29 March 2012

Politics is an expensive business. Elections must be paid for. Government is not a charity. Donors inevitably expect something in return. Questions will always surround the bargain between politicians and their financial backers. Campaign funding is the Achilles heel of democracies.
An example is the cost of elections in the United States (said to exceed $1m for a Senate seat). It would be naïve to believe candidates raise that sort of money without “strings attached”. Throughout the western world there are organisations endeavouring to minimise the corrupting influence of these strings. The Sunlight Foundation, committed to transparency and accountability in government, has a growing profile in raising public awareness of influences on decision-makers.
A current campaign is the DISCLOSE Bill – Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act – which will have a Senate Hearing today. The purpose is to overturn the effect of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case which resulted in Super PACs. This would impose openness on any group spending money on elections, enabling … “citizens to determine the credibility of campaign ads based on the messenger as well as the message…”
In the United Kingdom there is public disquiet following the disclosure that donors willing to give $500,000 to the Conservative Party were offered access to the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Transparency International considers that … “this shocking revelation underscores the need for urgent reforms to clean up political party funding in the UK. Access to the government should not be for sale to the highest bidder. The imposition of a ceiling on political party donations of, say, £10,000 would prevent such scandals from recurring with alarming frequency.”
“Parliament also needs to act with urgency to enact legislation for a mandatory register of all lobbying activity so that the UK public knows who is lobbying whom for what, and how much they are paying for it. Without these urgent reforms, public trust in politicians will be further eroded.”
In Canada, Democracy Watch is strident in advocating proper enforcement of integrity laws and is campaigning as part of the Money in Politics Coalition to create a publicly funded election system to reverse the corruption perceived to flow from existing arrangements.
In the New Zealand Parliament yesterday, a question was put to a Minister about receiving improper benefits from a major business that is seeking advantageous legislation. However, when in power MPs now in Opposition did no more than the current Government to enact controls on lobbying, and opposed repeated attempts in a Private Member’s Bill to regulate MPs’ behaviour through a code of conduct.
The OECD Principles of Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying is a code that all Member states are expected to implement as a constraint on improper influences on governments. Perhaps those who fund elections don’t consider it improper to acquire the opportunity to shape decision-making.