Monday, August 10, 2009

Funding politics

The media has suddenly become very excited about the issue of the funding of politics. Interestingly the focus has been far more on the subject of things like the "Business Briefing" seminars used by the ALP, or the business observers programs at conferences tha the straight donation process.

That has let some make simple claims like Glenn milne's that the ALP is mired in cronyism. Though he concededs the point made in the SMH that the other side of politics does it too.

Milne chooses to talk up the submission by Michael Ronaldson for amendments to the ALPs Bill to reduce campaign fund disclosure limits that reads in part;

"It is my strong view that the opposition should move amendments which will:
Limit to natural person (sic) the ability to donate money to political parties; provide for the public funding of the normal operations of recognised political parties; limit the quantum of donations to political parties to an amount of $1500 per financial year; prevent 'third parties' from expending money on campaigning for the election of particular candidates."

It is interesting to note though that the issue of more concern in these proposals is the issue of the big donors (unions and business) and third-party campaigns. The focus is not the events side of fundraising...though it does raise good sums.

I was asked recently what goes on at one of these corporate political fundraising events. I relayed that it was your typical big dinner at tables of ten with lternating serves of rubber chicken or over-cooked rack of lamb. You are seated at round tables of ten that give the illusion you can talk to anyone but in reality you are constrained to the people on either side. If you are seated with a Minister the chances are it is one you have no interest in dealing with.

The speeches are typical triumphalism that anyone in the room could have written from the last ten press releases. The benefits are slender, though they increase your overall face recognition as you stroll around Parliament House. And you may meet someone of use.

But if you really want to influence Government you are better going through the standard three stage process;
1. Meet with the Department to make sure you fully understand the current ituation and what is in train.
2. Meet with a Ministerial Adviser with a very target pitch on what you think needs to be done differently and why.
3. Once you are comfortable the adviser understands the pitch and you think you understand the objections organise a high level meeting (CEO to Minister) in which the CEO is required to sell one or two key messages. (Ministers are just as keen to meet CEOs as the reverse). If need be the high level meeting can be the industry association.

It really is just sales 101 - but you can't sell an idea that doesn't work.

The supposed solution that the funding of politics be by government expenditure and by only real individual donations is a cure worse than the disease. Firstly, the party that appeals to the wealthy will be the one that has the most funds. Secondly, while it may be outlawed that I can give you $1500 for you to give to the party, in corporations it is very easy to create the expectation that all he executive team will make their donation.

But worse, far worse, it entrenches the existing political parties. It creates an environment where only the parties who have historically had success can be funded for future success. This model of political parties has been labelled "cartel parties". It has been an unfortunate and unintended consequence of all the cycles of reform to date, be that initial public funding programs, and even disclosure regimes, that they support the idea that the two parties in the "two party" model are the only locus of activity.

Alan Kohler points out that the Australian Democrats (and before them the Australia Party) led the charge;

There has been concern for years that political donations would get out of control, so the Australian Democrats tried to reform the practice – before they died from lack of money, and relevance. Actually it has turned out that the danger is NOT that donations get out of control, but the exact opposite – that it gets organised and is very, very controlled.

We can expect the current version of Democrats to be just as naive.

Enduring campaign reform needs to focus on (a) limitting the amount of money that can be spent and (b) ensuring that the money that can be spent is spent more on explaining philosohical and policy positions and less on short jabs about opponents and various forms of fear mongering.

An essential first step in this exercise is in formally creating an organisational construct called "political party". At the moment the organisational form of a party remains the choice of the party and can range from company to incorporated association to unicorporated association. Each of these entails different costs, and results in its own compliance requirements.

These various entities then need to register as parties (under varying State and Federal rules) and then meet certain disclosure requirements (again under varying State and Federal rules). This results in double or quadruple processing of everything, wasting much resource in administration (and hence on its own favouring the cartel parties).

Further any regulatory reform that takes place today should accept that the Internet exists. That means two things - the first that requirements on transparency can require that information be published on a website, secondly that information transfer can be required to occur through some on line form (from e-mail to ftp to XML messsaging between applications).

As a consequence a "political party" can become a defined form of organisation. That form of organisation shall have certain rights (to advocate on behalf of political candidates) and responsibilities (continuous - monthly - disclosure of sources and applications of funds). A "registered political party" can be defined as a political party with a specified number of declared members with additional rights (to have the party name listed on ballot papers, to form lists in ballots that have lists, to receive public funding) and responsibilities (to provide the annual list of declared members, possibly requirements to make continuous disclosure about campaign activities).

Rather than limit the donations we limit the amounts that can be spent. In particular the rules should limit how much airtime any one party can acquire in TV or radio (or far more tightly that airtime is acquired for parties through public funding). Similarly the rules should limit the amount spent in paid print media, but not on letterboxing or street campaigning.

True campaign reform would reduce MPs printing and postage allowances. True campaign reform would require all Government advertising campaigns to be vetted by a parliamentary committee requiring a two-thirds majority before a campaign can proceed.

If there is to be public funding a component of it should be calculated as an advance to parties based on the results of an opinion poll conducted by the AEC for that purpose (therefore a much wider base than existing published polls).

Finally there is a very very strong case for "clean booths" as exist in New Zealand and the ACT - that is no expenditure on HTV cards, posters, bunting and (in some cases) booth workers. To make clean booths work each party/candidate can provide its voting recommendation that will be published in a consistent manner for each - either by wall poster or booklet.

All of this would be best managed as ONE process - a party is a party or is not. There may be a case for separate registration by State but nothing else.

Individual candidates create their own set of dilemmas, but there need to be some rules. Firstly two "independents" cannot work in consort in the same seat or same house. An independent can work in consort with a party or independent candidate in another house but the fact of the association needs to be declared (and published) as soon as it is formed.

As a person with some experience in these matters what looks like additional onerous requirements need not be so through the use of technology. The bigger challenge is getting to one system. The real concern is that campaign funding reform should not be left to the main parties to devise.

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