When an invitation to a $895-a-head fundraising dinner with Liberal MPs Peter Dutton, Jeremy Hanson and Zed Seselja came across Croakey’s desk, it prompted some internal discussions about these types of events and their role in the political process.

A key part of politicians’ jobs these days is to raise campaign funds for their parties. One way this is achieved is through fundraising events, where interest groups pay to attend a dinner or other function where they have the opportunity to meet with key politicians in their area. Ministers and other portfolio holders are the most attractive to lobby groups, in particular in high-spending portfolios such as Defence and Health (Dutton is federal opposition spokesman for health).

So what’s in it for the interest groups who spend close to a thousand dollars a head to spend an evening at the dinner table with their competitors and some (probably exhausted) politicians? It’s clearly not just about access, as they could easily meet with the same politicians privately for nothing, simply by making a few phone calls. It’s also not just about “buying influence”, as $895 is hardly enough to force a policy change or funding commitment (at least on its own).

In any event, it’s often not the policy heavyweights of the party who attend these fundraisers (does anyone seriously think ACT Liberal MPs Seselja and Hanson are going to be holding the purse strings when the Coalition determines its pre-election health funding commitments?).

In general, the groups that attend these events do so as a gesture of goodwill, as part of an overall government relations strategy that recognises that building influence at the political level is primarily about relationships. Lobbying in Canberra has moved a long way away from backroom deals involving unmarked notes in brown paper bags.

“Not all interest groups can afford to spend thousands of dollars trying to influence politicians over some canapes.”

Attending fundraisers can be useful to interest groups by putting the CEO or head of the interest group in front of a key politician to initiate or develop a personal relationship. This can be useful, although it can often be more important to have a positive relationship with the politician’s advisers.

It can signal support for the party in a low-key way, important for groups that don’t want to be seen as politically aligned. Attending a dinner for a policy debate looks less overtly political than providing a direct donation and is also easier to keep from shareholders or the general public.

When political parties lodge their returns to the Australian Electoral Commission, they are not required to identify organisations or individuals attending their party’s fundraising events. This means companies can support political parties via fundraisers without making their donations public.

Of course, any form of political donation is ultimately about seeking influence and promoting the interests of the donor above those of others. This is rightly a controversial issue, and there have been calls from such diverse sources as the Australian Shareholders Association, former Qantas Chief and top bureaucrat John Menadue and legal experts for reform of Australia’s system of political donations.

These critics of political donations raise the equity issues involved with any type of political fundraising. Not all interest groups can afford to spend thousands of dollars trying to influence politicians over some canapes. Equally, not all groups choose to engage with politicians this way.

In the complex world of modern politics, it can be difficult to draw a line between political donations and specific policy outcomes. As the tobacco lobby has found out over the past two decades, no amount of money can stop the tide of regulation and policy-making when both the evidence and public opinion are clearly aligned.

Conversely, some of the most significant recent policy changes in the health and social policy arena (Denticare and DisabilityCare, formerly the National Disability Insurance Scheme) were not the result of big-spending industries throwing money at political parties but were achieved through careful campaigning, bolstered by strong supporting evidence and clear public support.

However, it would be naive to think political donations have no impact on policy and funding decisions. Australia is a long way from the multimillion-dollar “Super PACs” of the US, but the Coalition’s recent dinner and other similar events blurring the line between fundraising and policy-making are opening up an important debate about the future of political donations in the Australian political system.

* Disclaimer: Jennifer Doggett provides consultancy services to Canberra-based government relations firm Cmax Communications. 

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Peter Fray
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