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.