The WA Senate election and the rise of money in Australian politics

Clive Palmer was criticised by Tony Abbott for ‘trying to buy seats’ in federal parliament through a huge advertising spend at the recent WA Senate election. AAP/Dave Hunt

The issue of political party spending featured prominently during the Western Australian Senate re-election in a manner that we are rarely, if at all, accustomed to in Australian politics. This time, it was the leader of a major party – prime minister Tony Abbott – who castigated a minor party – Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party (PUP) – for “trying to buy seats in the parliament”.

Certainly, figures compiled by advertising monitoring company Ebiquity showed that the PUP spent heavily on campaign advertising during the campaign. According to Eqibuity, the PUP is reported to have spent A$477,000 on 788 political TV commercial slots, more than the combined spend of the Liberals ($53,000), Labor ($68,000) and the Greens ($114,000).

Palmer isn’t the only big spender

Palmer met Abbott’s assertions that he was buying votes by accusing Abbott of hypocrisy. Palmer pointed out that the matter of him having money was entirely uncontentious when it was being channelled into the campaign coffers of the LNP in Queensland.

Abbott’s criticisms of Palmer partly reflect the natural cut and thrust of elections. But it was also a reaction to the fact that Palmer had changed the essential dynamics of election campaigns: a minor party was outspending a major party.

The Labor and Liberal parties are only ever concerned about the prospects of being outspent by their major party opponent and the occasional interest group. The campaign budgets of the non-major parties, even an electorally viable one such as the Greens, are only a fraction of their major party counterparts.

For example, at the 2013 federal election, the Liberals reportedly spent $1.5 million and the ALP $1.7 million on metropolitan TV, press and radio advertising in the first two and a half weeks of the campaign. This compares to $89,000 spent by the Greens and $88,000 by the PUP over a similar period.

What did Palmer’s money achieve?

Much of the furore about Palmer’s campaign budget at the WA Senate election centred on the concern that his money would buy seats and ultimately control over the Senate.

Yet for all that the PUP spent at the WA Senate election, the party secured only part of a seat on first-preference votes. The PUP achieved 0.8735 of a quota and only won the seat as a consequence of favourable preference flows from other parties and groups.

The investment was also not sufficient to “buy” PUP control over the Senate, even if the election has increased the party’s presence in the upper house from two to three. While the PUP will have an important bloc in the Senate from July, the balance of power will be shared among ten Greens, one independent and three other parties (or four, depending on how one counts the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, which has announced an alliance with the PUP).

At best, Palmer bought himself a ticket to the Senate show. But his chances of influencing legislative outcomes in the Senate are far from guaranteed.

Solving the problem

Although the relationship between the size of a campaign budget and seat wins is far from straightforward or unproblematic, there is no doubt that access to funds enables a party to elevate its brand and to communicate directly with the public.

The high costs associated with modern campaigns – and the unevenness of party campaign budgets – has served to price minor parties and independents out of elections. In the case of the major parties, it has created an increasingly unhealthy obsession with fundraising that skews their organisational focus and priorities.

There are, of course, ways to reduce the extent to which a party is free to spend like a “drunken sailor” at elections, which Abbott accused Palmer of doing in Western Australia. The federal parliament could do what their Queensland and New South Wales counterparts have done and impose caps on election communication expenditure.

In NSW, for example, the caps limit how much an individual or group can donate to a party at elections but also how much parties can spend on their upper and lower house campaign. As shown below, the cap kicks in at different amounts depending on the number of candidates that a party endorses.

Caps on expenditure in NSW state elections. Election Funding Authority of NSW

As electoral law academics Joo-Cheong Tham and Malcolm Anderson have noted, the expenditure limits are still extremely generous and aspects of the NSW scheme could be strengthened. But their preliminary investigations into the regime appear to suggest that the caps have some capacity to moderate the volume of the main parties’ spending at NSW state elections.

It is impossible to separate money from elections. Campaign advertising is both an important and a legitimate recourse for parties to reach voters – not to mention the likely constitutional barriers to its total prohibition. Imposing caps on electoral expenditure will not fix the system, but it might just restore a modicum of balance and fair play to election contests.

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