ANALYSIS

"Politicians are fond of invoking the fair go as the quintessential Australian ethic."

"Politicians are fond of invoking the fair go as the quintessential Australian ethic." Photo: Jesse Marlow

Nobody is suggesting Joe Hockey is corrupt.

But it is increasingly clear the Treasurer is party to a process that is corrupting Australia's democratic integrity. Like the US, political representation increasingly turns on how much cash you have, and where you are prepared to direct it.

A week from now, the Treasurer will rise to the dispatch box in Canberra and deliver a federal budget, his first, and undoubtedly one of the most significant in many years. It will ask Australians to take a leap of faith: to take him on trust.

Trust that he is acting purely in the national interest. Trust that the harsh medicine prescribed for pensioners and families under strain is the correct formula for the economy. Trust that their sacrifice will be matched by the big end of town.

That trust must now come under renewed scrutiny in light of the revelation that Hockey's centrality to the government has itself become a commodity – a product to sell – in the ruthless search for ever more campaign funds.

Through vehicles such as the North Sydney Forum, the most senior public offices have been quietly privatised to be sold on as political access.

It has been done in a way that is deliberately opaque, under the radar and disguised as something else.

Rather than soliciting donations from companies looking to curry favour or buy specific influence, the North Sydney Forum charges exorbitant annual "membership fees", well in excess of the disclosure requirements under electoral donations rules.

Have no illusion, this is an entity created expressly for the purpose of furthering the Liberal Party's interests, to wit, the re-election of Joe Hockey.

Hockey, of course, is not the personal recipient of any funds but it is hard to draw a total distinction between the North Sydney Forum's interests and his own, given the former is dedicated to the re-election of the latter.

It is one of a number of such vehicles used by MPs on both sides of the political aisle for years. Former treasurer Peter Costello's Higgins 200 Club was reported to have $900,000 in assets still in its accounts as recently as two years ago, long after he left politics.

Right now, such vehicles are within the rules. But should they be? By marketing Hockey's pivotal role in economic decision making, the North Sydney Forum may be said to be offering something that is not really its to sell, that is, gold-card entree to one of our highest public offices.

What these already well-connected companies and industry groups, such as the Financial Services Council and the National Australia Bank, have received as a return on their investment remains unclear.

But it's an entirely legitimate question, given that the financial services industry stands to gain substantially from policy decisions favourable to them, such as the Abbott government's commitment to rolling back consumer protections in the previous government's financial advice laws.

Politicians are fond of invoking the fair go as the quintessential Australian ethic.

But it is hard to discern that fair go for voters when special access is being sold to the rich and powerful and the money used to run party political campaigns.

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