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money trail

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Apr-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 826

Watch it, Morris, or we’ll rip yer bloody arms off

Elizabeth Farrelly

Thank God for the Greens. I’ve often argued that they should stick to green issues, rather than adopting every homeless puppy of a cause they see in the soft-left shop window. But when it comes to their Democracy 4 $ale website we – all of us – have much to thank them for. Not just for keeping the bastards honest when the Opposition lost its bottle (the one with a warm rubber teat they dropped through the cot bars and have been whimpering for ever since). But for concretising an issue whose environmental impact is, as it happens, huge.

Democracy 4 $ale started in 2002, when the retired academic Dr Norman Thompson offered to help the Greens leader Lee Rhiannon on a small research project. About 30 hours’ worth, they thought. Six years and thousands of hours later, they have one of the most compelling websites in the country, cataloguing donations to all parties at both state and national level by industry, year, recipient and donor.

It is a good read and a vast amount of work. Donations are meant to be reported by donor and recipient, to the NSW and Australian electoral commissions. Thompson reckons only about half are reported, often by only one side, or to only one commission, and sometimes under partial or misleading names. So the correlation task alone is huge.

The result is gripping: thousands of entries showing an irregular ripple-effect of recurrent names and numbers. Thompson says: “It’s fascinating, just seeing the patterns.” With the Greens and independents, most donors are individuals and most amounts random. But with the Libs and the ALP, donations are mostly corporate and iterative.

There are the usual suspects, like the Australian Hotels Association, which dropped $650,000 into the NSW ALP plate before last year’s election – with many more thousands from individual hotels, breweries and liquor companies. There is the predictable array of KPMGs, Price Waterhouses, Allens Arthur Robinsons and Babcock & Browns, and the occasional supplicant flurry – like the $74,000 from Cabcharge, just around the time, Thompson says, it wanted the Government to limit the number of licences to a competitor.

Then there are the developers. Between $100,000 and $300,000 seems to be the expected pre-election sweetie: Australand ($173,275), Grocon ($170,500), Leighton ($131,450), Macquarie Bank ($266,450), Meriton ($226,050), Walker ($226,000), Westfield ($285,000). They seldom give in one hit. That would be crude, obvious. The amounts are usually small and repetitive, with $2750, $5000, $5500, $11,000 and $27,500 recurrent favourites.

Why? What are the sale items here? Access, Thompson says, often dinners. “$11,000 for a table with minister; $5500 without, seems the going rate.” And it is not for the food.

Some, like Meriton, proudly insist they donate to both sides as if, like matter and anti-matter, the two actions cancelled each other out. In fact, it is the opposite, their ambivalence only proving the total absence of principle as motive – unless you count self-interest.

History will judge this as NSW’s Richo period, the apotheosis of government-by-deal, where shadowy presences operate a machine of maximum discretion and minimum regulation inside a fog of rhetoric. It is a model born of the Rum Corps and mentored by market worship. In ensuring preferential treatment for the moneyed it is deeply inequitable, betraying everything for which Labor theoretically stands. And yet they might get away with it, were this particular moment in history not so crucial.

Now, more than ever, we need a minister who will stand for what is right, someone who will not trade a piece of the Blue Mountains National Park for a Dubai-funded, helicopter-serviced eco-village, or a piece of Ku-ring-gai National Park for luxury McMansions, or a tiny coastal mining village like Catherine Hill Bay for tacky, car-based suburbia, or a piece of Pitt Town flood plain for residential subdivision.

Someone who will not talk much-needed density then collapse at the first hurdle to allow low-density sprawl across our last remaining food-growing land. Who will not talk heritage then argue, as Frank Sartor did to the National Trust last week, that “we’re moving towards a more mature heritage culture in this state … where we won’t need heritage laws … ” A state where everything is voluntary; voluntary donations, voluntary planning, voluntary heritage. No regulation, no connection. No trace.

Morris Iemma promises to “ban” political donations, but has no answer for Fred Nile’s question to the NSW Labor secretary Karl Bitar at the select committee recently: “Do you envisage some sort of public funding amount to try to equal [the] $65 million in donations?”

In truth, a donations ban can only work in tandem with a spending cap, like the one now working in Canada. But Iemma refuses to countenance that, knowing, no doubt, that a ban, in fostering covert donation practices (like the auction where corporate types bid $50,000 for a matchbox) will favour government while destroying small parties like the Greens – and their pesky websites.

But the Iemma mob should know this: we are the major donors here – you, me, Aunty Jack. We pay the biggest bribes, and if they don’t give us our druthers, we orta rip their bloody arms off.


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