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21st century democracy needs defending

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Lee Rhiannon 15 Jul 2011

This piece first appeared in Online Opinion.

The last few weeks have seen a series of Labor heavyweights willing to go public about the woes of their party. Faulkner, Dastyari and Richardson have all raised a range of significant problems with the way the party is, or is not, working. A common theme though is the real and dire need for Labor to reconnect with its membership and the community more broadly.

Interestingly none of these Labor heavyweights have been calling for the Party to reassess its corporate connections. This is deeply relevant to Labor's future – it goes to the very heart of who they are, what they stand for and who they speak for.

There is a link here. It is not just a need to look again at how they involve and speak to their supporters but to understand that the more they appear to be beholden to corporate interests, the greater the gulf appears to be from their membership. Our very recent political history in NSW can attest to this.

According to media reports the 2011 Ipsos Mackay Report 'Being Australian', just released, reveals a growing and pervasive view amongst those surveyed that 'big business is undermining our way of life'. This is a view that is growing stronger in the community and one that the Greens encounter every day when we speak to voters.

How Labor interacts with the business community needs to change if Labor is to be true to its valuesof social justice to help restore people's confidence in MPs and the democratic institutions that are so vitally important to the society we live in.

A decade of political donation scandals, easy access of lobbyists to politicians, and the multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that corporations engage in when they don't like a government policy has shaken public confidence in Labor and the democratic process. Importantly it has also shaken confidence in many to trust the motives and actions of some of the largest companies in Australia, companies that could be playing a strong leadership role in shaping a better country.

Hostility, scepticism and misgivings towards some companies are common to shareholders, consumers and employees. Surely this can't be good for business?

When former NSW ICAC Commissioner Jerrold Cripps left the Commission he commented that political donations and lobbying by former MPs ''are activities that are unmistakably conducive to corrupt conduct''.

The need for electoral funding reform is demonstrated every time another political donation scandal breaks. We did makesubstantial and meaningful inroads into this with recent legislation in NSW but nationwide reform is essential and long overdue. However, reform of party involvement with the corporate world needs to be more far reaching.

How does 21st century democracy manage lobbyists, corporate campaigning, and concentration of media ownership?

Lobbying is big business with sundry campaigns undertaken by lobbyists, economic consultancies and public relations agencies specialising in government work. It is true however that some of them engage incarry out important and ethical work.

The new phenomenon of corporate campaigning is one area that should be of great concern to anyone who believes in our democracy. Concerted corporate campaigns are big issues impacting on both Labor and fabric of our democracy. Over recent years banks, tobacco companies and some in the mining industry have hired advertising companies and pollsters to mount multimillion dollar political campaigns targeting both government and opposition.

It would seem that this rise of direct corporate campaigning coincides neatly with state and federalattempts to make lobbyists more accountable and their activities more transparent.

Traditional lobbying companies are required to register their clients. This is an important step but one which fails to take the necessary next step. Businesses with an interest in influencing government policy and legislation are increasingly developing in-house government relations teams that draw on former ministers and senior staffers to undertake lobbying for them. Such work when undertaken directly by a business does not come under government guidelines for lobbyists.

Undue corporate influence is growing and there are not enough voices calling for the necessary limits to be set.

Labor's failure to advocate reasonable checks and balances on corporate influence over government decision making may have built some short term alliances but the failure to set ethical standards is adding to Labor's crisis of identity.

Australia's strong and proud democracy needs further work and requires us to be ever vigilant so that all voices are heard in our important national debates. Politicians need to hear the voice of the people, something increasingly difficult with the dominance of conservative big media commentators and the shrill calls of the self-interested hogging every bandwidth and Ministerial diaries.

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