Whatever you think of Sam Dastyari — he of halal snack pack and Senate committee inquiry fame — the issue of private donations to political parties is bigger than just his travel bill. There is a real risk that Dastyari will be used as a Trojan horse, not by the Chinese, but by those who want taxpayers to fund even more of the activities of political parties. Already there are calls from the Greens for a radical tightening of donation laws, going far beyond restrictions on foreign donations, to a ban on all corporations. NSW has already banned contributions by property developers and had a ban on union contributions overturned. The momentum is all one way.
Don’t expect the parties to lose out though. You can bet that any shortfall will be made up with taxpayer funds. Less than a month ago, the AEC finalised payment of nearly $63 million in public funding to politicians and political parties off the back of the election result. This is up slightly from $58 million paid after the 2013 election.
Politicians have allowances and payments for everything — staffing, travel, offices etc — all of which are ways to transfer the cost of political business onto the taxpayer.
Not only can the public be bribed with their own money, as de Tocqueville warned, but increasingly they are being charged for the privilege!
People will tell you a lot of things are important when they are spending other people’s money. They will say we absolutely must support Australian made products, we should limit foreign ownership of key assets and that we need more government spending.
But you always see someone’s true priorities when they have to put their own money into something.
It’s the same with politics. The ability to back ideas and parties that you believe in (or oppose those you don’t) is an important element of democracy and a fundamental political statement. There is no doubt private donations without scrutiny have the potential to be corrupting, but removing them altogether would cost society in more ways than one.
Simon Cowan is Research Manager at the Centre for Independent Studies