Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Treasurer Joe Hockey, the Member for North Sydney since 1996, is  associated with the North Sydney Forum in which groups and individuals pay thousands for a membership which is rewarded with his presence at functions and meetings.

In the week before the federal budget The Sydney Morning Herald ran with the front-page headline, “Treasurer for sale”. The main justification was that several Liberal Party identities currently embroiled in the ICAC investigations, Paul Nicolaou and Nick Di Girolamo, have attended some forum meetings.

The forum is a commonly used fund-raising mechanism. It is like parties running fund-raising dinners at which attendees pay thousands to mingle with MPs and ministers and to have one of them sit at a table with them. Labor's Progressive Business is currently advertising an expensive business dinner with Bill Shorten. Such events, while common, were banned by the last Queensland Labor government, as contributing to the perception at least of insider politics and perhaps corruption.

Hockey has called in his lawyers and many commentators regard the story as a beat-up. Insiders on both sides of major party politics can’t see a problem, though the Greens and past Liberal figures like John Hewson and Malcolm Fraser believe such activities bring politics into disrepute. No one doubts Hockey’s honesty but some see a situation in which the bigger end of town is advantaged as unethical.

The general public, on the other hand, is much more concerned about such insider activities and letters to the editor demonstrate outrage at the privileged access to the political system bought by some vested interests that is beyond the means of most in the community. It is obvious that there is a real gulf between party insiders and the general public on this question.

The gulf is between idealists and practitioners of hard-headed politics. It is revealed in adverse reaction to revelations of lobbying as well. Their public responses show that insiders just don’t get it. They can be bullied into reform, like NSW Premier Mike Baird at the moment, but only because they have been pushed into a corner.

At the heart of these political debates is a dilemma. The aim of much lobbying and donations reform legislation is greater transparency. Yet the more that increased transparency enables the public to learn how politics really operates the less they like what they see. Ultimately increased transparency creates more problems than it solves. Democracy is healthier when there is greater transparency but it reveals an uneven playing field in which money buys access and perhaps influence. Transparency can’t fix that. All it can do is cast more light on what is going on; which just confirms fears that democracy is lop-sided.

Also at the heart of these debates is the notion of access. What does access mean? Why are corporations and individuals paying for the privilege of getting to know MPs in social and professional settings? Suspicious critics jump to the conclusion that they are doing so in order to gain some concrete public policy advantage in return. But it is more complicated than that. Some attendees hope for personal or corporate advantage and a few might get it. Certainly the advertising of these events often implies that this might be a possible outcome.

But fools are easily parted with their money. Troubled millionaire Nathan Tinkler, now before ICAC, has complained that his donation of thousands to the NSW Nationals before the 2011 NSW elections, in the hope of preferential treatment in regard to port facilities, produced no tangible benefit.

Donations are a crude form of political lobbying unless they are accompanied by a range of other connections with the government of the day. Those connections are likely to be at the highest level.

A corporation like big-four bank NAB might join the North Sydney Forum, but that is not to buy access to Hockey. NAB already has privileged access to both sides of politics at the highest level. Those who access federal and state ministers are chief executives and board members as well as specialist government-relations staff. Company representatives who attend a local forum are probably middle-level managers and local executives who are learning about but not influencing government.

The primary motivation for supporting party-related functions is to signal personal and ideological support for the party or MP concerned. The Coalition parties, even when not in government, get greater financial support from the business community because they are natural allies. Labor gets some business support too, of course, as well as trade union support, but they have to work harder for it, especially when in opposition.

Some support has long-term ulterior motives, sometimes described as taking out an insurance policy. So some corporations support both sides of politics. But this is a fairly intangible investment. Any support for a party in opposition is in this category. Buying an expensive table now to listen to Labor’s Shorten certainly doesn’t promise any immediate rewards.

There is also an element of trying to be close to the action, mixing with political representatives and hearing what passes for insider gossip. These expensive tables can then be filled with business acquaintances and personal friends to reinforce networks and build relationships, not so much with the political speakers but with the other attendees.

All these activities are examples of how the world of politics works. The more we know about them the better; but transparency ultimately changes little. What is on view is a lop-sided system. Ministers and MPs are surrounding themselves with the privileged like-minded. There is no such thing as a level playing field.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.