Anna Bligh isn’t the first premier to call for a ban on political donations. Morris Iemma made the same call early last year, although his party had different ideas, as it did on some other issues.

But political donations are at the core of political accountability issues.

Today in Sydney, businesses that have forked out $7500 will be able to sit down to brief — 15-20 minute — meetings with senior Rudd Government ministers and attend presentations by some of those ministers, out of the gaze of the media, as an official part of the ALP National Conference. A number of lobbyists have made the point that the “speed-dating” component of the Business Observer section of the conference isn’t much good, because most ministers are relatively easy to meet.

Nevertheless, there is surely something fundamentally improper about a system that allows access to ministers to be a purchasable commodity.

Things are worse at the state level, certainly in NSW, where political donations, participation in various party fora, or attendance at dinners is the normal method of access to senior ministers.

Few politicians like fund-raising. Asked last year if he wanted to move to a full ban on political donations, John Faulkner replied “if you’re asking me if I never want to go to another fundraiser in my life, the answer’s yes.” But politicians and parties are willing sell themselves to harvest donations because of the critical importance of money in election campaigns.

Banning donations, and moving to a system of full public funding of political parties, won’t be popular with the public, since it would require several tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer funding beyond what is already given to parties over the course of the Commonwealth and State electoral cycle — and then there’s local government as well.

The benefit, however — apart from saving the dignity of politicians — would be a removable of the single greatest structural incentive for access-buying and corruption in Australian politics.

The focus on Tony Fitzgerald’s wildly over-the-top claims about how Queensland has barely changed since the Bjelke-Petersen years misses this essential point.

The people of Queensland owe Tony Fitzgerald much. He was responsible for the end of not merely a corrupt government but a corrupt political culture. But his refusal to acknowledge any progress in unrealistic. Moreover, he has glossed over the critical point, which is that we have established a political funding structure which virtually encourages corruption and access-buying.

If Anna Bligh pursues genuine reform in this regard she will have done as much or more than Wayne Goss did in remedying an deeply unhealthy political culture. But as she correctly notes, a national ban on donations is the only really effective way forward. That puts the ball in the court of Kevin Rudd and new Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig — son of Queensland Labor’s chief factional warlord Bill — in the Government electoral reform Green Paper process. And it means the Liberals will have to cooperate.

Don’t hold your breath.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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