Christiaan van Vuuren investigates democracy for sale

Becoming a young father saw comedian Christiaan van Vuuren worrying about the future and the murky world of political donations.

“We’re not making a story about corruption, dirty politics, stuff that’s illegal or undercover,” insists Christiaan van Vuuren.

“This story is about the stuff that is completely legal. It’s part of the nuanced dance of the relationship between politics, influential lobby groups, big business and anyone else who’s putting money into the system… any of those people who have access to politicians, beyond the voters.

“They certainly don’t tell you about it when you go to Canberra!”

In his new ABC documentary, Big Deal van Vuuren looks at Australia’s billion-dollar political lobbying industry. For every federal politician, there’s millions of dollars devoted just to swinging their opinion, or their vote. But what do contributors expect for donating?

According to van Vuuren such things are rarely discussed so explicitly, but as he discovers there is much that is ‘understood’ between those involved…. both donator and recipient. Is Democracy for sale?

Interviews staged during lockdowns include Malcolm Turnbull, Jason Falinski, Sam Dastyari, Scott Ryan, Kate McClymont, Dr Andrew Leigh, Helen Haines, Jacqui Lambie, Katharine Murphy, Linda Burney, and Zali Steggall.

“At one stage there were a lot more politicians that we had on the list to talk to the we got quite limited. Canberra was kind of shut down for a large part of that filming,” he says.

“We wanted to be very non-partisan”

“There were limitations on who we were able to get access to, but at the same time, that the approach to who we spoke to and why, was one where we wanted to be very non-partisan because this is not necessarily a party issue. We weren’t setting out to point any fingers at any particular parties. We’re trying to articulate the issue on a broader level and come to understand it, learn about why it’s part of our democracy.

“It would have been great to have some of the big players who are currently in power. It would have been awesome to have the heads of both major parties.”

Van Vuuren is better known for his comedy work with Bondi Hipsters and Soul Mates says he was motivated to explore the topic as a young father.

“Personally, I never thought too much about politics or the state of the world. But my own experience of early fatherhood was one where I was thrust into a lot more existential thinking, doom-scrolling and starting to think a little bit more about the state of the world,” he continues.

“I found myself spending a lot more time staring at my phone once the kids had gone to bed”

“I found myself spending a lot more time staring at my phone once the kids had gone to bed and worrying about all manner of things that were happening around the world.”

The Jungle produced project was funded as a film by Shark Island but screens as two episodes on ABC, with The Chaser‘s Craig Reucassel making his directorial debut -who proved to be a bit of double-edged sword.

“If Craig Reucassel’s ringing around asking to talk to pollies about money & politics, who’s going to return that call? It would be like they were getting pranked! But when we did manage to get down to Canberra, he actually had a lot of clout and respect from most politicians on all sides,” he explains.

“But I feel like a lot of stuff that gets made in the political realm can leave normal people out of the conversation a little bit, because it’s all framed within that tone of communication that is very overly intellectualised, complicated and difficult to understand. So where possible, I just wanted to communicate the things that I was learning, as I was learning them.

“We’re not doing heavy hitting journalism here”

“We’re not doing heavy hitting journalism here. We’re not saying things that have never been said.”

Van Vurren found that political donations didn’t need to be declared if they were under a $14,500 threshold, and likens the landscape to a donations ‘arm race.’

“If the Liberal Party is raising X amount of money, the Labor Party feel like they need to raise X amount of money to compete (and vice versa),” he suggests.

“Then all the other parties feel like they need to try and raise money to compete with them. Because it’s all about who’s going to have the powerful voice come election time.

“It’s just a little bit of a wild west”

“The reality is at the moment, it’s just a little bit of a wild west where there are some very loose rules and regulations but there’s no body to police them.”

There are also no strict punishments for misdemeanours (although interviewee Sam Dastyari lost his position within Labor) and there are other hidden benefits attached to the problem.

‘We’re seeing a revolving door that’s a bit more like a golden staircase”

“The minister of a particular department can directly take a job in a consultancy firm overseeing that department, overseeing the contracts of that area. So we’re seeing a revolving door that’s a bit more like a golden staircase between politics and consultancy and the private sector. There’s a big lack of transparency in terms of where money is coming from.

“But there are solutions all over the place. It’s just a matter of the issue being more broadly understood so that people are able to communicate with their preferred parties or get involved.”

Big Deal airs 8:30pm Tuesday October 19 & 26 on ABC (both eps on iview from Tuesday).

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