We all pay the price of buying access in a democracy
Can our politicians win elections based on good old-fashioned debate and sound policy, or will they continue their crass cash contests of aggressive marketing campaigns bank-rolled by the wealthy?
And once in office, how can we prevent politicians coming under undue influence from donors at the expense of the interests of their constituents and the broader public?
Until recently, reforming the system of political funding has been the elephant in the room for our esteemed elected representatives. They’ve been acutely aware there is a problem, but reluctant to talk about it.
But that’s all changing in Canberra and around the nation. Premier Bligh has brought the issue to the top of her agenda, Premier Rees announced on the weekend that he’d be banning developer donations (although not mining, tobacco, gambling, liquor or other dubious sources of donations) and in Canberra politicians are privately discussing what kind of reform will be possible to pass in the Senate.
Not only can donors in the current system fund politicians in unlimited amounts, but little transparency is offered in a regime that allows donations below a threshold of $11,200 to remain undisclosed.
The news is, the public are switched on to the problems our broken election funding system creates - and they want change.
Over 27,000 GetUp members have signed a petition calling for an end to corporate donations – they know there is a problem that must be fixed.
Recently, GetUp conducted research on broader public perceptions with polling group Auspoll. Our research found that the majority of Australians – 67% - think that companies who donate to parties have undue influence on elected representatives.
86% of those polled want a limit on the amount of money that political parties can spend on federal election campaigns to avoid ballots becoming the escalating cash contest that we’ve witnessed in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than a debate on substantive policy issues.
But Australians are also acutely aware of the need to fix the whole system. One possible outcome of conversations going on in Canberra right now is that our politicians simply cap election expenditure but ignore the bigger problem of the source of donations.
Ending corporate donations is the first way to fix a broken system, but we must also ensure that we close off any loopholes for business to funnel their donations through third party organisations or individuals.
To this extent, 55% of people think there should be a cap on donations from individuals to political parties, something GetUp members have also been calling for. The public is under no illusions about the need to clean up our democracy – the question is: can our politicians rise to the challenge of tackling their dependency on large donations? Dependency that should not be understated.
Donations have soared in recent years, with the amount the ALP for example are raking in climbing from around $14m in 1998/9 to $40.5m in 2007/8.
There are numerous cases of political donations being linked to policy changes, contracts being awarded, and planning applications getting the go-ahead.
The Utegate affair and growing public anger over alleged corrupt or dubious Government decisions in NSW, Queensland and elsewhere, establish a strong case for restoring public faith in the system.
Take a recent NSW example: The Western Sydney International Dragway paid a total of $107,200 to NSW ALP in 2007 and 2008. Later that year, Kevin Greene MP, NSW Minister for Gaming and Racing announced $1.7 million for Western Sydney International Dragway. I’m not alleging any corruption was present, but clearly this kind of activity does nothing for perceptions of the integrity of our system and therefore our incentive, as individuals, to have our say.
Banning corporate donations to politicians, capping individual donations at $1000 and limiting electoral expenditure will make politics less about cash and more about people.
A system that encourages small donations – like Obama did for his campaign – would put the ordinary Australian back in the driving seat.
Of course no reform can occur without addressing the role of third party organisations. Third party organisations play a crucial role in ensuring the voices of Australians are heard by our nation’s decision makers in between elections.
As a small dollar funded movement, we at GetUp! are happy to accept constraints on our own capacity to accept large donations.
Premier Bligh is pushing ahead with the introduction of a $1000 cap on donations in Queensland and a limit on election spending. However, Premier Rees has ruled out a similar move in NSW (outside of the weekend announcement on developer donations), passing the buck to Federal Government. This places the onus squarely on Canberra and Mr Rudd to provide national leadership on what is most certainly a matter of national importance.
Based on our poll results, this issue is a likely vote winner. Australians support politicians who take a stand on transparency and integrity, ensuring those we elect stay focused on the job at hand: working to protect and promote the public interest.
The question is, will our politicians rise to the challenge?
Background: GetUp receives no money from any political party. It relies solely on funds and in-kind donations from the Australian public. It has 335,000 members – more than all political parties combined.
Auspoll conducted the survey online in late Sep 2009.
Questions and results:
Do you think that there should be a limit on the amount of money that political parties and other interest groups can spend on federal election campaigns (such as on TV and radio advertising)? (1550 people polled)
Strongly agree - 57%
Agree - 29%
Neither agree nor disagree - 9%
Disagree - 1%
Strongly disagree - 4%
To what extent do you agree with the following (1220 people polled):
We should cap or limit donations from individuals to political party election campaigns
Strongly agree – 19%
Agree – 36%
Neutral – 30%
Disagree – 12%
Strongly disagree – 3%
Companies who donate to election campaigns probably get more access to politicians than those who don’t
Strongly agree – 24%
Agree – 43%
Neutral – 26%
Disagree – 5%
Strongly disagree – 3%
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