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chris earl

Chris Earl  Drum  13 May 2014

Chris Earl.    Chris Earl is a Bendigo-based rural and regional affairs consultant and was a member of the Liberal Party’s Victorian Division administrative committee for five years. A former regional newspaper editor, he been a media adviser to former Howard Government minister Fran Bailey and Senator Michael Ronaldson.

For many, the glossy mail-outs from election candidates will be the only contact they have with them before trudging off to the polling booths.  The call to ban political donations could be seen as knee-jerk and populist. The focus and hard work should instead be applied to improving process and accountability, writes Chris Earl.

In the 30 years since public funding of federal election campaigns was introduced, Australians have come to expect a barrage of TV advertisements and glossy mail-outs from MPs and aspirants in the frenzied countdown to polling day. Candidates unleash a final drive to sway the 20 per cent of voters in whose hands rest the result and the fate of the government of the day, more particularly the ministers who act as the board of directors for the business of the nation.

For many, it will be the only contact they have with a candidate, unless it’s one of those increasingly rare true-troopers on their sixth pair of shoes in a month, out knocking on doors, pumping the flesh and engaging the neighbourhood.

For the days of rowdy street corner meetings and packed local hall debates have long gone. Much like when local campaigns were run on the profits of a few pleasant Sunday afternoon garden parties or picnics, 20-cent a ticket raffles and the odd donation from Liberal-supporting small store owners or a quick whip around the factory floor by a union shop steward to support a Labor comrade.

Elections in Australia today are multi-million-dollar businesses with a sophistication and focus driven by techniques and styles straight out of the US, where individual candidates must raise and spend millions just to get to the starting line.

An analysis last year by US policy think tank Brookings found successful Senate candidates spent on average $10.3 million – a 62 per cent increase since 1986 – while the average cost of winning a House seat had jumped 344 per cent to $1.6 million.

There is no public funding at US federal level apart from a limited matching arrangement in the presidential race where the total two-candidate spend came in at more than $2 billion in 2012.

Debate in Australia on donations by business and unions to election campaigns never fails to bring out the cynics and not unexpected responses from the Greens who want to ditch these contributions, cap personal donations and put their hand deeper into the public honey pot.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon would even restrict election expenditure, the party’s spokesperson on democracy searching for any opportunity to stymie democratic expression.

Such comments only trivialise the need for sensible conversation on the future integrity and transparency of our democratic model where no shareholder in Australia’s most important enterprise, our country, is disenfranchised from participation and involvement.

The public funding model introduced in 1983 in part balances fundraising activities of all political parties in the business community and Labor’s entrenched base reliance on union contributions with the broader responsibility of all Australians to support democratic values beyond just turning up on polling day to have their name crossed off the electoral roll.

Australian Electoral Commission last November authorised payments of more than $58 million to parties and independent candidates who received more than 4 per cent of the first preference vote in their seat at the September election, with each first preference vote earning them $2.48.

Hard work by candidates and voter acceptance of their ideas and policies at the ballot box are recognised by Australia’s partial public funding model. The allocations from the last election went to 12 parties and nine independents from the spectrum of political ideology, and in both city and country, confirming that any Australian can still stand for high office.

It does, in part, reduce reliance on corporate and union donations but the ability of anyone to contribute financially should only be limited to the extent of protecting the integrity and transparency of process in a robust democracy where people are free to choose.

Distribution of public funding happens only after an election. Parties are raising funds every day and in 2012-13 donations totalling more than $16 million were declared by four parties – Liberal ($10.16 million), Labor ($5.06 million), Nationals ($1.12 million) and Greens ($360,000).

Some form of public election funding now exists in all Australian jurisdictions except Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

In NSW, where the model extends to funding administration of political parties, their policy research and the prohibition of donations from certain businesses, both the Government and the Opposition are forging a bipartisan position on full public funding of elections as they grapple with issues of trust, accountability and perception.

Final election funding payments summary – 2013 federal election Amount ($)
Liberal Party of Australia 23,884,672.94
Australian Labor Party 20,774,690.55
Australian Greens 5,531,871.45
National Party of Australia 3,111,072.51
Palmer United Party 2,312,809.98
Liberal Democratic Party 1,046,495.10
Nick Xenophon Group 642,839.49
Country Liberals (Northern Territory) 209,611.51
Katter’s Australian Party 168,375.40
Family First 104,767.19
Bullet Train for Australia 24,519.24
Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) 8854.79
Independent candidates Amount ($)
Catherine McGowan (Indi, Victoria) 69,074.34
Andrew Wilkie (Denison, Tasmania) 61,423.74
Robert Taber (New England, New South Wales) 31,284.11
Lawrie McKinna (Robertson, New South Wales 19,314.34
Nathan Bracken (Dobell, New South Wales) 17,639.92
Richard Sage (Barker, South Australia) 16,463.10
Stephen Attkins (Lyne, New South Wales) 16,323.77
Jamie McIntyre (New England, New South Wales) 15,074.79
Mark Aldridge (Wakefield, South Australia) 9277.75

But the reaction could be seen knee-jerk and populist. The focus and hard work should be applied to improving process and accountability.

NSW already has the most restrictive political donation regime and to extend it, as has been floated, would be a greater burden on the state’s budget and taxpayers. What services and infrastructure projects would miss out?

What Australia does not need, nor can it afford, is an expectant culture that taxpayer dollars will fully fund election campaigns. That would run counter to the reward-for-effort ethos that has driven Australia to achieve over the generations.

The only extravagance in the public funding of federal elections has been the automatic twice-yearly indexation of the vote-dollar value applied for 30 years, almost tripling to above $2.55 when the latest increase is applied next month.

A freeze on indexation would not be out of place in the current budgetary environment … it might just mean a few less mail pieces stuffed in the letterbox come the next election and the grateful thanks of taxpaying voters.

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