WHOLE POLITICAL INSIDERS INDUSTRY STINKS TO HIGH HEAVEN
MPs too often serve their party interests at taxpayer expense
Major party politicians privately lament the amount of time they are required to spend fundraising for their parties. Yet they are surprisingly unaware of the compromising position such activities put them in.
This is especially the case for frontbenchers and leaders, who get wheeled out like performing seals at expensive dinners and small boardroom round tables where attendees pay thousands of dollars a head for access.
Marginal seat backbenchers also must devote significant amounts of their time to raising funds to fight election campaigns, without which their chances of victory drastically diminish.
Political campaigns have become the dollar equivalent of an arms race, and this will continue to be the case unless reforms to curtail the escalation are introduced.
The problem is that capping fundraising simply can shift the process to third-party endorsements, skirting around electoral laws. And public funding is not only expensive for the taxpayer, it generally has an in-built bias towards incumbents with established voter alignments.
It’s highly likely that further public funding — major parties already receive millions of dollars at elections — would only entrench the two-party system.
While it’s true politicians work hard, too much of that time is spent on party fundraising, not doing their day jobs as ministers or elected representatives of particular areas. These blurred lines also can lead to taxpayer-funded entitlements being misused for party political purposes. For example, a minister asked to travel interstate for a fundraising event tacks some non-essential “official business” on to the trip, thereby justifying the state footing the bill for business class airfare, any staff members joining the expedition, hire car transfers and hundreds of dollars a day in travel entitlements.
Don’t forget, political parties are private organisations. They are not affiliated with the state or the formal government their MPs and senators are part of. Anything politicians do for their parties is akin to a full-time employee of an organisation (their paid position) doing charity work on the side or helping out in a voluntary capacity in the running of a club or society they are a member of. Which is also why it is a misuse of entitlements to expect ministerial staff members, paid for by the taxpayer, to participate in party political or fundraising activities. Yet many do. Such activities aren’t part of their employment. They don’t generate output related to their day job. It isn’t something that should be lumped into the work they do as an MP, minister or political staff member.
Frankly, at best, fundraising is a distraction from politicians’ day job serving the community or the constituency they represent. At worst it takes away from that duty because, unlike a charitable hobby any of us may have on the side, politicians engaging in fundraising activities arguably cause significant conflicts of interests, or at least the perception of a conflict.
Ministers who directly or indirectly participate in fundrais- ers for interest groups that have a stake in their portfolio decisionmaking at the very least create the appearance of a conflict. This also applies to any cabinet minister attending a fundraiser with a vested interest whose interests may be affected by a cabinet vote.
Then there is the way special interest groups seek access and influence over policy by hiring former staff and former MPs as lobbyists or “government affairs” consultants, paying them extraordinary wages in exchange for the ear of the minister. The dovetailing of such roles with recommendations for attendances at fundraising events blurs the lines between advice and overlap of roles and responsibilities.
The whole insiders industry stinks to high heaven. The way political fundraising occurs, the sometimes nefarious ways disclosure laws are stepped around and the time it takes away from the expected duties of elected MPs and ministers makes the process a cancer on our body politic — worse, a cancer on our democracy.
Make no mistake: the expensive price tags associated with these fundraising events amounts to buying time with political decision-makers — a perverse influence on a system that is supposed to generate trust among the governed. With trust in politicians at a near all-time low, in the era of Donald Trump and fake news, the whole system of political fundraising needs tidying up.
There can be no doubt that donors who receive access to senior political players for the dollars they throw the party’s way are buying access. But are they also buying influence? There is little doubt about that, too. Politicians tell us that’s not the case, but would those paying to attend private round tables with decisionmakers also hold such a pure view? And is that how the party fundraising co-ordinators sell the events to potential donors — as events that afford access but don’t have any influence on decisions? I doubt that very much. I’ve seen first-hand some pretty lowbrow ways that funds are raised, far tackier in nature even than advertising a horse race on the sails of the Sydney Opera House: auctioning off a walk or a run with a minister; boat trips on Sydney Harbour with a gaggle of ministers; one-on-one speed dating with frontbenchers at party conferences, in private booths lined up alongside one another. It’s embarrassing.
But it doesn’t stop there: signed bottles of wine, personal tours of the prime minister’s offices and the ministerial wing, dinners in the members’ dining room. And we all remember that chaff bag signed by Alan Jones that Young Liberals at the University of Sydney sought to auction off when Julia Gillard was prime minister, or the fundraising menu that included sexist innuendo about female political opponents in the meal descriptions.
Rather than these practices being reined in, their orbit is expanding. This newspaper recently reported on One Nation leader Pauline Hanson being made available to business leaders and lobbyists in Perth for $5000 a head. Access bought presumably with an eye on her crossbench power and influence in the Senate.
It is no longer just the major parties getting in on the act of trading access for cash. The Greens have long been able to raise surprisingly significant amounts of funds from large donors with vested interests in Greens policy pronouncements. And of course trade unions donate to and are formally affiliated with the Labor Party, which spruiks their interests in the parliament, especially on industrial relations.
Recently we have seen tightening of laws surrounding overseas donations, addressing the risk of foreign powers using money to wield influence in our democratic system. This is especially concerning when that foreign power is a non-democracy rather than sharing our values and culture underpinnings. But there remains much to be done domestically to tighten up donations laws, where the aim should be to end the practice of buying time with political decision-makers. Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University.
It is no longer just the major parties getting in on the act of trading access for cash