Magazine article IPA Review

Politicians Inc

Magazine article IPA Review

Politicians Inc

Article excerpt

IF you listen very carefully, you might soon hear one vested interest group quietly celebrating a 100 per cent pay rise, courtesy of Australian taxpayers. But the Australian taxpayers are unlikely to hear of this increase being attacked in Parliament or relinquished in the interests of deficit reduction in the May Budget. Like the Mafia code of silence -- omerta -- it seems that the less attention this particular pay rise receives the better. 'Politicians Inc.' -- all of Australia's political parties -- are set to have the public funding of their campaigns doubled for the next Federal Election.

ENTRENCHMENT: Changes to the Constitution and the Commonwealth Electoral Act since the late 1970s have contributed to the entrenchment of political parties. In 1977, bipartisan changes determining how Senate casual vacancies would be filled introduced the term 'political party' into the Constitution for the first time. Then, follow the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983, a number of significant changes were made to the way Federal Parliament was elected.

These changes enabled political parties to register with the Australian Electoral Commission and thereby have their party name printed adjacent to their candidates on ballot papers. Registered political parties were given access to the electoral roll in computer format to facilitate direct mail operations -- a privilege which is not available to other organizations or individuals. The voting system for the Senate was modified, enabling the party machines to control more tightly than before the flow of preferences through an 'above the line' group-ticket voting system. Political parties were required to disclose campaign donations above a certain level and, last but not least, the public funding of election campaigns was introduced.

The first public funding scales were set at 66 cents (then equivalent to two postage stamps) for each House of Representatives vote and 33 cents for each Senate vote. The political parties were required to account for their expenditure and could not receive more public funding than they had actually spent on the election campaign -- although this provision had little practical relevance because all of the major political parties easily outspent whatever they later received in public funding. Combined with a system of compulsory voting, this provided Australia's political parties with a virtually guaranteed income.

The first Federal Election with public funding was in 1984, which resulted in payments to the political parties of $7.5 million. Public funding scales were linked to the Consumer Price Index, so that following the 1993 Federal Election political parties received nearly $15 million in public funding, based on a rate of one dollar for each House of Representatives first-preference vote and 50 cents for each Senate first-preference vote.

CAMPAIGN ALLOWANCES: In the early 1990s the campaigning position of incumbent politicians was enhanced by a threefold increase in postal allowances and the provision of computer listings of enrolments. Thus serving Federal MPs were provided with the means to blanket their electorates with direct mail prior to elections.

The political parties even purchased computer software which enabled them to target individual voters with special direct-mail letters. Legislation was passed allowing donations to political parties of up to $100 per year to be tax deductible. To ensure that voters followed instructions, it was made an offence (punishable by up six months' imprisonment) to publicize during an election period the fact that, by marking a first preference vote e and numbers other than '1' in every other square (1, 2, 2, 2 etc.), voters can cast formal votes which do not distribute preferences.

In late 1994, the Administrative Services Minister, Frank Walker, foreshadowed further financial assistance to the political parties through a massive increase in public funding. …

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