Major dollars, major influence?

Should wealthy individuals have greater influence over election outcomes than the rest of us? Should we wait until the other parties agree to our reforms, or lead by example?

By Jonathan Sri, Councillor for the Gabba
Friday, March 3, 2017

The Greens are a pretty kickarse political movement in many ways, but like all parties, we tend to have a bit of a blind-spot when it comes to recognising and acknowledging our own hypocrisies.

For years now, we’ve taken a strong stance against the corrupting influence of corporate political donations. However the Australian Greens and most State Greens parties still take large donations from wealthy individuals (albeit with an ethics committee that vets each major donor).

“Hang on!” I hear you exclaiming. “There’s a big difference between taking donations from a fossil fuel company and taking donations from a Greens-minded millionaire who supports our values!”

And yes, there is a difference, but we mustn’t pretend that the line is clear-cut.

Here are the three most common defences I've heard Labor supporters use to justify their party taking corporate donations:

  1. It’s not ideal that we rely on their donations, but the political playing field is unbalanced and our current system is imperfect, so we need this money to win.
  2. Sure we take their money, but it doesn’t actually influence our policies or priorities. (Also phrased as: These donors aren’t trying to buy influence or access, they just really support our values)
  3. If we ban these donations, they’ll donate under the table anyway. 

I think most of us would be rightly cynical when Labor, the Liberals or even One Nation (who also accept massive property developer donations) make such excuses, but how much better is our party’s current position?

The Australian Greens’ policy calls for a legislative ban on corporate donations and a cap on individual and not-for-profit donations which would apply to all parties, alongside public funding of elections. But why should we wait until the other parties adopt these rules? I believe we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.

When you hear that a particular mega-wealthy individual donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Greens, starting with “so how did they make their money?” is asking the wrong question. 

Getting tangled up in endless debates about whether a person or company acquired their wealth ethically, or what their true motivations are in donating, distracts us from the core problem with large political donations: big money should not be able to influence election outcomes.

It doesn’t matter whether they’re a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ donor. Regardless of how they acquired their wealth, or whether they are donating directly or through a company, it is not right that people with lots of money have far more influence over who wins an election, when the rest of us simply don’t have that kind of cash to throw around.

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.

In our current democratic system, it’s pretty much indisputable that the amount of money a party raises and spends tends to have a big impact on its election results.

In this context, particularly at a time of growing wealth inequality, political parties that accept very large donations from wealthy individuals are actively participating in a systematic undermining of the principle of one person, one vote.

Arguments against

Perhaps the most compelling argument I’ve heard against capping private donations is that it would, in the immediate term, potentially mean more campaign organisers have to work for free. But relying heavily on volunteers only becomes really problematic when someone else profits from their labour, or when a very small group of volunteers end up doing the vast majority of the work. Of course, we also need to make sure that a decent chunk of the money we do receive through thousands of smaller donations goes towards ensuring that people from marginalised/under-privileged backgrounds are supported to campaign and get involved in the movement.

The Greens take the view that shifting to primarily public funding of elections should be our main goal. But we can’t wait for the other parties to have an attack of conscience and change campaign financing laws. We need to lead by example and use that credibility to push for systemic reform.

The key question is how quickly the Greens can move away from our dependence on large donations from wealthy supporters, and what donation caps we should self-impose on our movement.

The New South Wales Greens currently impose a limit on all donations of $1000 to an MP, or $2,500 to the party. In Queensland and other States, the Greens voluntarily disclose all donations above $1000 in real time.    

Big money will inevitably still seek other avenues to influence election outcomes. This is one of the great flaws of modern capitalism. But if we use that as an excuse for not reforming, I believe we become part of the problem, not the solution.

I concede that refusing to take massive individual donations would make it harder for the Greens to win using the campaign tactics that establishment parties rely on. That’s probably a good thing. In fact, it will force us to better engage our broader support base to build a genuine grassroots mass-movement. We probably don't want a situation where candidates who attract a few big donors could run mass advertising campaigns and win elections without doing the hard work of on-the-ground community organising and mobilising supporters.

At the end of the day, we shouldn't settle for a political system where the only parties and candidates that have a reasonable chance of winning elections are the ones that attract big political donations from a small group of elites. We have to wean ourselves off big private donations before we become addicted to them.

Jonathan Sri is a Greens Councillor for the Gabba in Brisbane.

Editor's note: This article stirred up a lot of discussion within the editorial team. As with many of our Food for Thought articles, we invited others to put a counter-argument. Read Chilla Bulbeck and Trish Cowcher's response, "Green donations: chicken or nest-egg?".