Right now, businesses, individuals, unions and lobby groups are pumping millions of dollars into the election campaigns of the major parties, in an effort to secure the gratitude of the successful party and their efforts to protect the interests of donors.
Some of them, we know. The parties’ investment arms will provide hundreds of thousands of dollars — unless there’s open warfare in the party, such as the unfortunate split between the Cormack Foundation and the Victorian Liberal Party in recent years. Trade unions will deliver millions of dollars across the country to Labor branches, with the SDA, United Voice and the CFMMEU likely to feature as the dominant donors. We also know that three sectors will probably dominate the ranks of private donors: the big banks, the clubs sector and the big four accounting firms.
Otherwise, we know nothing, and will learn nothing until February next year. And that’s a relatively short period by normal standards to wait to find out who tried to influence the election — if the election had been held later in the year, many donations wouldn’t be reported until 2021, halfway through the next parliament.
Even in February, there will be much that remains hidden. The Coalition refuses to disclose donations below $13,000, enabling Liberal and National branches to potentially receive collective donations totalling the best part of $100,000 with neither donor nor recipient required to reveal them. Over the last decade, the Coalition has repeatedly stymied efforts initiated by Labor to improve the reporting of political donations.
After the election, a re-elected Morrison government or a Shorten government will be able to sit down with donors, or key business and union figures, to discuss policy in complete secrecy. Unlike a large number of jurisdictions such as Canada and the UK, and states like Queensland and NSW, there are no diary disclosure laws for federal ministers, so voters can never find out who has tried to influence them. And such laws generally only apply to ministers anyway; crossbenchers who hold the fate of legislation in their hands can meet with any figures, no matter how shadowy, without fear of it being made public.
Efforts to use the limited existing transparency framework at the federal level are also becoming increasingly difficult: the Public Service, taking its lead from the current government, is increasingly hostile to the Freedom of Information process and resists requests, daring applicants to use the laborious appeal framework to extract documents that, often as not, will be heavily redacted; senior public servants themselves, in an affront to democracy, have spoken of their opposition to FOI laws as being a restriction on their capacity to offer quality advice.
And in cases where actual corruption might occur, or where there are serious questions relating to the conduct of ministers or public servants, there is a limited toolkit to expose it. There are now, thanks to Labor’s previous time in office, public sector whistleblower laws, though these don’t protect intelligence officials who expose crimes carried out under the guise of national security. But the Australian National Audit Office only has limited powers and cannot compel public servants or politicians to give evidence.
Senate committees are tainted by partisanship and government senators can protect ministers and public servants at estimates hearings. And there is no federal anti-corruption commission. Labor has committed to one; the Coalition, dragged kicking and screaming to the idea, has proposed a pathetic in-name-only body. The fact that the Coalition appointed Margaret Cunneen as an adviser on its so-called anti-corruption body says much about how serious it is about such a body.
The Australian political system is rigged. We tell ourselves we have better standards of public conduct than many other countries and lecture developing countries about good governance, but soft corruption pervades the way business is conducted in government, from local through state to federal. It’s bad under both sides — Labor has its own pro-coal, anti-climate action push from major donor CFMMEU — but it’s much worse under the Coalition because of its core links to business and the Nationals’ toxic disposition to handouts to their mates.
Voters know it. It’s why there’s such a widespread conviction that the system works for special interests and those with connections, not them. Politicians themselves know it — it’s why in opposition they repeatedly call for royal commissions. Labor has at least embraced an idea long urged by the Greens, of a federal ICAC, but how much it will be watered down if Labor is elected remains to be seen. And at the moment the challenge is even to stop the erosion of existing transparency measures, let alone put in place better ones like meeting diaries.
The absence of such issues in the election campaign represents a blind spot in our polity: the focus on policy obscures how the processes of both developing and implementing policy are skewed by powerful interests and minimising that distortion will both improve policy and give voters a greater sense that the system isn’t rigged against them.