It’s time to think more slowly

The disclosure last week of donation details for last October’s Indigenous referendum displayed again the weakness of electoral law, but also gave insights into political campaigning generally.

There is a whole lot more to this than the mere disclosure and recording of donations. And a whole lot more than the mere recording of spending on paid commercial advertising slots.

First to the obvious deficiencies which have been around for decades with nothing done. 

The fact it has taken a year since the referendum campaign began to reveal the details is unacceptable and untenable in the internet age when data can be crunched and published in nanoseconds.

We should have been able to find out who was giving what during the campaign, not after it, when it was too late. That would have given journalists the chance to question donors as to their motive. Even if met with blank silence, it would say something.

Shareholders in companies that gave large amounts of money, mainly to Yes, might query the connection between a company’s legal obligation to work for the benefit of shareholders and spending money on politics.

The corporations might argue that supporting the Yes case would help with staff and customer relations. If so, it showed a marked lack of political perspicacity because 60 per cent of voters, including their customers and staff, voted against it. In short, wasting shareholders’ money.

There is a clearer commercial case for companies giving money to a political party in the hope that the party would promote policies that would aid their profitability and not support policies that would reduce profitability – in either case usually against the broader public interest. And in any case, nothing short of a bribe.

So, whether it is for a referendum or for a political party’s election funds, the case for banning all corporate donations is fairly compelling.

Banning corporate donations would also deny them the power of the threat of withdrawing from one party their regular multi-party donations if that party did not do their bidding.

Secondly, we have the ludicrously high $15,200 disclosure threshold. It does not take many $15,200 separate donations to separate advocacy groups or several branches of a political party by different family members or by different associated companies to add up to a significant amount of “dark money” buying political influence.

GetUp, which supported Yes and disclosed the $1.5 million in received in donations, estimates from the Australian Electoral Commission figures that Advance Australia disclosed the donors of only $1.3 million of the $11.3 million it spent on the No case.

Again, in the internet, PayWave age, it should not be difficult to have a reporting system with a threshold so low that it is too onerous to split up to create dark-money donations, and to ban cash donations. Most states and territories have limits of around $1000. The feds should do the same.

Thirdly, donation law has to deal with access. The $5000-a-head dinner with the Minister has to be banned or at least disclosed. Also, all MPs’ meetings diaries should be disclosed, as should the minutes of what was discussed.

Big Gambling, Big Pharma, Big Retail etc all get seats at the tables of power. The broad mass of voters do not.

Now to the other more intractable problems with campaigning, paid or unpaid, and their effect on the national good.

Money is not everything in politics. The Yes campaign far outspent the No campaign, but lost 40-60. It is what is done with the money that influences the result.

Here the problem is misinformation, lies, and exaggeration playing on voters’ fears with simple messages that invite gut reactions rather than considered responses to complex problems.

Stricter disclosure laws would not prevent that. Truth in political advertising laws might help. But they have the difficulty of who and how is truth and falsity determined. Moreover, although penalties can be imposed, it is often too little, too late in the heat of an election campaign.

Once the lie is out, it is impossible to replace it with the truth in the minds of all voters.

And herein lies a more profound difficulty with modern political campaigning that truth, disclosure, and spending caps cannot do much about. Before the universality of the internet, nearly all political discourse went through some journalistic vetting and even advertising-standards vetting.

Now, of course, people cheaply, quickly and easily can self-publish any lie or misinformation they like without significant consequence.

Worse, anyone can repeat those lies to ever-widening and ever-more gullible audiences and do so for free whatever the disclosure threshold. As Jonathan Swift wrote, falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it – usually after the political campaign is over and the damage done.

Swift was writing before the internet. Now falsehood travels at the speed of light.

The real answer is not simple. It lies in teaching critical thinking at school and teaching people to slow down when considering complex political issues.

Appositely, behavioural psychologist and economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who died last month aged 90, would have agreed.

Kahnerman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast thinking evolved to save humans when faced with immediate dangers. There was no time for slow analysis when faced with a tiger.

But fast thinking is misleading when dealing with complex matters and leads us into terrible error. Kahneman’s writing is laced with illuminating examples.

But unless humans stop applying the simplistic, fast thinking of the jungle – which admittedly has its uses – to complex matters, and start to apply more critical thinking we will make mistakes, some minor some existential.

Put more bluntly, if we do not learn to smell bullshit we will end up eating it, No amount of legislation will save us from that.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 9 April 2024.

One thought on “It’s time to think more slowly”

  1. There’s still the nuance here that 17m voters must have been racist or misinformed, to reject The Voice. No, it was Mr Albanese who got it wrong. In so doing, he not only hurt the indigenous cause, but shored up the King of Australia, for yet another generation.

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