There is a strange disconnect between the debate on political donations laws, with yet more regulation proposed by the Prime Minister yesterday, and with the problems faced by Australian governments.
We have plenty of bad policies, yet very few of them have even plausible, let alone proven, links to political donations. As I noted last year, the people who are ‘bought’ in Australian politics aren’t politicians, they are voters. Politicians promise to spend billions to get themselves elected. Many bad or ineffective programs stay in place because they create their own constituencies that fight for them. In between donors and voters, donors lose every time. The incentives in the Australian political system aren’t to favour donors, but voters – donors are only ways of getting the campaign message to more voters.
As this theory of Australian political incentives would predict, there are very few cases of proven improper influence by donors, particularly at the federal level. Joo-Cheong Tham and Sally Young’s book on political finance laws, though proposing a bureaucratic extravaganza of regulation that would require the political parties to employ small armies of lawyers, provides little evidence that they are not proposing a solution to an imaginary problem. They suggest that a long-term donor to the Liberals may have received improperly favourable Ministerial discretion in an immigration case, and note that the unions finance the ALP, but they can’t actually nail a case.
If we are interested in cleaner government, the way to improve decision making is not to attack the democratic process but to minimise the number of decisions that give Ministers or their delegates too large a grey area where improper influence is hard to prove. [Update: A good op-ed from Chris Berg arguing this point for councils.] This has been the general trend in any case, but also deals with the problems of favours and friendship as well as donors.
There has been a fuss in the media over the last week about people buying dinners with senior ministers, but clamping down on this won’t clean up government, it will enhance the power of ‘mates’ who can open doors without money changing hands. In NSW, the mates culture of the ALP, which sees incompetent people preselected and made ministers, is a far bigger problem than a few crooked developers, and campaign finance reform risk making the party hacks even more powerful. Their door opening will accumulate even more favours that have to be repaid.
Unfortunately, the Wollongong saga of council corruption is just what the political moralisers who want more regulation were waiting for. Expect to see further reductions of democratic freedoms pass through the parliament in the next twelve months.