Katharine Murphy’s Age column yesterday attacking big ad campaigns against government policy is the third such argument I have seen from journalists in the last six months or so. George Megalogenis made a similar argument in his Quarterly Essay (though for reasons I did not entirely follow, he thinks campaigns are ok after laws have been passed), and Peter Hartcher argued that ad campaigns threaten economic reform.
We have a choice. We can either bump along and slide into a combative political environment where vested interests set the agenda, or we can stop, think and consider the alternatives.
Should there be full public funding for elections, ensuring that politics is left to the politicians? Should we require truth in political advertising?
Or should we do nothing, and wake up in a decade to find that politics can’t do anything; that politics is now solely about carving up the spoils, that reform has become impossible?
Though I strongly disagree with the Murphy’s views, she does more or less correctly describe what campaign finance reform is about. Its purpose and effect is to insulate the political class from the views of those who disagree with them or might challenge them. There is an implicit assumption that without the corrupting influence of donations and third party campaign spending politicians would govern in the public interest, and that therefore donations and third party campaigns need to be capped or banned (this has already happened in NSW).
It is not an entirely authoritarian agenda – critics would still be allowed to have their say, but mediated by political class gatekeepers who decide what is in the public interest (eg Murphy, Megalogenis, Hartcher).
As a liberal democrat, I think this analysis has things the wrong way around. The ‘public interest’ at a given time is not something pretermined by those already in power, it something produced by the liberal democratic political process itself. None of us are likely to be completely happy with the results, but that is one of the system’s strengths – no single view is ever completely dominant or entrenched over the long term.
From a liberal democratic perspective, the central political problem is not ‘vested interests ranging from corporations to wealthy ideologues’ (Murphy’s description) but the power of the state itself. All the recent ad campaigns Murphy complains of (the anti-WorkChoices campaign, the anti-mining tax campaign, the anti-Wilkie/Xenophon pokies reform compaign) were triggered by massive actual or proposed state attacks on a section of Australian society.
All these ‘vested interests’ are doing is appealing directly to the ultimate umpire in a liberal democracy: the public itself. That can be an expensive business. The mining industry campaign cost $22 million, but that’s only about $1.60 a voter. We have free speech so that the government of the day doesn’t get to decide who speaks or who the voters get to hear.
Apart from their own vested interest in being gatekeepers, I am amazed that journalists of all people think that governments should simply be allowed to get on with their policies, without having to face any large-scale opposition.