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.