EDITORIAL: Time to change electoral funding laws

WHAT seems clear from this week’s appalling evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption is that the laws governing electoral funding in NSW must urgently change.

As counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, has noted, political parties need money to run their election campaigns. That money has to come from somewhere, and there are many vested interests only too anxious to supply the cash on the tacit understanding that they will benefit if their proteges win office.

The end result of allowing moneyed interests to ‘‘buy’’ the allegiance of political candidates and office-holders can be seen in the United States, where particular industries and lobby groups have – by virtue of their sheer wealth alone – immense leverage over public policy and lawmaking.

Australia has, regrettably, been edging closer to this poor model and, so far, all attempts to restore integrity to the system have failed.

In NSW repeated scandals involving undue influence on government decisions by property developers led to a ban on donations from that business sector. But, as evidence before ICAC has shown, these laws have only encouraged politicians and businesspeople to find creative ways of ensuring the cash could still flow from one to the other.

One solution is to fund election campaigns directly from the public purse, bluntly prohibiting all private donations.

In that scenario, elections would become less a battle of fund-raising and advertising expenditure than a contest of ideas and policies. The winners would, one hopes, no longer enter into government with a long list of favours to repay to hungry ‘‘creditors’’.

Some critics, including independent Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper, argue that corrupt individuals will still find ways to cheat the system. He is almost certainly right, and some of his alternative suggestions are worth considering. Mr Piper suggests, for example, a modest cap on the amount any candidate should be allowed to spend on an election campaign. 

Perhaps more importantly, he argues that if private donations are retained, they must all be revealed well in advance of the polling date, so that voters can see exactly to whom their new representatives might owe some allegiance.

That’s all very well, but the performance to date of those statutory bodies set up to police even the limited laws that already exist does not inspire confidence.

Democracy is clearly in danger in NSW, and strong, far-reaching action is needed to save it. Having heard the evidence before ICAC this week, voters must demand reform. The price to be paid for failing to do so will be a very high one indeed.

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