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The following article appeared in the Canberra Times on Saturday March 4 2006, pg B07
(More on the Political Finance Workshop here.)
Good day out puts our democracy on show
By Andrew Fraser
While most of us were examining bottled jams, preserves and pickles and simultaneously downing Dagwoood Dogs at Exhibition Park last weekend, a group of people gathered quietly a few miles down the road to see if they could make the country run better.
Coming together were international political finance experts, electoral commissioners, former auditors-general and political party representatives. Under the banner of the Democratic Audit of Australia, they were workshopping a draft democratic audit report prepared by Melbourne University’s Joo-Cheong Tham and Sally Young.
The “Audit’’, funded by the Australian Research Council, has run since 2002 in the ANU’s political science program. It seeks to assess Australia’s strengths and weaknesses as a democratic society, pursuing three main aims:
1. To make a major methodological contribution to the assessment of democracy — particularly through the study of federalism and through incorporating disagreements about “democracy’’ into the research design.
2. To provide benchmarks for international comparisons and to monitor newly developed democracies.
3. To promote public debate over democratic issues.
One of issues that consumed more debating time than most was the Tham-Young finding about the Electoral Commission ruling that the payment of sponsorship money to get a ministerial briefing is not a gift. Therefore, the contention ran, those paying the money could reasonably expect to get something for their payment. That meant, the thinking continued, that one’s ability to influence public policy was proportionate to the wedge in one’s wallet. The authors felt voters would like such payments obviously identified.
The counter-argument was that we live in a market economy and if people placed a premium on talking to a minister, then it would be almost churlish to knock it back. Ministers were incorruptible, would decide their policy on proper grounds, and, purely coincidentally, their parties would cop some wedge.
Where the line is on what is and what is not political advertising brought passionate debate, with various views on the recent High Court decision, that did not lay a glove on the Government’s WorkChoices missives.
Former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris noted, however, that only three judges had engaged with the real issue, and two of them had found against the Government.
While that was something that might be relitigated, and would certainly be redebated, there was much more to the day in the workshop: each mechanic had something to offer.
Griffith University’s Graeme Orr spoke on advertising, touching on the need for caps and more specific authorisations and canvassed the notion of running referendum-style pro and con campaigns on contentious issues.
ANU economist Dr Andrew Leigh demonstrated where the weight of funding fell under selected government programs, with the conclusion that more pork from regional programs got sliced into National-held electorates.
Labor frontbencher Alan Griffin brought a political player’s eye to the Leigh findings and tables, telling the academic that a bit of pork carved for one electorate could turn on an electoral feed in a neighbouring seat. He gave as an example a decision to upgrade Kardinia Park, home of the Geelong Football Club, in the Labor-held seat of Corio. This would draw in many users from Corangamite, so helping shore up support for veteran sitting Liberal Stewart McArthur. (While Corangamite is formally rated by the Electoral Commission as marginal, it’s actually at a pretty healthy 5.3 per cent and has not been held by Labor since the Great Depression, but, as it creeps into Geelong, it is increasingly in Labor’s sights.)
Edith Cowan University’s Peter van Onselen explored the issue of training teams who receive government contracts and then donate back to the Government. What were the links? Was getting the training job contingent on the donation? Was the training merely sometimes a donation in kind?
Greens NSW Legislative Councillor Lee Rhiannon bemoaned the divide between MPs and the people and told of her parliamentary push to crackdown on MPs’ perks.
“Who else gets public money without having to account for it?’’ she asked.
She also did a rare thing, praising former Labor leader Mark Latham, for the re-alignment of federal politicians’ superannuation arrangements with community norms.
Hadar Gumay, from the Centre for Electoral Reform in Jakarta, spoke of problems far bigger than anything Australia faces, reminding his fellow workshoppers that the 1999 and 2004 Indonesian presidential elections had been the first run along democratic lines. While there were sanctions for making false reports of political donations, there remained no penalty for not reporting at all. Political parties owned media outlets, the electoral advisory body had no teeth and there was no definitional distinction between “donations’’ and “lending’’ to political parties.
The Democrat Andrew Murray came armed with a comprehensive policy prescription for “political governance’’. He talked of one vote, one value, of unions having to exercise a popular vote before affiliating with political parties, of shareholders having to vote regularly to re-authorise the companies they owned to continue to be political donors. He was one of many who talked of the need for the early disclosure of donations, noting the Catch 22 between two facts:
1. Donations paid in the heat of the 2004 election campaign, including the $1 million from Lord Ashcroft of the United Kingdom to the Liberal Party, and those around the time of the campaign, including ones of $200,000 and $120,000 from ACT poker-machine palaces to the Labor Party, were not publicly disclosed until February this year. (Victoria Electoral Commissioner Steve Tully related that his state limits donations from poker-machine operators to a mere $50,000)
2. People wanting to challenge an election result because it was allegedly improperly influenced by a donation have only 45 days after polling to get their action started in the Court of Disputed Returns.
But the best part of the work shop was that it was held at all, and that practitioners turned up and engaged so robustly with it.
It was a good day out, and there was still time left to get to the Canberra Show for the evening, dropping back into that mass of electors to whom we in the media too often dish up hip-pocket or leader-perception yarns when we should be trying to introduce just a little democratic auditing into their vote-weighing exercises.
(c) 2006 The Canberra Times