It’s the largest document leak in history: 11.5 million files and 2.6 terabytes of information detailing how our global elite avoid their responsibility to the rest of us. The Panama Papers have allowed us to peek behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and glimpse the very mortal old men pulling the levers of state.
But we already know they play by different rules. We have long known, for instance, that the global elite use tax havens. Yet, what’s truly damaging about these leaks is that they demystify the process. The Panama Papers detail how politicians and their associates around the globe have hidden their fortunes in offshore companies and tax havens.
The process is mundane, even somewhat boring: anyone with the right connections can hide their wealth through shell companies and trusts. But in Australia alone, there are over 800 wealthy individuals who have been outed in the Panama Papers. As our top 1% have sucked their wealth through the tax havens of the globe, the rest of us have had to make do with less to fund their lifestyle choices.
The Panama Papers show the extent to which our democracy is broken. No wonder a full 26 per cent of 18–29 year old Australians hold the view that ‘it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have’ – our system is unequal with different rules for the powerful.
What young Australians have experienced is a life where wages stagnate, rents go up, educational debts rise ever upwards, opportunities for a secure job are few and far between, utility bills climb, and medical costs continue to grow. Young Australians have to work harder and longer for less. Meanwhile our political elites shovel more of our combined wealth their way.
Indeed, whether we elect people who funnel our wealth to the top 1% or have that person imposed upon us makes little real impact on our daily lives: these Panama 800 are the same people who fund the politicians to tell us that Australia cannot afford living wages or a social safety net.
The Panama Papers show we need a new democratic compact which is capable of regulating the behaviour of the wealthy and the powerful. Four measures can help us restore our democracy.
The first step is a referendum for a constitutional amendment to limit political donations to flesh and blood members of our community and to cap such contributions at $1000 in any one election cycle.
Large-scale corporate donations have broken the nexus of trust between our politicians and the people – they have broken our democracy. A constitutional referendum to clean out the big money from our democratic system can help restore the voice of our fellow citizens.
Second, we cannot separate our workplaces from our communities – a lack of democracy in one field bleeds into the other. Hence, the relative decline of union membership and collective action in Australia is reflective of our broader democratic crisis.
We need to shift power from our corporate and political elites towards the people. But this cannot happen without workers standing together in unions.
Unions are engines of democracy, which are always at the forefront of any fight for the expansion of democratic rights.
However, union leaders like myself need to make the difficult choice of reducing the importance of our individual role within the political sphere. The way union affiliation presently works with Labor rests on union secretaries and other senior officials exercising votes on behalf of tens of thousands of their members.
We need to consciously reimagine the union-Labor affiliation link as a right for union workers and members to participate and have a say themselves within Labor, whether that is preselecting local candidates, voting on the parliamentary leader or shaping policy. This would then expand the social base of progressive politics in our country from a few hundred elites and a few thousand party members to one million workers in affiliated unions.
Union workers would be able to use their membership to directly amplify their political voice.
Third, democratic renewal in the political sphere will only work if it’s connected to democratic renewal at work.
The right for workers to elect their co-workers as union delegates to help represent them at work should be enshrined as a fundamental right. Locally elected delegates with the right to a reasonable amount of paid time to access training to carry out their role, paid time on the job to assist in representing their workmates and access to reasonable workplace facilities for their role are a key part of workers standing together. This is not a matter to haggle over; it should be a fundamental right if workers choose a co-worker to represent them.
Finally, changing the way political donations and affiliations work for unions also changes the conversation around bargaining fees. In a user-pays economy, Australian unions are the only actor expected to provide a service for free – bargaining employment contracts and reviewing minimum industry standards.
Workers can free-ride off the work that their union member co-workers have put in to winning fair terms of employment. Allowing a majority of workers to push for an agreement clause which mandates that all workers covered by the contract should have to pay a bargaining fee to the union or otherwise join the union fixes the free-rider problem. Everyone has to pay their fair share.
The only reasonable objection to this situation is that a worker should not be forced to join an organisation which contributes to a political party they conscientiously object to. Optional individual affiliation removes this objection – the political donations and involvement of a union at large would only represent the sum total of the decisions made by its members. Union workers would have the freedom to ensure their money does not go to candidates or political parties they fundamentally disagree with.
A constitutional amendment cleaning out big money from our democracy, making union political affiliations and donations about union members (not union leaders), a bill of rights for union delegates and the introduction of bargaining fees – taken together these changes can help us reclaim our democracy from the wizards of Panama and ensure younger generations can once again have a secure future.