Political donations are one of the murkiest areas of our democratic system. These donations often go unnoticed by the general public but can have an impact on our political process. In recent times there has been some welcome scrutiny and focus on this issue, with a growing realisation among citizens that donations might be used by businesses and other powerful players to buy access and influence, gain favours and nudge policy in ways that are in their personal interest rather than in the public interest. At a time when confidence in politicians is at a low point, it is important that the rules governing these donations are rigorous. It is also important that we are paying attention to the level of donations that are being provided to our politicians at a local and federal level.
Here in the ACT, the level of donations that occur locally are not at the same scale as what is occurring federally. Even so, it’s important that we pay attention to who the financial backers of our local parties are, and ensure that our donations disclosure system is transparent and accountable back to the electorate. While donations can be a legitimate way for individuals and organisations to show support for particular political parties, we need to be assured that political parties are not too close, or too financially dependent on those with vested interests.
Last week, Elections ACT released the annual return of political donations to our local political parties. These returns always make interesting reading, and it shows that even in non-election years there is still plenty of money coming into the major parties’ coffers.
These returns show that the major parties are still comfortable accepting money and in-kind donations from pokie venues. In the Canberra Liberal’s case, there are also donations from large consultancy firms, and even property developers. It’s particularly surprising to still see these developer donations being accepted given this practice is set to be phased out by the end of the year as part of the parliamentary agreement between ACT Labor and ACT Greens.
It’s good to see disclosures happen soon after the end of the financial year. However, transparency still seems to be lacking in some cases. For a layperson reading through the disclosures, it can still be pretty hard to understand the nature of relationships between some of these entities. Public searches of some of the key financial backers such as the 1972 Foundation reveal little about these organisations.
With such a high level of distrust across the community regarding the motivations of our politicians, this is one area where politicians can win back trust by demonstrating a high level of transparency and accountability. There is still work to be done to improve donations law, and while it’s good to know that we will soon see new rules in place banning developers donations, this is an area where we have also backtracked in recent years. Of particular concern was the move by ACT Labor and the Canberra Liberals in 2015 to remove the $10,000 cap for donations, despite experts warning at the time that bigger donations leave politicians more open to corruptive influences.
I think we need to see strong laws on political donations to ensure our democracy is not for sale, and our politicians are not tempted to sell access or influence around political decision making. What do you think?
Rebecca is an active member of the ACT Greens and ran as a local candidate in the 2016 Territory Election.