A prominent legal academic has blasted calls for state election campaigns to be fully funded by taxpayers, arguing such a system would be open to abuse by the government of the day and that tougher criminal penalties would be a preferable response to NSW’s current corruption crisis.
Professor Anne Twomey, Director of the Constitutional Reform Unit at the University of Sydney, has warned that banning political parties from receiving donations and replacing the funds with public money could allow a party in control of the Parliament to game the rules and ensure it received the bulk of the public funds.
“I would be very concerned that whoever controls both houses of Parliament, if that happens, manages then to control how political parties are funded through public funding,” Twomey told New Matilda.
Professor Twomey said this problem had already occurred in Canada, where the governing Conservative Party enacted laws rewarding citizens who donated to political parties with tax credits, while banning donations from organisations including unions.
“Those who have lots of money and are seeking tax credits are the people who tend to be rich and are the people who tend to vote for the Conservative Party,” Twomey said.
Pressure is growing on the NSW Government to enact new restrictions on political donations as the Independent Commission Against Corruption continues to unearth evidence of wrongdoing, claiming the scalps of two more Liberal MPs earlier in the week.
Premier Mike Baird has commissioned an ‘expert panel’ to complete a report outlining potential reforms and examine the viability of fully publicly funded election campaigns, which could cut parties off from the corrupting influence of donors hoping to buy political influence.
“I am determined to restore the public’s trust in NSW politics – the NSW Government will take whatever steps are necessary to increase transparency and accountability,” Mr Baird when the panel was unveiled in May.
In response to a growing sense of disillusionment among voters, NSW Labor have backed publicly funded campaigns, and hit out at delays to reform.
“It is extremely disappointing the Premier is attempting to put this issue off until after the next election by sending it off to a committee,” a response provided on behalf of Opposition Leader John Robertson said.
“I wrote to the Premier over three months ago offering to work with him in a bipartisan manner to implement these reforms. Sadly, I’ve had no response.”
Despite major reservations about the current system, the Greens have not sided with Labor, concerned a fully publicly funded model would simply push private fundraising further out of view.
Member for Balmain Jamie Parker said full public funding of election campaigns would not stop problematic donations and risked isolating minor and start-up political parties.
“[Labor] are not wrong in actually calling for it, but the question is what are publicly funded models that allow for diversity in the political system,” he said.
“Would it simply funnel money to third parties?”
In NSW, political parties already receive 75 per cent of their campaign funding from public money, while donations from the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries and developers are banned.
In late 2013, the High Court struck down legislation introduced by then Premier Barry O’Farrell that would have limited donations to those on the electoral list, cutting out corporations and unions in the process.
Instead of rewarding parties with further public funding, Professor Twomey endorsed calls made by fellow legal academic George Williams, who has argued criminal prosecutions are the key to stamping out corruption.
“Until we see the first property developer and the first Member of Parliament behind bars there is not going to be a sufficient deterrent,” she said.
“We actually need to get serious about these things and [acknowledge]this is a particularly insidious type of crime because what it’s doing is removing trust in the political democratic system.
“Why don’t we take those crimes seriously? The answer is that the people in Parliament, who are making the penalties, are the ones who are concerned they will get caught up in them.”
Twomey said establishing a Federal ICAC was a good idea.
“I’m happy to bet there are similar levels of behaviour that involve attempts to bribe and corrupt [in states outside of NSW]and I’m also satisfied that there would be similar happening at the Commonwealth level,” she said.
“There needs to be more focus on supporting those efforts to undertake criminal proceedings in the Court, but also punishment of MPs who are obviously acting corruptly,” Parker said.
“We agree there needs to be increased and serious punishment in those situations.”
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