Inside Story

Money, politics and parties

In some ways, not much has changed over the past sixty years, writes John Cain

John Cain 19 October 2010 1201 words


Money and Politics: The Democracy We Can’t Afford
By Joo-Cheong Tham | UNSW Press | $49.95

I GREW UP in a Labor household in the post-Depression, second world war years. Despite some political success for the cause in which I believed in the 1940s, I was firmly convinced that the forces of darkness contrived to defeat Labor at every contest.

Because of the way the boundaries were drawn, it took about three times more votes to elect a Labor member in the Victorian parliament than to elect a Country (National) Party member. Victoria’s Legislative Council was elected for six years on a restricted franchise. It could, and did, bring down popularly elected governments by refusing supply. The “capitalist press” invariably backed the non-Labor parties. And, perhaps worst of all, the other mob had the money, which meant that election campaigns were heavily weighted against Labor and business pretty much got its way. I thought it was all very unfair. The democratic process needed some changes.

Over the past sixty years our electoral laws have been changed, entrenching the adult franchise and ensuring one-vote, one-value as near as is practicable in federal and state elections. The Victorian Legislative Council is now fully democratically elected and has terms equal in length to the Legislative Assembly’s. (Some people still complain about the fact that each state has an equal number of members in the Senate, regardless of population, but that is one of the federation compromises and is built into the Constitution.)

But Money and Politics shows that when we turn to the other ingredient of unfairness – the power and influence of money in the political process – the inequalities may be different from sixty years ago, but they are still there. They are now perhaps more extreme and more dangerous to the good workings of our system.

These injustices may be a subset of the all-pervasive consequences of economic inequalities in society. Disparity in wealth and income within Australia has grown over the past forty years. So, too, has the belief that money directed to political parties by interest groups may be tainted by corruption as the users of the system seek to get their way.

In this book’s early pages Joo-Cheong Tham notes how hard it can be to find a “concrete link between political contributions and specific action” and says that the payment of money for “political favours” is not only difficult to prove, but probably rare. But he goes on to unpick the mesh that surrounds the growing industry that combines money, politicians and political parties.

He recognises the important role of political enthusiasts, as members of political parties pursuing policy issues within their party of choice and providing financial support for that party. He is concerned, though, about political donations that, while falling short of outright corruption, amount to “peddling power.” Under the sub-heading “Some are more equal than others,” he provides a powerful denunciation of this sale of access to a favoured few.

The various packages regularly on offer at corporate dinners, where table places are purchased at a price reflecting the seniority of the minister you may sit next to, support the assertion that, at the least, access is being purchased discriminately and enthusiastically.

One thing this book makes clear is that you can’t consider money and political parties unless you examine lobbying.

When Labor came to government in Victoria in April 1982, I made it clear we did not want lobbyists around. I said that no person or corporation should have any greater access or influence than another. This was in the face of a long-held view that certain interest groups had de facto preference in access to government.

My experience over some years in government, seeing who was “on the make,” suggests that ministers need some guidance in their dealings with lobbyists. Money and Politics offers it, using apt quotes from the WA Corruption and Crime Commission and the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption:

A more nuanced approach is called for: one that draws out “what constitutes proper influence on government” and, in particular, makes “a clear distinction between legitimate lobbying, which forms part of the democratic process and can provide important information to decision-makers, and inappropriate lobbying, which is intended to or can have the effect of undermining the integrity of decision-making processes.”

Evaluations of this kind are aided by examinations of any possible conflict of interest, and the openness of the process.

The chapter on this issue traverses the well-worn paths around the various codes about how lobbyists should behave. It canvasses six criteria for ensuring integrity, as set out in a Canadian code regulating lobbyists, and they’re not a bad starting point.

Other remedies might include having competent public service note-takers at meetings, and requiring full disclosure of information relied upon by government. It might also be useful to put an end to the lunches, dinners and trips to the snow, and all the other contrived occasions for oral communications.

The remaining third of the book is about how all this may be managed, if not controlled, to make the situation fairer. Dr Tham argues that Australia is decidedly laissez-faire in controlling spending in support of politicians and their electoral endeavours, and makes the case for reform by control and regulation.

Successive governments have shown no desire to regulate political funding, which is not surprising given the electoral advantages of incumbency, both for the governing party and for individual elected members. Considerable resources are allocated to sitting MPs for the performance of their parliamentary duties, but it is practically impossible to separate those duties from party/political campaigning. The largesse given to parliamentarians – including government advertising, consultancies, media personnel and grants – confers substantial benefit in electoral terms.

In a culture of this kind, the author’s case for a limit on election spending is convincing. Limits did exist for years until 1980, but are gone now except in the Tasmanian upper house. Limits would play a part in reducing corruption, would reduce the energy that parties commit to fundraising, and would discourage the creation of “front” organisations to manage funds.

But proposing regulation is in effect asking the players to hobble themselves in their chief purpose in life – winning electoral support. It will not happen. Party machines have become obsessed with money and have no interest in policy. They believe qualitative and quantitative polling is what they are all about. Further, they would say that the only thing wrong with the resources provided to sitting members’ electorate offices is that they are insufficient.

This book sets out to examine two things about money and politics: first, whether it threatens the integrity of governance and, second, whether it affects its fairness. On both counts it finds an affirmative answer. It finds, further, that a regulatory code may limit and deter those seeking to corrupt the system, but the result will be far from perfect. To the extent that money and resources influence fairness, the inequalities are built into society and entrenched in legislation that favours the incumbent and the large parties in a basic two-party system. •