Voters plead for integrity
Demands for integrity in government are emerging as a key concern in voters’ minds. Opinion polls and chats with friends and neighbours all confirm that Australians want public funds and political powers treated as entrusted for use in the public interest. Those we elect must put the public interest ahead of their personal, private, business, or political party interests.
Christiaan Van Vuuren’s recent ABC TV program Big Deal highlighted the risks to Australian democracy of poorly regulated political donations and campaign spending. Big Deal exposed the huge donations made by business interests and the access that big businesses and industry associations have to ministers responsible for decisions affecting those self-same businesses.
About half of donations remain secret and are not included in the narrowly defined donations reported by the Electoral Commission. Donors who contribute less than about $14,000 (adjusted for inflation) can remain anonymous. Donations can be hidden as extravagant meal tickets. A check of published lists of donors shows that many are companies that do business with government. They benefit from government contracts and approvals. What’s more, they’re a tiny proportion of all companies. In the year of the 2019 election, out of a total of over two million actively trading businesses (30 June 2019), less than 300 were listed as donors to political parties and candidates.
Any donations by registered businesses raise worrying issues. By law, company directors must act in the best interests of their company. How is making a political donation serving any business’s interests? If the business donates hoping that that is in the company’s interests ie that it hopes to receive favourable treatment by the politician or party, is that not attempted bribery? Such favourable treatment could include Government policies, negligent enforcement, and Opposition support for legislation. Again, the everyday voter is at a disadvantage and cannot hope to match the influence of businesses that donate campaign funds or duchess politicians and candidates.
The implications for politicians and candidates are the worst effect. It is a rare politician who likes fund-raising. Most find it distasteful to the very reason that almost all donors want some favourable treatment. That may be simply support from some public policy, although some donors may have fervent beliefs which are pressed uncomfortably. More worrying are the company representatives who, when attending a fund-raiser, press their case for an approval or a grant to the business. These cases are not the ones that have been making the headlines over the years.
The headlines have been captured by political rorts. The Accountability Round Table views a rort as ‘any arrangement or practice that enables, or results in, the misuse of public resources, assets or powers for personal or partisan gain’. The proper use of public resources, assets or powers is for them to be used consistent with the public trust principle and with transparent, reviewable procedures for identified public benefits. Rorts have seen Ministers totally disregard laws, such as the Community Sport Infrastructure Program where sports grants were required to be decided by Sport Australia. Instead, the Minister decided, although there remains suspicion that the Prime Minister’s office had a role. In this case, the Minister did lose her ministerial post until convenient circumstances arose for her reinstatement.
Most concerningly, the Constitution requires that funds allocated must be within the powers created by the Constitution. Despite the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) and other authorities drawing attention to the failure to act legally, government have simply snubbed its nose at due process and barged ahead.
Local communities were the real losers. They had applied for grants in good faith, but Sport Australia’s recommendations based on the published criteria were put aside in an obscure political process. The carpark rorts brought this politicised decisionmaking home to the Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. Sites were selected and funding approved without any proper analysis of need, location, or design.
Again, we see a pattern that corrupts the democratic system and undermines public faith in it. Little wonder that there is such a strong demand for integrity in the Parliamentary system, to be underpinned by a powerful, independent integrity commission.
Adjunct Professor Ken Coghill lives locally and is a member of the Accountability Round Table. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in the December 2021 edition of Eastsider News