Why it's time to tackle political donations

One Nation's decision to court money from the National Rifle Association, exposed as part of a recent sting by Al Jazeera, quickly drew the condemnation of leaders across the Australian political spectrum. 

But while the prime minister and others did not hesitate to decry the actions of Pauline Hanson and company in looking to enlist the NRA's support — in an apparent attempt to at least explore the destabilisation of Australia's strict gun laws — little was said about a side issue that's widespread and, arguably, almost as troubling.

Political parties will try to spin it away, but the fact is that our democracy is, at the very least, heavily influenced by those with the means to pay. 

In the time since One Nation's US expedition, the federal government has moved to ban all foreign political donations, principally on the back of the Sam Dastyari/Chinese donations scandal.

However, from coal and oil giants looking to fend off inevitable energy reform to mining firms and other big businesses looking to protect their profits, there's no shortage of Australian interests eager to weigh in on policy — while simultaneously paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankroll the various political parties.

Throw in real estate developers, tobacco companies and countless others, and it's little wonder there's a growing perception that the long-term interests of the people are well down the batting order when it comes to government decision making.

Rest assured, if politicians attending this week's federal budget wore suits bearing the logos of their "sponsors" in the manner of your favourite football team, the prime spaces would hardly go to the humble electorate. A small spot on the sleeve, perhaps.

Figures released by the Australian Electoral Commission in February this year showed that some of the nation's largest banks, miners and unions featured high on the list of donations made in 2017-18. Gifts of less than $13,800 do not have to be declared, but Labor plans to reduce this to $1000 if it wins this year's election.

Last year, an analysis by the Grattan Institute found half of the big parties' declared donations for the 2016 federal election came from just 5 per cent of donors. It also found: "Industries at the crosshairs of policy debate sometimes donate generously and then withdraw once the debate has moved on — suggesting that they believe money matters."

Of course, not every donation comes with strings attached. But wealthy corporations and individuals are hardly in the business of parting with that sort of cash out of some sense of simple philanthropy. The fact many of these donors give large sums to both sides also suggests they do not do so based on some deeply held belief in "the cause".

"Sponsorship" is not something restricted to the federal arena, either. 

Just last week, The Age revealed that gambling interests are not just bankrolling state elections but have become involved at a local government level. 

The masthead's investigative team found a pokies magnate had visited mayors, offering to pay for community services for at least one council as part of a campaign for more favourable treatment for gaming venues. 

Just one of any number of examples across many different fields nationally.

It's clear that if Australia is genuine about free, unfettered control of government, the practice of political donations should be severely curtailed or banned.

It's clear that if Australia is genuine about free, unfettered control of government, the practice of political donations should be severely curtailed or banned.

While it would no doubt lead to a significant reduction in party coffers, such a ban would completely remove the perceived influence of powerful individuals and companies on political decisions. If parties are unable to live within their means, caps to election spending are also an option.

Some will argue it can't be done, but restrictions have been successfully introduced in places like Canada's New Brunswick province. There, neither unions or corporations are permitted to make political donations. Gifts from individuals are also restricted.

While we lag behind federally, some states have started down this path. In NSW, donations from the property development, tobacco, liquor and gambling industries are banned, while there are caps of $5800 per party and $2500 per candidate for gifts that can be accepted. Victoria has introduced a cap of $4000 per parliamentary term for corporations, individuals and unions.

In these places, businesses, lobby groups and individuals are still able to push their barrows in front of parties and politicians. They just can't fill them with a promise, or history, of massive donations.

Last year's decision to put a stop to foreign donations was a good start. Now, it's time for our federal MPs to finish the job.

Matt Crossman is an ACM journalist.