All hope, no real action on filthy campaign lucre


The Greens’ Democracy4Sale research project – which tracks many of these donations – is frequently asked for examples of the dirty deeds. Instances of direct favours are light on, the Wollongong developers scandal being a notable exception.

But over the past decade significant changes were made to laws and regulations for industries which gave significant sums, and those changes brought considerable benefits to donating industries.

Representatives of property, pharmaceutical, hotel and resource companies are among the most generous donors. They attend party fund-raisers and hand over cheques.

An insight into this world of money politics was provided by John Thorpe, a former NSW president of the Australian Hotels Association. On Stateline in 2004 he famously said: ”Democracy isn’t cheap.”

He went on: ”Everybody’s involved with assisting political parties because at this stage we need to keep these people in place to have the democracy we have today.

”Look, what helps is this – you attend as an observer, as I did at the ALP national conference. Yes, it costs money. But we did get interviews with ministers, we did get interviews with staffers, and that does help us in our policies and our regulations.”

The trends in political generosity suggest the money often follows the party in power. Under the Howard government, the resource and pharmaceutical industries favoured the Coalition federally, while in the life of the current NSW government, developers favoured the Labor Party.

These arrangements have come at a cost to Labor and the Coalition parties. In recent years some key figures within those parties have responded to the growing public disquiet about the corrupting influence of political donations by backing electoral funding reform.

Malcolm Turnbull, before he became the leader of the opposition, called for political donations to be limited to those from individuals. Senator John Faulkner, when special minister of state, became one of the key voices for change. He championed the federal government’s green paper on electoral funding, an initiative seen as providing the road map for reform.

In NSW, scene of many political donation scandals, the state Labor and Coalition parties appeared to recognise it was time to overhaul funding laws. Two parliamentary inquiries gave some hope for an end to the corrupting influence of corporate political donations as their recommendations were, in the main, agreed to by all.

NSW Labor, in the latest parliamentary inquiry, agreed to limit donations from unions and restrict the role of union affiliation funds. Union donations and fees had been a stumbling block for the Coalition so with this commitment from Labor it looked like the last obstacle had been removed.

But reform has gone off the boil, both in NSW and federally. No legislation has come before either Parliament. What went wrong? How did we get so close to reform only to revert to another round of money politics? Why will companies and rich individuals again be able to buy access and political influence in this election? Is it really too hard to find the right public funding model for political parties and candidates? Or is the problem the lack of a leader with the necessary courage to hold out for far-reaching reform?

Whatever the reason, the public wants reform.

It will be a sorry state of affairs if reform comes only after more Wollongong-style developer donation scandals. If that’s the only way our political leaders find the courage to follow through on their promised reforms that will be a poor reflection on our democratic process.

Right now the Prime Minister is keen to paint a fresh face for her government, and she is in the box seat to announce changes to electoral funding laws. She would be wise to ensure electoral funding reform does not fall away in the manoeuvring of this campaign.

She could increase her popularity before the federal election by committing to a major clean-up of how parties and elections are funded.

This is one promise she could easily keep because after the election the Greens and Labor may well have the numbers in the Senate to ensure such legislation passes.

Lee Rhiannon is a Greens Senate candidate for NSW.