Watching Treasurer Wayne Swan call an Opposition backbencher a ‘moron’ in Parliament last week, I was struck by the growing resemblance between the behaviour of politicians during question time and a pre-match interview of the World Wrestling Federation.
While the whole affair was correctly described by CPD’s Ben Eltham as ‘an empty scandal’, there’s no doubt that these kinds of shenanigans can damage the fabric of our democracy. A research project which I recently conducted with the Whitlam Institute found that one of the key factors undermining our democracy is the poor image of politicians. Our research found that politicians are seen as behaving a lot like footballers: disconnected from reality, a law unto themselves and with little regard for civility. The 30 second grabs in the evening news of Malcolm Turnbull, Wayne Swan and Anthony Albanese carrying on like school-yard bullies only reinforce this impression. How is it possible for us to respect a system when those in charge of it are carrying on like this?
The media coverage of utegate plays into the treatment of politics as a game – both sides get marked down for fouls but in the end all that matters is winning the match on points. The only way to salvage something positive from this debacle is for both teams to treat it as a chance to clean up the game itself.
At the heart of the scandal was the accusation that a political donor was treated as ‘no ordinary constituent’. On the scale of undue influence a run-down Mazda barely rates a mention, but there’s still an important principle at stake – do we really want to live in a democracy where those who can afford to do favours for our political leaders get better treatment than the rest of us?
The need for political donations reform has come up several times here at the CPD. It has also come up more than once over the course of the Rudd Government’s first term. An early attempt by Senator John Faulkner to get the ball rolling by bringing down the disclosure threshold from over $10,000 to $1,500 was stalled by the Coalition, who referred it to a Senate committee and said that they wanted to see the green paper first. The committee reported last October and the government’s first green paper is out now, incorporating some of the committee’s recommendations, but the Coalition (and Senator Fielding) are still planning to vote down the bill, claiming it’s not ‘comprehensive’ enough.
The Rudd Government may have come out on top from the utegate affair, but they did not escape untarnished. And Malcolm Turnbull is definitely in need of an opportunity to reclaim the moral high ground. The donations reform bill will be debated in parliament’s next sitting. Come August, let’s hope both sides of the house take time out from the name-calling and mud-slinging and do what it takes to safeguard Australian democracy from the scandals of the future.