The taxi industry is based on an anti-competitive licence system that restricts the number of cabs on the road, and delivers windfall profits to people who bought licences in the past. This is all well-known (I have complained about it before, as have several people associated with the CIS and many others.) The SMH scoop – or at least I never knew about it before – is that Kermode was given about $20 million worth of licence plates for free. It also reports that:
[The Rees government] has continued to keep secret the list of taxi plate owners who trade their licences on a market worth as much as $2.2 billion.
The SMH quite appropriately points out that Kermode is a generous donor to the NSW ALP.
But the secret licence system shows the real hole in the political disclosure system. The problem is not that $1,000 donors pose a threat to the integrity of the policymaking system, as the federal government believes. It is that information about who benefits from special government deals is often very hard to get. Unlike political donors, there is no central registry of political beneficiaries. Though their identities can – with exceptions like the taxi licence holders – generally be discovered, it often takes a lot of digging around, and in this case investigative journalism.
Knowing who the political beneficiaries are is far more important than knowing who the donors are. If our objective is good, clean policymaking special deals are worth examining regardless of whether any donations have been made. As I have observed before, restricting donations won’t eliminate improper influence. It will just hand more influence to the people who already have too much of it, the political insiders who don’t need to buy corporate tables at party fundraisers or declare anything to get access to decision-makers.
Donor information is of much less value than beneficiary information. Indeed, donor information is of gossip value only unless it can be linked to a government decision. Yet our political leaders are intent on revealing more and more donor information, which is at best a proxy for what we are really after – government decisions made for the wrong reasons. NSW taxi regulation stinks, and would do so regardless of whether or not Reg Kermode was a political donor.