Political donations reform ignores insider politics big picture

John Warhurst
​June 19, 2017
The revelations that several billionaires of Chinese origin, one an Australian citizen and the other currently seeking Australian citizenship, have sought to influence Australian politics through large political donations have rekindled bipartisan concern to ban such donations from foreign sources.

That it took investigative journalism by ABC Four Corners and Fairfax media to generate such a rush to reform is a reflection on the Australian political class. While it is likely that reform legislation will be introduced and passed before the end of the year that will be only a very partial response to a bigger problem.

The whole Australian approach to political donations and political lobbying breeds corruption and insider politics because regulation of both is ineffective and there is a lack of urgency about making the political process more transparent.

There is an acceptance of close contacts between insiders and those in government and of former government ministers and advisers quickly entering the lobbying industry when their time in office ends. Such a transition is seen by participants as merely an appropriately highly-paid reward for previous government service.

All of this contributes to a culture in which lobbyists and billionaires play an accepted role during election campaigns and in relations between government, parliamentarians and private interests. Within such a culture ethics become uncertain and relationships murky. Insiders are given privileged access to information and decision-making. This is the case in federal, state and local politics.

The Chinese political donations scandal has been framed as a security issue because of the apparent links of these billionaires to the Chinese Communist Party and, by definition, the Chinese government. Such connections raise fears that are not raised to anywhere near the same extent by foreign donations from other sources, whether from our traditional allies or elsewhere.

There is in fact a long history in Australian politics of political donations from outside the country from multi-national businesses with interests in Australia as well as other movements and causes like trade unions, environmental movements and church-based organisations.

Regardless of their ultimate motivations the Chinese billionaires have acted like any other billionaires in trying to influence government. They have spread their money around. They have made donations to political parties, insinuated their supporters into those political parties and sometimes into parliament, made links with sitting MPs and community organisations and recruited former ministers to advise and lobby for them.

 

“Such reactions are par for the course. They are a sign that the political class just doesn’t understand how compromised their acceptance of insider politics as normal has made them.”

 

Both major parties have been implicated. Within Labor the NSW state and federal parties have been closely linked. Senator Sam Dastyari is the most well-known federal Labor figure. When his links with Chinese-owned companies were revealed he was removed from the shadow ministry. On the Coalition side the former trade minister Andrew Robb was snapped up after leaving parliament at a consultancy rate of nearly $1 million per year to advise one of the companies concerned.

Both Dastyari and Robb consider themselves unfairly treated. The former thought his acceptance of financial favours was just careless and trivial, while the latter was apparently dumbfounded that anyone should question his new job on ethical grounds.

Such reactions are par for the course. They are a sign that the political class just doesn’t understand how compromised their acceptance of insider politics as normal has made them. Notably both men had long careers in party organisations before entering politics so they know how the system works.

Foreign influence comes in many forms and Australia is not a political island. However, foreign political donations should be strictly regulated because our domestic politics should be insulated from foreign influence as far as possible. China poses a special concern in this context.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of any parliamentary response which comes down hard on foreign political donations without looking at the bigger picture. If we put our house in order as far as political donations and lobbying in general are concerned we can then better consider those from foreign sources.