DEMOCRACY FOR SALE
Recently we’ve heard plenty about politicians abusing their “entitlements” with the Bronwyn saga providing plenty of satirical comment to keep us outraged and amused for weeks. The Prime Minister has now promised yet another review and this time it’s to be a “root and branch review”.
But there’s a related issue that needs review and it’s far more important. An issue that threatens the integrity our entire democratic system: political funding, donations and disclosure.
Despite constantly claiming to strongly support democracy, governments of both persuasions seem reluctant to make any changes in this area despite the detrimental effects that unlimited election spending and undisclosed donations have on the democratic system; without even mentioning the obvious potential for corruption.
With State and Federal governments not willing to make changes to the law and knowing that many candidates wanted a more transparent system Funding and Disclosure (Inc) decided it was time to launch a pilot project. Prior to the 2014 Tasmanian Local Government elections we developed a website that allowed candidates to voluntarily disclose their donations in real time.
This was the first time such a facility was offered to candidates at an election in Australia.
Most candidates didn’t take up the offer despite widespread media promotion. We even copped abuse from some candidates who accused us of interfering with the electoral system! What we did, in fact, was clearly demonstrate how easily and inexpensively it could be done. Those candidates who did choose to disclose their donations demonstrated their commitment to transparency and may well have benefited from this. One of them is now in one of the most powerful LG positions in the state.
It seems likely that our action and the associated media coverage was a catalyst.
At long last the Local Government Association of Tasmania (LGAT) is considering this issue. They now acknowledge that it is inconsistent for Tasmania to be the only state in Australia with no requirement for local government candidates to disclose who funded their campaign. They have committed to developing a policy and “have had preliminary discussions”. The wheels turn slowly.
Currently a committee of the Legislative Council is considering a number of issues relating to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission. Many of the submissions addressed election funding, donations and disclosure. There seems to be a general consensus that the current system is wide open to abuse both at local and state government levels. The submission from the Liberal Party stands out from the rest however. It states that they will not support “any changes to donation, spending or disclosure laws which would inevitably lead to litigation – a very unhealthy development for our democracy.” And they have a valid point. There’s no doubt that it is a difficult area to regulate. It’s all very well introducing laws and regulations but how are they to be policed? What if an overseas supporter runs a campaign that is entirely funded and organised from outside Australia? What if donations are handed over in a “brown paper bag”?
Just because a law is difficult to police does not mean that it should not exist. Income tax laws don’t completely eliminate the cash economy but if you get caught you can be prosecuted. How “healthy is it for our democracy” to have a situation where candidates can legally accept donations of any amount from anyone with no disclosure requirement whatsoever? This is an obvious recipe for corruption and the temptation must, sometimes and for some people, be irresistible.
Local government is where most politicians “cut their teeth” and councilors make decisions worth millions of dollars to developers and ratepayers. Who knows who they might be beholden to?
Funding & Disclosure (Inc) was formed to lobby for greater transparency in this area.
We believe that there is no excuse for keeping donations hidden and no longer an impediment to ‘real time’ disclosure.
When we vote in federal elections we are denied information about political donations until about 18 months later. Even then, if donors split their donations among state, territory and federal divisons of their favorite party, they will only be disclosed if they exceed $111,600. This 'dark money' is steadily undermining our democracy.
Surveys consistently show that fewer and fewer Australians have confidence in our current system
We maintain that all political donations above a very modest amount should be made directly to a central Electoral Fund Authority. When the donation is then transferred to the intended recipient the details would be published online in real time. Any other donations would be illegal. This should probably be administered by the Electoral Commission and would be a simple and inexpensive system to establish and maintain.
We also maintain that election spending should be capped. Currently there is an “arms race” in spending and if it’s allowed to escalate we will find ourselves with a US type system where politicians “buy” themselves into power. You could say that Clive Palmer has demonstrated that we’re already there but currently it is still just possible to mount a campaign in opposition. If campaign spending increases unabated a time will come when only the extremely wealthy or well-connected will wield power.
The major political parties will drag their heels on any reform in this area.
It took “Choppergate” to force them into a review of their “entitlements” and it will be up to us in the electorate to make this into another issue that just won’t go away.
The question is simple: how much do we, as a society, value democracy?
Tasmania is the only state in Australia with no requirement for local government candidates to ever disclose donations or gifts.
Candidates can legally spend as much as they want on self-promotion in the months prior to the election. Their spending is only limited by regulation for the few weeks prior to the actual vote. They never, ever have to disclose where any of this money comes from.
Local government is big business. Hobart City Council controls assets of over $1 billion and has an income of over $50 million from rates alone. Even a relatively small rural council like the Huon Valley has an annual budget of over $10 million.
Councillors make decisions that have significant financial consequences for individuals and businesses. With no regulations the tempation must be almost irresistible. It's an invitation to corruption.
Last updated 17th August 2015