If politics is ‘broken’, what will it take to fix it?

Fundamental change is needed

More people are saying “politics is broken” and it is not hard to see why.

After months of bushfire crisis (not to mention flash flooding, dust storms and ash rain), independent MP Zali Steggall wants to introduce a private member’s bill that would take some moderate steps towards an improved climate policy.

It still falls a long way short of the kind of emergency action that is needed but even then, on the day it was announced, the ABC reported “the bill is expected to fail because it does not have the backing of Labor and the government”.

The day before, Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles, when pressed, would not rule out supporting new coal-fired power stations. Even with the Coalition government’s dismal performance, Labor cannot even effectively masquerade as an “opposition”. Actually advocating for the kinds of policies working people need is some hypothetical concept that exists only in Fantasy Land for them.

As for the Coalition, its policy is so bad that even some Liberals have begun to murmur objections to their party’s support for fossil fuels. Still, it is standing firm on its commitment to take no serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But is politics really “broken” — or is the system built this way?

Look at the figures just released for corporate donations to the major parties. Even if you ignore the “mystery” of the reporting and subsequent denial of a $165,000 donation to the Coalition from an ally of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who potentially stands to gain financially from a $1 billion government contract, the overall picture is clear.

Big corporations fund Australia’s two “parties of government”. They received more than $430 million from corporate Australia in the year leading up to the May 2019 federal election. This is a record amount: $150 million more than the previous highest total.

You do not have to go around the block too many times to realise that the one that pays the piper calls the tune.

When you or I donate $50 to our favourite candidate, it is an expression of support.

When a corporation donates $50,000 to a political party, it is a business investment: corporations expect a return. That could be favourable consideration for government contracts, or mining approvals, or something else. Whatever it is, it is not an enthusiastic commitment to free speech and transparent politics.

This is demonstrated by the fact that many of these corporations donate to both Labor and the Coalition — confident that either or, in fact, both — will serve their interests. It is not just money changing hands: there is a revolving door of former politicians taking on advisory or other positions in the corporate world.

Adam Lucas from the University of Wollongong says that large corporations actively seek to shape government policy in ways that are not widely known.

“This is not just done through lobbying,” he wrote in The Conversation. “All of these industries have been proactive in courting individuals who hold public office in relevant portfolios as potential allies and future employees.

"Some are employed as lobbyists, some as advisors, some as consultants and others as board members and company directors. This allows these industries to shape tax and regulatory regimes in their favour and to drive major government and private sector investments in their own infrastructure.”

He and his colleagues compiled a database of more than 180 individuals who have moved between the fossil fuel and/or mining industries and senior positions in government, or vice versa over a 10-year period.

No wonder the big fossil fuel executives are not worried about “stranded assets”, or a risk to their profits from capitalist governments. They have the system sewn up.

Corporate money pollutes every aspect of the political process, including election campaigns, funding of political parties and media “scrutiny”. Ultimately, we need a fundamental transformation of the political system that breaks the power of big corporations and places it into the hands of working people.

The first step to achieving this is to organise with others against policies which are not in our or the environment’s interest. Joining the February 22 climate justice mobilisations would be a good place to start.

The next step is to become active in organising for fundamental social and ecological change with the Socialist Alliance.