Donations to politicians and political parties still seem to be on the radar, and that’s a good thing. The truth is that donations do affect the political process, they do damage our democracy and they do sway policy and political decisions.
What's the evidence for this... let’s start by looking at the international experience – recently released court documents from an investigation into Wisconsin governor Scott Walker don’t just reveal the indiscretions of one person, they reveal how widespread the influence of corporate cash is… on politicians, lobbyists and judges.
There is the incredibly complex story of political corruption in Nauru as revealed recently on 7.30 – and the dance that continues between senior members of government, money being provided an Australian company and the Australian government’s complex relationship with the nation as a result of our asylum seeker policy. The democratic fallout affects the citizens of both Nauru and Australia and the root cause of this problem is money and a lack of transparency.
It would be naïve to believe that these issues are isolated ones.
We only need look at our own political history for signs of problems. Donations disclosures are available online.
In 2014-15 (a non-election year when they were not in government) the ALP received $153, 000 in donations from a combination of Clubs NSW, the Australian Hotels Association, and Woolworths (the nation’s biggest owners of poker machines).
In 2011 (an election year when the ALP was in government) the same group donated $156,600 while simultaneously launching a multi-million dollar ad campaign focusing on marginal seats held by Labor.
At the same time the Liberal party received (from the same donors) – in 2011 - $121,000 and in 2014-15 no reported donations. It would be fair to say that the Abbott opposition was already opposing proposed changes vigorously before the clubs and hotels joined the debate because it saw relative political advantage.
Over the same periods The Greens received no donations from any of these groups.
Currently, The Greens are one of the few parties with a prominent pokies harm reduction policy while neither of the major parties are currently showing any interest in addressing the issue.
In 2011 there was a lot of heat on pubs and clubs in relation to poker machine regulation. In 2016 there is none despite ongoing issues with gambling addiction and ongoing community concerns about the pervasiveness of poker machines. Did money and a massive political scare campaign buy a political outcome that suited donors who have a lot of skin in the poker machines game? It would appear so. This is significant because perceptions are as important as reality when we are discussing public confidence in the political process.
These concerns are a likely factor in the declining confidence in democracy in Australia.
Foreign donations add another layer of concern and complexity (as seen in the case of Nauru), so concerns surrounding state owned enterprises in China are both understandable and completely valid.
Ideally we want to see a more level playing field that gives parties, policies and ideas an equal chance of being heard. We don’t want to see voices drowned out by big money advertising campaigns, and we don’t want to amplify individuals or interest groups based solely on their financial resources rather than the quality of their argument.
And that is what we are currently getting.
A more appropriate arrangement would cap donations and election campaign expenditure, ban foreign donations, improve transparency and disclosure, as well as provide a more level playing field through more equitable public funding.
How that might look in practice would be a great basis for the debate we are not currently having in this area.
by Mark Enders
There is no denying that money buys power and influence. That has always been the case.
Money can keep illegitimate governments in power – it propped up Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Australian money that came from AWB. At the time the Howard government sent us to war in Iraq while at the same time turning a blind eye to allowing the regime they were fighting to be funded by an Australian country. This period has been thrown into further controversy recently with the release of the findings of the Chilcot inquiry - a report which made adverse findings against the Howard government, and which brought a robust defense from Howard himself. Interestingly, we have still not had an inquiry in Australia into what took us to war.
As they say in government - only hold an inquiry if you already know the outcome and you are sure it won't hurt you.
The Pacific Solution came about because Australia was able (and is still able) to bribe nations like Nauru to deal with a political problem such as refugees. But the damage to democracy extends beyond our shores. Nauru was essentially a failed state when the Howard government started pouring millions of Australian dollars into their economy to help run his Pacific solution.
Outside the moral issues of outsourcing our international responsibilities, this created a different issue. It made Nauru less dependent on foreign aid, which might at first blush seem to be a positive. But what this has done is to make them less accountable... as with foreign aid comes the need for levels of transparency. As Tess Newton Cain has highlighted - the removal of independent office holders (like the commissioner of police and the resident magistrate) has coincided with the new-found financial independence. As Tess states:
...with hindsight, it appears that the ‘Pacific Solution’ has contributed to a ‘perfect storm’ with the government having increased funds available at a time when those in power are actively seeking to throw off the perceived shackles of good governance.
Murdoch’s money and the media empire he built with it gives him a voice and influence well beyond what he would otherwise have. Gina Reinhart’s ideas were heard not because they are insightful, but because she was the richest woman in Australia. Clive Palmer built a profile, a voice and eventually a short career in parliament based on the money he spent in 2013. And for a brief time he had a powerful voting block in the Senate which was hugely influential.
The North Sydney Forum raised a lot of money for Joe Hockey’s political aspirations by selling access if not influence when he was Australia’s treasurer. It opened up many questions which were never sufficiently answered, as well as exposing connections to the corrupt Australian Water Holdings and people like Nick Di Girolamo (who gave Barry O'Farrell the $3000 bottle of Grange Hermitage that ended O'Farrell's political career) and Senator Arthur Sinodinos (whose selective memory seems to have saved his political career)
Political fundraisers for both major parties involve attendees paying ridiculous sums of money per ‘plate’. And while I’m sure the food is good, there is no doubt that what is being paid for is access and potential influence
It also seems that recent governments and their policy settings have been heavily influenced by money - either through donations or through money spent campaigning against them.
Back in the mining super-profits tax days, a large amount of spending from foreign owned mining interests was able to change government policy through the influence it was able to exert through advertising.
But very recently money has potentially decided who formed government. It is reported that quite late in the campaign at a time when a Liberal insider said 'The Party is broke. There is no money' Malcolm Turnbull donated $1M effectively trying to get himself re-elected as PM.
Government representatives are bemoaning policy setting on Superannuation and the impact it had on both the election result and donations. In the wake of the election result Eric Abetz has called for changes to the government's policy on Superannuation as he believes this was the message the election result sent. Abetz's comments were reported on the saveoursuper.org.au website. Clearly not an independent news site.
What the website didn't report was that there was actually no evidence for this claim.
The Australian quotes Senator Ian McDonald as saying (about the Superannuation policy taken to the election):
It also severely impacted our fundraising because most of those affected and even those who weren’t affected but were concerned that they might have been were traditionally our supporters and very often our very good donors.
McDonald is linking policy settings to donations, and while he isn't overtly calling for policy changes to ensure donations keep flowing, you do wonder why he makes the point.
The recent changes made by the Queensland government to ensure political donations are revealed in real time are a welcome change and are one step towards handing democracy back to everyone, not just the rick and the well-connected.
There isn't a democracy on the planet which suffers from too much transparency, and we should be calling for more of it. The Greens are one of the few political parties which are calling for a Federal ICAC and the banning of political donations.
They are next steps we need to take to shore up our democracy and wrest back some power from the wealthy and the well-connected.
by Mark Enders
The Townsville Greens will publish blogs considered to be of merit. The opinions expressed are those of the Author.