Donorocracy and corrosive lies


Crispin Hull

Guest Columnist

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In the first week of February every year the Australian Electoral Commission releases the details of the annual donation returns for political parties and candidates for the previous financial year.
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This is a new word. It describes Australian democracy to a tee. The word is “donorocracy”.

It means rule by donors. These donors give money to the major parties who in turn do the donors’ bidding. The donors rule.

Nearly every policy failure at Federal or State level has a parallel donor, especially going to the Coalition side federally, where the donation is usually larger. They come from industry lobbies as well as individual companies and individuals.

In the first week of February every year the Australian Electoral Commission releases the details of the annual donation returns for political parties and candidates for the previous financial year.

And this year all the usual suspects were there: banks and financial services; big accounting firms who do so much of the “consulting” work which should be done by the Public Service; coal and other fossil fuels; pharmaceuticals; private health funds and private hospitals; hotels (pokies and quarantine); the food and beverage industry; property; vehicle fuel suppliers; the motor industry; employers; and shadowy third parties whose objectives are utterly opaque.

And these disclosed donations do not include donations (or many multiples of them) that are under $14,000.

Further, in the lead up to an election no one knows who gave what in the period between 1 July and the election date. In the present case that is about 10 months.

We only found out after the 2016 election that Malcolm Turnbull gave his cash-strapped party $1.75 million – perhaps enough to tip the election. We only found out after the 2019 election that Clive Palmer gave $80 million to his party which ran endless anti-Labor advertisements and was a significant cause of Labor’s defeat.

Against this, public health, welfare and the environment doesn’t have a chance. This is why little or nothing is done to fix poor policy in relation to things like: burgeoning population growth; the sugar-induced obesity epidemic; public hospitals; aged care; dirty fuel or electric vehicles; greedy banks; carbon emissions; the price of medicines; universal health care; massive misguided road projects and public-transport woes; misuse of water; or the gambling industry.

Everywhere you turn, pressing problems are ignored or given lip-service to because a big vested interest has thrown money to the major parties.

And, surprisingly, the amounts are quite small compared to the vast amounts the industries make each year – usually in the tens of thousands not the hundreds of thousands.

So, you might think that the political parties are not hugely influenced by this money. Well, you would be wrong, on several counts.

First, it does not take very much in the way of a favour or gift to make the donee feel an obligation to the donor to do something in return. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman proved this in ground-breaking research that won him the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Incidentally, he showed that economists put far too much faith in the supposed rationality of humans in making economic decisions. Whereas in fact they are usually completely irrational.

Secondly, the only thing a political party can do to return the favour and satisfy the sense of obligation is to make policy that favours the donor and that invariably means large amounts of public money or at least a policy leg-up for the private interest to the detriment of the greater public good. Or at least leave such policies in place

Thirdly, the donations are asymmetrical. For example, $50,000 means a lot to a political party but it is chicken feed for a bank or a miner.

And fourthly, the major parties are competing. Each has to appease the donors to make sure the donations come again next year. So, they reward donors.

Labor’s big corporate donors include, of course, the unions. At least they are member-based, not profit-driven. However, those donations would also be banned under any general banning of corporate donorship, so Labor would not countenance it.

The upshot is that both major parties continue with what they know are harmful, or at least second-rate policies, and they actively promote those policies, arguing that they are best. Further, they argue against policies that would reduce harm and improve the lives of the majority.

The evidence about a lot of these things is clear, yet our political leaders argue against what they know to be true.

It is an environment of mendacity, particularly on the Coalition side which relies more heavily on for-profit, selfish corporate donors and which does not have any overriding common-good ideology. And that system has been getting worse over the years.

It is made even more egregious by the absence in Australia of any requirement of truth in political advertising.

So, the portrayal in the past week or so of the man on top of this putrescent donorocracy as someone who “earnestly rearranges the truth to a lie” should come as no surprise.

Nor should the revelations that many on his side of politics think (or know) the same thing. Nonetheless it should be damning. It is one thing to have a foreign leader (the French President) accuse you of lying; quite another when your own political colleagues make the allegations.

Scott Morrison’s position is made shakier by the fact that, on his own admission, he has no vision for Australia and does not desire to leave a legacy, let alone state what that legacy might be.

This is telling because truth is a narrative. It deals with the past, present and future. Lies, on the other hand, are just for the present – to be presented as truth now, to explain, excuse, or deny things in the awkward present, without a thought as to what really happened or was said in the past or as to what the consequences might be in the future.

For that, we will have to wait until May to find out.

Thank you!

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