Ever since Peter Costello excoriated Ros Kelly, the then Minister for Sport in the Keating Government in 1993-94 for so called ‘Sports Rorts’, the scrutiny of public funding of government projects in Australia has never been the same.
Sports Rorts became a moment in time that shone light in a dark but heavily populated corner.
With regular monotony there have been reincarnations of Sports Rorts. The faces, places and times may be different, but the issues are amazingly similar.
For the most part, scrutiny, in the Sports Rorts tradition, has been a good thing for the way in which taxpayers’ money is used.
No self-respecting taxpayer wants sports fields, roundabouts, school halls, jetties, or anything else, unless there is a demonstrated need. That should not include, as the primary outcome at least, the re-election of a local member – worthy as that person may be.
The problem with Ros Kelly’s no-tech white board in 1993 and much more recently Bridget McKenzie’s hi-tech spreadsheet, was that they both looked like a wish list of projects that suited the government of the day.
For 30 years, lighting a political fuse and waiting for the explosion by alleging political bias in the electorate-by-electorate allocation of public money, has been a sharp and effective political weapon.
Forget whether or not the claims of bias are founded or not. Politics and the media do not work like that. This is jungle warfare without the guns.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Throw enough mud and some will stick. Don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story. All that and more.
We’re now more than halfway through the election campaign. As sure as the sun rises in the east, there will be more about alleged political bias in public expenditure as we edge closer to election day. Fair enough. That’s politics.
But hang on. What if the bias really did suit both sides?
In fact, what if it suited all the political players? The major parties, the not so major parties, the small parties and the independents. What if they all thought something was a great idea.
Does that ever happen? Surely not. Oh yes it does. Big time.
It’s called the public funding of election campaigns – more accurately called taxpayer funded election campaigns.
This is not the biggest item of government expenditure – but it is without doubt the most misguided, self-serving, and least scrutinised. Nor is it chicken feed.
The election campaign we are now in will cost the hapless taxpayer around $80 million through public funding.
In the 2019 Federal Election, the taxpayer paid $70 million in public funding.
That’s not for the election itself. That is for the campaign.
Of the $70 million, about $1 million went to independents. That figure will go north this time around. Just watch! Cha-ching!
Watching political advertising is bad enough but paying for it is a bridge too far.
Think of this. One of the many candidates and party leaders for this election is Clive Palmer. In the 2019 election, Palmer spent $80 million-plus and didn’t get one candidate elected.
This election it’s anticipated Palmer will spend between $100-$200 million on the UAP campaign.
Does this sound like democracy for sale?
On this occasion we should all be thankful that the highest bidder will not get the keys to the Lodge. There is much more to come about democracy for sale.
The UAP advertising sprouts garbage such as Craig Kelly will be Australia’s next PM and that UAP will cap home loan interest rates at three percent.
You don’t need to fact check these propositions to know they are total myths. But here’s the real kicker. You, the Australian taxpayer, through the public funding of elections subsidise the UAP’s advertisements – and all other party and candidate election advertising.
This election, every candidate or their party will receive $2.914 for every vote they receive – provided a candidate or, in the case of the Senate, receives at least four percent of the first preference vote.
So where does this stash come from? You, the taxpayer.
And guess what? It is indexed. Yes, indexed – every six months.
Can anyone tell me why taxpaying Australian battlers should be subsidising the political plaything of the seventh richest man in Australia, Clive Palmer, with an estimated wealth of $18.35 billion, through an indexed reimbursement based on $2.914 per vote, for his party?
This is not so much having a go at Palmer, as misguided and farcical as the UAP is. Palmer and Co are just passengers on the great gravy train that has been dishing out this money for decades.
Clive is free to waste his fortune however he wishes. But as part of that freedom, he should donate every last cent of the public funding the UAP receives to charity.
I am blowing the whistle on an appalling, unprincipled, unnecessary, and largely unscrutinised free for all.
Make no mistake. The only loser in the orgy of this cash splash is the poor, bloody Australian taxpayer.
The unanswered question remains: “Why are all these snouts allowed in the trough?”
The uncontradictable answer is it directly and immediately financially benefits all political players, their parties, and their candidates. As they say, follow the money.
It is also the ultimate fulfillment of the maxim, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’.
Make no mistake. This is the goose that laid the golden egg – and keeps laying. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It’s the gravy train that never stops.
Only relentless pressure from those outside the political class will set this right.
You’ve got to be suspicious that this is the one area of policy and administration where there has been no dissent for 40 years amongst the warring free spirits and ideological enemies that inhabit the Australian political landscape.
There’s a lot more to be suspicious about here than on Ros Kelly’s whiteboard or Bridget McKenzie’s spreadsheet.
Amazingly, this unprecedented unity ticket just happens to be about the distribution of whopping amounts of money that benefit all the parties, and in most cases individual candidates.
Today it’s taxpayer money that provides the river of gold that pays senior party officials large salaries. These are the same office bearers who are mainly responsible for attending to public funding compliance – referred to in the trade as ‘agents’. Show me the last time a party official or responsible office bearer stood up to question the integrity of this system, unless it is to point out an underpayment?
A while back I had a heart-to-heart session with an old hand in political party administration and zeroed in on this very question of public funding. He unconvincingly and uncomfortably suggested, “we must have been asleep at the wheel”. Bullshit!
On the contrary. He should have said, “well, we weren’t about to complain about the system that has allowed the party to pay for expensive advertising and executive level salaries for decades.”
So, as would be said in legal circles – is there a motive to explain the silence surrounding this rort?
The only answer could be, “Yes, your honour. All those who are silent benefit from the money in question. There is a clear motive for their silence.”
This is the political equivalent of the filthy, dirty, family secret that has been kept under wraps for decades.
Michael Yabsley was a Minister in the Greiner Government and Federal Treasurer of the Liberal Party. He is the author of Dark Money – A plan to reform political fundraising and election funding in Australia.