Tobacco money the kind of habit politics can do without.

Why is the Liberal Party still taking donations from tobacco companies?

Mark Latham did his side a rare good turn by ending the ALP’s acceptance of tobacco donations in 2004; it is past time for the Liberals to follow suit.

The party should not accept the money for two reasons. It’s morally wrong – no grey area there, sorry – cigarettes kill. It also creates practical problems.

Tobacco habit

Tobacco habit

Consider Tony Abbott’s conundrum. Currently we are having a significant policy debate about plain packaging for tobacco products. Abbott on Tuesday posed a reasonable question: will it work? Policy should be based on evidence, and playing devil’s advocate is not a thought-crime.

Health advocates believe the measure will limit sales of a highly addictive and dangerous product. Not so the tobacco companies. The industry makes the claim that generic packaging will trigger aggressive price discounting. If the industry follows through on its oafish threat to discount prices, then a flood of cheap cigarettes could counteract the health benefits.

This line of argument reeks of tobacco’s predictable self-interest – but I wouldn’t propose that politicians or voters desist from asking questions, or participating in rational debate.

However, how can you be seen to be the well-meaning sceptic in the political discussion if your party has accepted $1.7 million from the tobacco industry since 2004?

Accepting tobacco donations is not Abbott’s decision – it’s the party organisation’s. As health minister, he imposed graphic health warnings on cigarette packets, and to put it bluntly, he’s a non-smoking health nut.
But whatever his personal bona fides, he is coloured by the appearance of conflicted interest. There’s a simple way to remove the problem: stop taking the donations.

Tobacco makes for a rather stark case. But, of course, you can apply the conflicted interests maxim more broadly.

Should Labor take trade union money and then make laws that enhance union rights – or, conversely, take money from trades and labour councils and get hot under the collar about pokies? Should the Liberals take money from the mining industry then oppose the mining tax? This question is always at the nub of arguments about electoral reform.

Inveterate idealists say democracy would be better served with no private donations, with full public funding of elections – or, if we must be ”practical”, with donations from individuals only, not corporate or institutional dollars that demand a quid pro quo.

Practical types argue politics is the poorer without private investment, not just in the literal sense, but as a fundamental point of principle. If people and corporations are permitted to invest in politics, they feel connected. This is important when cynicism about professional politics has become ingrained to the point where it is corrosive to the practice itself.

Another chance to test these propositions will come with a welcome inquiry by the multi-partisan joint standing committee on electoral matters, announced quietly last week. This inquiry is yet another legacy of the minority government agreement.

The Greens and the independents insisted on a fresh look at electoral reform back in the days of ”new politics”, when Abbott spoke of a ”kinder, gentler polity” and the crossbench rhapsodised about new ways of doing things. Since that brief golden age, the Parliament has descended into the horse-trading, finger pointing and institutionalised acrimony of the old politics.

Perhaps the committee process can give electoral reform a helpful jump start. The committee chairman, Labor’s Daryl Melham, says the public deserves more transparency. He is flagging some positive changes. Melham says third parties – unions, business and activist groups – should be forced to reveal whoever puts into the political pot.

Currently, only the groups – not their individual donors – are required to disclose campaigns above a spending threshold of $11,200. Melham says activists should not ”hide” behind umbrella groups and disclosure thresholds.
He is also holding out the olive branch to his Liberal colleagues and to the crossbench. Melham believes it’s in everyone’s interest to find some common ground to prevent Australian politics descending into an unmanageable fund-raising arms race.

Let’s hope he’s right.

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