Who owns NSW politicians?

March 10, 2007

In the run-up to the NSW elections both major parties are claiming to be able to run the economy better. But the release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' December quarter figures on March 7, which revealed that NSW is not technically in a recession, is likely to help the state ALP government's lead over Peter Debnam's Liberals on March 24.

While Labor under Premier Morris Iemma is trying to distance itself from the previous Bob Carr leadership, it is also nevertheless promoting itself as the experienced party of economic management. "More to do but heading in the right direction" is Labor's calculated and boring election campaign slogan. This may make all the difference to voters — particularly in marginal seats — who could well decide to go with the devil they know.

The March 6 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the number of seats declared "marginal" for Labor is up from previous years, and that its internal polling had indicated it could lose five to seven seats (it would need to lose eight to lose government).

This is hardly surprising given widespread dissatisfaction with run-down and overcrowded public transport system, and the cuts to other public services. While the Iemma government is running a campaign against the Liberals' plans to slash public sector jobs (by 20,000-25,000), Labor also has plans to slash jobs treasurer Michael Costa told us last year.

The public transport system, particularly rail, is run down and under-resourced. The projects the state government has been promoting to reduce traffic congestion, such as the Cross City Tunnel, are more about channelling funds to the ALP's private company mates than improving transportation. Health and education are badly in need of more funding, but none appear forthcoming.

Two hugely expensive advertising campaigns are now running at full speed to voters of NSW which party will really listen to the people. And while the major parties are quick to attack each other for the amount of money spent on these campaigns, neither is willing to fully disclose where this money comes from.

In both cases, the parties receive their funding from private sources and, according to researchers for the Democracy 4 Sale website, this funding has come at a cost.

The Democracy 4 Sale website was initiated by the Australian Greens and is aimed at disclosing the sources of the major parties' election funding and the effect it has on their policies. The results are shocking. Since 2003, the NSW Liberal and Labor parties have accepted more than $7.7 million in donations from developers. Since then, the government has bent over backwards to accommodate the desires of its "investors".

For example, all the investors in the Cross City Tunnel project are major ALP donors. In exchange for helping to fund the tunnel, they were told that the government would close down roads around the tunnel to force more commuters to use it, and pay the toll. This would ensure a massive profit for the companies involved. A public outcry has forced the ALP to back down on the planned closures, for now, but the companies involved are threatening to sue for lost revenue.

Westfield, a major shopping centre developer, has been a long-term supporter of the ALP, donating $75,000 last year. An inquiry is underway now to ascertain whether or not this influenced a Labor decision to halt the development of Orange Grove Designer Outlets at Warwick Farm when it needed a new application to increase its size. The Orange Grove development would have been in direct competition with the Westfield Shoppingtown nearby. The application was challenged in the Land and Environment Court in 2003 by Westfield.

Clubs NSW was a major donor to the ALP for many years until a state government decision to increase poker machine tax was announced in 2003. Clubs NSW reduced its donations to the ALP from $160,000 to just $11,000 in 2003, and increased its funding to the NSW Liberals to $115,000. In the current election, Clubs NSW has donated $52,400 to the NSW Liberal party. A lowering of poker machine tax is, unsurprisingly, Liberal Party policy.

Calls to reform the system of political donations and the influence that corporations have on party policy have not resulted in any action. In 2003, the Illawarra Mercury ran a piece by former premier Bob Carr who defended the rights of parties to seek political donations from vested interests:

"Political parties need money to pay for advertising that is very expensive. In modern government, any significant investor is going to have access at some level to government. We're concerned that without access to a minister or public servants, they'll take that investment to another state (or nation)."

So when the two main parties in the NSW elections tell us they listen to the people, the question to ask them is: "Which people?".

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