Political party donations are bribes. They should be banned. Defining bribery is more important than a federal ICAC, writes Kim Wingerei.

The horse trading to pass the bill to set up a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption continues in Canberra this week. The result will likely be a body with limited investigative powers, especially when it comes to politicians.

So it will continue to mask the deep-rooted flaws in democratic decision making.

Meanwhile in NSW, the state ICAC hearing into the “Chinese Friends of Labor” proves, yet again, that despite ongoing legislative tinkering, donations – legal or otherwise – continue to be a scourge on our democracy. The (alleged) donor’s crime was not that he was Chinese, but that he was a property developer and not eligible to donate.

A more recent tinkering was the “Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill”, which passed Parliament last November. It was hailed by proponents as a major reform – especially the banning of donations from “foreign entities”. But all this goes to show that the real problems are not being tackled: political influence is for sale, elections can be bought and politicians are subject to the same temptations as the rest of us.

Bags full of money handed over without a receipt are just part of the problem. Picking up the tab at a restaurant, paying for an airfare, hosting fund-raising dinners or entertaining a minister at the football or all the same sides of the coin.

As a corporate executive in Melbourne I would sometimes have the opportunity (and budget) to invite customers and prospective customers to watch a game of cricket or AFL in a box at the MCG. I didn’t do so because they were my mates but because I knew the invite could swing a purchasing decision or ensure continued trade from my regulars.

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

Election 2019: how good is plutocracy!

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

Businesses give to receive patronage, to have a better chance at winning a tender, or to get the ear of lawmakers or a favourable outcome of a regulatory decision. Business gives to receive.

Some argue that the solution is better transparency. In Queensland donations to parties and candidates now have to be declared in real time. In NSW, the contents of politicians’ diaries now have to be disclosed. All are useful measures.

At the federal level, donations must be declared if they are more than $14,000 (indexed), but only within a year of the donation. And if the same donor gives $13,999 twice – or five times – they are not subject to full disclosure requirements.

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.

The truth about political donations: what we don’t know

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

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

Just as executives are often put on “gardening leave” before being allowed to join a competitor, former MPs must also be out of the game for 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 be the diaries of elected representatives (and senior bureaucrats).

Our elected representatives and our government work for the people. We are their employers. Until a federal ICAC is given clear-cut definitions of what is corruption, it will linger in the twilight zone of good intentions with limited impact.

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