The inglorious implosion of Sam Dastyari’s political career has ignited concern about the influence of foreign money on Australian politics.
The Senator’s decision to resign was the only appropriate response to revelations about the nature of his relationship with Chinese business owner and political donor Huang Xiangmo.
The final straw was the accusation Dastyari requested that deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek not meet with pro-democracy campaigners while on a trip to Hong Kong in 2015. While Plibersek rebuked Dastyari at the time, the clear inference is that Dastyari’s lobbying was motivated by his ties to Chinese money.
Dastyari’s conduct was a clear breach of his obligation to the Australian public and for that he was right to resign. The Prime Minister is correct to suggest that foreign donations request divided loyalties of our elected representatives.
However, Dastyari’s public skewering, which has included hysterical claims that he is a “double agent”, is an attempt by Australia’s political establishment to deflect attention from the deeply anti-democratic function played by campaign donations and political lobbyists. In the establishment’s eyes, Dastyari’s most egregious offence was not that he was bought-out, but that he was caught doing so.
Business and industry lobby groups depend on political donations and cosy relationships to wield influence. They demand that politicians pledge allegiance to laws that protect private profits, rather than a foreign flag.
For example, in the past 10 years, the mining industry has spent more than $540 million on political lobbying and campaigning. Substantial “donations” have been made to the treasuries of the Coalition and Labor parties. This enormous expenditure directly led to the downfall of the Mineral Resources Rent Tax and the Carbon Price.
The word “donation” is clearly misleading. They are actually investments. Business and industry spend money on politicians because it gets results.
Spending money is one way that business gets what it wants. The other strategy involves leveraging personal connections within parliament.
Lately, the revolving door between politics and industry has been spinning wildly. Former Queensland Labor Premier Anna Bligh now heads up the banking sector’s lobby group, which successfully delayed the formation of a royal commission. Similarly, former federal Labor ministers Stephen Conroy and Martin Ferguson have taken up posts with the gambling and petroleum industries.
Admittedly these ex-politicians can claim their advocacy for big business occurred after their parliamentary tenures concluded. Nevertheless, we would be fools to assume that the temptation of well-remunerated lobbying positions post-politics does not prey on the minds of current MPs.
Further, for every politician that has maintained a formal distinction between their political and business careers, many others do not. Take Liberal MP Bruce Billson, who saw no conflict of interest between remaining in parliament and drawing a salary from the Franchise Council of Australia, where he is now executive chairman. And what about Barnaby Joyce, whose friendship with Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, saw him honoured at a recent Hancock Mining event?
Make no mistake, Sam Dastyari’s conduct was appalling, but he is not the only politician in this country to be influenced by his paymasters. If we want to talk about banning political donations, corporate contributions would be a good place to start.