Opinion

Royal commission needed on political donations

Australia needs a royal commission into political donations. satpa.pe/ZF2QhE

It is not people in different clothing, of different cultures, with different languages, or of different religions that anyone need fear. If you look back on our political history, we have been divided by silly suspicions before. The “fear and smear” of others has been tried on South Sea Islanders, Chinese, Aboriginal Australians, and now women of Islam. History shows the current debate is not new. It merely picks away at that same old xenophobic scab our culture carries.

No, the greatest threat to Australia’s future is not among its people. The people, when allowed to know each other, seem to get on fine. 

The real threat is within government itself. It is the increasing corruption of our public decision-making by influence gained through record levels of private donations. The only colour Australia needs to fear is the colour of money in its democracy. Chequebook decision-making is the silent killer of necessary reform.

Of course, it’d be easier to deny and ignore it. But by doing so, we choose a lower living standard for Australia’s next generation. We fail our children if we convince ourselves this fight is just all too hard and worthless. Because today, regardless of your religion, your colour, of whether your wardrobe is a burqa, a nijab, or skimpy red Speedos, rampant political donations are impacting on how we are governed. And we need to find a way to change that. Like signing and sharing a good old-fashioned petition for a start.

Such a commission wouldn’t be quick. It would take at least a couple of years to be done properly.

But bloody hell, we need it.

We need a royal commission because the only other option is to trust “the system” to self-regulate. By leaving this long-overdue clean-up of the “corruption by donation” of Australian policy to the worst offenders –
political party leadership and their respective head offices – we’ll simply fall for the same pea and thimble tricks that have added to the complexity of the current electoral laws. We’ll end up with a convoluted, short-term bag-of-trickery reform. It’ll probably look good on paper, it’ll probably buy some time for one side to get through the next election, yet it’ll be full of fine print, caveats, conditions and exemptions that in real terms mean business as usual. 

As the latest example, we can all see NSW Premier Mike Baird positioning himself nicely as the cleanskin who will, sometime soon, announce another round of “hard-hitting” reform to stamp out corruption. Just as Barry O’Farrell and Bob Carr did in elections past. Cough, cough – bullshit – cough, cough.  

No, the best place for both the sustainable and substantial clean-up that is required lies with the powers of a royal commission. Symbolically, it places the issue in the hands of the Crown – the “independent umpire”’ of authority. 

The letters patent process associated with royal commissions can be the circuit breaker to the funding arms race in which both major political parties are trapped. Remember, after both the 2010 and 2013 elections, in the conveniently tangled paperwork that makes up our electoral donation declarations, we learnt the two major parties are now spending about $100 million an election. Heck, I’d want some policy kickback for that sort of coin, and we’re naive to think others don’t.

It would take a very special party official to keep a straight face in suggesting this sort of money doesn’t buy policy direction. Of course it does. It is now, more than ever, the whole point.

I saw these “coincidental” donations with my own eyes. Look at the timing and the size of the Packer family donations when Andrew Wilkie’s poker machine legislation was in its 11th hour. The Liberal National Party picked up at least $300,000 just days before Tony Abbott and James Packer met to discuss the issue.

 Even Bob Katter’s Australian Party picked up $250,000 due to a shared love of “Red Ted” Theodore that was discovered during a private meeting between Katter and Packer. Believe that and you’ll also enjoy the pigs flying past your window right now.

And it wasn’t just them. Union slush funds directly determine who gets into parliament for the ALP, and control what decisions are made. It nearly brought down the 43rd parliament with the intrigue of Craig Thomson. 

Then there is the late Paul Ramsay, one of the biggest LNP donors, who aggressively opened his pockets when the private health insurance debates were on. Or the various industries – such as alcohol and tobacco – when new tax models, or plain packaging, were being considered. Famously, it was the coal industry, not Tony Abbott, who killed the mining and carbon laws, both through direct donations or third-party advertising. 

Neither facts nor evidence stand any sort of policy chance against this tide of money. And it’s all legal. I don’t accuse any individual or industry of anything other than trying their luck. Where fault does lie is with the members of parliament themselves, who are now accepting private largesse at record levels. The system is so fragile they privately defend themselves by saying there is no other way to get elected now.

In proposing this petition (online at satpa.pe/ZF2QhE) I accept royal commissions are currently a bit contentious. Some say the trade union commission is a “Get Gillard” partisan play, just as the home insulation commission was an attempt to “Get Rudd”. 

In response, I would argue that in knowing both former prime ministers, they are big enough to handle questions thrown at them on any topic. Auditing of government administration through independent inquiry should always be welcomed by those confident of no wrongdoing. In the raw politics, a national character reference of petty, partisan and wasteful “get-squares” will define Prime Minister Abbott if the commissions don’t scorch the Labor years in the way he wants. We’ll just have to wait and see where the political spotlight lands.

We should not forget the legacy decision of the Gillard years – her extremely brave decision to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. All those previous “family values”, married, church-going prime ministers who turned a blind eye have been shown wanting by this one decision from Julia Gillard, the very same person unfairly attacked as lacking the capacity to love children. No greater love has been shown for Australian children by any prime minister as compared to this one royal commission decision. It is her greatest legacy.

In this same vein, a commission on political donation reform could be a similar legacy issue for the current prime minister. No greater respect for democracy could be shown than by initiating an honest, independent and broad examination of the influence of donations on decision-making. Sadly, Abbott’s current responses to calls for a federal ICAC should leave no one holding their breath.

I can hear some of you saying political donation laws are outside the scope of royal commissions. Australian political history disagrees with you. We’ve had royal commissions into butter (1904), tobacco (1905), fruit (1911), several into the sugar and insurance industries, the constitution (1927), coal (1929), petrol (1973), Australian government administration (1973), and even full-blown inquiries on several occasions into nothing more than “particular press statements”. 

My personal favourite on pushing the scope goes to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships (1974), closely followed by the commission into “circumstances under which certain public monies were used, and when, and to whom, and for what purposes such monies were paid”(1941).

By comparison, political donation laws are quite within the scope. There are no rules on royal commissions. They can be as wide or as targeted as desired. 

We’ve even had a royal commission into a single man – Jacob Johnson (1931), which is a timely reminder of the politics of trying to throw people out of Australia. This “Pommy” Seamen’s Union official must have really annoyed those with power, because Team Australia wanted him deported so badly they moved specific legislation to punt him. 

His case, among many, proves political vendettas are not new. What is new, and is a real and immediate threat to our nation’s future, is the sheer quantity of cash now pouring into the campaign funds of Australia’s decision-makers. NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption is exposing just the tip of the brown paper-bag iceberg. 

Because the bulk of the iceberg is technically legal, and we don’t have any process of inquiry into the links between these growing legal donations and the parallel growth in policy inertia and stupidity, something radical must be done. The evidence trail is strong in showing the bigger the private donation, the more public policy is compromised. That is not democracy. That is corruption. A royal commission is needed to fix it.

Please sign this petition online. And share it. And rather than be suspicious of our neighbours on the street, enjoy some unity of purpose with some direct action on government. After all, it’s for the people’s team – called Australia.

satpa.pe/ZF2QhE

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Brown paper lags". Subscribe here.

Rob Oakeshott
was a member of state and federal parliament for 17 years. He is the author of The Independent Member for Lyne.