Democracy for Sale: Donations


It is the unfortunate truth that nowhere in the world has democracy been properly and fully implemented, and that under the current system it is unlikely that it ever will. Even in the apparent birthplace of democracy – Ancient Greece – participation was limited to very strict demographics. Today in Australia, while things have improved on the participation front – although some demographics, such as prisoners, are unable to vote, and the debate about dropping the voting age to 16 continues – true democracy eludes us. As it turns out, you can just buy it.

Perfect democracy is incredibly difficult to define as there are so many elements to consider, and actually implementing it would be a mammoth task, not least because there are many in the world with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. While there is by no means an exhaustive list of topics that one could branch into, here I just want to focus on money in politics – the realm of donations. This piece also takes for granted that the idea of the State, a democratic style of government as we have now, is still a part of the outcome – one step at a time.

True democracy, many say, can only be achieved if all aspects of life are democratic. While this is true, to an extent, of the political sphere, it is not the case in the workplace. As such, a disproportionate amount of power in one sphere ultimately leads to a skewed result in the other – in this case, corporate influence over the political sphere. This takes numerous forms, from media coverage to donations, and almost always (if not always, I cannot think of any exceptions at this time) lobbies for policies that will benefit the rich.

Donations are a particularly egregious example as it completely bypasses the will of the people – do not listen to the constituency that voted for you, here is a sum of money, now return the favour. The recent tax cuts, most of which will flow directly to the top percentage of high earners, are merely a minute portion of the returned favours. When power rests in the hands of those who can donate large sums of money, those who are unable to do so are automatically excluded from the ‘democracy’ we claim to have. Case in point, those tax cuts were enacted at the same time as the Greens’ attempt to raise Newstart was shut down.

That, in truth, is the history of democracy, really. In ancient Athens, only male citizens had the right to vote. When the United States of America was created on the virtues of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, these ideals were not extended to native Americans and slaves, and the vote was not extended to women until much later too. When slavery was ‘abolished’, race still precluded people, with many people being arrested on wild charges and prisoners essentially forced to take the place of the slaves anyway.

Today, the US still has a bad record, but in Australia some prisoners do not have the right to vote. Nor do immigrants, who are our favourite scapegoat of the day, one of history’s many exceptions to this delight we call democracy. The idea of democracy is celebrated, but it is never fully extended to everyone. In the context of political donations, while the people in question – such as those on welfare, for example – may have the right to vote, there appears to be another flaw in our approach to democracy. That is the power that corporations have over society.

Now, to go all the way, beyond the scope of this piece, decisions would be made by those who are affected by them – meaning everyone, not corporations because they feel hard done by with government red tape. No, I mean abolishing landlords and property investment so that people can own their homes rather than live under and unjust power relationship. I mean immigrants being allowed to have a say on policies relating to them so they aren’t abused by the current system, for example to protect themselves from being underpaid, or extorted by our tertiary education system. Those on welfare to be able to have decent living standards, rather than being subjected to dismally low payments like Newstart and humiliating programs such as drug testing or privatised welfare cards.

I digress. For now, the battle is taking corporate influence out of the political sphere. In fact, why not all donations? Could an individual not just choose to donate their own money and influence policies that way? Or would that overstep by denying one’s right to association? Indeed it would, and that is why I agree with the Greens’ notion of a cap on donations. A complete ban on corporate donations, supported with a cap on individuals’ donations, would level the playing field. In the US, Bernie Sanders has received an insane amount of money from individuals in the greatest grassroots movement in the US’ history – he wasn’t immune from corporate donations, but he was incredibly focussed on the average person, not the ‘big end of town’.

Here in Australia, it would have a similar effect – the major parties probably would continue to peddle the same policies they currently do, but a massive chunk of their election war chests would be gone. They would instead have less of an excuse to kowtow to corporate interests and instead be required to listen to their constituents. Individuals could still donate to the party of their choice, should they so desire, but with a cap on that donation, influence would be limited.

Is that a perfect fix? No, because as I said, one step at a time – you can’t just casually push around a few structural changes and call it a day, the structure needs a complete demolition and overhaul. But it is one part in a much longer game – a game we, the people, must win, because for some people out there, losing might literally mean death. To quote Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John:

“They [the Australian people] damn well expect us here to fight for them like our lives depend on it – because their lives do.”



Previous piece: Freedom of Speech in the Workplace

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