Government must prioritise ban on corporate donations

 

Moriarty’s findings are reminder that links between business and politics must be broken

‘ALL OVER the world, it is recognised that financial support from business to politicians is perceived by the public to have one purpose [namely] the securing of commercial advantage. Claims that such donations are made from disinterested motives are simply not believed. As the lurid tribunal scandals play out before our eyes, one thing is clear. We cannot restore politics until the perceived link between political contributions and public policy is broken.”

These words were spoken more than a decade ago by none other than Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

On February 9th, 2001, at his first press conference after winning the leadership of Fine Gael, Noonan announced that he had already instructed party officials and trustees to no longer accept corporate donations. He also promised that Fine Gael would introduce legislation to ban such donations when next in government and he promised that if there were constitutional impediments to introducing such a ban, he would hold a referendum on the matter.

In announcing this policy as his first initiative, Noonan was clearly seeking to represent his leadership as a break from the past and was anxious to distance his party from the allegations of inappropriate business payments to politicians that had flowed from both the Flood and Moriarty tribunals.

Noonan will have been conscious too of the damage Michael Lowry had caused to Fine Gael. In 1996, when he was forced to resign from the cabinet, Michael Lowry’s power base within Fine Gael arose not only from the fact that he was a minister but also because he had been a central figure in Fine Gael’s organisation and fundraising in the preceding years. Lowry was privately and publicly credited with transforming Fine Gael’s financial fortunes.

Michael Noonan’s 2001 announcement of a corporate donation ban was a brave move at the time. He was the first mainstream party leader to support such a policy.

Sadly, it did not last long and Fine Gael quietly resumed accepting corporate donations. Fine Gael also returned to the defence of the party’s right to accept support from big businesses and, like Fianna Fáil, was dismissive of assertions that such support was tainted by the suggestion of influence or access.

At last year’s MacGill Summer School, Fine Gael’s environment spokesman Phil Hogan said Fine Gael was opposed to the then government’s proposals to ban corporate donations, saying that his party made no apology and offered no favours in return for accepting them. In advance of last month’s election, however, Fine Gael again changed its policy on corporate donations – promising along with all other parties to introduce a ban.

Interestingly, when challenged on his party’s latest U-turn on corporate donations at a press conference announcing Fine Gael’s political reform proposals, Enda Kenny said he reversed Michael Noonan’s position when he became leader because he did not want Fine Gael to be disadvantaged electorally by ruling out business support.

Kenny had a point. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – and indeed some individual Labour and Independent candidates – have relied increasingly on business sector support over the last two decades.

As the hold the two larger parties once had over traditional voters loosened, Irish politics became increasingly competitive. The personalisation and professionalisation of electoral campaigning mean it costs an astronomical amount of money. All parties have seen a marked decline in the availability of, and/or reliance upon, volunteer activity.

This new, high-visibility paid-for campaigning became a monster that had to be fed with large quantities of cash. The largest, most effective and best-resourced operation of this type was the political organisation constructed by Bertie Ahern in Dublin Central. The hearings of the Mahon tribunal revealed the extent to which that operation was dependent on business-related funding.

Fine Gael has had some success in putting in place sustainable funding streams such as membership subscriptions and party draws. Fianna Fáil once relied on its traditional national church gate collection as a major source of funding, but receipts from this have dwindled alongside congregations and the activist base.

A large element of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáils funding for the recent election came from the business sector.

There has been a dramatic extension of State funding to political parties in recent years but this cannot be used for election purposes. It has been used instead to build large and at times unwieldy party communications, research and headquarters operations.

The introduction of an exchequer-funded reimbursement of expenses for all candidates who secure at least one-quarter of a quota has gone some way to defray the costs of candidate campaigns, but still only covers a fraction of the real cost of constant personalised campaigning.

The Moriarty report reminds us of many of the reasons why this reliance on business support is bad for our politics. The last government promised much but delivered nothing on reform in this area. The new Government, with all-party support, should introduce a ban on corporate donations and on large individual donations as soon as possible.

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