Many Australian political commentators are agreed that distrust is the new default position for voters. Without doubt the single most obvious cause of this distrust is the perception that politicians are corrupt. Corruption occurs in the actions of individuals and in the collective behaviour of parties and their relationships to government departments and other organisations and institutions. Individual politicians are known to widely engage in the criminal behaviours of taking bribes and making false claims on the public purse. Political parties are known to trade influence for political donations and establish illegal slush funds for bankrolling election campaigns and related processes. The anger of voters is amplified by the perception that justice is rarely, or limply, delivered to guilty politicians (or powerful business people associated with them).
Hung parliaments and the electoral successes of ‘micro-parties’, independents and parties of ideological extremes are one major consequence of this distrust. The recently emerging diversity in Australian parliaments is however widely read as instability with the practical consequence that parliaments are not always able to find the numbers to pass bills and legislation easily. Further, political parties do not like finding ‘bipartisan support’ or the support of ‘cross benches’ and appear quite willing to drag out situations where there is overwhelming popular support for new legislation with respect to, for example, climate change and energy generation, gay marriage and political donations.
Such levels of distrust make it increasingly important that journalists and researchers have access to adequate facts and data. So long as social movement organisations (such as Lock the Gate) and other independent organisations (such as the Climate Council) continue to emerge as a counter to the hegemonic processes of government, democracy might seem to be alive as a popular concern.
Data bases and websites are also becoming important sources for countervailing truths. Democracy4Sale is a good example of one such source and even though it is currently run by a political party (the Greens NSW) it has a history of providing accurate data about donations to political parties – based on the cross correlation of what is reported by political parties and what is reported to various Electoral Commissions.
However in the case of data bases and websites it is important that their integrity and ability to respond to fair criticism is maintained. After all, their status with researchers will only last as long as their data is found to be accurate and comprehensive. In that respect one can only hope that the NSW Greens pay attention to the continuing adequacy of the Democracy4Sale website.
The ability to accurately monitor political donations may be the key to changing popular perceptions of a high level of corruption of politicians and political parties. Indeed much of the corrupt behaviour of politicians and political parties reported in the media is related to the giving of donations by individuals and companies that play powerful roles in processes mediated by governments.