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.

4 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for

  1. My concern with election funding is not the supply so much as the demand.

    The purposes to which political parties spend their funding is risible. The maintenance of a class of operatives with no experience outside of self-referential political arcana, and shoddy advertising (where no linkage is made between amount spent per vote gained), and irrelevances such as building maintenance is the destination for the bulk of political parties’ income. If they were companies they’d be takeover targets.

    Then, there is the notion that political fundraising is some sort of investment, where the amount of money paid in donations can be traced to public policy outcomes. If politicians won’t heed the expressed will of voters, what makes you think they can be bought? Which politician wants to put their career on the line for the sake of funding some young activist and/or dreck leaflets and silly ads?

    I would be fascinated to know what political parties are charged for the running of ads during election time, compared with the kind of bulk discounts government advertising receives. During election campaigns, political parties are distressed purchasers, fully cashed up – and what vendor doesn’t love a cashed-up, desperate customer? If you must have public funding, perhaps party ads could be run as public service announcements (e.g. “Get your breasts screened for cancer”, “Don’t drink and drive”, “Vote Nationals”). Any gap between those two rates would represent a waste of public money.

    When political parties seek public funding they are no different from other rentseekers. The assumptions behind public funding for election campaigns need careful examination – for a start, the Anzacs did not die fighting for “Moving Forward”/”Stop the Boats”.

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  2. The Greens have indeed woken up to the cost of their posturing about campaign reform. It’s one thing to vilify developers when you know they only donate to Liberal or Labor, but another to cut your nose off.

    The political system in NSW hugely favours Liberal and Labor already, as anyone who tries to get a new party registered discovers. The campaign finance reform will make it virtually impossible for them to succeed.

    My guess is the Greens will find a way to ensure they are included as incumbent beneficiaries able to tap into the public trough, and all the other minor parties can go whistle. The only principle they hold dear is self interest.

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  3. Hang on, this bit:

    “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. ”

    Surely governments can do sweetheart deals with friendly businesses, etc ; hand out jobs to mates, in fact thats all they do in Australia….

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  4. Hector – Though in many instances there are mechanisms to limit individual discretion (putting things out to tender, probity tests, etc) there are few direct controls on parliamentary favours.

    My own view is that government should do fewer things, so these issues do not arise so often. The solution is not to limit people’s capacity to participate in the political process.

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