When might big-spending campaigns work?

The commenters on yesterday’s campaign finance post think that big ad campaigns don’t always work. That’s certainly the finding of the US literature on this subject – not that money never makes a difference, but that it interacts with so many other factors that there is no stable or predictable relationship between political spending and political outcomes.

Generally speaking, I believe the chances of any campaign over-turning stable elements of public opinion in the short to medium term are very low. The Howard government’s propaganda campaign on WorkChoices was doomed because the unions could tap into deep elements of public opinion. The importance of the union campaign against WorkChoices wasn’t that it changed minds, but that it kept the issue in people’s minds until polling day.

The more interesting campaigns are on unfamiliar issues, where public opinion is to a certain extent up for grabs. The mining tax was an example of this. Given existing tax and spend polling the issue could have headed in several directions if it had continued – we are generally in a pro-tax part of the political cycle if consequent spending the public approves of is emphasised, but opinion is also highly sensitive to situations in which workers may lose their jobs. Another factor in the mining tax case was that the government advertising in response to the miners was terrible, an off-putting lecture that did not hit existing pro-tax intuitions. Continue reading “When might big-spending campaigns work?”

The threats to political expenditure

The annual Australian Electoral Commission donations data dump was today, and I have collated the figures for the ‘political expenditure’ requirement.

The current rules were introduced by the Howard government in its lost-the-plot last term (I have extensively critiqued the law here). Their intention was to make life more difficult for left-wing ‘third parties’, and as can be seen from the table in most years left-wing organisations massively outspend right-wing organisations.

2009-10 was the first time since these disclosure rules came into effect that business groups outpsent the union movement. All of the declared spending of more than $22 million was by mining interests, presumably on opposing the planned mining ‘super-profits’ tax. Continue reading “The threats to political expenditure”

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. Continue reading “The folly of donations caps”

The economics of Christmas cards

Commenting on the inefficiency of Christmas gift giving is now almost as much a Christmas tradition as Santa and Christmas trees. The Australia Institute was at it again this year.

But the odd economics of Christmas cards has received less comment. It’s hard to buy cards without contributing to a cause, typically noted on the back of the card. The people who have sent me cards this year have supported: the Australian Red Cross, a British disability charity (promising that money from their cards helps disabled people express themselves through photography and other technology), the Make-A-Wish foundation, the Peter Mac Cancer Centre, the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, the 1959 Group of Charities (26 charities listed), Kids Helpline and the Smith Family.

And even when you buy a card from a for-profit company there is no escaping your environmental obligations:’This card is made with recycled paper (20% recycled fiber)’, ‘This card is made with paper from sustainably managed forests’, and my favourite this year ‘it’s good to be green – this paper is 30% recycled, processed chlorine free and manufactured with wind energy’, though I suspect they did not use wind energy to transport it from Canada, where it was printed, to Melbourne, where I bought it.

Is all this part of a strategy to get us to pay $5 or more for a bit of card with printing costs of perhaps 50 cents? That we don’t mind paying far too much if we are contributing to a good cause or helping to save the environment? There are many other examples of bundling products with causes or charities – eg fair trade coffee, The Big Issue – but Christmas cards are a rare product line where bundling seems like the norm.

As my family solves the Christmas gift-giving inefficiency by buying from co-ordinated lists everyone has a pretty good idea of what they are going to get, so I want to buy a good card as it is the only real thought I put into the gift. If it’s clever or pretty (for female gift recipients; guys don’t do pretty) I don’t mind paying the price. But sometimes I’d like more of a choice just to buy the card, without the charity or cause.

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.
Update 8/10: PM denies intimidation.

Buying your say?

The SMH led yesterday with some prematurely released information about NSW political contributions.

This caught my eye:

A Nationals lunch also secured donations from the Stonewall Hotel and Arq nightclub, both in Darlinghurst. The venues, which contributed $1500 each, were initially on the government’s list of most violent venues but have been removed after recording a fall in the number of assaults.

I expect that representatives of a gay bar like the Stonewall and a nightclub like the Arq are not regulars at National Party events. Indeed, unlike the hotel association and casino operator they probably wouldn’t even get a formal meeting with Nationals MP and Coalition spokesperson for licenced premises George Souris. But presumably they could approach him at the lunch.

These functions are always presented as illegitimate sources of influence which ‘exclude’ people who cannot afford to spend $1,500 on a lunch. But another way of looking at it is that they give access to people who are not political insiders. I know from my experience as a political adviser that functions are places where ministers get to hear things they are not hearing through their official channels. For those whose power comes from influencing the information flow and appointments diary that isn’t always a good thing. But for the overall political process, I think it is.

Are student unions anachronisms?

The bill to re-introduce compulsory amenities fees isn’t pleasing even National Union of Students President Carla Drakeford.

In an Age op-ed she complains that

there would be no legislative measure that forces universities to direct funds from the complusory $250 fee to independent student organisations … student associations need autonomy to represent the views of their students.

My view is that the role of student unions is at minimum much diminished compared to the past. When student unions started their universities had within-state monopolies and few formal means of tracking student views. Student unions were a counter-balance to university staff and administrations that had weak mechanisms for feedback and no real incentive to act on it.

Things are very different now. Students are asked their views on the university’s peformance so often that ‘survey fatigue’ is a major issue. Every university depends for its survival on the fees of highly mobile international students. Though I had my doubts about whether the demand-driven system for Australian students would work, the mad rush to enrol more students suggests that universities will compete strongly in this market too. Continue reading “Are student unions anachronisms?”

Be careful what you wish for #2

Back in August Kristy Fraser-Kirk courted publicity for her claim against David Jones and its former CEO Mark McInnes, filing an outlandish and attention-seeking $37 million lawsuit and calling a press conference to publicise her grievances.

But now she is complaining about all the media attention, claiming through her lawyers that ‘it has induced a psychiatric illness’, and that she now regularly ‘checks under her car’. For what we are not told.

This appears to be in support of yet another preposterous claim, that women who claim to have been previously harassed by McInnes should not have to be named so that their allegations can be investigated. From the judge’s comments last week, this part of the action looks like it will be struck out, as justice requires.

Wilson Tuckey’s unexpected influence on my political life

As an inner-city, latte-sipping classical liberal you would not expect Wilson ‘Ironbar’ Tuckey, who lost his seat on Saturday, to have influenced my political life. But the somewhat embarrassing truth is that he did.

Way back in 1986, the Monash University Liberal Club, of which I was a member, rather provocatively invited Wilson Tuckey to speak on campus. The campus left were not big on freedom of speech, and decided not to let Tuckey speak. Having spent the earlier part of his career as the publican in a rough pub (the ‘Ironbar’ nickname came from some rather excessive means of ejecting unwanted customers), Tuckey was not easily intimidated. Though he could not give his talk, he refused to back down and spent his allotted time trading insults with the assorted lefties who had turned up to silence him.

When it came near to the scheduled end of the meeting, I was sent out to make sure that Tuckey’s Commonwealth car had arrived to get him off campus. Unfortunately it had not. I dashed to the car park to get my car as a back-up, knowing that the protest could be following him as he made his way to the designated pick-up point. I arrived at the pick-up point just before Tuckey did, surrounded as I feared by menacing Trots. Continue reading “Wilson Tuckey’s unexpected influence on my political life”

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: Continue reading “The hypocrisy of GetUp!”