Companies that profit from mining, gambling, alcohol, tobacco and the private health sector are among major donors to Australia’s political parties, as Amy Coopes reported recently in an analysis of the Australian Electoral Commission’s Periodic Disclosures register for 2017-18.
In the article below, public health advocates Professor Michael Moore AM and Malcolm Baalman make a strong argument for reform of political donations regulation as a key pubic health concern, especially with NSW and federal elections on the horizon.
Michael Moore and Malcolm Baalman write:
Australian systems of regulating electoral donations lack transparency, facilitate inappropriate influence and weaken our democracy. They seriously undermine the public’s health.
Political donations provide access and influence leading to favourable legislation, inappropriate public spending, anti-competitive protection, tax discounts, or the blockage of public interest regulations – providing powerful motivations for big donors.
Any doubts about donations and political influence ought to have dissipated during the 2018 debate outlawing foreign donations to political parties. There was agreement to not allow the slightest degree of foreign influence.
The same arguments apply equally to corporate as to foreign influence. Yet nothing is being done to address this democratic cancer.
A temporary setback is the 2019 High Court decision which declared unconstitutional the recent NSW laws limiting the amount of non-political-party spending on election campaigns by unions, NGOs, lobby groups, corporations or over-excited billionaires.
The legislation overtly gave political parties a privileged position, which the Court overruled as constitutionally unreasonable. It should ideally have targeted the large corporations and their lobby groups, which are the major outstanding problem.
Profit before health
Global food corporations have fought the adoption of levies on sugary soft drinks, putting profit above health. The American Beverage Association spent more than $11million opposing sugar taxes in Berkeley and Philadelphia alone. Yet in nations such as Mexico, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, such levies reduced the consumption of sugar, the incidence of diabetes, problems of oral health and other conditions associated with obesity. In Britain the tax resulted in the production of higher amounts of less unhealthy drinks.
The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) was instrumental in defeating the Rudd Government’s “super profits” tax on mining. More recently, The Guardian reported that the MCA declared donations of over $100,000 over two years. In response to a Senate Committee question they claimed that they made political contributions “because they provide additional opportunities for the MCA to meet with members of parliament”.
Kevin Rudd’s “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, climate change, was thwarted through the influence of huge multi-national companies. The fossil fuel industry declared donations of close to one million dollars in 2016-17 and in the 2014-15 election year donated nearly double that amount. The government’s reluctance to tackle the coal industry seems unbelievable until eyes are opened to the influence of multi-national corporations.
Labor’s development of the 2013 National Food Plan tells a similar story. At the last moment nutrition was left out of the plan. This was despite being included in a range of consultative papers.
The omission made a mockery of the Minister’s claim that the plan “will ensure Australia has a sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food”. Proposals favourable to agricultural and business sectors remained in the plan.
There are some new efforts to deal with the malignancy of political donations. Labor and the Greens have policies to address some of these issues, but the details, the resolve and the ability to get legislation through Parliament are unclear.
Labor has also run a series of community consultations engaging NGOs and community leaders who do not have the wherewithal to make large donations. However, Labor in the ACT still protects its local and federal interests in funds derived from poker machines.
Public health professionals invariably work for the public good rather than for the profit and are, therefore, often locked in a struggle with ‘for profit’ organisations selling unhealthy commodities.
Battles with big tobacco remain. The National Party and the Liberal Democrats still accept donations from the tobacco industry. Other major Australian political parties reject such donations.
The Liberals proposed relaxing gun laws during the 2018 Tasmanian election in the very jurisdiction of the Port Arthur massacre. The massacre provided the catalyst for Australia-wide restrictions on firearms to protect the public’s health.
With support from industrial interests in the United States, the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia was able to exercise influence government. Only after a dramatic public outcry did the Tasmanian Premier back down.
Big business denies donations are made to gain preferential influence. Under the heading ‘Denial of undue influence’, the Senate Committee looking into political donations reported in mid-2018 claimed that “there is no expectation of preferential access or direct benefit”. But why would donations be made at all if that were true?
Professor Peter Miller from the Centre for Drug Use, Addictive and Anti-social Behaviour Research (CEDAAR) said “when businesses support one political party, it’s about ideology. When they support two political parties, it’s about buying access”.
David Templeman, President of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), highlighted existing company directors’ legal responsibilities to shareholders under the Corporations Act 2001.
He said: “Company directors must act in the best interests of the company and its shareholders and must not enter into risky transactions without any prospect of producing a benefit.”
Details on political donations are deliberately opaque thanks to an understanding between Labor, the Liberal and National Parties.
Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute argues “around 40 per cent of the income received by political parties comes from undisclosed sources”.
The technology already exists to have real time declarations of donations. It is yet to be legislated at the federal level. The current threshold for declaration of donations at $13,500, but amazingly the law does not reveal multiple donations below this amount donated on different days.
Transparency of political donations is even more critical in the lead up to elections, but the law cannot deal with the need to know who has donated before we vote.
Political donations undermine public health and cannot be ignored.
The norm should be transparent, complete and real-time returns to the electoral commissions in all jurisdictions. It is just too easy to hide large donations under current legislation. With modern technology this issue is easily overcome.
In the long-term democracies will need to go further. However, transparency is a good first step.
• Michael Moore AM is Immediate Past President of the World Federation of Public Health Associations (2016-2018); Distinguished Fellow at The George Institute, Universitty of NSW; Adjunct Professor University of Canberra; and Visiting Professor at the University of Technology Sydney. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of their affiliated organisations.
• Malcolm Baalman is a policy officer with the Public Health Association of Australia.