Feb 15, 2016

Mayne: can Cormann (and Stuart Robert) fix our broken campaign finance system?

As a previous advocate of campaign finance reform, it shouldn’t take much to get Turnbull over the line.

Stephen Mayne — Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne

Journalist and Founder

When the February 1 donations dump landed two weeks ago today, I optimistically predicted in Crikey that the stars were aligning for some long-overdue campaign finance reform in Australia. At the time, we didn’t know who would be Australia’s next special minister of state -- the minister responsible for campaign finance -- and we were a week away from the game-changing scandal that engulfed Stuart Robert. On Saturday, Malcolm Turnbull appointed Finance Minister Matthias Cormann to permanently replace Mal Brough. He’d been acting Special Minister of State since December 29. We await to see if Cormann will be anything like John Faulkner, who released this comprehensive 102-page green paper on electoral funding reform in December 2008. Eight years later, nothing has changed and Australia still has the weakest system of campaign finance regulation and disclosure of any Western democracy. With a centralised executive chairman model of governance in Canberra, it was Turnbull, not the special minister of state, who took the running on the Stuart Robert scandal last week, although he avoided committing to any reforms of the donations system. The PM quickly deflected to his departmental secretary Martin Parkinson, and within three days a report had been produced that ended Robert’s ministerial career, presumably for good. However, it was really the universality of the views across the media and Labor opposition that finished Robert off at a political level. When Murdoch tabloids are putting you on the front page all week and editorialising for your resignation, there is nowhere to go. The Robert issue has led to unprecedented media discussion about Australia’s woeful system of campaign finance regulation and disclosure. Seven Network political editor Mark Riley told Insiders yesterday that the system needs reform. Host Barrie Cassidy complained the previous week that it lacked transparency. However, none of this has translated to any direct questioning of relevant federal ministers or the PM. Cormann has been silent and invisible during the public debate about donations, campaign finance and ministerial behaviour. Remarkably, Robert has seemingly got away with his breaches, with no suggestion that his future as an LNP member of Parliament is in question. He hasn’t been forced to provide detailed answers to questions in Parliament or in public, and the Parkinson report has not even been publicly released. Scott Morrison is presumably happy to keep him on as a Canberra flatmate with intimate access to the pinnacle of Treasury policy-making. The Robert scandal is a strong example of the governance gap in Canberra from the failure of successive governments of both colours to establish a federal anti-corruption watch dog. With Robert now on the backbench, it leaves Labor with the only option of going to the federal police, which it did over the weekend. However, these police investigations are long, controversial and don’t operate in public, as is demonstrated by the current situation with Brough. Robert’s selfish decision to tough it out all week, rather than resign on the morning of Ellen Whinnett’s first remarkable Herald Sun splash last Monday, has further dented the whole political class in the eyes of the public. The overall narrative has now become “a pox on both your houses” and “you’re all a bunch of rorters”, which was best captured in this Peter van Onselen column in The Weekend Australian. The Herald Sun’s Shaun Carney was almost as tough in this column, which flogged Morrison for his defence of Robert. Even Joe Hildebrand lampooned Robert in this piece for The Daily Telegraph. Unless the Lib-Lab duopoly get together and tackle the voter perception about rorting, campaign finance and entitlements, the Greens, independents and Nick Xenophon's new party will have some rich anti-establishment turf to work over in the coming federal election campaign. Don’t be surprised if Bill Shorten gets out there early on campaign finance reform, similar to his front-footed work on the tax debate this weekend. Xenophon has achieved his staggering popularity in South Australia on the back of staunchly respecting public funds and keeping the bastards honest. He always flies economy, abhors special interests and has long campaigned for donation reform. Based on his roll-out of candidates against the likes of Tony Abbott and Jamie Briggs, you would expect the Nick Xenophon Team to stand a candidate against Stuart Robert. His safe Gold Coast seat of Fadden enjoyed a 14.19% margin at the 2013 election, although this was distorted by Palmer United polling 14.67%. There are some processes underway that could lead to campaign finance reform, but as The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor lamented last month, these are often frustrated. Liberal-friendly developer Jeff McCloy failed in his 2015 High Court challenge against the ban on NSW developer donations. However, Turnbull seemed cautious when independent Senator John Madigan got another campaign finance investigation up in October last year. This is in complete contrast to NSW Premier Mike Baird, who is fully committed to this package of recommendations from an independent review panel in NSW. As a previous advocate of campaign finance reform, it shouldn’t take much to get Turnbull over the line. An editorial in The Australian, a Laurie Oakes column in next Saturday’s News Corp tabloids, some inquiries by Four Corners, a 60 Minutes special report would all potentially do the job. As Crikey recently noted, the media is as much to blame as anyone else for Australia’s woeful donations laws. If there is no commitment to change from both sides going into the federal election, it will be another media and political failure for the Australian democratic project. Let’s not waste the Stuart Robert scandal.

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10 thoughts on “Mayne: can Cormann (and Stuart Robert) fix our broken campaign finance system?

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s not unexpected, of course, to find there’s no more interest at Crikey than there is among the Capitalist colleagues in genuine reform, so it’s scant wonder so many of your loyal camp followers haven’t been sure how to respond on this thread, is it.

  2. AnisaS

    …the words ‘fox’ and ‘henhouse’ spring to mind.

  3. Dogs breakfast

    Given that we have these computey-type thingies, I don’t expect it would be overly difficult to produce donations data on a regular basis, let’s say 3 months in arrears, just in case there are people there who will need training to find the on-button on their black box screen thingies.

    Then we can look at publishing Ministerial diaries, noting attendees, purpose of meeting ( a pithy one-liner would be more than sufficient), and to help them get their affairs in order, let’s say that could be two weeks in arrears.

    We could even employ computer guys to set it up for them. The only excuse for non-recording of meetings would be ‘national security’. Meetings with political colleagues can all be settled under the heading ‘parliamentary or party business’. I’m not asking them to give up their secrets.

    But no lobbyist or head of a corporate body should ever be able to meet a Minister without the meeting being scheduled and a one-liner at least on discussion topics.

    That might make question time interesting, and government accountable.

  4. Alan

    Does crikey provide Norman Hanscombe an advance copy of the daily articles, so that he many comment on everything first?

  5. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s merely, Alan, that there are so many other subscribers who don’t comment until they can do so on their Office Computers where it doesn’t interfere with their leisure time. This is especially true on Mondays when they’re arriving after a VERY long weekend.

  6. AR

    As much as it may be desirable, we cannot effectively legislate for political finance probity.
    It will simply become (more)opaque & covert.
    As Brekky notes, those computer thingies are vital for at least making the less underground stuff visible.
    Honesty? That’s just cog.dis. as we are talking about politics.
    The only honest politician is one who stays bought.

  7. drsmithy

    As much as it may be desirable, we cannot effectively legislate for political finance probity.
    It will simply become (more)opaque & covert.

    We can if we’re serious.

    An independent watchdog, gaol time for both donors and recipients, and subsequent stripping of all Government pensions and other entitlements for recipients would set the tone appropriately. Make it not worth taking a bribe for *both* sides of the equation, and bribes will not be taken by all but the craziest and most corrupt.

    Politicians should also be prevented from taking any private-industry work related to their portfolios after they cease being politicians, as well, for at least one full election cycle.

    Normally I am not a fan of using extreme punishment to try and deter crime, but it is the only way to deal with non-violent psychopaths.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    The real problem is as you suggest, drsmithy, that there are too many vested interests which make reform difficult, and this isn’t of course restricted to the actions of elected Politicians and/or Political Party bureaucracies.

  9. Peggy Sanders

    What a terrible joke these corrupt neoliberals are.

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