Archive for the 'Democracy & elections' Category

The folly of donations caps

I’m working on a CIS paper on political donations, so today’s lead Age story on the biggest ever donation to an Australian political party caught my eye. Wotif founder Graeme Wood gave the Greens $1.6 million.

Despite this, Greens leader Bob Brown is calling for donations to be capped at $1,000. Remarkably, he seems to understand that – like virtually all electoral ‘reforms’ – donations caps are attempts by existing political players to rig the system in their own favour:

‘”‘…the Greens are going to continue to get a disproportionate increase in funding,” he said.

“Maybe it will be that factor which will get one or other of the big parties to bring in restrictions on political donations.”

Exactly. As Bradley Smith argues in his book Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform, political newcomers often find it hard to raise money through small donations. They frequently lack the strong organisational base needed to tap into networks of many donors. Read the rest of this entry »

A political culture of ‘consequence and retribution’

The Australian this morning reports Michael Chaney’s comment that ‘thin-skinned politicians’ are creating a culture of ‘consequence and retribution’ for businesspeople who speak out on policy.

Unfortunately he did not name names or give examples. These instances may not in reality be frequent. But the perception that the danger exists has a chilling effect on public debate.

It is one of the main reasons I oppose lowering the threshold for the disclosure of political donations. If we assume that politicians will favour their own donors, I think we must also assume that politicians will disfavour their opponents’ donors. The disclosure regime creates for the government a convenient list of opposition donors.

No wonder ‘thin-skinned’ Labor wants the current $11,500 threshold lowered to $1,000.
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Update 8/10: PM denies intimidation.

Be careful what you wish for

The Greens have been the most enthusiastic of the political party supporters of state-controlled campaign finance, wanting to eliminate public funding entirely.

But maybe in NSW they are starting to understand what a foolish idea that is. According to a report in the SMH yesterday, the government is planning a public funding scheme that favours major over minor parties:

candidates or parties that receive between 4 and 8 per cent of the vote will be reimbursed 25 per cent of their costs. Those who receive between eight and 20 per cent of the vote will be reimbursed 50 per cent, while those achieving more than 20 per cent of the vote will be repaid 75 per cent of their costs.

So the Greens would usually get 25% or 50% reimbursement, while the major parties would get 75%.

It’s the fundamental problem with all these proposals for electoral finance reform. While they are always surrounded with high-minded rhetoric about the integrity of the political process, they would give the political winners much greater power to rig the political game in their favour. Anyone who thinks that the NSW Right of the ALP would play fair in this system is very naive.

The great strength of the currently system, with extensive freedoms for the civil society to fund political activity, is that it does not link capacity to challenge the government to the generosity of those in power. Checks and balances is one of the oldest liberal constitutional ideas. We should never abandon it.

Do political donations disclosures increase or decrease confidence in the the political process?

One argument for stricter disclosure and control of political donations is to improve public perceptions of the political process. A NSW Parliament report from earlier this year said:

In evidence to this inquiry, the need for reform to restore public confidence in the integrity of the system was recognised by most of the political parties that are currently represented in the New South Wales Parliament…

It’s never been clear to me whether the disclosure regime would increase or decrease public confidence.

The general knowledge that it exists may increase confidence. On the other had, almost every specific mention of a donation is used to impugn donor and decision-maker alike. This could decrease confidence by providing more news hooks for negative stories about how politicians may favour donors.

However an analysis of political integrity questions asked by pollsters suggests that public confidence has generally been increasing over time. Read the rest of this entry »

The corruption of campaign finance laws

As the SMH reported this morning, the NSW government has announced plans for the nation’s most draconian campaign finance laws, including:

• Political donations from individuals, registered political parties and other entities will be capped at $5,000 to registered political parties or groups and $2,000 to candidates or elected members annually;
• A candidate’s campaign expenditure will be capped at $100,000 per electorate during a regulated period;
• Expenditure by political parties will be capped at $100,000 per electorate and this is in addition to candidate’s expenditure cap
• Third parties may not receive more than $2,000 from each donor in a financial year;
• Third parties may not spend more than $1.05 million in a regulated period or $20,000 per electorate

And indeed if you were running the nation’s most unpopular government six months before an election why wouldn’t you back a plan to limit how much money people can spend throwing you out? Read the rest of this entry »

What is a donkey vote?

In my post-election conversations and eavesdropping I have heard several people refer to informal votes as ‘donkey votes’.

In standard usage – still supported by the Macquarie Dictionary and several random Australian politics books I checked – a donkey vote is defined as the practice of numbering all candidates in the order they appear in the ballot paper, rather than according to the voter’s political preference. This is a formal vote, which will eventually go to whichever serious candidate appears first in the list of candidates. However Wikipedia is wobbling, suggesting that informal votes can also be classified as ‘donkey votes’.

In Bryan Garner’s five stages of language change, ‘donkey vote’ is at stage two or three. Several of the people I have heard use ‘donkey vote’ when they mean informal vote have university degrees.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Read the rest of this entry »

The hypocrisy of GetUp!

When it comes to political parties, activist group GetUp! favours strictly regulating donations. Its principles include:

* Only individuals should be allowed to donate to political parties.
* Increase transparency requirements.
* Cap individual donations at a reasonable limit [they suggest $1,000 a year]

But when it comes to donations to GetUp! things seem to be rather different, as the SMH reported yesterday:

The union movement has emerged as a key financial backer of the advocacy group GetUp!, with six unions pouring more than a million dollars into its election purse in the past three weeks alone.

GetUp! has splashed nearly $1.5 million on TV advertising since the campaign began, meaning the unions have effectively supplied two-thirds of its advertising budget.

The organisation’s director, Simon Sheikh, refused to name the six unions yesterday, saying they wanted their identities kept secret until after donor returns are filed with the Australian Electoral Commission.

So this arrangement breaches all of GetUp!’s three principles: Read the rest of this entry »

Spare a thought for the hacks

Terry Barnes empathises with the electorate and ministerial staff who could be out of a job by Sunday morning.

While I don’t think the punters should worry about them too much, I know what he is talking about. When I was a ministerial adviser during the 1998 election I could hardly bear to watch the election night coverage. It felt like I was being slowly sacked on live TV.

In the end the Coalition scraped back with a minority of the votes but a majority of the seats. And so then began the wait to see if my minister would get to keep the portfolio.

As Barnes says, political staffers know the risks. Most political careers end in failure – mine certainly did. While I survived the 1998 election the reform I had hoped to be involved with died in the controversy surrounding the leak of its Cabinet submission.

Why Labor voters in Melbourne need to vote Liberal

In the 2002 French presidential election it came down to a run-off contest between the conservative Jacques Chirac and the nationalist firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, after the left candidate Lionel Jospin was eliminated. Showing they had not lost their sense of humour, French leftists set up a shower outside a polling booth, to wash themselves after voting for Chirac to keep the lunatic Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace.

Labor voters in the seat of Melbourne may need to do something similar this Saturday. In what may be a first for Australian major party politics (or at least very rare), the only way Labor can guarantee itself victory in this seat is to boost the Liberal vote.

Their problem is that if the Liberals are eliminated before the Greens their preferences will run heavily against Labor. The figures on Antony Green’s website suggest that about 85% of Liberal preferences went to the Greens in 2007.

Yet if the Greens are elmininated first, Labor is headed for the kind of crushing victory over the Liberals it achieved before 2007, because Green preferences overwhelmingly flow to Labor. Read the rest of this entry »

Bowtell for Melbourne (or why the Greens are just too flaky for me)

Last night on ABC TV news Lindsay Tanner filled what seemed to me to be a major omission in Labor candidate for Melbourne Cath Bowtell’s campaign. He appealed directly to Liberal voters to ignore their party’s Green preferencing how-to-vote card and preference Labor instead.

All the Bowtell campaign material I have received is focused on a competition with the Greens for the ‘progressive’ vote. Even the admission that Labor is not as far left as the Greens is phrased in apologetic terms: ‘Unlike the Greens, Labor does not have the luxury of behaving like a single-issue group’ said one campaign letter I received from Bowtell.

But despite the ‘progressive’ vote focus, it is likely that Liberal voters will decide the seat of Melbourne. Indeed, for all the money the Greens spend in Melbourne, and all the buzz their campaign generates, they would have no hope whatsoever of winning the seat were it not for the Liberal how-to-vote card. On the primary vote in 2007 the Greens were actually about 600 votes behind the Liberal candidate. Only the distribution of minor party and then Liberal preferences made them serious contenders. Read the rest of this entry »