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Political donations reform ignores insider politics big picture

John Warhurst |  19 June 2017


The revelations that several billionaires of Chinese origin, one an Australian citizen and the other currently seeking Australian citizenship, have sought to influence Australian politics through large political donations have rekindled bipartisan concern to ban such donations from foreign sources.

Sam DastyariThat it took investigative journalism by ABC Four Corners and Fairfax media to generate such a rush to reform is a reflection on the Australian political class. While it is likely that reform legislation will be introduced and passed before the end of the year that will be only a very partial response to a bigger problem.

The whole Australian approach to political donations and political lobbying breeds corruption and insider politics because regulation of both is ineffective and there is a lack of urgency about making the political process more transparent.

There is an acceptance of close contacts between insiders and those in government and of former government ministers and advisers quickly entering the lobbying industry when their time in office ends. Such a transition is seen by participants as merely an appropriately highly-paid reward for previous government service.

All of this contributes to a culture in which lobbyists and billionaires play an accepted role during election campaigns and in relations between government, parliamentarians and private interests. Within such a culture ethics become uncertain and relationships murky. Insiders are given privileged access to information and decision-making. This is the case in federal, state and local politics.

The Chinese political donations scandal has been framed as a security issue because of the apparent links of these billionaires to the Chinese Communist Party and, by definition, the Chinese government. Such connections raise fears that are not raised to anywhere near the same extent by foreign donations from other sources, whether from our traditional allies or elsewhere.

There is in fact a long history in Australian politics of political donations from outside the country from multi-national businesses with interests in Australia as well as other movements and causes like trade unions, environmental movements and church-based organisations.

Regardless of their ultimate motivations the Chinese billionaires have acted like any other billionaires in trying to influence government. They have spread their money around. They have made donations to political parties, insinuated their supporters into those political parties and sometimes into parliament, made links with sitting MPs and community organisations and recruited former ministers to advise and lobby for them.


"Such reactions are par for the course. They are a sign that the political class just doesn't understand how compromised their acceptance of insider politics as normal has made them."


Both major parties have been implicated. Within Labor the NSW state and federal parties have been closely linked. Senator Sam Dastyari is the most well-known federal Labor figure. When his links with Chinese-owned companies were revealed he was removed from the shadow ministry. On the Coalition side the former trade minister Andrew Robb was snapped up after leaving parliament at a consultancy rate of nearly $1 million per year to advise one of the companies concerned.

Both Dastyari and Robb consider themselves unfairly treated. The former thought his acceptance of financial favours was just careless and trivial, while the latter was apparently dumbfounded that anyone should question his new job on ethical grounds.

Such reactions are par for the course. They are a sign that the political class just doesn't understand how compromised their acceptance of insider politics as normal has made them. Notably both men had long careers in party organisations before entering politics so they know how the system works.

Foreign influence comes in many forms and Australia is not a political island. However, foreign political donations should be strictly regulated because our domestic politics should be insulated from foreign influence as far as possible. China poses a special concern in this context.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of any parliamentary response which comes down hard on foreign political donations without looking at the bigger picture. If we put our house in order as far as political donations and lobbying in general are concerned we can then better consider those from foreign sources.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.



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Submitted comments

'...the political class just doesn't understand...' or, I would add, 'care'. Which is to a large extent why one third of the electorate deserted the mainstream parties at our last federal election. It is gross hypocrisy for federal politicians to hound welfare 'cheats' whilst resisting the establishment of a federal ICAC.

Ginger Meggs 19 June 2017

“our domestic politics should be insulated from foreign influence as far as possible“. Our domestic politics should be insulated from any and ALL influences, as far as possible, that deflect us from pursuing Ideal Politics. Our opposition to ’Foreign Influence’ is usually based on differences between their interpretation of ideals and ours. 'Our' interpretation is often formed on values we bonded to in our early years, before intelligence developed, when we relied on the emotions and instincts we inherited from our animal forebears. Since these are 'pre-intelligence' they are mostly unconscious attitudes, not easily dislodged by reason. Because they generally favour the Status Quo, we tend to defend them using terms like Tradition, Loyalty, and Keeping the Faith. Real Progress is made when we recognise any real value in ideals that clash with ours, and can combine to form a higher synthesis. 'Adapt or die' OR 'Adapt and Thrive'.

Robert Liddy 20 June 2017

I think the problem with Chinese, as against any other, political donations, coupled with their funding links to our universities and huge investments, such as the long term lease of the Port of Darwin, as well as the large number of Chinese students at our universities, who are actively involved on China's behalf in pro-China activities such as harassing pro-Tibetan demonstrations, is the sheer wealth behind them. China is our largest customer but also a real perceived threat to our national security and the security of our region. Our politicians involved in pro-Chinese lobbying, such as the Daystaris and Robbs, would seem extraordinarily gullible and naive compared with their US counterparts. We can reform our electoral funding laws but that won't remove the Chinese political threat. I say 'political threat' because the Chinese don't demarcate between economics and politics. We do and they see us as remarkably naive for it.

Edward Fido 21 June 2017

I find it very sad that you have a photo of a Labor Senator who has accepted donations and not of any WA Liberals, including the Foreign Minister, who have accepted much larger amounts of cash from dubious Chinese sources. Labor struggles with the NSW right wing but if no one ever attacks the Liberal Party in the media then they will continue to be the biggest problem. You have all been cowed by the Murdoch press but at least you could try to appear even handed. Who is in this "political class" by the way? This is a genuine question which I would like to see answered. They sound like a weasel words but please prove me wrong.

Gabrielle Henry 21 June 2017

What should happen to former politicians who used to be movers and shakers? Some are willing to retire to the farm or, in the case of former Senator Michael Tate, to a second career away from the limelight as a Catholic priest. Others continue to move and shake in academia or philanthropic activities where knowledge and contacts acquired during politics continue to be used. There are only so many vice-regal and lesser patronage appointments available. A future life in commerce shouldn’t be off the table. Not only is it merely one of the many areas of interest in which parliamentarians are involved, it is the lifeblood of a nation in a globalised world. The challenge is to use the liberty properly, not to abolish it.

Roy Chen Yee 22 June 2017

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