Sometimes you have to wonder how politicians can be so utterly shameless when it comes to their own self-interest. The Andrews government’s changes to the Victorian Electoral Act, currently before Parliament, are the perfect example. If passed, the bill would allow for the brazen manipulation of the democratic process, at great expense for us, the Victorian taxpayers.
Of course, politicians gaming the system in their favour is nothing new. But with its Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill, Labor is setting a new gold standard for changing the rules for their own advantage.
One of the bill’s most egregious features is limiting the amount of money that individuals can privately donate to political parties and candidates, which will be capped at just $1000 a year. Such a stringent donations cap would be a grievous attack on freedom of speech and political communication.
It is self-evident that genuine democracy requires that all citizens are free to speak on political issues. But free speech is more than just the right to literally speak. Thousands of Australians exercise their right to participate not by speaking themselves, but by supporting other organisations – including political parties – which espouse values and policies with which they agree. This includes financial support.
Limiting Victorians’ ability to donate money to candidates and parties is an unjustified restriction on participation in the democratic process. It is no different from limiting how many how-to-vote cards a party volunteer can hand out, how much door-knocking they can do, or how many petitions a citizen can sign.
So if there are restrictions on private donation, how will parties fund their election campaigns? Well, under the government’s bill, “public” (that is, taxpayer) funding for political campaigns is going to go through the roof, jumping from $9.6 million in actual payments at the last state election to a staggering $27.6 million under the proposed system. Currently, the Victorian Electoral Commission forks out about $1.65 per primary vote. Under the Andrews government’s bill, parties will receive $6 per vote in the lower house and $3 per vote in the upper house.
Almost all of this money would flow to the two major parties and the Greens. This is because Labor’s bill retains the requirement that candidates receive a primary vote of more than 4 per cent to qualify. So minor parties will miss out on almost all of this taxpayer largesse. (To the Coalition’s credit, it opposes the bill, despite the hefty windfall it will receive under the proposed system.)
On top of that, political parties will also receive a new quarterly payment of $10,000 per elected MP to assist with “administrative costs” – such as staff, rent, stationery and the like – slugging Victorians another $5.12 million a year.
The government is quick to point out that it will be unlawful to use these payments on campaign expenses, which is technically right. But obviously there is an “opportunity cost” factor at play here. If political parties have the cost of running their offices taken care of, then more of their own money will be freed up for political campaigning. And once again, the payment will heavily favour the major parties, as it is calculated on the basis of how many elected MPs each party has in Parliament.
Finally, to add insult to injury, the government has snuck in a few loopholes that will mean business as usual for the Labor Party. For example, the new donations cap does not apply to what the bill calls “affiliation fees”, the kind of fees Labor rakes in from its constituent trade unions. So while private individuals freely donating their money to causes they support is now verboten, unions can continue to give millions in members’ money by “affiliating” with the Labor Party. There is no good reason for this double standard.
The bottom line is that if this stink bomb of a bill passes, Spring Street will be even further removed from the people it is supposed to represent. Once upon a time, pollies had to rely on the generosity of free individuals to fund their campaigns, largely by reflecting supporters’ values and policies. With this bill, Labor is cutting out the middle man, seizing campaign funds from ordinary Victorians with the force of law.
And so state politics will look less like a reflection of Western democracy, and more like some kind of gigantic boxing match to which every Victorian will be forced to buy a ticket. Give a few million to the guy in the red corner, a few million to the guy in the blue corner, and watch as they duke it out. And unlike a real boxing match, the real losers will be the ordinary Victorians who are funding the whole grotesque spectacle.