Thursday, 18 December 2008

Election spending spree eroding trust: senator

AN ELECTION campaign spending "arms race" is leading the two main political parties to rely more heavily on donations from businesses, wealthy individuals and interest groups, eroding public trust in the political system, the Special Minister for State, John Faulkner, says.

Releasing a green paper on electoral law reform yesterday, Senator Faulkner said campaign fund-raising in recent years had created perceptions that donors were able to exert undue influence over politicians.

"The perception of undue influence can be as damaging to democracy as undue influence itself," Senator Faulkner said.

"It undermines confidence in our processes of government, making it difficult to untangle the motivation behind policy decisions.

"Electors are left wondering if decisions have been made on their merits."

Senator Faulkner said the Federal Government was determined to have legislation regulating election funding in place before the next federal poll and was considering measures ranging from banning donations to boosting taxpayer funding.

The green paper argues that donations, campaign spending and public funding are all linked as spiralling spending on electioneering means public funding accounts for just 20 per cent of the Labor and Liberal parties' financial resources.

It estimates the ALP's campaign spending has increased from $4.1 million in 1984 to $19.4 million in 2004 while the Liberal Party's spending rose from $4.2 million to $22 million.

After taking inflation into account, this represented real increases of 116 per cent and 136 per cent, respectively.

The paper says spending by political parties could be capped, reducing the incentive to raise money from private donations.

The paper points to the British system where parties cannot spend more than £20 million ($45 million) in the year before an election and to the US where parties can agree to limit spending in return for public funding.

Caps could be imposed on the size of donations with a view to reducing the influence of large donors. Donations from property developers, organisations that seek government contracts, lobbying firms or tobacco, alcohol and gaming companies could be banned.

Alternatively, all private donations could be banned in conjunction with increased public funding.

The paper says a key challenge is the growing influence of so-called third parties - interest groups that spend significant sums campaigning - such as the ACTU which funded advertisements against the former Howard government in the lead-up to the 2007 election.

Senator Faulkner said the Government would consider public comments on the paper. He would also continue discussions with state and territory governments about similar reforms at a state level.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Premier, Nathan Rees, said he welcomed the green paper because he was committed to making his Government more transparent and accountable.

Quote: "The perception of undue influence can be as damaging to democracy as undue influence itself," Senator Faulkner said. Unquote.

The argument that the two parties Lib/Lab represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the Australian people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy?

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