What constitutes successful working of a policy integrity system?

I’m one of the few people who thinks that regulation of political donations already goes too far, at least for NGOs. But I think there is some common ground that nobody – whether donors or not – should get special treatment that would not be given to other persons or organisations with the same relevant characteristics.

However, differences arise on this issue because I, like Mark Latham, see the central problem as inappropriate levels of political discretion. If discretion exists, we can hardly blame constituents for trying to take advantage, or politicians hoping to win support from offering advantage. We cannot be surprised when people follow the incentives a system creates. To the extent that constituents attempt to win special favours by donations this is a symptom of a deficient system rather than the cause of a deficient system.

This is why I think that Joo-Cheong Tham, writing in The Age this morning, is mistaken in arguing that the fact that John Grant did not get special treatment does not make a significant difference to how we should assess the case. When Treasury can repeatedly raise a particular case (indeed, cases) with a company seeking financial guarantees from the Commonwealth and get nowhere it suggests that the policy integrity system is working.

It is more important to focus on policy integrity than donations. Clamping down on donations will increase the power of those with personal connections over anyone else who might want to be heard, and do nothing to limit what is any case the more important transmission of influence, the vast network of friendships and favour swapping in the Australian political class.

Donations to political parties and NGOs are also an important part of the democratic system, the main counter to the vast resources that governing parties have at their disposal. There is nothing wrong with donations aimed at the rules of the game – at trying to get a particular party into government or a particular policy in place – provided that the rules are general in nature. While we may dispute whether those rules are in fact in the ‘public interest’, the democratic system is a constant debate about how we define the public interest – it can’t be prejudged by effectively declaring any political donation as potentially corrupt.

So what we need is less a list of donors to political parties and NGOs than lists of discretionary decisions by Ministers and all those companies that have benefited from government decisions, an expanded Productivity Commission Trade and Assistance Review that names names as well as industries.

The aim should be to minimise bad policy, regardless of the motives behind it.

10 Responses to “What constitutes successful working of a policy integrity system?

  • 1
    Russell
    June 23rd, 2009 21:24

    “The aim should be to minimise bad policy, regardless of the motives behind it.”
    Sort of the end justifies the means?
    .
    If there is “is a constant debate about how we define the public interest”, won’t there also be constant debate about what good and bad policy is? In which case how the policy became the policy will always be of interest.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    June 23rd, 2009 21:46

    No, the end absolves the motives.

  • 3
    Russell
    June 23rd, 2009 22:21

    Does a bad end absolve the motive too?

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    June 23rd, 2009 22:34

    Or more importantly does a good motive absolve a bad end? A mitigating factor in judging the person responsible, I think.

  • 5
    Dave Bath
    June 23rd, 2009 22:35

    Andrew: Excellent… yet again.

    However, I can see a bootstrap problem – getting the names named will have to get assent from those who have mates who’d be named…..

    And getting an enumerated list of discretionary decisions by Ministers would be even harder… however desirable it is to us poor citizens, I cannot think of any politician with a ministerial baton in his/her knapsack that would be keen on publication of such a list.

    Hmmm. Victorian election soon… the Liberals going on about governance (or lack of it) in the Victorian ALP (both government and machine)…. do ya reckon they’ll run with your excellent notions of what should be published? If they do, and commit to it, I’ll vote for the Liberal Party above the ALP for the first time in my life.

  • 6
    Manolis
    June 23rd, 2009 23:03

    Churchill has a great quote regarding King John and the magna carta: “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns.”

    The good and bad of motives, means and ends can be horribly out of whack at times. Best, perhaps, to leave the morality of their permutations to philosophers and get on with the business of making good, deliberate policy, and hope that events ruled by vice play out as serendipitously as they did for England and a large portion of the rest of the world.

  • 7
    Sinclair Davidson
    June 24th, 2009 09:02

    Yes. I think people are misdiagnosing the problem. The fact that Mr Grant gave a ute to his local member isn’t the problem. Nor that Mr Grant asked his local member to intercede on his behalf. The allegations are about abuse of process and misleading the Parliament. Even if Mr Rudd (or Mr Swan) had said in Parliament that “No Mr Grant got no benefit from the scheme, but I did ask that Treasury keep me in the loop about the progress of my constituent’s application”, this whole issue would have died then. Not because it was the right the thing to do, but because there’d be no traction in the story that an MP responded to a constituent’s request for assistance. That’s perhaps a tad cynical I know.

  • 8
    Sacha
    June 25th, 2009 13:03

    Andrew, our residents association grappled with these issues when writing its submission to the Green Paper on electoral reform (http://www.pmc.gov.au/consultation/elect_reform/pdfs/sub42.pdf). The association came to a view that key points were about the extent to which donations influence government policy and the perceptions about the extent to which this could happen. Of course, discretion allows influence of policy and decisions. We came to a view that it may be worthwhile to cap the donations from an entity at a level such that the community had confidence that a donation did not influence policy or decisions.

  • 9
    caf
    June 25th, 2009 15:47

    If lobbying for policies that are “general in nature” is OK, but not for those that are more specific, where do we draw the line between the general and the specific? Is the policy not allowing new competitor television channels “general in nature”? What about communications companies wishing to see more restraints put on Telstra?

  • 10
    Andrew Norton
    June 25th, 2009 21:39

    Caf – I think it is the location of the line that is the stuff of legitimate political debate in a democracy. Telecommunications is a classic case in my view of where the line has been drawn incorrectly in favour of existing players, though bizarre as it seems to me there are people who seem nostalgic for the old days of the Telecom monopoly.