Over the past couple of months, Turnbull, Shorten, Di Natalie and others have been attempting to convince you that they are worthy of your first preference vote. The usual claim is that your vote is valuable. Guess what – it is. Every first preference vote cast at the election on 2 July is worth $2.62784 to the political entity that gets the vote (provided certain conditions are met). Ironically, the ‘value’ of your vote is indexed every six months to the CPI — which is more than the politicians are willing to do for Medicare rebates for doctors’ visits.
Given that 16,295,463 of us (as at 30 June 2015) will vote this weekend, that is around $42.8 million that will be taken straight from the taxpayers’ pocket and given to political parties, with no strings attached. Of course those that convince more of us to vote for them will get more of this largesse, which probably explains why it is rare to see members of political parties running the pub raffles or fundraising at community events – they don’t need to.
Public funding of political parties in Australia was ‘invented’ by a New South Wales ALP member, Rodney Caviler, who now admits it was the biggest mistake of his life. While originally intended to be a method for anyone who felt the need to stand up and represent a community in parliament to re-coup their costs in running for election (within an upper limit cap), it is now a free-for-all where the money is usually given straight to the political party’s head office with no strings attached.
The reality is that the major parties have no real need for branches and membership fees: the majority of their costs are met by public funding and donations from corporate sponsors. This gives them a large advantage over smaller parties and those who are trying to establish a party. The major parties have the financial ability to get their message out to a far greater extent because they can afford the research, preparation and production costs that this type of marketing requires, which in return ‘earns’ more votes at the next election. The Greens (probably the next largest political party in Australia) claim that almost all their donations are from individuals and the value is nearly always under $500, although they would also receive public funding.
On 23 May 2016, ABCTV’s 4 Corners program devoted an episode to political donations in Australia. The program included interviews with corporate donors, former party fundraisers and the Chairman of the NSW Electoral Commission, Keith Mason QC, who at the time was withholding $4.4 million from the NSW Liberal Party due to non-disclosure of donor information relating to the 2015 NSW State Election. Mason was asked:
How important is it, in your view, to the proper functioning of democracy that … that donors are open and transparent?
KEITH MASON QC, CHAIR, NSW ELECTORAL COMMISSION: It, it, it’s really vital. And it’s equally important — ah, perhaps some would say more important — to make sure that, that representatives in government respond only to the, the voting decisions; not to corrupting decisions of, of undisclosed financial donations.
The donations in question were sent to the Liberal Party through a claimed third party in Canberra known as the Free Enterprise Foundation.
Former Liberal Party Federal Treasurer Michael Yabsley was also interviewed by 4 Corners and suggested a return to community fundraising rather than corporate donations would be a good thing for our democracy:
MICHAEL YABSLEY: Now, you know, the political parties — and you can hear it now: they’ll be saying, “Oh, you know, we’ll have to do sausage sizzles and, and lamington stalls.”
In terms of the health of democracy: that would be a damn good thing, if that’s how fundraising needs to take place. Far better to take the fundraising to the sausage sizzles, um, than, than some sort of, um, um, arcane process around a boardroom table.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So back to the future?
MICHAEL YABSLEY: In, in many respects, ah, I’m, I’m all for it. It would be a very, very healthy thing for democracy.
In the last week, the world has found out that asking electors for their opinion doesn’t necessary get the answer the politicians expected. The referendum asking if the UK should leave the European Union (EU) was an unexpected victory for those that wanted to leave. The proponents of the leave cause were the ‘right wing’ of the Conservative Party, led by former London Mayor Boris Johnson and the ultra-conservative United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Interestingly, The [UK] Spectator magazine noted in 2014 that Prime Minister David Cameron was leading his ‘conservative’ MPs on by forcing through –
… the EU referendum bill — originally introduced in a panic by Number 10 as a symbolic measure to unite the party and highlight Labour and Lib Dem opposition to giving the British people a say on Europe
Well, that political move ended well. The current resident of ‘Number 10’ resigned the day after the Referendum, admitting the failure of his ‘remain’ campaign.
It could be argued that Abbott tried the same thing with the same sex marriage plebiscite in Australia. He pushed it out hoping that it would unite his party and highlight the lack of traditional ‘morals and ethics’ of the ALP and Greens, possibly something he could capitalise on at the 2016 election.
At the time Abbott came up with the plebiscite proposal, the Australian Electoral Commission estimated the cost of the special plebiscite at close to $160 million. The AEC helpfully publishes the cost of all federal elections since 1901, so the estimate is readily verified. Assuming a public vote is necessary to determine the marriage equity issue (which legally it isn’t by the way – the Howard Government inserted the condition that marriage is between a man and a woman into the Marriage Act in 2004), the referendum could have been run in conjunction with the current election campaign. The cost estimate for that scenario was around $44 million. Turnbull (who claims he supports marriage equity) is still planning on the plebiscite which he now claims is non-binding – so we pay the money out and his side of politics (at least) will vote according to their individual personal beliefs. Turnbull is effectively pouring $160 million of your and my money down the drain in what could be described as a vain attempt by his predecessor to hold his political party together.
And before we conclude, here’s another thing to consider. The election campaign was eight weeks. The ALP campaign launch was at the beginning of week 6, the Coalition campaign launch at the beginning of week 7. Considering that the timing of the election was picked by the Coalition, why would they leave it so late to ‘open’ their campaign? The reason is simple: until the campaign launch, the travel by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and most other politicians is paid for by you and me — not the political party. That’s right, you and I are paying for Malcolm and Bill’s ‘Magical Mystery Tours’ until they launch their campaign!
This either makes the ALP stupid or better off than the Coalition as they will be paying for Bill’s ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ for an additional week. However, there is no redeeming value here in the ALP’s actions. It’s similar to suggesting the Olympics being ‘opened’ on day 7 is better than performing the opening on day 9 of the 10 day competition. It’s not logical and it only makes sense if you support the current ‘norm’ of politicians being able to take what they believe is necessary from the public purse, without worry about privacy or the funding constraints imposed on the health, education and support mechanisms for members of our community in need; not to mention an interesting definition of morals and ethics.
A software company (Parakeelia) wholly owned by a political party charges MP’s for the (mandatory) use of its product, the charge is paid by the MP from taxpayer funds and the profits are returned to the political party. Also, the workings of the Free Enterprise Foundation only became known because the NSW Electoral Commission decided to use the tools they had available to force the details of how hundreds of thousands of dollars ended up in the NSW Liberal Party’s bank account. Political parties are paid for every vote they receive. All of this is apparently legal. It’s not hard to see who writes the rules and who they benefit.
Probably, the worst abuse of power is that all the donations (provided they are over the generous threshold of $13,000) will be released to the public – 24 weeks after the election. You and I have little influence when large organisations can write cheques for thousands to reinforce the policy that they want to get over the line (and the major parties have the marketing skills, techniques and funding to sell ice to Eskimos). When will this stop?
While we have a two party system, these arrangements will continue into the future. The reality is that in the majority of the electorates in Australia, either an ALP or Coalition candidate will be elected. It has been demonstrated across Australia and around the world that a parliament without a majority forces people to work together, which usually creates a better result. New Zealand has worked in this manner since the 1990’s and most western European countries have worked in this way for far longer – without the revolving door to the prime minister’s office that Australia has endured. While no one can tell you how to vote on 2 July, remember your vote does have some value — the person or party you choose to give you first preference to receives $2.62. Make sure the respective political machine earns it.
What do you think?
Should WE pay for political parties’ campaigns?
Should parties be required to fund all of their costs from when the election is called (or when parliament is dissolved), not just after their ‘official’ launch?
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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