Time for a truce in political donations arms race
Finally the secret is out – no one wants the current practice of political donations and campaign fundraising to continue.
Business became sick of it long before the GFC cut their lobbying budgets. Most realised that donating became more of a risk than an advantage and most influential business people realised they could get a meeting regardless of donations. Some have even worked out that you don’t need to pay $10,000 a month for a lobbyist to get you the appointment.
Politicians have grown to resent the drain on their most precious commodity – time. Time to think, time to work on policy and speeches, time to meet people without the unspoken pressure of donations and most importantly the precious remaining time to spend with family and friends.
They also resent the risk of meeting with someone or approving their project only to find themselves embroiled in a later scandal.
Party officials would much rather focus on winning elections and building their organisations than fly around the country knocking on doors and cold-calling donors.
All three groups are well and truly over being dragged to big evening functions full of crass auctions and hour long speeches. I well remember the seething anger of one state political leader who saw his 10th anniversary celebration become a massive fundraiser.
Most importantly, the public can’t stand it because, despite the codes of conduct that state otherwise, they know that a donation will at best lead to greater access and at worst preferential treatment. Sometimes, for all their disengagement from the politics, they have a pretty good understanding of what greases the wheels.
The pressure for reform has been slowly building and has, following events in Queensland and the swift response from Anna Bligh, now become unstoppable. No longer can people fob off the issue of reforms to donations and lobbying as an “insider issue”.
I don’t write this as a purist or from an academic perspective. I was at the heart of this system when both sides raised and spent record amounts on the last federal election – estimated to be over $80 million. I came away with a strong belief that we are well and truly into an arms race and the big money politics that has plagued the US has arrived.
The question is what to do? The Government (first under John Faulkner and now Joseph Ludwig) have put legislation into the Parliament that would reduce the Howard-era disclosure threshold from over $10,000 to $1,000, ban foreign donations and require parties to lodge returns every six months (rather than annually). For more than a year the Coalition has dilly-dallied with the excuse they need to see the full reform package from the Government. It seems they may soon get their wish. Either way it really is time they peed or got off the pot. The best reforms in this area need to be bi-partisan so they can last.
The answers aren’t as simple as just banning donations, but here are some six points to consider:
Simply banning donations won’t work – this is the most pure option but it won’t do the trick. If donations to the parties are banned then it will only open the way for third party groups to take over at election time. The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign from the 2004 US Presidential election would become the norm. Banning donations to third parties to close down this loophole would be unconstitutional. It would also cripple the capacity of genuine opposition within civil society. People should be able to donate to organisations that are fighting government on issues such as climate change and workplace laws.
Spending limits must be part of the answer – no party is going to allow itself to be outgunned in an election campaign. Campaign Directors will always try to equal or better the other side and in Australia that means a donation arms race to fuel campaign advertising. Any solution has to deal with this escalation or otherwise it won’t remove the pressure for funds. This means a limit on campaign spending. This could be applied to both the political parties and third parties (who might be subject to a lesser limit). Another scheme might ban TV advertising but allow an expansion of party allocated broadcasts (as operates in the UK)
Donation caps are easy to avoid – another simple option, placing a limit on or “capping” donations also has its problems. It’s very easy to spread donations under the cap over a number of individuals. In the US there have been scandals over people making large donations under capped limits by spreading the funds around. This should be considered as one part of the equation but needs watertight legislation.
Individual-only donations won’t fly – Malcolm Turnbull supports banning donations from anyone other than individuals on the electoral roll. This would give an unfair advantage to wealthy individuals (like ….. Malcolm Turnbull) and the party they are most likely to support (the Liberal Party) at the same time removing one of Labor’s historic funding sources – the unions. Nice try Malcolm, but this needs bi-partisan support.
100% public funding is not the answer – another part of the pure option is to ban all donations and have the parties funded totally by the taxpayer. This would not only lead to the problem with third parties outlined above but would change the nature of our parties from their historical connections (with business and the labour movement) to quasi-public sector agencies. Membership (which is already waning) would become irrelevant and the parties would become detached from broad campaigns in society. Public funding should be part of the solution, but only as a result of sweeping changes to the current system.
National legislation is needed – Anna Bligh should get points for pushing hard on this. State legislation can be helpful but will only be effective if it’s part of a national package of reforms. A national system is the only way to stop leakage of donations via state branches and national bodies.
So what is to be done? A limit on campaign spending must lie at the core of any reform - one that places limits on political and third parties but will allows for robust campaigns and freedom of expression but halts the proliferation of election advertising. So should low thresholds for disclosure and regular reporting (no less than once every six month). Foreign donations (a rarity in the western world) should be banned and donation caps (with tight laws to prevent leakage) should be put in place. Any reform must be national and mirrored in state legislation. Some additional public funding should be allocated to ensure the parties can continue to operate after such a massive change. After all, they are a necessary part of our successful democracy. We need them to develop policies, select candidates, run campaigns and provide support to MPs.
The legislation should have bi-partisan support. The system needs to last beyond one government. In order to make all this happen, the Coalition need to get their skates on and negotiate with the Government and the Government needs to ease their concerns that changes will only create (Labor) winners and (Coalition) losers.
- Tim Gartrell is the CEO of Auspoll and a former National Secretary of the ALP.
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