Australia purports to be at the forefront of good governance, an international exemplar for democratic representative systems. However, underneath the veil of party-politics and media scandals, the Australian democratic standard is being crippled by money politics and unethical political donations.
The political donation system is the best-kept secret in Australian politics. Both major political parties are guilty of dipping into the honeypot offered by hungry developers, miners, and international interest groups looking to buy approvals and political sway. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) received $41,225,572 in political donations in the last financial year, whilst the Liberal Party of Australia collected $43,056,672 in the same period.
Australian voters’ power in our democracy is being systematically undermined by political donations, which are allowed to go unchecked and unregulated, behind the closed doors of the party function room. Federally, donations and “gifts” over $13,000 dollars have to be disclosed to the Australia Electoral Commission.
However The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 does not describe any form of cap on the amount of money federal party groups can receive. So despite the disclosure of political donations, federal political parties can accept donations freely, without a reasonable threshold.
In recent years, Australia has undergone significant economic change. Both the mining and property booms have bred an environment in which large private, national and international corporations are interested in holding a politicians ear. Several cases have shown how wealthy donors have extended their influence in order to squeeze approvals from Australian officials, whilst concerns from voters have fallen upon deaf ears, and full pockets.
For example, the Stage 3 development of the New Acland Mine in Queensland highlights a disturbing problem in the Australian political donation system. Despite the concerns of local farmers and residents, the New Acland Mine was approved.
The mine’s parent company, New Hope Group, made a systematic set of political donations to the federal Liberal Party of Australia during the approval process – totaling $996,000 – which undoubtedly loosened the apparently strict regulations behind any mine authorisation. Placed side-by-side with the review process of the New Acland Mine, the New Hope Group’s political donations to the federal Liberal Party undoubtedly had a direct correlation with the approval.
“We have the world’s worst system of transparency; it’s anything goes. There’s no limitation on spending and the disclosure is unwieldy, difficult to search, fragmented and late…”
This case, among many others, such as the Four Corners/Fairfax investigation into the Mafia’s influence on Australian politics, represents only the tip of the crooked political-donations iceberg that sinks deep into Australian politics. If the problem is so large, and has such a devastating effect on the ability for Australians to participate in their own democracy, why does it still occur?
Transparency is arguably the single largest obstacle for political donation reform in Australia. Political parties accept donations from wealthy “interest groups” behind the pane of opaque glass that is the party, an interminable political organism that swallows money from political donors behind the backs of the Australian public.
The Global Integrity Summit, held in Brisbane last month, brought together some of the foremost thinkers on good governance and transparency to debate the Australian political donation system. Founder of Crikey.com and panellist at the summit Stephen Mayne thinks that Australia’s political donation system is essentially “legal corruption”.
“We have the world’s worst system of transparency; it’s anything goes. There’s no limitation on spending and the disclosure is unwieldy, difficult to search, fragmented and late,” Mr Mayne said.
Events like the Global Integrity Summit are essential to re-establishing control over Australia’s dysfunctional donation system. Public discussion and constant dialogue between voters, politicians and the media is key to unravelling the secretive system in which Australia’s major parties are manipulated by wealthy interest groups. The onus now lies upon the Australian public to fix a broken system.
If voters want their voice to be heard, they need to be loud enough to pull politicians and parties away from the ever present temptation to dip into swathes of wealth offered by the deepest pockets of interest groups in Australia.