A cynic’s guide to campaign donations

Everybody gets themselves into a lather over campaign donations. Tony Abbott, who gets regular podium finishes for mouth frothing, is deeply offended by the way the unions fund the ALP. Media commentators are equally offended by the way that alleged mafia bosses appear to fund the election campaigns of some members of the Liberal party.

The fundamental assumption underlying this outrage is that campaign donations to any political party will invariably corrupt the political process and the will of the people. It probably doesn’t happen that simply but there is no doubt that people who make large donations to political parties do expect something back in return: access to a minister, favourable considerations of the building application,  favourable treatment of some commercial interest, the list is endless.

A slightly more charitable view would be that the people who donate money do so to have access to decision-makers on issues that may not concern them as a private citizen but may concern them as a corporate citizen.

Every 3 to 4 years, the public gets an opportunity to pass judgement on its government. After the election, the voting public is pretty much stuck with the policies of the party that is elected. Unless, that is, they can get access to decision-makers to make a special case.  The smaller the issue, the better your chances of influencing the decision.

If you simply want to make sure that your street in an affluent suburb remains “residents’ parking only” and you have contributed generously to the party in power, you’ve probably got a good chance.  If you want to influence the current government on gay marriage, it’s likely that no amount of money is going to help you.

In the current debate around renewable energy sources, there are a number of interested stakeholders. The public which voted in the current Liberal government, and which presumably approves of the stance it takes on renewable energy, has had its bite of the apple.

However, there are other stakeholders, such as the coal industry and the renewable energy industry that were not able to influence the election, as corporations and industries do not vote. Nonetheless, they have a legitimate interest, in this case, in the way that energy policy is developed with in Australia and in influencing government decision-making.

This is done through a subtle process. The first step is to identify political parties that may be sympathetic to your particular view. Clearly, the coal industry would identify the Liberal party as highly supportive of its goals and aspirations.  The next step is to snuggle up to various politicians by meeting them at fundraisers and giving them significant sums of money for their election campaigns. This networking establishes the communication channels necessary to prosecute your case for support and subsidies for your industry.

Nonetheless, the public is genuinely concerned when it finds that significant sums of money have been directed into the coffers of political parties which, when elected, often enact legislation that is favourable to the donors.

But this attitude suggests that the only people with a legitimate call on decision-making processes are people who vote in elections. This is clearly not the case as many industries and large corporations have social and economic interests that affect large numbers of stakeholders: their shareholders including everybody’s superannuation funds, their employees, their customers and their suppliers. The current democratic process does not allow these groups to articulate their interests through the ballot box, so it is understandable that they will seek other means for doing so.

The private school sector does not cast a single vote in an election. The people who send their kids to private schools do, but their voting patterns are often decided by a range of issues that include, but not necessarily exclusively, an interest in supporting private education. The private school sector on the other hand is concerned solely with the health and well-being of their system and will be experienced and skilled in articulating that view.

Importantly, the sector will often have the resources to express its concerns in a way that private voters are not able to. It is quite legitimate for them to pursue that through whatever means they can. Often those means are through political lobbying and political donations.

There is a more subtle and invidious form of campaign donations and we’ve seen from both sides of politics and which has become a feature of elections in America through the machinery of the political action committees or PACs.

We have seen a similar mechanism in Australia with the attacks by the mining industry on the Labor government’s mining tax and the the attacks on the Liberal party’s Work Choices by the union movement.

Both of these campaigns supported key election platforms of the two major political parties and were extremely successful, to the point that they were one of the major determinants in changes of government.

Yet the amount of money that was spent on these two campaigns was not regarded as a campaign donation, whereas in fact both were.

We should not be surprised that large corporations and unions donate money to get political outcomes that favour them. Soliciting and accepting these donations should be something we understand and accept part of our democracy.

These activities are not “union corruption”, (or for that matter “big business corruption”) as Tony Abbott and his Royal Commission would have us believe.

What is corruption is the likes of Craig Thompson, Michael Williamson and Kathy Jackson taking the union’s money and spending it on themselves.

And what is also of concern is Amanda Vanstone’s reversal of  Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock’s decision to deport Tony Madafferi after representations from his family and attendance by members of the family at Liberal party fundraisers.

But we do need to make a distinction between the processes of politics and the processes of corruption. One hopes that the current Royal Commission will be able to do this.

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