No politician looks good fundraising. It’s an unedifying practice, one they’d prefer to do out of sight of the public, before whom they’d like to preserve a bit of the romance and magic of high office. But even the most statesmanlike MP has to get down and dirty with donors.

But as a rule, it’s not a good look for one side of politics to bag the other about fundraising. Alas, most Oppositions can’t resist having a go at the party in government for exploiting its access to power for all it’s worth to business – which is quite a lot.

All that applies to criticism of Federal Labor for hosting a first anniversary fundraiser later this month. All that and more.

Barry O’Farrell criticised the event because it will only be a short time after the NSW State Government has brought down its mini-budget. “At a time when Kevin Rudd’s working families are about to be slugged by a financially incompetent state Labor Government,” O’Farrell opined, “this sort of extravagance is a bit like gorging in front of a starving family.”

Geez Barry, they’re holding the dinner at the Sydney Convention Centre, not in the lounge room of some battlers in Macquarie Fields.

But then Michael Ronaldson, shadow special minister of state, opened his mouth. Senator Ronaldson is the Opposition’s spokesman on accountability. The dinner, according to Ronaldson, was “the very definition of hypocrisy. Kevin Rudd has made a habit of preaching about how virtuous Labor is in relation to political donations and fund-raising. Now we discover Kevin 08 is selling democracy for $15,000 a table.”

Last time I checked, hypocrisy meant pretending to believe something one does not, a disparity usually revealed by one’s actions. Let’s consider the Government’s actions. Labor is selling access, if not democracy, and making plenty from it. It looks unsavoury, but it’s within the rules — rules laid down by the Coalition. In May, the Government introduced legislation to change some of those rules — reversing the Howard Government’s reductions in reporting requirements for political donations, banning foreign donations and tightening donation and funding processes. It also announced a Green Paper on electoral reform, including a ban on donations.

What did the Coalition do? They effectively blocked the bill by referring it to a committee until June 2009. In fact the committee reported last month — but the Coalition linked it to another inquiry into the 2007 election, due to report next year. In a derisory submission to the inquiry, the Liberals declared they were “opposed to the bill proceeding at this time.” In a dissenting report, Liberal Senators complained that the bill pre-empted the Green Paper, and called for a higher threshold for anonymous donations.

As we know, the Coalition wants to retain the Howard Government’s $11,000+ reporting threshold, which led to a significant drop in the amount of information available about who is funding political parties. It claims that this is because donors are too frightened of reprisals to give money to conservative candidates, but no evidence for this has ever been produced.

Then again, the Coalition hasn’t supported any of the Government’s other accountability reforms implemented by Special Minister of State John Faulkner.

Faulkner introduced a new ministerial code of conduct, including bans on fundraising at Kirribilli and the Lodge and a cooling-off period to prevent ministers from retiring one day and returning the next as lobbyists for the firms they dealt with. Ronaldson bagged the code. “The community will be deeply cynical about their motives,” he said.

Faulkner introduced merit-based selection processes for non-APS heads of government authorities and companies. There was no response from the Coalition, whose record in independent appointments was appalling.

He introduced a code of conduct and Register of Lobbyists. Ronaldson’s response was to object to ministerial staff being blocked from moving directly into lobbying positions, and to claim that Labor would simply ignore the rules.

Faulkner introduced new guidelines for government advertising, and removed the overt political control of advertising established by the Howard Government. The Coalition — responsible for the most profligate and politicised used of taxpayer-funded advertising ever — criticised the guidelines.

Faulkner abolished Freedom of Information conclusive certificates as a prelude to full-blown FOI reform, including the establishment of an FOI Commissioner. The Coalition said nothing about it.

He introduced a ministerial staff code of conduct, described by Ronaldson as “policy on the run”, “toothless” and “unenforceable.”

He cut back on MPs’ printing entitlements. You can bet that made him enormously popular with colleagues. Again, no response from the Coalition.

Faulkner could have done more — the lobbyist register doesn’t include in-house lobbyists, FOI and privacy reform are going to take until 2009-10 and the Green Paper is a long time coming — but he has more than met expectations in improving accountability, reversing the excesses of the Howard years, when accountability became a dead letter, and going further to introduce unprecedented transparency into the Commonwealth Government.

In rather dire contrast, Michael Ronaldson’s main contribution on the accountability front — in between doing the numbers for Malcolm Turnbull and fighting factional wars in the Victorian Liberal Party — has been to repeatedly attack the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff for being married to a lobbyist, to mock a Prime Ministerial staff member as a “valet”, claim another staff member was working for Therese Rein’s private interests, and to join Connie Fierravanti-Wells at Estimates in chasing the Prime Minister’s pets around the grounds of the Lodge.

If the Coalition doesn’t like the ALP raising funds, perhaps it should drop the cynical politics and get serious about backing electoral donations reform. But, in their case, supporting any sort of improvement in accountability would be a start.

Peter Fray

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