We are always being told, and indeed I’ve said so myself, that Australian politics is always about the short-term. But we have just seen the political parties doing something together, ignoring party lines, and doing it in the interests of the long term — something that is rare. Isn’t that encouraging? Well, no. The parties have agreed to suspend the political fight and the electoral fight for the moment, to make sure that they will all be a good deal wealthier in the next Parliament than they are now. And who will help them to do that? Why, you and me, all of us Australian voters. Senator John Faulkner, who does have standards, is alleged to have said in caucus that he was ashamed at what had been done. He was right to feel that way.
A very old quip has it that ‘N0 matter whom you voter for, a politician always gets in. Vote Informal!’ And I feel a bit that way at the moment. This deal, agreed behind closed doors with the Coalition, will push $58 million towards the parties at $1 per vote gained, on top of the funds already provided to the parties. The part of the policy that both sides are emphasising is that it will now be mandatory for parties to disclose any donation or gift greater than $5,000, instead of the current $12,000. That shows they are interested in transparency, doesn’t it? Actually, Labor had talked about making the lower limit $1,000, but that seems to have been forgotten.
I can see a kind of argument in favour of it. Over the past forty years the Commonwealth has been reducing its own social welfare apparatus, and outsourcing it to the charities, like the Salvation Army, Vinnies, the Smith family, and so on. One reason is that the charities are closer to the real needs, and thought to be more knowledgeable about the scale and and the texture of the problems. And of course, it’s cheaper. The charities act as a transfer mechanism on behalf of the Commonwealth. The charities themselves are uneasy about their current situation, but their primary task is to help.
By extension you could see the organised political parties as in a comparable situation to the charities. The problem area here is political interest, democratic participation, and the selection of good representatives for Parliament. Who is closest to that? Why, the political parties, of course. They are right across all of that. Why not fund them to do that job well? And at $1 a vote, that’s tiny.
The analogy is not perfect, of course. Vinnies et al are there to help others. That’s their role and mission. But the political parties are there to win power and run the country. They are not there to provide disinterested advice to voters, explain the inner workings of government, or find the best person for Parliament — especially if the best person is actually in another party. To pay them to do what they currently do seems, to say it nicely, somewhat odd. Not only that, it assumes that the Labor, Liberal, National and Green Parties we presently have are all we need. What about new parties that might be in the offing? Why should the present ones have such a financial advantage?
And what is the money actually for? In most other countries the parties need money, above all, ‘to get out the vote’. But that’s not a problem in Australia. There is no one alive who can remember voting in a Federal election when it was not legally necessary to do so (strictly speaking, to turn up and have your name crossed off the electoral roll — what you do with the voting paper is up to you). With all of us obliged to vote, what is the vitally important job that parties have to do? I’m not sure there is one. They are interest groups that have a view of what ought to be done, and organise themselves in order to persuade us that they are right. Since the parties disagree about many of these things, they can’t all be right, and conceivably, none of them is right. Why should we pay for them at all? Why should a Labor supporter be in favour of any money going to the Coalition parties? Or vice versa?
The agreement between the major parties (I have no idea whether or not the Greens were part of the deal) was decisive. That’s it. Move on. Nothing to see here. It’s all part of democracy in action. There are cuts in expenditure happening now, and cuts in prospect after the election. People in jobs are going to lose them. But there are no cuts for the parties — in fact, they are to have a healthy addition to their resources.
The timing of this deal was execrable. The swiftness of it was deplorable. The deal itself displays a kind of contempt for the electorate. What more can I say? I am sending this post to each of my federal parliamentary representatives.