It is neither partisan nor controversial to suggest that political donations have a dangerous effect on democracy. A couple of months back, Fairfax revealed that the Liberal Party had received the first of two major donations from the gambling industry in August 2013, the same month the Labor government introduced new reforms to tackle problem gambling. While the Liberal Party and the gambling industry both denied the money had any effect on collation policy, the donations were intended to assist government frontbencher Kevin Andrews in his re-election campaign.
In August 2013, Kevin Andrews was responsible for drafting the Liberals’ response to Labor policy, and in March 2014, after the new election, Labor’s reforms were finally repealed. The bill to reform Labor’s policies was introduced by Kevin Andrews, leading some critics to argue the possibility of government corruption. While the allegations themselves were never proven, they led to a media debate on the legitimacy of political donations, which then treasurer Joe Hockey defended as necessity, owing to an insufficient amount of public funding, and the high price of modern political advertising.
But the mere existence of political donations actually increases the cost of advertising, locking politicians into a battle of expanding advertising budgets, designed to get an edge over the competition. More money equals more exposure, allowing politicians to have what psychologist Stephen Ducat calls the power to define – or the ability to influence public perception on the facts of the political debate. Ducat calls this power propaganda, and argues that it’s commonplace in modern marketing:
The goal of propaganda is not to wake us up but to put us to sleep – whether that is the cozy somnambulation of shopping or the paranoid and violent sleep of the fascist rally. The aim of advertisers, commercial or political, is not just to have us dream but to put us in a dream of their own design. In so doing, they tell us who we are – which is to say, who they need us to be.
Thus, the party with the most ability to advertise is the party capable of generating the most prolific propaganda. And the advertisements work. While they’re not the most important factor in determining the result of an election, they help persuade swinging voters, and set the tone of political debates. Worst of all, they favour major parties and wealthy private enterprise at the expense of everybody else, allowing unfair advantage to wealthy participants in the democratic process and de-incentivising political reform. Clearly, it’s not just our system of political donations that’s affecting our democracy, but the amount we spend on advertising too.
And the reason for it all is propaganda: the system of persuasion described in the 1928 book also called Propaganda, written by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
Often referred to as the ‘father of public relations’, Bernays was an early promoter of a method he called the ‘engineering of consent’, which used Freud’s theories of individual subconscious desires to manipulate public opinion for the benefit of corporations and political leaders. Bernays believed this system was neither good nor bad, as it merely took advantage of the pre-existing ‘invisible, intertwining structure of groupings and associations’ he referred to as the public mind, and could be used to promote causes of both positive and negative social value.
As Guardian writer Tim Adams argues in his fantastic article on the history of Edward Bernays, this approach is everywhere in modern marketing: a focus not on facts and figures, but on the manipulation of the public mind. Bernays compares the two approaches in his book, using the fictional example of a politician engaging in a political campaign:
The politician will say over the radio: ‘Vote for me and low tariff, because the high tariff increases the cost of the things you buy.’ He may, it is true, have the great advantage of being able to speak to radio directly to fifty million listeners. But he is making an old-fashioned approach … If he were a propagandist … he would not merely tell people that the high tariff increases the cost of the things they buy, but would create circumstances which would make his contention dramatic and self-evident.
These narrative elements are designed to engage the public’s attention on an issue to the benefit of the propagandist or, in the words of Edward Bernays:
To have an objective and then to endeavour to arrive at it through an exact knowledge of the public and modifying circumstances to manipulate and sway that public.
Repetition of these narratives builds familiarity, making the messages appear more trustworthy to their recipients. The process is competitive: at election time, parties put out opposing propaganda, outspending and outmanoeuvring their competitors in an effort to make their narratives more trustworthy and more familiar than their adversaries. Clearly, high advertising spending from one party motivates higher spending from the others. No party wants to get left behind in a propaganda war, losing the power over public opinion that victory provides.
Propaganda is employed by every party, conservative and progressive, working in Australian politics. The ability to distribute it is allowed by money supplied by tax dollars and political donations. If political donations are required because the cost of propaganda has become so high, this can only mean the propaganda war is fierce. The only way to break the upwards trend of propaganda spending and nullify the risk of corruption presented by the donations required to sustain it, is to the end the propaganda war entirely.
Far from placing simple limits on political donations, which can easily be misused or circumvented, we need to end them altogether, replacing them with smaller, carefully audited budgets drawn exclusively from public spending. While some commentators argue that political donations are an important part of freedom of speech, allowing individuals the ability to provide financial support to causes they respect, this freedom is distributed unequally, benefitting the rich and throwing out the balance of political debate. In the last election, the Liberal Party received nearly four times the amount of political donations of Labor, allowing them far more freedom when it came to propaganda distribution, and the power it provides.
We must decide what we think is more important: the integrity of the democratic system, or the protection of a problematic type of speech which allows some voices to be heard over others? All rights are a question of competing values. We need to choose which right we value more.