Time to put a limit on political donations

A recent front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Frank Sartor, the Planning Minister in New South Wales, “hosted a fundraising dinner attended by more than 30 property developers which raised more than $500 000 at the same time the government was set to make decisions on development applications by some of those companies.”

I note this not specifically to have a shot at Frank Sartor, as occurrences like this are pretty much par for the course in the Australian political scene these days. Rather, it is the unremarkableness of such an event which in itself suggests we should consider adopting limits or restrictions on donations.

David Humphries recently argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that there should be a limit on the size of political donations, particularly from developers, corporations and unions. He draws attention to the Canadian situation, where such a limit is currently in place (although my understanding is that Canada actually has a prohibition on any donations at all from unions and corporations, and has a limit on donations from individuals of $1000). I think donations from property developers are a particularly big problem, which applies at local government level as well as state and federal governments. But really, no matter how pure the intent, once donations get to a certain size, it is hard to avoid the prospect that there is some sort of influence being bought, no matter how indirect. This applies to any organisation or body which has a direct financial interest in policy or legislative decisions.

Money isn’t everything of course. If a party has little public support or recognition, even large amounts of money won’t help that much. Advertising and other campaigning is about reinforcing and building on existing support, rather than creating it out of thin air. But without decent funding, the campaign task of any party or candidate becomes a lot harder, particularly if their competition is well funded.

It is worth remembering that it wasn’t until the advent of the Democrats into the Senate that any form of donation disclosure requirements first appeared in the 1980s. The Howard government’s blatant weakening of donation disclosure laws is a reminder that even the minimal protections that we have are not safe from tampering.

It is pleasing to read that the responsible Minister in the new government, Senator John Faulkner, has “promised to “enhance” — not simply wind back — the Howard government’s law that has dramatically reduced the number of donors who have to put their donations on the public record. The disclosure threshold would “at least” be lowered to the $1500 that operated until the Coalition liberalised and indexed it, starting from December 2005. In 2004-05, 1286 donors had to disclose; by 2006-07 this had fallen to 194.”

However, improving the disclosure of donations and other support to political parties is the minimum we should expect. It would be a valuable advance to put a limit on the size and source of political donations. This would not be foolproof and is not all that needs to be done to make our democracy fairer and cleaner, but it would be a good step forward.

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  1. Well if you have a better way to change the law than via the legislature, I’d be interested to hear it al. Even bringing in effective CIR could only come by way of passsing laws first.

  2. I’m sure I read an idea somewhere that all candidates should be financed solely by the government (no donations or personal funds).

    That would mean that anyone running for election could apply for the set amount of financial support.

    I think voter support can be almost created out of “thin air” if you have the advertising money and ideas which will improve your chances of success.

    This might be in the form of kicking others in the guts, promising things you don’t intend to deliver, other covert forms of lying, and frightening the voting public into submission – tactics with which we are increasingly familiar.

    One drawback is that a large party which is already in power has the added advantage of delivering pre-election bribes.

    Anyone else could only rely on false promises – definitely second best.

  3. Political donations from Developers should be illegal. Real Estate agents should be barred from being a Councillor,and donations above $1500 should be public knowledge.I know that Howard changed it to $10,000?I live in the Illawarra,and what’s coming out in the ICAC inquiry is shocking-who knows how it will end up.Sadly,it’s not a surprise to many,as allegations in the past by different councillors etc have been public knowledge.Suffice to say that there’s some pretty unsavoury characters and shady goings on-allegations at this stage I know,but it’s shocked the council employees and the region.I feel sorry for the other workers,and the wives of those caught up in the allegations.Can’t help think of other buildings etc that have been allowed in the past!

    It’s interesting to note,that neighbourhood councils were terminated some time ago.These people were self educated in the machinations of Council,and had fought some developments-that’s why there were disbanded we now feel.Less scrutiny by smart and capable citizens-democracy at work?Treated as though they’re pests??This is a beautiful place,up and down the coast.Any ‘wrong’ type of development is damaging to the environment,the aesthetic view of the coast line,and invades the quality of people’s lives.
    Bring on the legalities to fix this mess,and make all financial dealings open to scrutiny.Bring back neighbourhood committes-public accountability is vital to open government,and an enemy of corrupt tendancies!Under Howard there was also a mentality,that people had no right to know government business.Make FOI the tool it’s supposed to be!It’s a joke at the moment,but nobody’s laughing!I hope John Faulkner makes it a viable tool to “keep the bastards honest”- at all levels of government!We shall see!

  4. How would you avoid people routing money through proxies?

    The usual trick in the United States, if you’re a business who wants to give a big pile of money to a candidate seems to be getting all your staff to attend $1000-per-plate dinners for the candidate of choice.

  5. That’s easy, Robert. No dinners or financial support of any kind would be allowed, outside of the government’s quota per candidate.

  6. Robert:

    Please re-read the idea described in my post #3, which would not allow ANY KIND of donations outside of the government allocation – which could be given as an advertising credit for television, radio, newspapers, political signs and leaflets.

    Any candidates wanting to shoot off their mouths for free at public gatherings in parks etc could still do so, I suppose.

    BTW giving the staff $1000 each would be much more expensive than making them pay that amount for their (cheaper) dinners – and with the employer giving out the money instead of collecting it.

    I know what you mean, but I was extrapolating upon my previous post.

  7. coral: I don’t think such a position is feasible, even if it was desirable.

    Firstly, it would be very politically problematic, from a free speech perspective. Should organizations like the ACF be banned from advertising during election campaigns as well?

    Furthermore, the High Court has, on a number of occasions, ruled that the constitution implies a right of free political speech, most notably to disallow a law that banned political advertising on television. I suspect that a law banning political donations would also be regarded as unconstitutional by the court.

  8. Robert:

    I’m assuming you’re talking about the Australian Conservation Foundation. There are plenty of other ACFs around (cats, cricket … you name it).

    The trade unions did a fair bit of advertising during the recent federal election campaign, with at least an equal amount of anti-union propaganda coming from Howard.

    I think it would be better if we heard ONLY from the candidates. They could say anything they liked without other organisations piping up.

    If they support ACF, trade unions or ANY other ideologies, they can tell us about it themselves.

    I think the only way independents and smaller parties could ever have much of a chance is if every candidate was placed on a level playing field.

    Surely that would be a more democratic way of doing things.

    I don’t think it would take away free speech. It would give all of the candidates equal opportunity to speak. That’s who we need to hear.

    Various organisations would still have the opportunity of running their own candidates, on the same level playing field.

  9. I note that Pauline Hanson copped a fair bit of flack about receiving public funding after the recent federal election. Was she serious about politics or was it just for the money? I’m sure everyone has their own opinion.

    Obviously the problem with public funding is the potential for this situation to arise. I don’t know if there’s any way of getting around that if you ban donations.

  10. There’s nothing to prevent unscrupulous people from pocketing donations either, Muzz, instead of using them for their intended purpose.

  11. Notable that Andrew hasn’t mentioned donations to The Democrats.

    How can you take the moral high ground when you have accepted money from Big Pharma and oil companies? From Western Mining, from AWB, from TABCorp, and from Australian Christian Lobby?

    it is hard to avoid the prospect that there is some sort of influence being bought, no matter how indirect.

    Spot on.

  12. You’re right Ingrid. I didn’t mention those donations. That would be for the same reason I didn’t have a shot at any other politial party – because my point was to suggest major improveents for or democracy that would benefit us all, rather than just to score puerile partisan political points in some sort of juvenile game of “holier than thou” – unlike yourself it would appear.

    If I was doing that I would have mentioned the fie figure donations the Greens received from major trade unions at the same time as they were campaigning against big business using donations to buy influence on industrial relations issue.

    Unlike you, I am not seeking to take any “high moral ground” – but seeing you have clambered up there, it is strange you chose not to mention those donations. If you are aware of a party in Australia which has refused to take any donations greater than $1000 from anyone (or even just put that limit on companies, unions, businesses and associations), I’ love to hear about it so I could duly praise them and point to their example.

    It would also be difficult for me to have mentioned most of the people you mention because I’m not aware of the Democrats receiving donations from most of them (which is not to say that they haven’t – although some of them seem somewhat implausible). in any case, I’ve certainly never received money from any of them.

  13. Political, or any donations for that matter, were forbidden in the ancient world. Public service was an honour not the source of income.
    Political donations as well as stock exchange/cassinos, gambling were forbidden in the Soviet block and in Cuba.
    Political donations create monopoly, not everybody can have access to it. (Whites Only principle). It means: no job, no equal opportunity, no fair go, no democracy, no right to have equal access to anything, that a selective few do have.
    Politicall donations make slavery of the Party that received a donation. You are obliged to represent the party you get a donation from; it is like a contract; I pay you, and you provide services/favours, I paid for with the exclusion of all others. Preferred supplier.
    Political donations is nothing short of Mafia or money extortion, nothing more and nothing less. Money talks.
    Just imagine, and this is a fact, one of plenty:
    A person finishes a uni with a top score. Applies for a job, thousand of times. The person is advised to do voluntary work here and there in hope to ‘get experience’ and get a job according to his/her qualifications.
    At the same time, a son/daughter/nephew/niece of a prominent politician, businessman or ‘Australian Icon/idol with no qualifications, no experience, no motivation to work- gets a hefty money for the job he/she is not even interested in and has no idea how to do it. Never mind.
    Well, the political donations make the uni education totally irrelevant and practically useless.
    Political donations is a corruption of the highest order. The so called ‘lobbyists’ are nothing short of a Mafia in Rome or Sicily. Where do you stop or draw the line??
    But in the contemporary world, no Party can get into ANY election mode without political donations. More money, more influence, less democracy and who cares???

  14. Could we put a ban on mud-slinging as well?

    That’s all that seems to happen in the lower house during question time.

    I don’t know why a member of the Greens would be talking about oil companies, when (electorally speaking) they’re almost scraping the bottom of the barrel themselves.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Greens have already taken the “immoral low ground”. They’ll need to pass the barrel to someone else before criticising ANYONE.

  15. Oh, so I’m a member of the Greens now, am I?

    Those who wish to ban mud-slinging need to take a look at themselves first.

  16. Ingrid:

    You slung the mud at Andrew. Some ricocheted back.

    If you don’t know whether or not you belong to the Greens, how are we to help you?

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