Politics for nothing

It’s hard to keep up with the antics of our politicians in recent times. Every day since the budget there have been a series of notable moments. It’s on the news every night, it leads the newspaper the following day, and of course social media is all over it. Star of most of it is Tony Abbott, who demonstrates a greater talent as clown than he does as leader of this country. Given his future is looking shaky perhaps a gig at Circus Oz awaits. I, for one, would pay to see him shot out of a cannon.

Yesterday was particularly rich with incident, led by the already infamous ‘wink’ episode. That’s not the subject of today’s post, but I’m inclined to think it’s more innocent than it looked – which was pretty creepy. I see today many are dismissing it on the grounds that it was misunderstood. That may be the case, but at the very least – and this is being overlooked – it was disrespectful of a woman calling up to tell her story of woe. Maybe he wasn’t being creepy, but he was bloody rude and inconsiderate. Enough said.

Late in the day another story came to light. It was reported that Abbott’s daughter was awarded a scholarship a couple of years ago to a design school where a board member is a prominent Liberal party supporter, and financial contributor. The obvious inference was that she was given preferential treatment as a political favour because of this. Given Abbott has just put up tertiary fees it’s a timely and not a particularly good look .

It’s the sort of thing you see regularly splashed across front pages as if some impropriety has occurred. These are the sort of things that should be noted for the record, though in this case there was a loophole because the recipient was a family member, and not him. That’s a fine point I would have thought.

Now I happen to think this is innocuous too. I’m sure Abbott’s daughter – who ended up with a distinction – was fully deserving of the scholarship. There’s no reason why she should miss out, or be victimised, simply because of her father. The board member claims to have done no more than mention what a good kid she is – they’re family friends. I’m happy to accept that at face value and move on – there has to be some common sense in dealing with these matters.

The problem is that once it’s in the political sphere it gets awkward. I have no doubt that things like this, no matter how innocent, should be declared as a matter of public record, if only to avoid the sort of innuendo now doing the rounds. Donations, gifts and the like should be a matter of absolute transparent reporting.

I’ve been following the ICAC hearings in NSW over the last month, which have been sensational in parts, and, among other things, led to the resignation of Barry O’Farrell as premier of the state. That was the headline impact, but what was also revealed was the extent of corruption in sourcing and managing political donations.

Money is the lifeblood of political parties, particularly come election time. The LNP have traditionally done better out of this because they’re seen (as the last budget just proved) as favouring the big end of town – and so the big end of town gives them bag-loads of money. This is all well and good in theory, especially as every dollar donated has to be reported (though that’s a murky and unsatisfying process).

In NSW developers are explicitly barred from donating to political parties because it is thought they seek to buy influence. Property developments are big money, and a few thousand dollars jammed into the right pocket is a wise investment if the man with the pockets then turns around and grant permits or gives a green light or awards a tender, and so on – you get the picture. Basically it’s seen as bribery.

As it turns out the NSW Libs circumvented that with a fancy paper trail, and by routing donations from developers through the federal office. They still get the money, but rather than being reported as being from a developer it’s listed as coming from the head office. The hearing is still ongoing, but more heads are sure to roll.

It’s a bit of a tawdry story, but somehow not altogether surprising. Politics these days is a rough and ugly business. As I read the reports of this it became clear to me for the first time that this is something that has to change. A system open to such rorting and tainted with the possibility of corruption cannot be a part of our peak political process.

Political parties are not the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. People don’t contribute to them out of pure altruism. Money is given to political parties in the hope of peddling some influence. And, realistically, why shouldn’t they expect that? It may be classed as a ‘donation’, but unless you’re slipping some loose change into a tin most of us expect something in return – and when it’s thousands, occasionally hundreds of thousands, don’t we think we’ve earned that?

That’s the problem unfortunately. Even if it’s not the case, the possibility remains that influence is bought and paid for, and there will always be that doubt. It’s not pure, as it should be.

Of course pollies all over will reject the inference and climb aboard their high-horse – as Joe Hockey did recently. I may be a cynic, but I find it almost impossible to believe that the money doesn’t talk, even if it is out of the side of the mouth.

You want to get re-elected, Joe Blow the property developer comes to you with a brown paper bag to help out. He might not put the hard word on you then, but what about after you’re elected thanks to his help? There’s an expectation on both sides I think, and when push comes to shove the elected member of parliament will likely bow to pragmatic reality and seek to ‘help’ out one of his ‘electorate’.

Look at the last Federal budget as case in point. The miners got looked after – big contributors to the LNP. Tax breaks on superannuation were retained for high earners. Corporate Australia got an easy run. The guys who got hammered are those who don’t have the capacity or resources to get into the ear of the minister – saps like you and me, common folk who, if we don’t have the government looking after us, have no-one really to speak for us.

Is it bribery? Well it’s not quite as grubby and obvious as that.  The mining industry, say, doesn’t make a donation in return for a pledge to do such and such. It’s much more sophisticated than that. Lobby groups make it clear 365 days of the year what each interest group wants from the government. There’s no mystery, no need to hand over a wishlist, the government already knows. And the government knows it’s in their interests to look after these interest groups. If they don’t there might not be any more brown paper bags next year.

This is the fundamental flaw in the system. There are obviously instances of clear corruption, but for the most part the corruption is inherent in the transaction. It has to change. I don’t know what the answer is, but one thing the ICAC hearings have made clear is that there is desperate need of political reform when it comes to donations. Maybe the answer is that it all comes from the public purse?

In any case this is the conversation we have to have, but no-one seemingly is willing to bring up. Why would the politicians who make the law? It’s not in their interest. And unfortunately crusading journalists of yesteryear are much thinner on the ground these days. So it goes unsaid and largely unreported. You have to hope that ICAC continues to raise such a racket with it’s revelations that something just has to happen.

That’ s the sort of thing that should be on our front page – not momentary distractions about school scholarships.