One of the weaknesses of our democratic system is that it gives people the opportunity to buy political influence.
I don’t mean to suggest that some people are “buying” politicians, in the sense of writing cheques in return for express promises from politicians. We don’t usually know the motivations behind large political donations. But it’s reasonable to assume that companies existing solely to make profit aren’t giving cash out of feelings of altruism. We should not be naive enough to think that donors don’t want something in return for their money, even if what they want is never expressed openly.
It’s obvious that parties promoting certain types of policies will be supported by those organisations and individuals who stand to benefit by those policies. So unions give money to Labour, rich cranks donate to ACT, and corporates and wealthy individuals are more likely to give to National.
But despite all of these things being obvious, we still retain the capacity to be surprised whenever a story emerges showing that a party or politician is acting in a way that might potentially benefit a donor.
The Clayton Cosgrove donation scandal (one is tempted to use the term “beat-up” rather than “scandal”) illustrates this point. There is no evidence that the donor, Independent Fisheries Limited, pressured Cosgrove into pursuing any sort of property development legislative change, and yet it’s likely that IFL donated to Cosgrove because it saw some benefit in doing so. Perhaps the company’s owners thought Cosgrove was sensitive generally to the concerns of land-owners in the Christchurch area, and paid the money in the hope he would be re-elected. This is really no different to a company giving National cash because the Nats are “business-friendly”.
In the perfect world politicians would not accept cash from anyone, because the risk of undue influence is always present where parties are funded by donations. But what choice does a party have under our current system? Cake stalls and sausage sizzles will only take a political party so far.
But this post is not intended to be a defence of Clayton Cosgrove. Unless more details emerge about the IFL donation the story seems doomed to disappear in a few days. That a politician pursued policies that appeared to favour someone who donated to his party is hardly a scoop.
There is an obvious solution to the donation problem. Full state-funding of political parties would cost only a few million dollars per year, but it would do away with much of the suspicion that surrounds politicians, and would go some way towards restoring the public’s trust in our political system. We would of course need to have a robust debate over the make-up of any funding system, to ensure it was fair and didn’t entrench the power of the main parties, and we would need to accept that any system we implemented would be imperfect and would need ongoing refinement.
Those groups who currently have influence would probably object to such a system, but that’s precisely why we should be looking at this seriously.
Such a system would be difficult to sell to the public, but it would be worth the effort if it helped to clean up our political system.
[Bunji: And if you agree with State Funding – how do you think it should work? Based on Membership numbers? Vouchers? Or?]