Another sign that donation reform is long overdue
I’ve spent a bit of time over the past couple of years arguing that the influence of donations on our political system is insidious and pernicious.
The first point is that donations buy access – in the form of invitations to fundraising dinners with politicians in attendance, as well as general invitations that become more likely to flow once you begin pouring money in particular directions. Access is important. The ability to make arguments in person doesn’t automatically give you the victory you want, but it tilts the odds a little in your favour. That’s just basic human susceptibility. Most Australians don’t have the funds to spend the money that will deliver them that access.
The second point is that politicians are smart, and don’t generally have to be asked directly for a favour. They know that donations are crucial to their electoral fortunes, and therefore to their ability to earn an income. They know the types of things that will make donations more likely. At the very least, this makes them think twice before attempting things that will annoy major donors.
Anybody who believes donations do not have a major effect on our political landscape is staggeringly naive. It’s not just that they can help shape decisions, they shape the playing field itself, and what politicians consider possible and impossible.
The reason I’m bringing this up again is that Phillip Coorey has a predictably well-sourced report [$] in the Australian Financial Review about a private dinner in Sydney on Monday night, attended by the prime minister and leading chief executives, in which tensions between Malcolm Turnbull and big business were on display.
Turnbull, according to the report, was unhappy on two fronts: that big business had not been ponying up on the donations side and that it had not been strongly advocating government policies. I actually have no problem with Turnbull here at all; I too would be frustrated if I were in his position. I should add that the dinner was not a fundraiser and access here is not an issue – governments should absolutely talk to businesses on a regular basis.
It is the responses of the executives, quoted in the story, that are telling.
Coorey quotes one source, “‘Our view was why would we give you money,’ a view he said was especially prevalent among the bankers who have been hit with the $6 billion bank tax and who do not directly donate to political parties.”
This is pretty explicit: given you are implementing policies we do not like, why would we donate to you?
Coorey later quotes a “senior member of the business community and a BCA member” as saying that Turnbull’s demands for donations were “naive”.
“As a former treasurer of the Liberal Party, Mr Turnbull knows how hard it is to get money out of donors, he said. ‘They have got to have something to invest in. It’s not like here’s our money and we’re going to back you.’”
Again, that’s pretty clear. If you want our money, PM, we want it used to achieve something we care about.
It’s important to say that none of this is unique to Turnbull or the Liberal Party. Similar things would, no doubt, be said by unions about the Labor Party, and by businesses and wealthy individuals about both major parties. And Turnbull has in fact resisted pressure from business – that’s why businesses are frustrated.
But in the quotations above, leading businesspeople make explicit what the rest of us know only through the basic application of common sense: most donations are given in the hope of getting something in return. It doesn’t have to be said out loud, because everyone knows that’s how it is.
The most important point is that there is nothing legally wrong with this. And that’s the problem. Australian democracy has functioned this way for decades. Some experienced politicians would read all of this and think, So what? Obviously nobody’s going to donate unless they want something, and think they might get it. The assumption is entrenched; and that entrenchment is the issue. When leading executives feel comfortable saying such things out loud, even anonymously, we can safely say that we have a problem.
As to what should be done, I’m with John Hewson. He has advocated banning union and business donations, capping personal donations at $1000, and making donations public the moment they are made.
Turnbull said in January that he supported reforms to donation laws. The special minister of state, Scott Ryan, has confirmed he will bring donation reform to parliament in spring. We should all hope he runs on time.
In other news
- Super department: Michael L’Estrange says there is a logic to it. Laura Tingle agrees [$]. Greg Sheridan with a good structural breakdown [$] of the problems with Turnbull’s security super department. Michelle Grattan says let’s see how Dutton does. Katharine Murphy says this is a gamble for the PM.
- Watersgate: Greens leader Richard Di Natale says his lost senators shouldn’t have to repay salaries. Adam Gartrell says it’s a dumb law but we’re stuck with it. Other politicians are falling over themselves to prove they don’t have to resign.
- Other policies: Paul Kelly says Shorten wants to change the game on climate [$]. Ross Gittins sees the pendulum swinging against neoliberalism.
- Deaths: Another Indigenous death in custody, more unanswered questions. The PM wants answers over Justine Damond’s death.
- US: Trump and Putin had another, undisclosed meeting at the G20. Also, Trump is failing to dismantle Obama’s legacy.
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