According to a recent Senate estimates hearing, the government is seeking legal advice on how many pages a Christmas card has. The trigger for this seemingly absurd inquiry comes from the government’s new rules on how MPs can spend their printing and communication entitlements. Every page of material MPs distribute has to have on it:
This material has been produced at Australian Government expense by [insert name of member].
But the Department doesn’t know how to interpret the every page requirement for communications that are folded paper or card. Does folding turn one page into two? Wouldn’t stating the funding source once for each document be (more than) enough?
Other aspects of this regulation turn it from being merely ridiculous into something more sinister. MPs aren’t allowed to use their allowance at all for ‘electioneering’:
electioneering means a communication that explicitly:
(a) seeks support for, denigrates or disparages:
(i) the election of a particular person or persons; or
(ii) a particular political party or political parties; or
(b) encourages a person to become a member of a particular
political party, or political parties; or
(c) solicits subscriptions or other financial support.
As the Senate estimates hearing revealed, these rules have the following implications:
* MPs cannot send out Hansard extracts as Hansard is likely to contain ‘electioneering’ material
* bureaucrats are vetting MPs’ communications prior to sending, and so at least in theory the minister could receive reports frrom the Department on what non-government MPs are saying to their constituents
* ministers are free to keep using their departmental resources for what would be ‘electioneering’ under the parliamentary entitlements rules, further skewing the resource imbalance between government and opposition
All the reforms to political activity are being introduced under the guise of creating more integrity and probity in the system. But the reality is that all of them – this, public funding, limits on third party activity – will tend to advantage the government and disadvantage the government’s critics.