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Foreign donations small fry compared to Govt spending

By Alex Penk December 10, 2019

“Pecunia non olet,” or, for non-latin speakers: money doesn’t stink. It’s been a truism ever since the Roman Emperor Vespasian who, when faced with his son’s objection to a tax on urine (yes, really), reassured him that the malodorous origins of the tax revenue doesn’t taint the enjoyment of spending it. “Pecunia non olet” has probably been echoed by a few principals since the Government announced a $400 million package to upgrade state school properties. Although principals are unlikely to query the source of their windfall, questions should be asked, just as they should be asked about the Government’s new ban on foreign donations. Although foreign donations sound dangerous to democracy, it’s announcements like the schools package that pose a greater risk.

The schools package will give state schools $693 per student, up to $400,000 in total, but surprisingly this funding is based simply on student numbers and not on need. The funds will be available next year and will have to be spent within the following two years, which is a pretty tight timeframe for every state school in the country to achieve simultaneous property upgrades. It does, however, neatly bridge next year’s election and should have schools looking good in time for the following election.

This funding is based simply on student numbers and not on need.

Just two days later, the Government announced that it would “protect the integrity of our elections” by banning “foreign donations to political parties and candidates.” Never mind that, as journalist Sam Sachdeva reported, these donations made up just 0.25 percent of party donations at the last election, or that, as Professor Andrew Geddis noted, the law change will still allow overseas people to make donations through companies based in New Zealand. Despite this gaping hole, MPs like James Shaw declared that voting “shouldn’t be influenced by powerful vested interests. We are making our democracy fairer.”  

I can’t think of any good reasons why we should allow foreign donations, but it’s hard to square the measly effect of this law change with all the righteous bluster about fairness. In fact, putting the two announcements alongside each other, the most obvious vested interest on display, and the most obvious risk to fair democracy, is the Government’s own interest in retaining power. The schools package will provide the kind of physical reminder of government investment that voters can’t help but notice—unlike, say, money targeted to teacher development, even if the latter might be more important for student outcomes. If that sounds cynical, consider that the announcement came with a pre-prepared answer to the question, “what will my kid’s school get?”: a list that Labour MPs were quick to share.

To cultivate a bit of healthy scepticism next time the Government is doling out its largesse.

The Government may not tax urine these days, but it has plenty of other ways to swell the public purse. Holding those purse strings gives every government the opportunity to bribe us voters with our own money, something that no foreign donations ban can defend against. The best way to protect a fair democracy might just be to cultivate a bit of healthy scepticism next time the Government is doling out its largesse.

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