MPs too of­ten serve their party in­ter­ests at tax­payer ex­pense

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY - PETER VAN ONSELEN

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

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