Foreign-power rule’s absurd results

by on December 9, 2017

WE WITNESSED the absurd spectacle this week of Labor’s Sam Dastyari – Chinese money in his pocket and Chinese influence in his head – remaining in the Senate while other MPs of unquestionable Australian loyalty face the prospect of being packed off to the High Court and being booted out of the Parliament to which they were democratically elected for unknowingly having inherited foreign citizenship like millions of other Australians whose parents were born overseas.

The system is broke. It needs fixing.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has at least made a start with proposals to make it an offence to covertly influence Australian political or governmental processes.

“Unlawful foreign interference” would carry penalties of up to 20 years’ jail. Political parties will be banned from receiving foreign donations, as will activist groups if they plan to use that money for political campaigning.

People and organisations who seek to lobby on behalf of foreign powers would have to publicly register.

But that is merely a small start. Banning foreign donations is surely an admission that these donations are made with the purpose of influencing politicians to make decisions which are contrary to the broad public interest. Well, how is this any different from donations from domestic for-profit corporations?

The legislated aim of these corporations is to maximize profit for shareholders. That is a company director’s prime duty. That means extracting as much as possible from the natural environment, employees and public assets for as little as possible so profits are as large as possible. Any political donation is in pursuit of those aims. In short, putting the interests of the few above the interests of the many.

So if we are banning donations from foreign corporations, we should ban donations from all for-profit corporations and all non-profit organisations which receive money from for-profit corporations.

In theory, political parties and candidates get public funding based on the level of their vote in order to prevent the undue influence of large corporations and industries whose invariable aim is to get politicians to favour sectional interests over the broad public interest.

So why not ban donations from domestic for-profit corporations? But no, it appears our political parties want both troughs – public funding and donations from big corporations.

Individual donations, up to a modest level are different. They are usually made out of belief and idealism, rather than to influence a result.

Interestingly, Dastyari’s conduct in publicly backing Beijing foreign policy contrary to Labor policy around the time he had legal bills paid by a Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman, and tipping him off that he might be the subject of intelligence agency monitoring falls well short of existing crimes of treason, but would be caught by the new law. And given the maximum penalties are more than a year’s jail, Dastyari would fall well and truly foul of Section 44 of the Constitution – that is, the good bit that disqualifies any MP “convicted and under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer”.

We should make all the donation-law offences punishable by at least a year’s jail. Nothing energises an MP more than the prospect of losing their seat.

Of course, it is not only Chinese influence that is affected. The US and Israel do a fair amount of indirect influencing, too.

Unfortunately, it is likely that domestic corporate donors will not be axed. But at least we could make the information more timely and accessible. Donor information is on the Australian Electoral Commission’s website. The commission make a reasonable fist of what it has got, but it does not help if the rules are archaic.

Here are some of the flaws. Information is delivered on a paper form, sometimes hand-written. A lot of it does not have to be supplied until after the election in question. Donations under $13,000 do not have to be supplied. Political parties can supply information according to which state, territory or national body the money was given to. Corporations can split their donations among subsidiaries and among state and territory branches of a party and individual candidates. The website site collates some but not all of this information.

You can get the general drift that banks, mining companies, big pharma and unions top the donation stakes, but the specifics are more difficult to find.

We could borrow various rules and technology from other organisations to make it much easier to see who is giving to whom.

Lawyers and real estate agents have to bank trust money into a special account before the close of business on the next business day.

Political parties should have to do the same.

The Australian Tax Office has the technology to record payments from corporations into other bank accounts. That is how you get your tax return pre-filled with interest and dividend payments.

Internet technology allows for an amazing array of information to become public immediately and notified by email to users who want it.

So why can’t we have real-time public reporting of donations?

We could add to that real-time publication of politicians’ diary appointments with industry and lobby groups as well as a written summary of the proposals put.

The ordinary development of policy proposals within the public service need not be part of this process and as a result might regain some of the power, influence and efficacy it has lost over the years to direct, secret political lobbying.

The spotlight of publicity needs a wider and more powerful beam to disinfect the polity of the increasing infestation of the corrupting special pleading of corporations and lobbyists.

As for the other part of Section 44, surely the marriage plebiscite shows that Australians will pass at referendum a sensible reform making Australian birth or citizenship the eligibility test for parliament, not the citizenship rules of foreign countries or the tardiness of their bureaucracies in dealing with Australian renunciation requests.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 9 December 2017.

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