Andrew Giles, the Labor member for Scullin has written a piece for the Guardian entitled ‘As politicians we must lift our game and respond to the frustrations of Australians’1. In the contest of stating the bleeding obvious, this has to be up there with some of the best. He recognises that a big part of the problem is how politicians conduct themselves. Again, this is a statement of the obvious. However, he then states that to repair Australian democracy we have to ‘defend and sustain a vibrant civil society’. Then he goes on to blame the government for the breakdown in civil society, and to some extent this is true. The dogwhistle is too easily brought out, as has been done in recent days by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Health Minister Greg Hunt, and Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy2. All this demonstrates is that there is an election in the offing in Victoria.
Giles goes on to list some of the government’s transgressions such as stifling the advocacy of charities and other groups such as GetUp, and then he mentions donation limits, real time disclosure and bans on foreign donations, and that is it; no elaboration, no solution offered.
While Giles is correct in that a large part of the low esteem in which politicians are held is in part due to their behaviour, it is not simply the way they carry themselves; it is the way they keep getting caught with their snouts in the taxpayer-funded trough; it is the way they are caught lying (usually by omission) constantly; it is the way they bring out the dogwhistle when things get electorally difficult; it is the way they screw the poor and middle classes while giving the wealthy a dream run; it is the way they say they will do something to fix a problem but then do nothing; it is the way they never ever admit a mistake; it is the way they tell you something is a disaster when in opposition but promptly forget about it when in government; and it is the way they always blame their opposition for their own mistakes or for a third party’s. These are just the tip of an iceberg of personal and systemic corruption which pervades Australian politics.
The biggest problem Australian Democracy faces is that ordinary Australians feel disenfranchised and ignored. They feel this because they know that political parties only care about the number and size of their donations. This is so clearly demonstrated by the fact that in 2013, we had a debt ($257 billion) and deficit ($18 billion) disaster3,4, but by 2017 we didn’t, despite the debt being significantly larger at $551 billion, and the deficit being larger at $29 billion5. And yet, the government wants to give big business a $65 billion tax cut, despite over 700 large companies (36% of the total in Australia) paying no tax anyway. The government realises that if they can wave such a tax cut over the remaining corporations who actually do pay tax, those corporations may look favourably upon the government and convince themselves that it may be worthwhile donating to the Liberal or National parties. This is particularly true of the media corporations which, while they may make donations, have a more important role in slanting their commentary towards the government. This seems to have been the case recently in the Fairfax outlets, which have shown a distinct change in direction. This is corruption of our democracy, and while it may not be illegal, it is ethically reprehensible. It only differs in degree from the kleptocracy of Putin’s Russia and now that in the USA of Trump.
The only way we can begin to reclaim our democracy for all Australians, is to prevent anyone but individual citizens from donating to political parties. This would prevent corporations purchasing politicians. Limiting the amount of money per donation, and limiting the amount of donations from any individual to a modest amount per annum, will prevent millionaires and billionaires purchasing politicians. Then politicians will be forced to think about all of us and not just their donors.