From yesterday’s Fin
Many Australians are mesmerised by an inquiry into Wollongong City Council and some of its councillors and staff and developers. NSWs Independent Commission Against Corruption is unveiling a plot which links sex, bribes, blackmail, greed, abuse of office and treachery, to name just a few admitted and portrayed flaws. Political fund raising also features.
The state government has also been implicated, partly because of donations to ministers made by persons being investigated by the ICAC. Concerns are so grave that other doubtful donations and other NSW ministers have been questioned. And voters have been asked to accept that ministers never act corruptly because they say so.
The bad press – Sydneysiders have almost been exhausted by ICACs revelations – moved the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, to propose changes to state laws. Most of these relate to improving transparency of donations made to local government, but Iemmas plans would also ban parliamentarians from organising, collecting and controlling donations. The dirty work would be left to the parties. Be grateful that Iemma says this is but the first step: his proposals allow the corruption involved in state fund raising to continue.
The most offensive money scheme is the practice of selling ministers time. The finest expression of this in NSW is a chook auction where members of the public bid for a meal with a nominated minister, with the proceeds going to the Australian Labor Party. It is no surprise that the more senior and influential of NSW ministers attract the highest bids.
Iemmas proposal would mean that state minsters would appear to be at arms length from the ALPs money raising arrangements. But they would still be central participants. They would be selling government resources – that is how we should view ministerial time – to benefit their associate, their political party. If any non-elected official engaged in the same activity by directing the proceeds of speeches to associates, for example, the ICAC would quickly claim corruption. But the Commission has been reticent about investigating the same fund raising by elected officials, presumably because these practices have been blessed by the two main parties.
Then there is the donation itself. One Wollongong developer not implicated in the ICAC investigations declared on Sydneys local ABC radio last week that any sizeable gift from a developer to a politician was a bribe. Large donors do not give politicians their money to improve Australias democracy. It is equally true that donors persist with their generosity only because they have reaped success from past gifts.
At its worst, large donations are bribes. At its best, these gifts are an insurance payment to ensure that donors receive proper attention, the kind of treatment all applicants should receive from government. Even ministers and former ministers claim that generous donors will get particular attention and will have access to ministers. Again, this is about ministers selling their time; and that is corruption.
It is not as if the ICAC legislation is mean and narrow. It says any conduct of any person (whether or not a public official) that adversely affects, or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions is corrupt. Selling access is clearly encompassed if only because it leads to ministers acting partially, paying more attention to some constituents because they are donors than to others.
And it is not as if taxpayers are mean in their funding of political parties. The Australian Electoral Commission paid $40 million to seven political parties and 15 candidates involved in the 2007 federal general election. The NSW taxpayer paid over $10 million to politicians for the 2007 state election. NSW politicians receive about $8 million a year for their own costs, without including treasurys contributions to them for by-elections. If that is insufficient, Iemma should propose legislation to increase taxpayer contributions. The worse option is to engage in a degrading hunt for donors.
It is amazing that state and federal governments cannot see how their grab for political donations degrades them, their government and their electorates. And it is surprising that anti-corruption agencies ignore this insidious, obscene corruption. It is time these bodies acted; politicians seemingly cant.