The Liberal Party in WA is bleeding internally, thanks to a promise of
public funding of election campaigns made by the Labor Government’s
Attorney-General Jim McGinty.To the casual observer, it might be a bit
confusing. McGinty has offered to progress the issue in
Parliament provided that bipartisan support is forthcoming for what is
proving to be electorally unpopular legislation. Late last week,
however, word leaked out that McGinty had done a deal with the
Nationals who have just six MPs. They were promised funding equivalent
to party status after the next election, delivering them an annual
financial bonus of over $400,000.

In theory, this deal with the Nationals shouldn’t be causing concern to
anyone except the WA taxpayer. In practice, the reason for the Liberal
Party’s angst goes back to the 2001 election when Liberal premier
Richard Court lost to Labor leader Geoff Gallop.

For the eight years prior to the 2001 election, the Liberal government
had provided almost a million dollars of funding each year to the ALP opposition to maintain their offices and employ staff.

After 2001, Gallop (it was probably McGinty’s idea, to tell the truth)
announced that, since the Liberals and Nationals had been in coalition
at the time of the election, he was splitting the $1 million in funding
equally between the two parties. This meant that the Liberals, with 28
MPs in the two houses of Parliament, were receiving the same funding in
opposition as the six Nationals MPs. In effect, this meant that each
Nationals MP had one staff member to look after their every need,
making life really cushy for them in terms of research and speech
preparation. At the same time, the Liberals could barely afford to have
one staff member employed for each four or five of their MPs.

As a shadow minister in the Liberal opposition from 2001 to 2004, the
relative lack of staff meant that Liberal MPs had to work a damn sight
harder than their Nationals counterparts. Over time, this created much
antagonism between the two conservative parties, all of which was
rekindled last week when McGinty let slip his funding promise to the
Nationals. No wonder the Liberals are now reviewing their support for
public funding of election campaigns. It appears they’d be prepared to
forgo $1 million or more in taxpayer funding as a way of getting even
with the government over the favouritism it’s displaying to the
Nationals.

A Liberal party room meeting this Tuesday may well overturn last week’s
vote to support McGinty’s legislation bringing in public funding.
Unfortunately for the Liberals, the silly part about all this is that,
with Labor almost certain to win the next election due in 2009, McGinty
can make whatever deal with the Nationals he likes after that election.
So, regardless of whether the Liberals vote to support or oppose the
public funding of political parties, they are certain to lose out in
comparison with their former coalition partners, the Nationals.

Peter Fray

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