Australia’s federal government is corrupt. Not in the brown-paper-bags type of corruption, although that has been known to happen, but in what is called ‘soft’ or ‘grey’ corruption, where the results are the same—perversion of policy outcomes in favour of vested interests, misallocation of taxpayer money, regulatory favours—but the methods are entirely legal, secured through effective exploitation of links with decision-makers.
That pervasive soft corruption is a product not of bad individuals—though there are many of those—but the result of the systems that we’ve put in place in our democracy. They’re the consequences of the incentives we’ve built into the kind of politics we have in Australia. We’ve outsourced our democracy, to save ourselves the hard work of having to be informed and engaged and run it ourselves, relying on a system that automates how the country is governed without much in the way of effort by its citizens—sufficient that we’ve been able to set it and forget it.
Except that there are some interests that, unlike us, are very engaged indeed. They’ve observed how the machine works, they know what certain levers do, what happens when particular settings are tweaked, how to manipulate the controls to deliver what they want. And they’ve done so comfortable in the knowledge that they’re in no danger of being exposed or of being challenged. Like most outsourcing, someone makes a lot of profit from delivering a poor service. Except the costs and consequences are vast. To understand it, you need to examine the system in detail, and how it has been built over the decades. Only then can you see how vested interests are able to manipulate its controls to get what they want. So let’s examine how this system was born.
Why do politicians not look like the rest of us? Why are our representatives not, well, representative? The bizarre gender imbalance of federal politics is well known, and primarily a product of the Liberal Party’s dearth of women (and, in the House of Representatives, the Nationals’). Just 21 per cent of the Liberal Party’s Reps MPs are women, and 37 per cent of its senators.
But federal politics lacks the diversity of Australian society in other ways. The Human Rights Commission found in 2018 that just 4 per cent of federal parliamentarians were from a non-European background, compared to 21 per cent of all Australians; 78 per cent were from an Anglo-Celtic background compared to 58 per cent of the population.
And legal degrees dominate parliament— earlier in 2021, the Guardian reported that 50 per cent of Liberal members had a law degree, and nearly 40 per cent of Labor members; commerce and finance degrees were the next most common type of degree, particularly among conservative MPs. A greater proportion of major-party parliamentarians hold law degrees than the proportion of all Australians with a higher education degree of any kind.
Politicians are also in a very small minority in another way (no, not their incomes, which are, at more than $200,000 base salary per annum, in the top 2–3 per cent of the workforce): they’re joiners. In particular, joiners of political parties.
Hardly anyone joins political parties anymore. Political membership numbers for all parties remain mostly secret, except in New South Wales where parties are required to disclose their numbers. Extrapolating from the NSW data, less than half of 1 per cent of Australians are members of a political party. That’s down on even just a few years ago, when around 1 per cent of citizens were party members.
It’s the nature of a democracy that power flows into the hands of those who get involved. We’re not ancient Greece, where office was allocated by sortition among citizens, and elections were regarded as anti-democratic and oligarchic. But in recent decades, fewer and fewer Australians have wanted to get involved with formal political organisations. Trade union membership and political party membership have fallen dramatically, leaving the major parties and even the Greens with a greying membership base.
And yet political parties remain the dominant mechanism for election at all levels of government. At the moment a widespread number of campaigns, under the banner of ‘Voices of ’, are seeking to elect independent members in, usually, metropolitan, Liberal-held seats. They face an uphill task to add to the current five crossbench members of the House of Representatives (excluding Liberal defector Craig Kelly), or around 3 per cent of the lower house.
The path to power in Australia—to making a contribution to public life and playing a role in the task of governing in the national interest—is thus almost entirely through small institutions that few if any of us join. And these institutions have worked to make themselves ever more insular and ever less accountable, sealing themselves off from the citizenry in a bubble in which they can function with relatively limited input from the electorate at large. We’ve outsourced our politics to a small industry of people who operate in a highly specialised sector, which can continue to function almost in the absence of any meaningful role for citizens.
It was different in the mid-twentieth century, when political parties were truly mass membership entities. As late as the 1960s, 5 per cent of Australians were members of a political party. The decline in trade union membership began much later, from 1990 onwards.
What drove this collapse in engagement? It’s not that people stopped joining things: they still join other things in large numbers—activist organisations such as GetUp!, football clubs, NGOs. But the decline in party membership might have reflected a change in political perceptions arising from a significant improvement in living standards across the 1950s and 1960s, which meant working-class people may have felt less need to be specifically represented by a party devoted to their interests, and middle-income people felt less threatened by a class-based political system.
Politics stopped being a contest between a party of the working class and a party of the middle class, and increasingly became about managing the economy to benefit everyone. It also meant political parties had to shift from being representatives of sectional interests to trying to appeal to a wide-enough cross-section of voters to secure office. There’s now only one major party left that is explicitly opposed to the idea of the national interest in favour of sectional interests, the National Party.
But from the 1960s onwards another factor might have played a role. Television, more than radio and much more than newspapers, enabled political parties to reach large proportions of the population without a physical presence. Doorknocking, handing out how-to-vote cards and other forms of on-the-ground activity were still important, but a television advertising campaign, and shaping the images voters saw each night on the evening news bulletins during an election, came to be crucial elements in the winning of political office, regardless of the size of a party’s membership.
For that matter, the party membership might even be perceived as a potential threat to the winning of office. In the Hawke years, the management of the ALP national conference by figures such as Graham ‘whatever it takes’ Richardson to present an image that complemented that government’s electoral strategy became standard. Motions that might have embarrassed the parliamentary party were to be defeated or pre-empted; protests that might have caught the attention of the media were deterred; debates were to be carefully stage-managed to preserve intact the authority of the leadership. Anything else was considered likely to feed an impression of a party divided, when throughout the 1980s it was the Liberal Party, in which a life-or-death struggle between moderates and the right was ongoing, that was meant to be the party of disunity.
Politics as an active, real-world, community effort of campaigning, rallying and debating was replaced with politics as performance and spectacle, and a large membership base suddenly became, at best, redundant. But political parties with relatively small membership bases, and which have to compete in expensive forms of media, such as television, to influence voters, need money. One obvious source is donations, where the ALP had an inherent advantage over the Coalition parties in being able to draw on trade union donations and affiliation fees.
Labor in the 2000s also proved adept at cultivating emerging sources of funding, such as the Australian Chinese community and wealthy figures from Hong Kong—even, later, mainland China—who came with very deep pockets and six-figure cheques for the likes of the NSW ALP. But the Liberal Party could call on Australia’s biggest corporations, along with its wealthiest individuals, to make up the difference and, in time, it caught up with Labor in areas such as foreign donations.
Donations provide an uncertain means of funding, however—they peak in election years and are affected by whether issues affecting particular wealthy industries are on the agenda. For a political party to function effectively, it needs more reliable sources of income to fund ongoing work that happens between elections—focus groups, internal polling, paying permanent staff.
The major parties both established investment vehicles to develop ongoing revenue streams regardless of donor enthusiasm. And they began shifting donors from one-off donations or single-event attendance to ‘subscriptions’ for packages of events guaranteeing a series of opportunities to meet with frontbenchers (handily, not declarable under Commonwealth donor laws).
Best of all, in 1983, public funding was introduced, whereby political parties would receive a set amount for each primary vote they received in an election. Back then it was 60 cents per vote. It’s now $2.87 per vote, which in real terms is growth of around 45 per cent. After the 2019 election, taxpayers gave more than $69 million to political parties.
One of the reasons such payments are so lucrative is that politicians force us to vote. Whatever your views on compulsory voting, under the Australian political system it guarantees tens of millions of dollars flow to political parties. You get fined if you don’t show up on election day and cast your ballot so someone—unless it’s a minor party—will get $2.87. More than one-third of us prefer not to show up on election day but cast a pre-poll ballot, something that infuriates the political parties because it messes with their advertising campaigns, so they’re now moving to restrict early voting.
With donations, their own investments and millions of public funding every election, the major political parties could overcome the problem of being hollowed out by political disengagement and declining memberships. And they were unlikely to endure much scrutiny for the ways in which they generated revenue: the major source of scrutiny was the media, but the media was the primary beneficiary of that revenue, because the bulk of it flowed into their coffers in election advertising spending. From the point of view of major media companies and particularly the free-to-air television networks, the richer political parties were, the better for them.
And political parties have also proved adept at shielding themselves from other kinds of scrutiny. The major parties devote a lot of money to destroying your privacy— they have detailed files on every voter in every electorate to guide their campaigning and advertising, but you’ll never be allowed to see what they’ve compiled about you using taxpayer funding, or the uses to which it is put, because they’ve exempted themselves from privacy laws.
Moreover, low memberships created the conditions for a new kind of political actor, who relied on small branch memberships to increase their power—branch stackers and careerists. For such people, a hollowed-out party is preferable because it is easier to exercise a degree of control compared to a party that has a strong and active branch membership. Members purchased with brown paper bags of money in Melbourne car parks are far more useful than real people who might object to policies, dislike a candidate or vote the wrong way. The result is, in effect, that we have outsourced the political process to a relatively small group of people, who bill us for the cost of tendering for our support every few years.
This class is also increasingly professionalised. Over the first century of Australian federation, political representatives became less blue collar and more white collar, and increasingly drawn from professions such as law. Between 1901 and 1987, the ALP went from a party evenly split in its parliamentary representatives between those from manual and non-manual occupational backgrounds, to one almost completely dominated by non- manual backgrounds; the Nationals have seen a similar transformation.
But in recent decades, the proportion of representatives who enter parliament from a political role of some kind, rather than from working in the real world, has surged. By 1999, the proportion of federal representatives from a political or union background totalled around 45 per cent. The parliament elected in 2013 had a similar number, from a political background, around 41 per cent, although that disguised a big difference between the major parties: more than 60 per cent of Labor MPs and senators had entered parliament from a political or union background. And the link between being a trade union official and a Labor MP remained despite the massive decline in trade union membership.
The real story is bigger. There’s now an entire career to be made in what we could call the governing class, which is far wider than merely being an MP, encompassing being a political staffer, party executive, statutory board appointee, lobbyist (around 40 per cent of registered lobbyists are former political staffers or MPs), consultant, peak body executive or even media commentator.
For example, the following career progression is not merely entirely possible but describes, in varying ways, a number of people on both sides of the current parliament who work in Canberra: student politician, trade union researcher or Young Liberal branch stacker, political staffer, MP, parliamentary secretary, minister, lobbyist or government relations executive at a large corporation, consultant for a firm relying on government contracts, statutory board appointee, industry peak group chair, commentator on Sky News or newspaper columnist.
This is partly driven by fairly common and understandable factors that apply across many professions. People tend to make careers in particular fields, because they have some aptitude or, having wound up in one by chance, develop connections, industry-specific expertise and a CV that is attractive to employers in that field. The same applies to politicians: if you’ve been a minister, you know how the sausage factory works. And merely being in parliament gives you connections within parties and governments. Inevitably, politicians who leave parliament or lose their seats will gravitate to a job that exploits their CV, connections and expertise, like in any other profession. And the more that politicians come from political backgrounds rather than real-world jobs, the less likely they are to leave the field if they lose their seats.
But politics isn’t any other profession. The skills involved in these governing-class occupations all relate to one thing: influencing the direction of taxpayer funding, and the skewing of regulation. All of these jobs involve some form of influence peddling, or relate to the achievement of influence-peddling via rewards.
All occupations of any specialisation are inscrutable to outsiders, involving skills and tasks most of us have no strong grasp of. But the profession of governing is particularly inscrutable. Few voters, if any, understand how laws and regulations are drafted, and then passed through parliament. Few voters, and even very few political journalists, understand the policy process, how policies are developed, costed, approved and implemented. Few know the different ways governments spend money, and the different rules that apply to each. No-one outside Canberra and ministerial staff knows the detailed workings of the machinery of government.
Understanding how the system works, what levers to pull to produce a financial or regulatory outcome, is power, wielded almost completely behind closed doors, out of public sight. In Canberra, no-one knows when lobbyists, CEOs or peak body representatives meet with ministers or with cross-benchers who could be the difference between a bill failing and passing. No-one knows what happens in cabinet meetings for decades, unless someone decides to leak. No-one knows how ministerial staffers shape the advice they get from the public service. No-one can even question staffers, unlike politicians or public staffers.
This makes members of the governing class particularly appealing to corporations, which can offer a range of inducements to them to secure cooperation in achieving preferred outcomes from government. Not merely can they offer donations, which political parties need in order to function in the absence of large memberships, but they can offer lucrative employment as lobbyists or advisers—even board directors—after public life as incentives to maintain positive relationships while they hold power. The former regulator takes a role with the industry they once regulated; the naval officer who worked on a major defence procurement project goes to work for the successful tenderer, the former minister joins a Big Four consult- ing firm, the climate-denialist politician is rewarded after leaving politics with director-ships of mining and energy companies.
We thus have a system of incentives that encourages influence peddling: political parties that need donations; politicians and staffers who want to retain jobs in their area of expertise if they leave parliament; people who learn how the system works and which levers to pull to deliver outcomes; corporations that stand to benefit enormously from decisions about the allocation of funding or the presence or absence of regulation; and a lack of transparency about areas such as donations, ministerial meetings, cabinet discussions and revolving-door employment.
As they say in the classics, what could go wrong?
The two major parties aren’t exactly alike in their incentives. The ALP draws heavily on trade unions for donations and affiliation fees, in contrast to the Liberal Party, which draws on corporations and wealthy individuals. This inevitably skews policy—unions play an important financial role in Labor and form a part of the Labor membership, thus influencing policy internally. The Liberal Party relies on donations, though businesses do not form part of the party beyond sharing office bearers with some high-profile corporations.
In practice, this plays out as Labor favouring the interests of workers and industries with strong and influential unions—which is why Labor continues to support assistance for manufacturing, where two powerful unions, one left (the AMWU) and one right (AWU) hold sway—while the Liberals favour the interests of large corporations. There is some overlap—fossil fuel companies donate to both sides of politics, while unions in fossil fuel industries, such as the AWU and the mining division of the CFMEU, also play an influential role within Labor to deter climate action. And the gaming industry readily funds both sides of politics, given regulation of gaming occurs at both state and federal level and it is extremely rare for one side to be entirely out of power at both levels. Since 2010, Crown, for example, has given the Victorian Labor Party more than $177,000 in contributions. It has given the Victorian Liberal Party nearly $274,000. It has paid the WA Labor Party nearly $290,000 and the WA Libs more than $460,000, as well as more than $60,000 to the WA Nationals.
And just as many former trade unionists become MPs and ministers on the Labor side, there are strong links between large corporations and the Liberal Party at the ministerial level as well. For example, between 2013 and now, the Liberals have had four ministers responsible for superannuation who had previously worked at the major banks: Arthur Sinodinos, Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer and Jane Hume. All of them had also worked as political staffers or in political parties: Sinodinos for John Howard; Frydenberg for Alexander Downer, O’Dwyer for Peter Costello, and Hume has been a senior figure in the Victorian Liberal Party organisation.
In addition to having former bank executives in charge of financial regulation, the Liberal Party has received $4.9 million in contributions from the major banks since 2006. This coincides with the fact that the Liberal Party, in its DNA, despises industry superannuation funds and is constantly looking for ways to undermine them, even by undermining the superannuation system itself if need be. Much of the history of financial regulation since Labor undertook serious reform of financial advice in 2010 has been dictated by the Liberal Party’s implacable hatred of industry super and its support for the major banks’ wealth management and financial advice services: its opposition to the Future of Financial Advice reforms; its attempted repeal of FOFA; its gutting of corporate regulator ASIC; its hostility to a banking royal commission; its disastrous shoehorning of superannuation into the banking royal commission, its attacks on default super, allowing people to withdraw their super during the pandemic; and its attempts to subject industry super funds to different benchmarking requirements to retail funds.
But if self-interest and ideology can coincide in some areas, they don’t have to do so in others. For instance, there isn’t necessarily any alignment between conservative political parties and climate denialism—Margaret Thatcher was an ardent supporter of climate action, after all; Boris Johnson, for all his faults, is an ardent advocate of emissions reductions. But in practice, the Liberal and National parties here have been the home of climate denialism in Australian politics, and the biggest recipients of donations from fossil fuel industries. Since 2000, for example, fossil fuel company Santos has given more than $1.8 million in contributions to the Coalition (twice as much as to Labor). Woodside has handed nearly $1.4 million to the Coalition; Origin $488,000; coal companies more than $900,000 (excluding Clive Palmer’s donations to the Coalition and, later, his own party).
Just as significant, though, are the employment interconnections between fossil fuel companies and the Coalition. Alexander Downer worked for Woodside after leaving parliament—having ordered the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to spy on the Timor-Leste cabinet in order to advantage Australia, and Woodside, in negotiations over access to resources in the Timor Gap. Obscure Queensland senator James McGrath worked for Santos before entering parliament. Scott Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, is a former Rio Tinto and Minerals Council executive. One of Morrison’s senior advisers, Brendan Pearson, is the former head of the Minerals Council, who left when BHP decided his advocacy for the coal industry was too strident for it.
Former Nationals leaders John Anderson and Mark Vaile have both chaired fossil fuel companies—Vaile remains chair of Whitehaven Coal, a large Coalition donor ($140,000 since 2013). Santos has employed a number of former Coalition staffers (including one who moved from Queensland LNP premier Campbell Newman’s office to Santos and then back to Newman’s office). Former Liberal minister Ian Macfarlane is on the board of Woodside and heads the Queensland Minerals Council. Gina Rinehart’s links with Barnaby Joyce are close enough to extend to public handovers of cheques to him and Joyce intervening in her family disputes.
There are also strong links between fossil fuel companies and Labor—former WA Labor treasurer Ben Wyatt is on the Woodside board as well, and Martin Ferguson was barely out of parliament before signing up to head an ‘advisory panel’ to the fossil fuel lobby group APPEA. Labor MP Gary Gray famously worked for Woodside before entering parliament. Senior Queensland Labor figure and campaign strategist Cameron Milner has lobbied for Adani.
But these links disproportionately ‘favour’ the Coalition: a 2018 study by Adam Lucas of the University of Wollongong showed that between 2007 and 2017, 14 former Coalition politicians had links to mining or fossil fuel companies compared to ten former Labor MPs, and 45 former Coalition advisers compared to 29 Labor advisers.
The fossil fuel industry also occupies a privileged position in the policymaking process under the Coalition. In March 2020 Scott Morrison invited Nev Power, a former mining executive and current oil and gas firm board member, to chair his ‘National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’ to advise on economic policy in a post-pandemic environment, with Catherine Tanna, chair of fossil fuel power company Energy Australia, alongside him. The commission was also to be advised by Andrew Liveris, a director of Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco. The commission immediately proposed a commercially unviable trans-continental gas pipeline.
Former Santos CEO Grant King was also appointed by Morrison to review the ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’, the Coalition figleaf for its lack of a climate action plan, and recommended that it be used to fund discredited—but fossil fuel–industry supported—carbon capture and storage technology. King was subsequently appointed to head the Climate Change Authority—a supposed independent source of advice on emissions targets, along with another former Santos executive, Susie Smith. King is a former chair of the Business Council of Australia, a body that, despite claiming to support climate action in principle, has attacked and denounced every genuinely effective policy proposal put forward to reduce emissions, and which welcomed the abolition of the Gillard government’s effective, low-impact carbon pricing scheme.
Thus, the representatives and associates of fossil fuel interests have a stranglehold on all aspects of the policy development process around energy: they are crucial sources of external funding for the Liberal Party; they control the external advice into government; they control the Prime Minister’s Office; they control the notionally independent sources of intra-government advice; and ministers and staffers know that lucrative positions in those corporations, or associations with them, are theirs for the taking when they exit public life.
Fossil fuel companies have brilliantly exploited the key characteristics of an outsourced political process to develop financial links with political parties, control the flow of information into the policy process and influence decision-makers with the prospect of rewards outside public life. Whatever you might think of them, these corporations have been remarkably effective in capturing and distorting Australian democracy for their own purposes.
But while this translates into a refusal to take action on climate change, or a reluctance properly to regulate financial services, or an inability to provide quality aged-care services, or failures in a number of other industries, it’s also bad for the Australian economy per se. In a system where significant advantage can be accrued by influencing policymakers, firms will devote time, resources and intellectual energy to doing exactly that, and their competitors will have to respond similarly. If you spend $20 million a year on lobbyists, a large government relations team, donations and inducements, your competitor will feel obliged to do exactly the same in order to ensure you don’t have a competitive advantage.
It also harms competition: such a system favours incumbent firms with the resources and existing connections to influence decision-makers compared to new entrants that lack resources and connections despite being more innovative or working in an industry with better growth prospects. That’s why free-to-air broadcasters were able to prevent the entry of pay television for many years in Australia, and then ensured they controlled the arrival of digital television to prevent it from threatening their dominance. The commercial TV licensees even briefly tried to convince governments to regulate the internet to prevent it from offering streaming services, though that never flew.
That’s why Australia has deeply damaging ‘anti-dumping’ rules that enable cosseted (and highly inefficient) industries, such as steel manufacturing, to block the import of cheaper products through spurious claims that they are being dumped at below-cost prices in Australia—inflicting massive costs on Australian businesses and consumers. That’s why Australian media companies were able to convince the government to shake down Google and Facebook under the guise of stopping content theft.
And, ironically, that’s also why Crown, which had successfully bought political parties and gambling regulators in Victoria and Western Australia, suffered so badly through 2020 and 2021—because in the state where it had failed to control policy- makers and regulators, New South Wales, it was exposed as having systemic failures so egregious that Victoria and Western Australia were forced to commence their own inquiries.
This is not democracy. The views of voters act only as vague guidelines as to what large donors, influence peddlers and the well connected can get away with, but there’s plenty of room to move within them. It took more than a decade of egregious bank misconduct, including ruining thousands of lives, before the government agreed to call a royal commission, despite big banks being widely loathed and repeated examples of scandal and criminal conduct being revealed. And for much of that time, Labor didn’t sup- port an inquiry into the banks either. Only when Nationals MPs began expressing inter- est in a royal commission was one called. And there’s consistently strong support for greater climate action by Australia among voters, but that means nothing for a government controlled by fossil fuel interests.
That it’s not democracy isn’t a mere rhetorical point, it’s a significant issue in any discussion of how to wind back this stranglehold of powerful interests. One of the mechanisms by which this stranglehold can be broken is to remove elected officials from the decision-making process and appoint independent experts who have less incentive to serve the interests of those seeking to influence them.
This principle is already applied in a number of areas: politicians do not directly regulate broadcast media, for example, but leave that to an independent agency. Drugs and vaccines are assessed not by politicians or bureaucrats controlled by them but by independent medical experts. Monetary policy is set by independent experts at the Reserve Bank, rather than politicians making decisions about interest rates and the value of the currency.
It has also been applied in New South Wales in land development processes, with local planning panels replacing local councils as the key decision-makers for major developments, in recognition of the long history of scandalous misconduct and bribery of local council officials. It’s also the thinking behind independent Sydney MP Zali Steggall’s bill to establish a genuinely independent climate authority to set emissions reductions targets and ‘carbon budgets’ to frame government emissions policy—a proposal that received support from business groups.
Removing decision-making from politicians and handing it to unelected experts raises questions about democracy; in Sydney, local councillors have complained about independent local planning panels being ‘pro-development’, that is, resisting NIMBYism and failing to heed the views of local communities that tend reflexively to oppose higher density development anywhere near them. And politicians accused of pork barrelling now justify it by saying that’s the price of winning elections in a democracy.
But if the existing system that relies on politicians making decisions isn’t democratic either, this objection falls away. If, for example, Steggall’s bill were not merely passed but dramatically expanded to create a completely independent authority responsible for not only assessing emissions targets but also for identifying the most effective way to achieve them and to implement those with full powers of taxation and regulation, the contrast with existing process would not be technocracy versus democracy, but of technocracy versus a kind of kleptocracy, in which policy can be bought with assiduous deployment of resources.
Similar arguments can be made elsewhere—should politicians be allowed to allocate funding for infrastructure projects, when all they do is pork barrel them—would there not be value in politicians identifying infrastructure priorities and a global sum of money, and then having an independent infrastructure investment authority handle it from there? Should they be permitted to decide which education subsectors receive funding based on political considerations rather than outcomes, when an independent education funding authority could allocate funding with a greater focus on education outcomes?
Clearly politicians will not vote to disempower themselves completely and elevate parliament to the role of mere guideline setters. But if we accept, as we already have, that there are some things too important to be left to venal politicians, some issues are plainly on the same level as monetary policy. Climate policy is one such.
In a way, replacing politicians with more reliable decision-makers is the shortcut (and technocrats may turn out to be no less venal than elected officials). The long way around is to address the means by which vested interests insert their hooks into those in elected office. Some jurisdictions already accept the idea that political donations are an unhealthy
means of influencing decision-makers. New South Wales has banned donations from property developers—a ban upheld by the High Court, which noted how frequently that state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption has investigated property development corruption scandals. Malcolm Turnbull has suggested limiting political donations to individuals and to $5000—removing at a stroke the capacity of corporations or high-wealth individuals to curry favour with politicians. Ministerial meeting diaries are available to the public in New South Wales and Queensland, and the NSW ICAC has recently recommended a significant strengthening of diary requirements and their extension to all lobbyists.
Those changes relate to democratic processes, but don’t really address the incentives and structures that make those processes exploitable. They’re the equivalent of trying to regulate better an outsourced public service, while leaving intact the capacity of the provider to profit from it. Until voters in- source democracy again, the hollowed-out structures that incentivise making policy in the interests of those who can obtain access and influence will remain. In a democracy, power belongs to the people who turn up. At the moment, too few people are turning up. And even fewer of them are interested in the public good.
Bernard Keane has covered politics for Crikey since 2008. He is the author of The Mess We’re In, Surveillance and Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit.