CRACKS are beginning to appear in the mutual acceptance of the Coalition’s big corporate funding and Labor’s big union funding. Federally, in the wake of last week’s report of the joint parliamentary committee on electoral matters reported on electoral funding, Labor and the Greens have the numbers to make it much harder for the corporate dollar to find its way into Coalition coffers.
And in NSW, legislation has passed the lower house and is before the upper house that will in effect end union funding of Labor.
The federal parliamentary committee members split in predictable ways: the Coalition for greater anonymity and higher disclosure thresholds; the Greens argued for a ban on all corporate donations; and Labor for lower thresholds, less secrecy but no ban on corporate donations because unions are corporations.
Coalition members thought tickets to fundraising dinners (at thousands of dollars a seat) should not be considered donations. Labor thought third-party single-issue campaign funds should be regulated as direct donations.
But despite the split Labor and Greens will have the numbers when it comes to legislation.
The report did not get a lot of publicity – like most complex, abstract policy matters, it got a back seat to the dramatic and emotive. But the rules on election funding are critical to democracy.
Elections can be bought. Parties’ policy positions can be bought. The mass of voters who do not follow politics closely and who watch a lot of commercial television can be quickly persuaded by artful advertising campaigns – even to vote against their own interests.
The US experience tells us of the dangers. Barack Obama said he would change the way Washington works, but since coming to office he has worked just like Washington. He has had virtually no success in regulating campaign funding, and as a consequence every issue he has attempted to reform has been dogged or adulterated by the special interests who fund and therefore command members of congress – including most of Obama’s Democrats who are on the funding drip feed.
All of Obama’s environmental, health, welfare, tax, trade and other reform proposals, therefore, have been hopelessly compromised.
Australia is at a critical stage. If the campaign-funding regime is not wholesome the whole democracy is soured. We have seen how comparatively little funding from the miners has changed the mining tax against the interests of Australian residents in favour of (mainly) foreign shareholders.
We have seen how the forces of union funding of Labor have made the party undemocratic and remote and foisted an inefficient industrial-relations system on industry – we have gone from the inhumanity of Work Choices to the economic stranglehold of uniform industry-wide collective bargaining because unions had to be rewarded for their funding and advertising in the 2007 and 2010 elections.
The political parties make the ridiculous assertion that funding does not influence policy. If it didn’t big corporations and unions would not bother.
We are lucky in Australia that we have public funding ($53 million after the last election), reasonably well-paid MPs and party discipline. These things help prevent a climate of dependency by individual MPs upon corporate money
Without them, there would be a quick race to the top in funding. It would mean it would be difficult for anyone to get elected without becoming dependent. And bear in mind, what is a large amount for an MP’s campaign is chicken faeces for a big corporation, industry body or union.
The political parties need to be saved from themselves. And it can only be done through rigorous disclosure, regulation and capping of political donations. Not just donations to candidates or parties but also the funding of third parties who promote candidates or policy positions of candidates or parties.
Ironically, the NSW Coalition might save Labor from itself with its law that in effect outlaws unions from affiliating with Labor and passing on a portion of union dues to it. It would free Labor, enabling it to give members a full say on policy at conferences and in selecting candidates. Membership would soar if members had a vote on policy and candidates.
Similarly, federally Labor could save the Coalition from itself by prohibiting corporate donations and capping individual donations. The Coalition would not then be beholden to big business to provide unpopular Work Choices legislation and big corporate tax breaks.
As governments changed in the states and federally they could each starve the opposing party of big corporate and union funds. Elections would then be funded from public funds and small individual donations, and all but the top few percent of income earners would be better off.
The only fly in the ointment would be whether the High Court held that big donations could not be banned because they were part of the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication. This happened in the US with terrible consequences.
Whatever happens, one seemingly minor, but critical, reform is to fix the way donors and parties have to disclose donations.
They should be required and funded to provide information in spreadsheet form, as suggested by the Australian Electoral Office. At present, much of it is supplied in PDF format and usually split into nine – one for each jurisdiction a party contests.
It does not allow for easy data-crunching to see where the money is coming from and where it is going to.
It is absurd that the major parties awash with donations cannot spend a thousand or so to deliver the information in a more usable form.
DOT DOT DOT
PAPUA New Guinea is seen as a Third World hellhole riddled with violent crime and to be avoided at all costs.
So why hasn’t violence erupted, nor likely to erupt, over the present constitutional crisis?
It is a question of identity. Political violence often goes hand-in-hand with an ethnic, religious, geographic, linguistic or racial divide (or a mix of them) in which one side is disadvantaged.
PNG has 700 languages and myriad of different villages and small regions. There are so many that permanent blocs cannot form – just occasional fluid alliances around a “Big Man”.
Of all the Third World hellholes that became independent between the war and the mid-1970s PNG has had more democratic, peaceful changes of government than any other.
You need at least a 15 per cent identifiable minority to get the seething resentment that arises from discrimination and erupts into violence: Northern Ireland; Lebanon; Sri Lanka; or any number of African nations with two or three tribes forced into colonial borders.
So don’t expect political violence in PNG other than some opportunistic criminal acts.
That said, the place is still beset by corruption, AIDS, poverty and under-development and requires Australian help. We should be so lucky that circumstances at present are such that a stream of boat people has not arrived on our shores from PNG.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 17 December 2011.