The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.Plutarch – Greek Philosopher
Sam Dastyari first came to national fame during election night in 2013, offering to share a Halal Snack Pack with Pauline Hanson on TV. An offer she brushed off with her customary ignorance and absence of grace. Having read Dastyari’s autobiography, he comes across as anything but ignorant; Well intentioned, maybe easily led and a tad naive, but overall a good bloke with his heart in the right place.
His resignation was no surprise given recent revelations about his dealings with Chinese businessmen who no doubt took advantage of him. Sam Dastyari is no criminal, but he could have been. Or to put it another way, if political donations were seen by the law for what they are, he should have been. But then he most likely would have known better.
Political donations are a scourge on democracy. Viewed from the vantage point of the donor, it is a bribe. It is a bribe because no business, corporation, organisation or individual gives without the expectation or hope of an outcome they favour. Granted, some give because they see it as their civic duty or even sometimes out of the goodness of their hearts, but how can we know?
Donations take many forms; There is a myriad of ways that business (and individuals) can donate to a party or a candidate – lunches, dinners, attending sporting events, flights, holidays, cash, paying school fees, giving to the candidates local bowls club, hookers, legal fees, the promise of a future job or a board position – the list is endless.
Whether she knew about it or not, ‘The Julie Bishop Glorious Foundation’ was not set up just for fun. Chinese mining magnate Sally Zou may well be both fun loving and well meaning, but even mining magnates don’t spend $50,000 on a whim. The Chinese businessmen that paid for Dastyari’s travels may be equally benevolent, but not without intent.
And it is not just about the Chinese, of course, nor only about federal politics. Bribes happen at all levels of government. Talk to anyone in the building game here on the Gold Coast and you get the same stories about how a mere $500 can ‘elevate’ a building application to the top of the pile. And that’s just the small stuff. A major developer I met a few years back told me how council had stalled his project for years because of his refusal to ‘grease palms’ as he put it.
Donations are given to influence a new law, a policy or a regulation or a decision in favour of the donor. Anything from a building permit, speeding up an application process, turning a blind eye, an introduction, a word in the ear of someone in the bureaucracy about to select a vendor for a big project, anything that can be helpful to the interests of the donor.
Regulating woefully inadequate reporting systems is not enough. Real-time reporting, as recently introduced in Queensland, is an improvement, so are caps on donations and trying to ban ‘foreign interests’ donations as the Turnbull government proposed this week. But it is all just the typical tinkering around the edges without recognising the real problem.
Donations (or favours of any kind) fundamentally undermines the democratic decision making process. The immutability of our elected representative is the linchpin on which the integrity of the system is based. Without that the system becomes corrupt. Our parliamentarians, councillors, ministers, premiers and prime ministers should all be beholden to their constituents only, their loyalty to the nation, their state or council. And the voters need to have absolute confidence in the veracity of what they say and do, without fear of favour.
Recognising the magnitude of the problem is the start. Banning all donations to political candidates, representatives and political parties is the simple solution. The argument that running elections and parties is costly and that donations are required is spurious. The few hundred million it would take from the public purse to pay for election campaigns and running political party organisations is a small price to pay for the protection of democracy.
Respect for our politicians is at an all time low. There are many reasons for that, it is a serious issue that requires drastic solutions; Banning donations is one of them.