Opinion

Biggest loser from federal election is the hapless taxpayer

In the inevitable and badly needed federal election post-mortem, the most repeated cliché seems to be that all the players lost – except for the Teals and the Greens. Let’s put all the parties and candidates to one side and have a minute’s silence for the biggest loser from the election – the hapless Australian taxpayer.

No one questions that governments should pay for the proper, orderly and corruption-free conduct of elections. That is as clear cut as governments paying for national security. That includes election time advertising to tell voters when and where they can vote – but not how they should vote. That is the job of political parties.

Australian taxpayers have no role in picking up the tab for political campaign advertising, much of which is without foundation, based on hyperbole and beyond fact checking. Remember – we were told Craig Kelly would be Australia’s next PM!

Public funding is not the solution. In fact it’s a major part of the problem. How on Earth did this happen in the first place, how does it continue and just who is on this gravy train?

In the paper Dark Money, I have pointed out that because political parties and the candidates they field are at the heart of the democratic system – so the conveniently bipartisan and self-serving argument went – governments, state and federal, moved, back in the 1980s, to get taxpayers to pick up the tab for campaigns.

That money has been quaintly called ‘public funding’. It is, of course, taxpayers’ money. Nothing to see here, either. Not much, except the cost to the taxpayers, instead of a few badly needed hospitals here and there.

This ‘let the taxpayer pay’ brainwave took off like wildfire as governments, eager oppositions and minor parties embraced this financial windfall. After all, if you’re a politician or a party administrator, what is there not to like about getting taxpayers to pay for financially stressed political parties and impoverished campaigns?

Australia’s whole diverse political spectrum is on board, from One Nation on the right to the Greens on the left, and all others in between – without a whimper of resistance. We should always be sceptical of a unity ticket where all players get a big lick of taxpayer dosh.

In this age of crowd funding the concept of taxpayer funding is even more bizarre. But here it is, in all its brazenness; the funding of election campaigns by taxpayers – in all states and territories of Australia, and many other western democracies around the world.

The dirty little secret within the political class is that public funding of political parties and their candidates is ‘the goose that laid the golden egg.’ Disturbingly, political parties now operate on the basis that with private donations becoming more difficult to get, taxpayer funding, something most taxpayers are unaware, will do just fine as a never-ending source of campaign money.

And why wouldn’t that be assumed? After all, that is what has happened in Australia for over 35 years, when the public funding gravy train left the station with the support of all those on board. It’s been fully booked with satisfied ‘passengers’ ever since. Party representatives even argue with a straight face that ‘public funding constitutes a public good.’

Frighteningly, there is a push in some quarters to adopt a system of total public funding for Australian political parties for integrity reasons.

That is garbage that I will put under the microscope soon.

The truth is public funding is an appalling rort against the Australian taxpayer.

Ask yourself this threshold question: Why should political parties get a royalty for every vote they receive? In a democracy, shouldn’t they be out there working to get those votes on their merits, based on the policies and values for which they stand? In many respects public funding is a more serious rort than anything that may come from private donors for the simple reason it is taxpayer’s money. At least donors get asked to put their hands in their pocket. Taxpayers aren’t even given a choice.

Private donors can make their own calculations. They can work through their own generosity, greed or ambition – whatever motivates them. And they can suffer the consequences of their own wisdom or stupidity. Taxpayers, whether they are ignorant, naïve or just kept in the dark, should not be made de-facto partners in this game that is not of their own making. Go onto the street and ask the next person you meet if they’re aware they’ve subsidised the recent federal election campaign, including all those second-rate advertisements.

It’s more than a rort. It’s an abuse of democracy. It’s the taxpayers who are the pawns in this game – all involuntary members of the mushroom club.

Public funding should not survive the scrutiny it deserves but doesn’t get. And if the past four decades are anything to go by, it will never be subject to that scrutiny. Why? For the simple reason it benefits all political players. It’s a giant slush fund in which all parties, large and small – and independents – are happily splashing about. The only solution that taxpayer funding provides is for the cash strapped political parties that face declining donations.

No doubt, due to the workings of statutory electoral bodies, the mechanism and accounting of public funding state and federal is squeaky clean. That is not the issue. The issue is the flawed concept rather than any suggestion of maladministration. Be clear though. Corruption is involved. The corruption of our democratic system.

The next time you hear the defence “but it’s legal”, just remind the perpetrator of that nonsense that most corruption is legal. It’s called soft corruption and it’s woven into the fabric of our democratic system.

Rodney Cavalier AO, former Minister in the NSW Government and revered Labor Party historian, knows more about the warts and rorts that define the taxpayer funding of elections in Australia, than anyone else.

For Australian political parties, public funding is the gift that keeps on giving. And it will keep on giving because the political parties are gifting themselves. We’re waiting on the details of the taxpayer funded 2022 campaign. Watch this space.

The wash up from the 2019 federal election delivered just under $70 million to political parties in public funding, with about $1 million of that going to independent candidates. The breakdown is:

  • Liberal Party: $27.5m
  • ALP: $26.6m
  • Greens: $8m
  • Nationals: $2.5m
  • Pauline Hanson: $2.8m
  • Independents: $1m

These amounts are calculated on the basis of an amount per vote. For the 2019 federal election public funding was calculated at $2.76 per vote. From one election to the next this amount is driven north systematically by inflation and population growth. For the 2022 election the amount will be just under $3 per vote for candidates who get at least four percent of the primary vote.

What a great deal if you’re lucky enough to get it! If somebody proposed throwing in a set of steak knives, you can bet the Parliament would vote for it. Unanimously. For those elected to Parliament everyone gets a go at the golden egg. Why would there be any criticism of the fattest goose in town?

As Paul Keating was fond of quoting former NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang; “In the race of life always back self-interest – at least you know it’s trying.” It’s time it was said: The public funding regime is protected by a conspiracy of silence, established, and run by the political establishment, for the political establishment.

It’s time this outrageous gravy train was terminated at the next station.

Next from Michael Yabsley: How should political parties raise money? They could start by taking a leaf out of the Get Up! book.

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