30 May 2013

Where's the money going to?

We could talk about this public funding of elections thing, I suppose; how it's both outrageous and at the same time just what you'd expect from those people, whether the government is responsible for a Liberal backflip, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

We could talk about political funding as some sort of human right, where the more money you have the greater your right to donate it as you will, and that donations should be as secret as the votes that are cast. This would only be appropriate if there were well-empowered investigative and enforcement mechanisms against fraud and bribery (including serious measures against offenders such as massive fines, imprisonment of individuals, prevention of offending individuals and parties from contesting elections), and because that won't happen I don't support uncapped donations, and I don't agree that donations should be kept secret. The issue with political donations is always the quid-pro-quo, and if you're not going to chase that down then don't even bother. There are bigger questions when it comes to human rights, frankly.

It's taken as given that political parties these days need vast amounts of money, in the tens of millions, a need that cannot be slaked or even questioned. I'm interested in why political parties need that amount of money.

It can't be the broadcast media; declining audiences and financial mismanagement mean that it is less expensive, not more so, to run a national campaign.

It can't be direct mail; that technology peaked in the 1990s and the costs of postage and other processing have hardly skyrocketed since then. Hopefully the one lesson to be learned from the Howard government's re-election campaign in 2007 is that it is a very, very long way from being the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to effective political campaigning. When Grahame Morris recently used direct mail as an example of sophisticated modern electioneering he just looked like a sad old relic.

It can't be online campaigning (and here I lump broadcasting via bogusurl.com.au-type websites and social media tools in together); it costs less than you might imagine, and anyway Australians have barely embraced a fraction of the online campaigning tools available to political parties in the US or UK.

It can't be a shortage of 'creatives' to craft advertising copy; there is an excess of such people at a time where big ad agencies and broadcast media outfits are shedding staff, and where there are more graduates of such courses than there are jobs for them to do. Anyone who has been a political staffer could do, and many are doing, that sort of work. Such people earn get less than images of their flash lifestyles might suggest.

There are two reasons why political parties "need" vast amounts of money.

Firstly, they need to take up the slack for a whole lot of electioneering busywork that used to be done by volunteers. Many volunteers have left, and those who stayed are ageing and dying. I was a member of the Liberal Party from 1986 to 2000, and as the election draws closer I think about how I'd be gearing up to distribute material, and both enlist and train volunteers to hand out how-to-votes at polling booths; but as the old song says: baby that was years ago, I've left it all behind.

I think about my late aunt, a Liberal stalwart further to the right than me on Sydney's Upper North Shore; she too ran herself ragged on polling day, but by 2007 she could no longer keep up a full day in the field. I'm sure she blamed herself for Howard's loss to the end; I live in Bennelong and voted for Maxine McKew. By 2010 Aunty Elizabeth was in the grip of the ailment that would kill her later that year, notwithstanding her own almost-indomitable will and her affection for Abbott. I still voted for McKew but most of my neighbours didn't.

Now the ranks of Liberals, and Labor too, are depleted still further. The person who'll offer you a how-to-vote on 14 September may well be paid to do that, and there is no more point in blaming them for the shortcomings of their employer than there is in bawling out a waiter or a shop assistant.

Secondly, parasites like this and that are gobbling up as much money as the taxpayer will throw at them. The idea of, er, pieces like this are not about the issues described in them, but a way of hoping you won't mind him receiving ever-larger dollops of public largesse. Political parties will raise whatever money they have to raise to get the election won. Governments, which political parties offer to run for us, have to trim their budgets in line with restricted income. There are plenty of good businesses full of smart, hardworking people that have hit the wall because cashflow dried up. No major party has ever lost an election because they ran out of money. Even the hopeless NSW Labor government in 2011 had plenty of cash to splash about.

If Hawker|Textor or whomever jack up their fees, the respective party will pay it and use whatever funds are available - whether from the taxpayer, from Mrs Reinhart, Tom Waterhouse, Eddie Obeid, or anyone/anywhere else really. Public funding for elections does not satisfy major parties' urge to outraise and outspend their competition, in the same way that private schools do not lower their fees commensurately when they get extra money from government. Public funding of election campaigns is not some sort of bulwark for our democracy, because the spending is spent by and the services are rendered to a private party, a non-government organisation, whose affairs are not scrutinised by anyone who isn't a member (and not even by most of those).

Advisers/consultants are the people who suggest politicians talk about entitlements and the cutting thereof. They are not those whose entitlements are cut.

Public funding does not head off corruption. The allegations before the NSW ICAC about Ian Macdonald, Obeid and a range of other characters are very grave, and do indeed speak of the culture of NSW Labor. Apparently Obeid impressed then NSW Labor State Secretary Graham Richardson sufficiently to win a spot on the Legislative Council ticket; donations from Obeid and entities associated with him to NSW Labor around that time are hard to detect, and in any case the ICAC seemed focused on other issues.

If NSW Labor had half the public electoral that they've had, or twice as much, would they have made different/better decisions? Should NSW Labor today be liable for the actions of those guys (or of other ministers and premiers not so far investigated publicly)? Have the Victorian Liberals acted improperly over Mr Shaw sufficient to affect their public funding? What about Mr Brough and other LNPQers over Ashby-Slipper? I could go on.

Needless to say, I reject the desperate thesis of Mike Seccombe and John Birmingham that only public funding can save us from the kind of timocracy besetting the US. It's the mentality of the hostage-taker's victim - "Just give them whatever they want!" - rather than focusing on hunting down the hostage-takers. The victory of Obama over Romney last year, with a concerted campaign of exposing people like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers confirms the correctness of focusing on those who would corrupt the system and on not entrenching political advisers as a mendicant class.

No Digger, no sailor or airman, died for the public funding of election campaigns. That money would definitely be better spent on their care and rehabilitation, or even tossed into the gaping maw of the Deficit.

If you want to change government policy, there are ways and means of doing so. It is rarely appropriate to break the law to do so, such as committing acts of violence or jacking up on paying your taxes. Everyone's taxes goes toward things that the taxpayer wouldn't necessarily have spent that money on or even valued very much, but even so I am kind of serious about my intention to collect all the banal political jetsam that comes my way and send it to my accountant with the expectation of a tax deduction.

The government should reintroduce all of those provisions on transparency and disclosure as the final piece of legislation this term, making parliament sit longer in order to pass it if it has to. It probably won't, though.

The case why taxpayers should have to fund election campaigns as well as the elections themselves and other government services is not as strong as that small and loose confederation of the self-interested and the well-meaning-but-shortsighted might hope.


  1. Channelling Holden as a comment on Ford's recent woes?

  2. No matter, the cost hmm, the amount of money within the bill is in the 50 to 60 million order. This to an economy with a turnover of 1.3 Trillion is chicken feed. The amount to a small party or one just on the outer is helpful. Cleaning up the political donation schemes around this nation is very important. I note that Jones on Lateline last night was giving the attorney general a hard time about 'not getting it through or because of the budget emergency or negotiating better or its not a good look' What rubbish, the substance of public funding is so that Hancock Prospecting doesn't write the tax laws or that centennial coal writes the renewable policies is money well spent.

  3. Totally correct.

    And I say this as someone who has worked for three elections in a paid capacity, for two political parties and the Your Rights At Work campaign, and have worked on every single federal eledction as a volunteer since 1977.

    The "polling" outfit, essential media, made literally millions out of the union movement (and continue to do so) with all the commitment and understanding that McDonalds have for healthy cuisine.

    We swung Blue Mountains MP Phil Koperberg into a position where he would cross thre floor (and take a few MPs with him) to vote against the Iemma government's electricity privatisation proposals in 2008. However you feel about electricity privatisation you would concede that the very real prospect of losing the vote on the floor of the lower house focussed the minds of the ALP Cabinet and Morris Iemma became Morris who? We ran that campaign in the Blue Mountains on about three or four hundred dollars and a borrowed public liability policy. It showed everything that you do need to do - start a community conversation, get the message out and point vexed citizens towards their local MP - and everything you don't have to do - glossy brochures, celebrity talking heads and mass rallies.

    Modern election campaigning is a fraud of deliterious proportion. It not only wastes the time of the public, who are forced to endure it, it wastes the time of those who engage in it as politicians are dragged further from policy development and closer to flim-flam sound bites and photo stunts.

    The net loss of all this has been on public policy development and we are reaping the whirlwind of that in our haphazard development of infrastructure, especially social service infrastructure, and the cancerous growth in ignorance in how this country is governed.

    I do think that social media, surprisingly enough, is actually re-engaging people with ideas. I am surprised at what some people post on facebook, and am heartened by it.

    But the ignorance of how this country is actually governed - the forces that direct policy and the marginal nature of the electoral process in all of that (the fact that a well connected lobbyist has more policy influence than your average backbencher for example) - is tellingly sad and we are open to be ravished by any economic force that wants to scour the battlefield, rolling bodies over and pocketing anything shiny. yes, whoever wins in September you can rest assured that The Not Nailed Down Act will be in full force for a generation to come.

    As for me, one time political operative and polisher of turds? Well, I sort parcels on the night shift now and am a damned sight happier as a result. Personally I'd let the political class starve to death and then distribute their clothes to a homeless refuge. Death's too good an outcome for those parasites. The public are awake to them - check out the rise in the informal vote from 2007 to 2010, and watch it grow again in September.

  4. I can't help wondering if a lot of liberal opposition from the lay party and backbench to the proposed electoral funding was related to the lowering of the threshold of disclosure. Might they be prepared to forgo the extra cash now just to keep the $12000 limit, suspecting that after September Abbott will provide the extra funding anyway and probably eliminate the need for any disclosure of the sources of funds. The libs will provide the best government money can buy

  5. As far as I can tell, The IPA's view on secret donations would mean that there would be absolutely nothing wrong with what Eddie Obeid and his cronies were doing

  6. Of course the earlier Bill could now pass the Senate, reducing the maximum donation amount to $1000, without the increase of the public funding. That would be a sweet parting legacy.

  7. Anthony Foy31/5/13 11:52 am

    Once again some very interesting (and no-doubt true) points, Andrew, but like many things, surely a step in the right direction is better than no step at all? In the US, presidential candidates now need to raise at least $50 million to mount a campaign. Not the party, the candidate. And we can all see where it's got them. Any legislation / 'reform' that helps stop us going down that path has to be good, although clearly much more needs to be done. I agree the assumption that a party 'has to' spend heavily to win is flawed, but, especially from the ALP point-of-view, we can hardly rely on the non-paid media (ah-hem) to inform us, can we?

    1. Lachlan Ridge31/5/13 4:33 pm

      I actually believe we can. The influence of the mainstream media has collapsed (along with their circulation) in the last three years, and Australians are awake to it. Ask a newsagent if you doubt me.

    2. There is no stipulation that says $1 received from public funds is $1 that cannot be raised privately. There is no accountability on how the money is to be spent. There are no limits on third party endorsements. It doesn't stop us going down the US path in any way.

  8. What I'd like to know is whether the LNP "back bench revolt" was actually about the public funding element, or was actually all about the donation rules... The Liberals would be by far the most affected by any legislation that discouraged individual donations.

  9. Bless your Aunts cotton socks Andrew....


    I always think of the Libs and the very conservative families they come from and their reaction to a man like Obama.

    An African-American president that is a global superstar.

    I dont think they ever would have contemplated seeing a man like him be a global leader.

    It must have really shocked their world and made them feel old...

    The problem with Howards electorate is that it became Asian and not Anglo anymore...

    How could they have not seen that coming??

    Die hard Anglophiles like Abbott would have teased Obama at Uni anyway if they knew him like many in the north shore I would assume

    The world has moved on darlings and your outdated ideas are still ingrained in the liberal mantra post 1950's...



  10. Conservatives are boring to socialise with Andrew...sorry but it was dull

    Ask the many Journalists that were around during the Howard years and the level of exicement at those boring conferences

    Xanax anyone??

  11. Good article. The link to the Kostakidis article didn't work - try http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/31/clive-palmer-julian-assange-australia-elections