pitches to undecideds. The source of their funding matters, and the public deserves to know -- before they cast their vote -- who is bankrolling the candidates they will be voting for.

Opaque financing laws contribute to the public's dwindling faith in the political system, and community groups, think tanks and minor political players can only do so much to restore it. Until there is a broad and permanent constituency for reform, politicians are off the hook and voters are stuck with a financing system that undermines public confidence in the political process, and privileges those who can afford to pay the most.


Patricia Drum is a researcher at the ABC. She worked on the documentary series and the book, 'The Killing Season Uncut' with Sarah Ferguson, (MUP), published in April.

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