The Politics    Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cash for comments

By Sean Kelly

Source
It’s time to get money out of politics

The judgment in the defamation case brought by Joe Hockey against Fairfax was handed down today. Hockey won $200,000 for promotional posters reading “Treasurer for sale”, and a couple of tweets in the same vein. There were other claims against the articles, but they were dismissed.

Arguments will now break out about whether our defamation laws are too harsh; whether decontextualised posters and tweets should be legitimate targets for defamation suits if they are meant to direct readers to the contextualising article; whether politicians should use defamation laws at all. They’re discussions that should be had.

But the greater problem lies in the fact that the Fairfax article had to be written in the first place. The original article focused on a fundraising body that – for membership fees of up to $22,000 – offered attendance at lunches and other events with the treasurer.

This is not a rare event in politics. Politicians from both the Coalition and Labor are often seen at such events. Yes, it’s true, as an ordinary member of the public you can try to make an appointment to see their local MP. But as somebody with money to burn, you can guarantee yourself some time whispering in the ear of almost any MP you choose about your own pet concerns.

Some of these donations come from individuals, of course. But mostly they come from businesses and unions.

Now you don’t have to go so far as to say a politician’s views can be bought to see the problem here. Any human being exposed to particular arguments for a sufficient length of time is likely to find themselves more favourable to those particular arguments. If certain organisations can pay for the ability to make those arguments up close and personal, then of course they benefit from that – if not in every case, certainly over time.

And that’s before you get to the much more worrying fact that politicians, especially senior politicians, know full well how dependent their party is on donations to win elections. However noble and impregnable you think your motivations are, knowledge like that can’t help but sway you to some degree. Again, we’re not talking about this happening in each individual case – it’s a question of amassed influence over time.

That’s why Australia should adopt the proposal of former Liberal leader John Hewson to ban all business and union donations; cap individual donations at $1000; and ensure those donations that still occur are immediately disclosed (there is usually a gap of several months).

This would limit the influence of money on politics. It would ensure that access didn’t accrue to those with the deepest pockets. It wouldn’t entirely exile cash of course: both business and unions have run devastatingly effective political ads in recent years, and that would continue to occur. But it would go a long way. There would also probably have to be public funding of some sort.

There are some issues that would have to be sorted out. The ban would likely hit the Liberal party harder, as they have done better from donations in recent years, and that would create resistance. There would be resistance from pockets of the Labor party too, worried about diminishing the influence of unions.

But of course those objections are precisely why the changes should be made. The Liberal party shouldn’t have to govern in fear of businesses withdrawing their financial support. The Labor party shouldn’t have to govern with one eye over their shoulder on union donations. If Tony Abbott is sincere in his concern about unions, then this is a good start. If Labor is genuinely worried about big business waging class warfare, then they should embrace this shift.

That is not an argument, by the way, for either corporate Australia or unions to play a lesser role in politics. That’s a separate discussion, and a legitimate one. But if they want to keep the dominant roles they have now, then let them make that case on merit. Money should have nothing to do with it.

 

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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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