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
The Townsville Greens will publish blogs considered to be of merit. The opinions expressed are those of the Author.