The cynical saying that we get the governments we deserve has been long eclipsed by the reality that we get the governments big business pays for.
There was a time when Labour and National ran cake stalls, raffles, jumble sales and flea markets to raise funds for election campaigns.
Those days are gone. Cake stalls won’t do it any more. Campaigns can’t be run with leaflet drops in letterboxes and soapbox meetings on street corner as they were in the past.
Impact with the mass media is essential and these require large donations from businesses. It would take hundreds of cake stalls to fund a 30-second TV commercial. Just not do-able. With this reliance on big business donations comes the inevitable handing over of a pound of flesh (or a pound of policy) to reflect the interests of the donor.
It’s true these donations are collected by party officials so as to distance policy development from the influence of the donors but this is really just a facade. MPs are acutely aware that even though the business strings aren’t visible, the understanding of what is expected from the party in return is very clear.
Business has two big parties to choose from these days and the difficulty in telling them apart is perhaps best reflected in the decision of Telecom at the last election to donate $50,000 each to National and Labour.
Because big donors are now so dominant, both main parties have very little difference between them in terms of policy. Both are business friendly parties at the expense of those who would have run the cake stalls of the past.
The areas of parliamentary debate have now largely shifted from policy to issues of credibility and honesty of individual MPs. Public perception has replaced policy difference at the centre of electoral battle.
Stung by the impact of the Exclusive Brethren’s secret funding of an anti-Labour campaign during the last election (remember, the Exclusive Brethren are the people who don’t believe in voting but do believe in getting the government they want and are prepared to pay for it) Labour set out to clean up the influence of big business on our democracy.
And so we have their Electoral Reform Bill now open for submissions till September 7.
The steps are there to control lobby groups but the key element is missing. Labour no longer wants to ban secret election donations or stop secret trusts from hiding big donations to political parties.
The Government intends to stop lobby groups from doing this but not political parties themselves.
The National Party have launched their attack on the bill around the restrictions placed on lobby groups but they, too, do not want secret election donations to political parties from individuals or trusts controlled in any way. And so we are being set up for a phony war whereby the main political parties argue about controls on lobby groups but both will support exempting themselves from the same scrutiny as to where their money comes from.
Those who pay the piper call the tune but Labour and National don’t want us to know who is paying. Opening up our democracy to accountability over funding was supposed to be the central plank of this legislation. Should it not be the strength of vision and policy which decides an election rather than the size of the chequebooks a party can attract? This was Labour’s line as it began preparing the legislation.
However, it’s clear that Labour has had feedback from its big-business donors that they don’t want to be publicly accountable for their political party funding.
National has the same problem with its backers. They have used secret trusts for years by which bid donors can make huge payments to National’s election coffers with no-one the wiser as to who has provided the money.
Business groups oppose openness and transparency. They thrive when they can use cash to tip the balance of the electoral field in their favour. Whatever it is, it isn’t democracy. It is consent to govern purchased by business.
Distasteful as it seems at first, I for one would have supported state funding for political parties.
Alongside sensible controls on lobby groups this would mean elections were more about a contest of ideas and vision than a measure of private financial backing.
The bill has plenty of other deficiencies. For example, no restrictions on foreign or corporate donations are proposed. Canada very sensibly says that only those able to vote in an election should be able to make political donations. Why not the same principle applied here?
After all the bickering to come over this bill, elections in New Zealand will still be open to purchase.