By Jim Hayes
Chinese political donations in Australia have become big news. Whether they come from Chinese or anywhere else, sinking money into Australia to influence Australian politics is wrong, because it threatens our sovereignty and corrupts the institutions of government.
Focusing on alleged Chinese donations is also wrong. Worse still, it is driven not so much about concern over corruption, as it is to serve a different political agenda. It hides the sad truth that most of the problem stems from Europe, the United States and other parts of Asia. Disregarding this is a distraction.
More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Australia’s wool industry rose on the back of government related and private British investment and influence over the colonial administrations and was behind the rise power of the landed Squatocracy. The problem has been around for a long time.
Only the form has changed since those days, not the substance. It is inevitable, when Australia remains far too dependent on foreign investment to keep the economy operating. In the Eighteenth Century, it was the British textile industry. Today it is the big financial institutions and other multinationals, mining companies among them, that are there to grease the wheels of government.
The connection between foreign government and big business was also present in the second half of the twentieth century. Take the American CIA’s front organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which sent an ongoing stream of money into Australia, , to fund Quadrant, an influential political journal and the CIA bankrolling of the Democratic Labor Party for many years.
They tell part of the story. Another are the direct and indirect overseas corporate contributions.
It is the wider problem that needs to be at centre stage, of the debate on Australian political corruption.
In your face corruption is a reality. A good recent example was revealed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ACAC) in relation to former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi and allegations over lobbying to have leases signed and the provision of licenses, without competitive tendering processes. The point is that this is not so unusual. Obied and Tripodi had the misfortune of being caught out and sacrificed as the fall guys, when there was a rise in public demand to do something about perceived endemic corruption.
Obvious corruption of this sort is on the nose and should be given no quarter.Dealing with this does not mean a blind eye should not be termed to softer and more discreet forms of corruption, which in the long run, are even more damaging.
Australia’s major political parties are highly dependent on funding from big business. Without it, multi-million-dollar election campaigns cannot be run and it does not take a genius to realise that these donations would not be made, unless something is expected in return. Nor should it be a surprise that these political parties are pressured and compromised to act favourably, to keep the cash flowing in.
While in the strict sense of Australian law, this is not defined as corrupt, the charge certainly holds in terms of the wider definition of providing money in the expectation of favours. If this is widespread, the implication is that the political system is corrupt.
To make it worse, the existing disclosure system allows donations to be hidden behind fronts and broken into smaller parcels to sneak below the compulsory disclosure bar. It is a joke.
Other countries get around this through public funding. There are problems with this too. But it does reduce the need for direct corporate donations and is inherently more transparent.
When these donations have long been accepted in the political culture the answer must involve much more than publishing a few bad eggs. Perhaps a clear code of conduct for politicians, together with serious consequences for a breach will help. However, the effect will be minimal, unless Australia’s political institutions and processes are shaken up along the way. Those who would be corrupt must be derived of the opportunities.
Pressed by public opinion, politicians are now talking about some sort of ban on foreign contributions. This will come to nothing, unless there is action to take on the systemic change.
The fastest growing industry in Canberra and the corridors of the state legislatures has been that of the lobbyists, which often act on behalf of the big contributors. The firms involved have a penchant for hiring former politicians and senior public servants, who know the ropes and have the connections, to do the job. They can also offer lucrative positions for those who make the right friends, to be taken up after leaving parliament.
Back in 2015, the former Australian Consumer and competition Commission (ACCC) chairman, Graeme Samuel, cautioned that “A new conga line of rent-seekers is lining up to take the place of those that have fallen out of favour”. He was referring specifically to lobbyists, seeking to influence policy on global warming and company tax.
Another trend has been to diminish departmental expertise by cutting funding and contracting out policy development to private accountancy and consultancy firms, generally multinationals that also have mostly foreign based multinationals as clients.
At one stroke, vested interests are provided an opportunity to write their own policies. It works as another conduit to encourage corrupt influence over the Australian political landscape.
Politicians have a vested interest in the arrangements and while the gravy train continues to roll, it is unlikely that they are going to want to derail it.