Anne Jones writes:

Last week, there was another attempt by federal MPs to tackle the festering problem of political donations and party financing.

Following several other drawn out inquiries and discussion papers that went nowhere, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had another go at finding some common ground during its Inquiry into the funding of political parties and election campaigns.

The key issues raised in submissions by civil society were concerns over the size and secrecy surrounding political donations, and the emerging trend of powerful third parties running multimillion dollar campaigns opposing government policies.

The tobacco industry is unlike any other donor as its products kill people – but this has not stopped all parties from accepting their generous donations.

It is a naïve view to believe that political donations are given for no reason as they are made by donors to gain access and influence to overturn or delay restrictions on their practices.  Recently, the tobacco industry and mining companies have both demonstrated the extent of their deep pockets by funding multi million dollar mass media campaigns with campaign budgets bigger than those of most political parties.

Some witnesses however were left dazed after Committee member Bronwyn “Battleship” Bishop was let off the leash to attack any differing views.

Representing the free world, Mrs Bishop, with all guns blazing, got in early and lashed witnesses, accusing them of being either left wing academics or funded by government, when they were funded by charities.

The chairman’s request for her to stop harassing witnesses was ignored. More was revealed on day three when she dismissed transparency as a buzzword.

It seems little has changed since 1994 when The Lancet reported the “populist right-wing politician” Mrs Bishop, then shadow Minister for Health, supported tobacco advertising, claiming that if it’s legal to buy, it should be legal to sell.

Flashback

Contrary to the overwhelming medical and health evidence, Mrs Bishop preferred to support the views, coincidentally, of one generous donor with the statement: “I say to those people who have made out that tobacco is a dreadful product, make your case. They have not done so”.

The Lancet article, written by Mark Ragg, was kept in the previously secret file records of British American Tobacco with an internal cover letter and now online at http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/guf00a99/pdf

So where is all this heading? Is there any hope that parties might agree on reforms so that come the next election, voters might know who is funding their local member, candidate or political party?

If a donor like the tobacco industry, whose products kills 15,000 Australians a year and with a long history of deceptive conduct, is standing behind a party, then voters have a fundamental right to know in a way that is transparent and timely.

Putting political parties in charge of developing  legislation that affects their party’s financial position is a risky business, but if other countries like Canada and the UK can improve their political systems by making them more open and accountable, then why not Australia?

• Anne Jones is Chief Executive Officer 
Action on Smoking and Health Australia