The Politics    Monday, July 18, 2016

An absolute outrage, right under our noses

By Sean Kelly

An absolute outrage, right under our noses
Money money money

A few interesting things happened today, but let’s start with the one that doesn’t, at first, seem interesting.

Liberal senator Ian Macdonald is not a minister, though he was once, and his criticisms of Malcolm Turnbull’s election campaign won’t keep the prime minister up at night. But he made some comments today on the government’s controversial superannuation policies which are startling, once you pay attention:

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. [emphasis mine]

This is an argument we’re seeing a lot of in election post-mortems: that the super policy was a huge problem for the campaign because it affected fundraising. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz made a similar point a week or so ago. It’s featured in a bunch of articles dissecting the Coalition’s campaign (though there are signs it’s not actually true).
Now just follow the line of thought for a moment. Former ministers are arguing that a policy should be changed – and should never have been adopted – because the people who give the party money aren’t happy. Or to flip it: experienced MPs are saying out loud that a reason to change policy is to attract donations.

So all of the arguments we’ve heard in recent years that donations have nothing to do with policy have been jettisoned, and all of this has happened in the full glare of the media spotlight.

But because we’re all so accustomed to the outrage that is the influence of money in our system, these comments have largely been seen in terms of their implications for Turnbull’s strength as a leader.

That was how I initially saw them too. But that’s a crazy mistake to make. These are huge and damaging admissions being made. The fact that’s not our focus is an indication of just how big a problem this is.

Of course all of this has been going on at the same time as reports have been surfacing about the amounts Malcolm Turnbull personally is said to have donated to the Liberal campaign. On Friday the figure was $1 million. Today it emerged that it may have been $2 million. That is a mammoth figure in Australian politics.

When I saw the first report, on Friday, I had trouble putting my finger on what precisely was wrong with the situation. By now I’ve boiled it down into a simple question:

Would Malcolm Turnbull have delivered a majority government without that spending?

I don’t know the answer. But the fact it’s debatable is enough to demonstrate a problem exists. It now appears possible that Turnbull would not have been governing with a majority in his own right – and, as an outside possibility, that he might not have been governing at all – had he not had millions of his own dollars to spend. 

Or to put it another way: Turnbull’s ability to reach into his own pocket may have played a role in the election result.

I have no problem with Turnbull’s wealth. I have a problem with a political system which means that wealth may get you closer to power. That is true of union and corporate donations to politicians and their parties. It is true of both sides. It is true of the way the superannuation policies’ impact on fundraising is being discussed in the Coalition. And it is true of Clive Palmer’s ability to spend his way into parliament, and it may be true of Turnbull’s donations.

One of the reasons I have to keep saying “may”, by the way, is because Turnbull refuses to answer questions about the reports. This is absurd. It is also disrespectful towards the voters he says he’s governing for. He deserves to be asked about it every day until he answers.

Our politicians need to get their crap together, cap donations, and introduce real-time transparency of donations.

Unfortunately the prime minister has become accustomed to quite short media appearances during the campaign, and so he didn’t get asked about this at a press conference today, cutting off questions fairly early. Still, the thing he was there to talk about, his reshuffle, was interesting, with some encouraging signs.

The most significant change was getting Greg Hunt out of environment, and replacing him with Josh Frydenberg. The prime minister should be applauded for this. Hunt, by now, has managed both to hold too many positions on how to tackle climate change, and to dig in far too deep on Direct Action. Moving him frees Turnbull to execute a shift in the Coalition’s approach, which will be necessary as he seeks to re-establish credibility with the electorate in the years ahead. This was a canny move.

The widely predicted decision not to promote Tony Abbott to the ministry was important, too, signaling once more that the PM is not planning on making the mistake of his first nine months by surrendering to the conservative wing of his party whenever called upon to do so.

He should have promoted more women, especially because both Marise Payne and Kelly O’Dwyer suffered losses of responsibilities. He did the right thing in not scapegoating Sussan Ley for the campaign’s failure on Medicare.

These things are all interesting, and will receive a heap of coverage. But sometimes it’s the things we think are less curious that should really grab us.


Today’s links

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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