With this week’s disclosure of political donations by the Australian Electoral Commission, the usual critics were having their say. As he did last year, Stephen Mayne used Crikey to attack what he sees as an inherently grubby process – people giving money to political parties, including (shock, horror) foreigners, something that seems to particularly upset political funding moralisers not otherwise known for their nationalistic views.
Money allows some to speak much louder than others. For example, businesses and wealthy individuals are able to secure influence over parliamentarians through the purchase of political access. In the last financial year, both Tabcorp and Tattersall’s gave $10,000 to Progressive Business, presumably for membership of the organisation. Membership of this fund-raising arm of the Victorian ALP would have entitled them to attend closed-door ministerial briefings by Premier Steve Bracks and Treasurer John Brumby. Such secret meetings give rise, at the very least, to an apprehension of undue influence and corruption.
As with other leftist critiques of the political process, Joo-Cheong Tham’s work (you can see his perspective in more detail at the ANU Democratic Audit project) fails to see the bigger picture of the political process. These issues arise mainly because because of politicised processes – in the case of Tabcorb and Tattersall’s because gambling is heavily regulated, and Tabcorp and Tattersall’s rely on government patronage to keep competitors out. If anyone could set up a gambling outfit there would be no need to listen to tedious speeches at Progressive Business functions or to give them any money. There probably wouldn’t be any funding to disclose.
But given that we do exist in a society in which many aspects of business life have been politicised, it seems wrong to deny business the right to attempt to influence the political process, whether this is for specific favouritism (in this case) or more clearly in trying to affect general policies than affect business (taxation, corporate regulation, industrial relations etc). Just as the unions are perfectly entitled to defend their interests at the ballot box by supporting the ALP, business is also entitled to defend its interests.
Though people like Joo-Cheong Tham worry that this breaches formal ‘political equality’ – how many ordinary voters have $10,000 to spend on dinner with the Premier? – the incentive structure of the overall political system remains strongly in favour of the punters. Correspondingly, the main problem we have is not politicians being bought, but politicians buying votes – such as the Prime Minister’s $94 million a minute handout-frenzy of a campaign speech back in 2004. Voters, not interest groups, primarily decide the future of politicians, and the pollies behave accordingly.
I would be interested to hear what Stephen Mayne and Joo-Cheong Tham make of books like Silencing Dissent. If we accept the argument that governments reward supporters and punish opponents – and I think there is enough evidence that this is a realistic concern to have, though clearly it is not a pervasive practice – then disclosure rules automatically favour incumbents. Yet one of the concerns of the ‘Democratic Audit’ is that the system is rigged in favour of existing governing parties. The preoccupation with form and process that we see in proponents of campaign finance regulation causes them to pay too little attention to actual and likely outcomes, which are the product of entire systems, and not just particular rules.