CORPORATE donations are a cancer on democracy. There was a missed opportunity to address this cancer while our politicians were taking the first step in addressing large foreign donations.
They know the problem of donations, the disproportionate influence and the lack of transparency. And they know what actions are needed to treat it.
The missed opportunity came to a conclusion late on the Thursday night of the last sitting of the Senate while debating the “Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill”.
The legislation will have some impact on foreign donations – but not enough. As Sydney University professor Anne Twomey told an inquiry in February: “Foreign nationals can still, under this Bill, make enormous and influential donations to political parties, if it is done through a permanent resident or a foreign-owned corporation or a subsidiary that is incorporated in Australia.”
So what’s stopping them? The major parties are simply structured to be dependent on large donations. The scandals over the influence of foreign donations have been embarrassing and there is no excuse for ignorance. They know what needs to be done. Multiple parliamentary inquiries have heard of donation iniquities and the solutions.
Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters outlined the key issue while speaking on the influence of foreign donations: “It’s a small step forward, and we support those provisions, but it leaves massive loopholes which will allow big money to continue to influence our democracy. That is one of our main beefs with this Bill: it’s pretending to fix a real problem.”
The influence of corporate donations permeates our politics at the Federal, state and territory levels. Some jurisdictions have acted with more transparency and a cap on expenditure. The ACT was one of the first. An important step. However, there is still a long way to go.
The aim, as put by Senator Waters, is “to get vested influence and interest by corporate interests and big money truly out of politics”. Her proposal is to ban donations from “listed vested interests” and to put a $1000 cap on donations. Vested interests that have undermined open political decision making might include the fossil-fuel industry, large land developers, tobacco companies, the gun and other arms lobby, the transport industry, pharmaceuticals, alcohol companies and the junk-food industry. But this is just a start.
Democracies will work much more effectively if decision making and policies are based on the evidence at hand and are made in the community interest. Large donations buy access and, through access, they purchase disproportionate influence. Specific industry influence trumps community interest. This is the key. Disproportionate influence. The voice of the people is the purpose of democracy
Donations are not an issue just for the left of politics. Australian Conservatives’ senator Cory Bernardi identified that his small party had received $2.4 million in a 12-month period. However, he moved amendments for greater transparency requiring reporting of donations to be placed on websites and to the Australian Electoral Commission within 14 days.
Deputy leader of the Opposition in the Senate Don Farrell put Labor’s position: “There is broad consensus that we need more transparency around the money that supports political activity in our system. Reducing the disclosure threshold to $1000 is Labor policy. We understand the importance of greater financial accountability and we are going to act”.
So, with cross-bench support, why didn’t Labor make this happen on Thursday?
The passage of this Bill through the Senate, with its many amendments, does mean progress. However, there is still a long way to go.
As Senator Farrell put to the chamber: “Foreign donations are eroding faith in our democracy, are compromising our representatives and must be stopped”.
It is not just foreign donations, Senator, it is all major donations. Democracy, not “corporatocracy”.