the revival by gas of political donations

Remember the gas recovery?

First introduced by the Prime Minister during a speech at the National Press Club in February 2020, he proposed that the energy transition plan that Australian businesses have been calling for for more than a decade – and Turnbull has lost leadership of the coalition more than twice – either built around gas. Also that Australian taxpayers should support the efforts of the manufacturing sector to deliver it.

There is, the Prime Minister said, “no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia that does not involve greater use of gas”.

The howls of protest that greeted this were voluminous and widespread.

They came from the 82% of Australians concerning on the effect of climate change in our backyard and appalled that the leaked draft report supporting the strategy doesn’t even have mention the climate crisis, nor offer a single alternative to centering Australia’s energy future on fossil fuels.

They also came from governance experts, appalled at how members of the National COVID-19 Coordinating Commission who drafted the report had been Stacked by members of the mining and fossil fuel industries, including task force leader Andrew Liveris, who was also a board member of Saudi oil company Aramco and mining company Worley.

Everyone wondered if there was a connection between the government’s orientation and its financial indebtedness to the fossil fuel industry. But no one could prove it. Why? Because the Commonwealth has no real-time disclosure of political donations.

Only now, long after public attention has shifted, have those suspicions been confirmed. With recently released donation data on the Australian Electoral Commission websitewe know that the fossil fuel companies – and the gas industry in particular – were generously donating to the two major parties at the time, a colossal sum of $1,329,754 to be precise, of which just over half came from the gas industry.

The Coalition got the lion’s share ($731,534), although the Labor Party collected the not inconsiderable sum of $598,220.

If you add to the Coalition’s total for that year, just over $1 million of NLP harvested from fossil fuels via its fundraising entity Cormackthe Coalition’s indebtedness to gas, coal and mining over the 2020-21 period swells to $1,735,048.

Is this proof of corruption? No, but it certainly gives voters reason to wonder if there has been corruption. Namely, whether the gas-driven recovery policy was designed and intended by the Morrison government to serve the public or private interest.

Such doubt is devastating to the public trust necessary for democracy to work – and right now, that trust is already in decline. According to Transparency International Australia, 85% of Australians believe that at least some members of the federal government are corrupt. Add to that the precipitous decline in perceptions of overall public sector integrity – we have fallen 12 points over the past year to a score of 73, just six points ahead of the United States, where Democracy is in crisis – and the imperative for political action to restore public trust is clear.

Indeed, if we do nothing to halt and reverse the decline, Australian Democracy Museum Research predicts that by 2025 “fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions”.

No democracy can survive on such low levels of trust, and neither can ours. It will collapse – or die.

What else can we do to restore trust in our democratic institutions and our representatives? A crucial step is for taxpayers to provide limited and exclusive funding to parties for elections. Private donors lose their grip on elected officials when MPs don’t need their money to win.

At the very least, we need to impose a cap of $1,000 per donor—it’s currently $14,500, with loopholes big enough to drive a truck through—to limit the influence of the big end of town on policy “public”.

Finally, every rule we make to improve transparency and restore trust must have an enforcement mechanism and be enforced by a federal integrity commission promised by the Morrison government before the last election but now set aside.

There is a little good news. For the first time in a long time in Australia, public integrity is on the federal election agenda. The other day, I walked past a campaign poster in the Kooyong Treasurer’s constituency that suggested a vote for him was a vote for “integrity in government.” I imagine similar signs appear in other inner city seats that were once safe for Liberals – Tim Wilson in Goldsmith, Dave Sharma in Wentworth, Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney – although the revelation that an Independent Zali Steggall did not declare a $100,000 donation questions the viability of the alternatives for the disillusioned voter.

All of this means that we have work to do. Now is the time to have your candidates publicly record what they would do if elected to restore the integrity of our systems of democratic governance and, in doing so, restore our trust.