(Image: Private Media)

This is the seventh day of The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia. Read the full series here.

The challenge of identifying workable solutions preoccupies Crikey readers responding to our corruption series, with political donations a particular issue.

As Richard Holden points out in his piece today on how the High Court thinks about restrictions on political communications, an outright ban on donations will never get off the ground in Australia. But the jurisprudence does allow room for restrictions that could reduce, if not end, the role of donations in influence-peddling.

The obvious reform is greater transparency, including much lower reporting thresholds, fewer exemptions and real-time reporting.

Another useful addition would be a requirement for political parties to report all fundraising events, who attended and how much was raised, providing greater insight into the bipartisan practice of offering donors private access to decision-makers.

One reader suggested voters strike against parties that accepted donations, but another, Rick Duley, proposed that donations be limited to party members donating around $1000 a year to their local candidate, forcing parties to devote greater effort to engaging electors.

Parties are driven to seek donations by the high costs of television, outdoor and newspaper advertising during election campaigns. Although an increase in public funding — coupled with donation and campaign spending limits — could help parties to rely less on private funds, another solution is to require media outlets to provide a limited amount of free advertising to political parties, reducing the cost of campaigning.

Given how well looked after the major media companies are, and the huge regulatory benefits and funding they receive from government, such a requirement would only be a fair exchange.

Like Duley, Don Latter sees a solution to corruption in more, and more grassroots, democracy. Rather than a panel of unelected experts, he suggests a randomly selected panel of citizens to oversee how government funding is allocated — starting at a local level and then escalating if it proves effective.

The irony of this approach is that a randomly chosen community representative group would be charged with doing what elected and paid politicians failed to do — represent the genuine interests of the community — and inserting a buffer of community input between professional politicians and decisions about resources allocations.

It’s also in line with what might be called the “randomisation of decision-makers” idea put forward by Cameron Murray, designed to short-circuit the tendency of the political class to serve the interests of their peers.

When we held the Crikey Talks webinar last week, perhaps the most commonly asked question was what can people actually do about pervasive corruption. Many of the problems come back to a gulf between political professionals and voters. Politics is now a career and a profession in itself for many politicians, and becoming more so. Like any profession, it has developed its own rules and concepts of what is appropriate and ethical, even if those concepts appear counterintuitive, or even incomprehensible, to outsiders.

Things look different from inside politics: you have to raise funds; you have to consult with stakeholders; you have to make decisions about allocating resources; the views of business leaders and corporate luminaries and trade union officials surely carry more weight than average citizens; you have to keep influential people and media companies onside; you have to reward those who backed you.

The only way for outsiders to address that is to become insiders, to engage and participate more. That may not necessarily be within established political parties, but with local community bodies or interest groups that seek to counteract the push to skew decision-making away from the public interest towards private interests — to reclaim politics from the political class.

No set of rules and regulations and restructuring of incentives will ever defeat corruption. But the more people in the room, the harder it is for vested interests to use that room to their advantage.

Peter Fray

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