View from The Hill

The parties’ money grab is cynical and offensive

Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has been slow to release the details of new funding legislation. AAP/Lukas Coch

This week’s secret deal for the political parties to grab large dollops of public money for themselves is a particularly egregious insult to taxpayers towards the end of a parliament that has increased general disillusionment with politicians.

The $58 million package gives $41 million to parties and elected independents for “administrative” costs. They would receive over the three-year electoral cycle the equivalent of $1 for every House of Representatives and Senate vote. This is indexed.

There is also a $300,000 annual compliance supplement for those with party status in parliament – that is, with at least five members. (The package includes as well some $17 million for the Electoral Commission.)

Democracy costs money and we have had for years a public funding system to subsidise campaigns (to the tune of $53.1 million for the last election). The theory is that this helps stop the political process being hostage to well-heeled vested interests and promotes a more level playing field.

So why is this deal so offensive? Isn’t it just an extension of the funding already provided?

It’s bad because:

  • The government has been willing to compromise its own declared position on reforming the disclosure laws. Legislation it has had in the Senate would have reduced the level at which donations had to be disclosed from the present more than $12,000 to $1000. The deal between Labor and the Coalition has settled on a disclosure level of $5000.

Other transparency provisions in the bill have been removed or watered down.

  • It does not include any trade off such as putting caps on private donations from companies and unions.

  • The lemon is being squeezed till the pips squeak. The handout to the parties is backdated to April.

(There is even a provision that if there was a House of Representative election only, the administrative payment rate would be doubled, so parties would receive as much as if the election had been for both houses.)

Labor, which is particularly cash-strapped, needs all the dollars it can get for the September election, and the Libs, while much better resourced, will be glad of some extra small change. Never mind what they would usually say about retrospective legislation.

  • The dash for cash comes when both sides of politics are warning the community that belts must be tightened and every dollar watched. We’ve just had a tough budget which saw entitlements trimmed and promises abandoned. But (undisclosed) money for the package was contained in that budget.

Treasurer Wayne Swan, manager of the public purse, was cavalier today, saying the package contained “an element of public funding”.

  • Former minister John Faulkner who, as special minister of state in the Rudd government, did the initial work on donations reform and is recognised for his integrity on the issue, told caucus on Tuesday he was “no longer angry and disappointed but ashamed” of what Labor is doing.

  • The currently responsible minister has shrouded the plan in secrecy, fobbing off questions rather than being willing to flag the government’s thinking. Earlier this month Mark Dreyfus, who is Special Minister of State as well as Attorney-General, was asked whether he was going to put the electoral funding legislation in the Senate to a vote. (That legislation had no handout for “administration”.)

“We’ll have to look at what can be done in the available time,” said Dreyfus. When pressed, he said: “We pass bills through the House of Representatives for a reason. That’s because we want to see them pass the Senate.” Pressed again; “I’m saying that it will have to take its place, along with competition from a range of other bills”.

Dreyfus did not mention that the government was working on wider plans, even though his predecessor, Gary Gray, the one with real ownership of this deal, made it clear in January he planned wider changes, including subsidising political parties and independents for administrative costs.

Even today, Dreyfus has not publicly released all the detail of the package.

Gray in January said he was “absolutely confident” his changes would be passed by the time parliament rose for the election.

How could he have been so sure, given the hung parliament? Because Gray is a former national secretary of the ALP. He understands how the prospect of public money can forge bipartisanship between the main players.