Green donations: chicken or nest-egg?

As we campaign around WA, voters are expressing their distrust and disenchantment with our so-called democracy. When dealing with a system like this, we need to make decisions with integrity.

By Trish Cowcher and Chilla Bulbeck
Friday, March 3, 2017

Christine Milne, former Australian Greens parliamentary leader, called our current system of government a plutocracy. Both old parties govern largely in the interests of property developers, fossil fuel companies and, for Labor sometimes, the unions. 

To redress this, the Greens have been calling for integrity in government. Starting with real-time declaration of all donations, working through the vexed issue of whether or not donations to the Minerals Council and Get-Up should be treated in the same way, and ending with publicly funded elections in which the Minerals Council and Get-Up’s funding-fueled influence is somehow accounted for fairly. In other words, what to do about political party donations offers no easy solution. 

As a party which stands for public funding of political campaigns, are we engaged in dangerous compromise if we accept ANY donations in the meantime? We argue no.  

Because of the Greens’ structure and integrity, we are much better positioned than either of the two old political parties to avoid the corrosive effect of large individual donations. The inspiring thing about the Greens is that for the cost of their party membership, each member  has just as much access to our representatives and just as big a say in our policy development or election strategy as someone who donates $50,000. Our grassroots structure doesn’t concentrate power in the hands of just a few powerful individuals who could be influenced by a large donor. Our structure has checks and balances to ensure no member, volunteer, office holder, staff member, Member of Parliament or donor has undue influence on any aspect  of the party.  

As members of the WA Supporters Working Group we have worked with donors, large and small. We have never spoken to a donor who is giving money in order to influence our policies. They are giving because they are generous people and because they share our vision for a fair, sustainable future. They understand that we are on the cusp of something that’s never been accomplished before — cracking the two-party system — and want to be a part of that, instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching while supporters of Labor and the Coalition spend freely to help get their candidates across the line. We have a stringent vetting system in place to make sure that anyone who wants to make a significant donation to the party is doing so for the right reasons and that they are in line with our values. 

Show me the money

To kick out a Liberal Government and regain the balance of power in 2018, we will need a strong, coordinated grass-roots movement to help us develop the right policies and communicate them to the electorate; and we need talented people from across our diverse, multicultural society to donate their time and effort to campaigning. 

While our electoral influence is fueled almost entirely by volunteer labour, it takes money to release it: to train, co-ordinate and support our thousands of volunteers. A State or Federal campaign is unimaginable without a few key paid people.  

Political campaigns are expensive exercises. There are  lots of costs apart from wages: such as phones, posters, events, travel and advertising. For example, In 2013, the Melbourne campaign, with the help of donations both large and small, cemented its place in history and won another term for Adam Bandt by blanketing the city in Green advertising to reinforce the huge field campaign. Political parties spend money on advertising because it works. In a crowded political space, when we are locked out of mainstream media we must always find ways to amplify the efforts of our volunteers.  

Councillor Jonathan Sri's article, "Major dollars, major influence", states that: 

"For a representative democracy to function effectively, every citizen needs to have an equal — or at least, close to equal — opportunity to have a say in the outcome of elections."

On this basis he suggests that we should refuse large donations. But for his premise to be true, we have to accept that the people making donations both expect and receive a greater say than every other citizen. We have to assume a priori that their motives are suspect and also that our Greens elected representatives are receptive to them. If it was the case that donors were being allowed to influence our policies through their donations, then we’d have a breakdown in the very structure of our movement, and that’s a much bigger problem than where we set our cap on donations. But if we trust each other as members of the same movement, then we eliminate this concern all together.

And even if we do succeed in making elections publicly funded, where would we get the money to run our offices and do our work in-between election campaigns?  Where should the line be drawn? Should we hike up membership fees to cover these expenses? A higher fee could exclude many of our present members who would no longer be able to participate in policy-making and party-shaping. 

Difficult decisions

In the 1970s, radical feminists warned that if feminists participated in patriarchal institutions (government, universities, marriage — anything really), we would be forced to compromise away our revolutionary vision. The Greens as a political party face a similar dilemma. To the extent that we participate in parliamentary politics in Australian society, at any level, we are participating in a hierarchical adversarial system which constantly challenges our commitment to grassroots democracy and nonviolence. 

This means we must make choices, and often. But it also means we must constantly challenge ourselves about those choices. Did we give up too much ground for each victory?  (The answer is generally: ‘we will never know’). Is this choice going to challenge our ‘core’ values (our four pillars)?  

We are, we hope, on the road to publicly funded elections. In the meantime The Greens declare all donations over a low and determined threshold; we accept contributions only from like-minded companies; and we run almost entirely on voluntary labour. As a result, we put wind in the sails of Lee Rhiannon and our parliamentary team in Canberra to fight the influence of corporate donations on politics and to campaign for publicly funded elections. 

As a visionary party living in an imperfect world, we are susceptible to the reactionary structures that enmesh us. But can we bring our vision to fruition without making choices along the road? We believe we need to invest in the nest-egg to hatch the chicken of publicly funded campaigns. 

Trish Cowcher and Chilla Bulbeck are members of the Donor Relations Working Group in Greens WA among other roles. Trish is co-convenor of the Election Campaign Committee and Chilla is Assistant Field Director in the WA Greens17 State election campaign. They are also donors to the Greens.