There is a case for banning political party donations in the name of democracy

Revelations the ALP accepted $400,000 in tobacco industry funding almost a decade after it banned such donations in 2004, coupled with a call by Senator Sam Dastyari for a complete ban on political donations of any kind has put the question of public funding for elections back on the agenda.

The row over the donations by a Chinese tobacco company executive, Peter Chen, to the ALP in 2011 and 2013, follows a call by ACT Labor last week for small donations to be boosted up to six-fold by tax payers in a bid to wean politicians off dependence on big business and, presumably, unions.

While that seems unlikely to succeed given it may create an opportunity for candidates and parties to write their own cheques using voters’ money, it is indicative of ongoing concern.

Mr Chen’s donations have been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption by Greens leader, Richard Di Natale. This is because one of the donations, of $200,000, was apparently made to the NSW branch of the party.

Under NSW law political donations by “any tobacco industry business entity”, including a “close associate” of tobacco companies, are illegal.

While similar legislation is not in place federally, both the ALP and the Liberals have previously said they don’t accept tobacco money. The Liberal ban took effect in 2013, almost a decade after the ALP’s.

The Coalition’s ability to go to town on this issue is compromised by the fact its junior partner, The Nationals, have no such qualms. Philip Morris gave the party $10,7880 in 2014-2015.

Nationals federal director, Scott Mitchell, defended the payments when they came to light in February 2016, saying they were “fees for the company to meet the party’s federal council, and to attend drinks after budget night”.

They had not been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission as they came in under the $13,000 threshold.

The fact the Philip Morris payments were for access highlights the main objection to political donations in any shape or form. That is that nobody, especially a large corporation, hands over significant amounts of cash because they agree with a party’s principles or believe a candidate is a great person.

There is always an implied expectation of special access and the opportunity to exert influence that goes beyond what an “ordinary” citizen could expect.

This is anathema in a democracy where all persons are equal before the law and every individual’s vote counts as much as anybody else’s. Such donations also contribute to a “presidential” style of campaigning with smaller parties and independents at risk of being drowned out by those with deep pockets.

There is a case to be made for full public funding of election campaigns across the board but only on the understanding firm caps are in place along with safeguards against rorting.

This seems unlikely to occur given the dependence of the political mainstream on the status quo however.