What we do and don't know about politicians and trust
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What we do and don't know about politicians and trust

How easy is it for the rich and powerful to buy favourable treatment from our politicians? Honest answer: we just don’t know. What we do know is that we’ve become increasing distrustful of our pollies and doubtful of their honesty.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

Polling conducted this year by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia found that 85 per cent of respondents believe at least some federal Members of Parliament are corrupt. This is up 9 points just since 2016. It includes 18 per cent who believe most or all federal politicians are corrupt.

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Fully 62 per cent of respondents believe officials or politicians use their positions to benefit themselves or their family, while 56 per cent believe officials or politicians favour businesses and individuals in return for political donations or support.

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I can’t prove it, but I doubt it’s nearly that bad. Cases of money in paper bags changing hands would be few and far between. Such personal corruption as exists would usually be more subtle: hospitality in corporate boxes at sporting events and sponsored international travel.

Plus the risk that senior politicians and bureaucrats go easy on interest groups in the hope that, when they retire or leave the parliament, those groups will show their gratitude by giving them a cushy job.

But it’s institutional, not personal, corruption that’s the bigger problem. Businesses, unions and others give money to political parties in the hope of gaining access to decision makers and influence over their decisions.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

Both sides of politics play this corrupting game because they’re locked in a kind of arms race to raise the most money for advertising at the next election campaign.

It’s so blatant that both sides hold fundraising dinners where they make no bones about people paying big bucks to sit at the same table as a cabinet minister.

It’s said half of all money spent on advertising is wasted, and I suspect it’s the same with political donations. They didn’t buy you what you were hoping for. It’s this half the pollies use to tell themselves they’re not doing anything dishonourable.

It’s the other half that’s the worry – the half that does buy access and influence. (This is what concerns me as an economic journalist. The prevalence of “rent-seeking”, as economists call it, has a pernicious effect on economic policy and thus the economic welfare of Australians.)

Australians believe large numbers of their political representatives are corrupt.

Australians believe large numbers of their political representatives are corrupt.Credit:Andrew Meares

On Monday, the Grattan Institute released a painstaking and comprehensive examination by Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths of what evidence is available on attempts to buy access and influence.

The report reminds us that federal politicians are much more reluctant than their state counterparts to be more active and open about their relations with donors and lobbyists.

They’ve long refused to follow the states in establishing an anti-corruption commission, wanting us to believe the states may suffer corruption, but the feds are pure as the driven snow. Clearly, we don’t.

The feds have resisted making ministers’ diaries public, so we can see who they’re meeting with, even though the NSW and Queensland governments now do so.

Eddie Obeid on his way an ICAC hearing. Federal politicians have resisted setting up a similar national body.

Eddie Obeid on his way an ICAC hearing. Federal politicians have resisted setting up a similar national body.Credit:Peter Rae

The federal register of lobbyists is a bad joke. It lists people working for lobbying firms, but not lobbyists working directly for businesses, unions or community groups, nor the lobbyists working for peak industry or union associations.

The report finds there are about 500 lobbyists on the register, whereas a further 1755 sponsored security passes have been issued. These allow the holders to move freely around Parliament House. May we know who these people are and who they represent? No.

The report finds that more than a quarter of federal ministers have gone on to work for a lobbying firm, industry body or special interest group since 1990. (Former Labor minsters rarely return to the labour movement because business pays much higher salaries.)

Federal ministers are supposed to wait until 18 months after they cease being ministers before lobbying on any issue they were involved in. For ministerial advisers and senior public servants the waiting time is 12 months.

Ian Macfarlane served as a minister for resources but then became a resources industry lobbyist.

Ian Macfarlane served as a minister for resources but then became a resources industry lobbyist.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But many fail to observe the rule and there’s no penalty.

Rules about making political donations public are much improved in some states, but worst at the federal level. Parties spent $368 million over the two financial years spanning the 2016 federal election, with roughly a third of that coming from government grants rather than donations.

There’s a high threshold for donations to be reportable, and no requirement for parties to add up multiple below-threshold donations from the same source. And delays of a year or two before donations are made public.

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The report finds that about 40 per cent of the money parties received had no identifiable source. Of the declared donations, just 5 per cent of donors contributed more than half.

By far the biggest share of declared federal donations comes from highly regulated industries – mining, property construction, gambling, finance, media and telcos – then unions.

This appalling record on federal disclosure, accountability and transparency tells us the public’s perception that our politicians are dishonest is of the politicians' own making.

They do tout for donations. They could agree to end the election advertising war by imposing limits on donations and no longer have to prostitute themselves.

When both sides finally decide there’s not much glory in being in a despised and distrusted occupation, nor much joy in basing policy decisions on rewarding the most generous vested interests, they know where to start in restoring their reputation.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

Ross Gittins is economics editor of the SMH and an economic columnist for The Age. His books include Gittins' Guide to Economics, The Happy Economist and Gittins: A life among budgets, bulldust and bastardry.