KIM WINGEREI. Defining bribery is more important than an ICAC

Sep 17, 2019

As much as we should welcome the long overdue Federal ICAC, without redefining what should be the limitations of political influence it will be another toothless body which will struggle for relevance and fail in its intent.

The horse trading to pass a bill for a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) continues in Canberra this week. The end result will likely be a watered down body with limited investigative powers. And at much less than arm’s length to the politicians it is supposed to oversee, it will serve mostly to mask the deep-rooted flaws in democratic decision making.

And in NSW, the state ICAC hearing into the “Chinese Friends of Labor” prove, yet again, that despite the ongoing tinkering of legislation of political donations, it has little effect as donations – legal or otherwise – continue to be a scourge on our democracy.

When the “Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill” finally passed Parliament in November 2018, it was hailed by its proponents as a major reform of political donations – especially banning donations from “foreign entities”. Although not in force around the time plastic bags of cash were (allegedly) bandied about Labor’s NSW branch offices, the (alleged) donor’s crime was not that he was Chinese, but that he was a property developer and as such not eligible to donate according to a previous amendment of the electoral act.

More tinkering around the edges without addressing the real problem: political influence is for sale, elections can be bought and politicians are as subject to temptations as the rest of us.

Bags full of money handed over without a receipt is only part of the problem. As is picking up the tab at a restaurant, paying for an airfare, hosting fund-raising dinners or entertaining a Government Minister at the footie.

During my corporate days in Melbourne I would sometimes have the opportunity (and the budget) to invite customers and prospective customers to watch a game of Cricket or the AFL in a box at the MCG. Not because they were my best mates – and I’m a soccer tragic, barracking for the Demons only if I must – but because I knew that it could swing a purchasing decision in my favour or ensure continued trade from my regulars.

It’s business, and everyone knows how it works.

But politics is not business. Those we elect must be beholden to those who elect them; Not to donors, not to their footie mates, not to their drinking mates, not to their travelling companions and definitely not to those who seek their favour.

Businesses do not give just to be nice. They give to receive patronage, to have a better chance at winning a tender, to get an ear of the lawmakers to influence legislation, or a favourable outcome of a regulatory decision. Business give to receive.

Some argue the solution is better transparency. In Queensland donations to political parties and candidates now have to be declared in real-time. The various scandals in NSW over the last decade has led to some useful reforms. Not just the ICAC, but disclosure of politicians diaries. All are useful measures.

At federal level donations must be declared only if more than $14,000 (indexed), but only within a year, and the same donor giving $13,999 twice – or five times – is not subject to full disclosure.

Better transparency helps, but it is not enough. For every regulation there is a way to circumvent it, and the more regulation the more effort goes into finding new ways to get around it.

There is only one real solution. And it is to recognise donations in all its forms for what it is: an attempt at buying influence – aka. a bribe. We must ban donations to all candidates for election, to all political parties and include any form of inducement in the definition of donations.

This must include inducement in the form of job offers while still an elected officer and for a suitable time afterwards. EY did not approach Christopher Pyne just for his wit and his insights into Defence procurement. They wanted him on board for his contacts and ability to open doors, smooth the way for new and lucrative consulting assignments, his knowledge of plans and budgets and who decides what.

Just as business executives often get paid “gardening leave” before being allowed to join a competitor, so must elected representatives have a suitable time – I’d suggest two years at least – before they can start working in influential business roles, including as lobbyists.

Lobbying – or rather the role of influencing policy makers – does have a place in a diverse and open democracy, but here too regulations are woefully inadequate. All lobbying activity must be fully transparent, as must the diaries of elected representatives (and senior bureaucrats).

Our elected representatives and our Government work for the people. We are their employers, not Parliament, not their parties and definitely not their donors. We may still need an ICAC, but until such a body has clear-cut rules of what corruption is to work with, it will linger in the twilight zone of good intentions with limited impact.

Kim Wingerei is a former business-man, turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. Follow @ / Twitter @kwingerei

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