Are the wheels of democracy in the West
getting oiled – or are voters and principled politicians getting run over by
party machines? A furious debate is going on in WA about public funding of election
campaigns.

The idea isn’t exactly new. Public campaign
funding is found in many countries.

It arrived in Australia
in New South Wales in 1981. The Hawke Government adopted public funding as part of its
1984 electoral reforms. And Victoria, Queensland and the ACT have since decided taxpayers can pick up party bills
for election campaigns.

The West Australianestimates the proposals will cost locals around $2.5 million.

Both Premier Paul Carpenter and opposition
leader Paul Omodei are supporting the move – but some Liberals have their
doubts.

Former deputy leader Dan Sullivan resigned
from the shadow ministry yesterday
over the issue, saying it was “total
anathema” to Liberal Party ideology.

“We will take money against taxpayers’
wishes and use it for purposes that they don’t want it used for, and that’s not
what the Liberal Party is about,” he told AAP today. “This is not an essential
service, it’s not wanted by the community, it is only wanted by the major
political parties.”

Exactly. There’s an even bigger debate
occurring on just the same subject in Britain,
where the Blair Government is making similar proposals.

The membership of political parties is
collapsing. Business and private donors – for mixed reasons – are wary of being
too closely linked to one side or the other. But these are issues for parties
to tackle by tackling their own problems, not by taking money from the public
purse.

Party politics is sick – and threatens to
infect democracy. It’s impossible to fault the comments West Australian Senator
Andrew Murray made on his state’s proposal in a paper for the Democratic Audit
of Australia:

In return for
public funding of WA election campaigns a quid pro quo should be exacted…
The receipt of public funds in return requires better political governance,
higher political standards, accountability, and full transparency…

One argument for
public funding is that it helps reduce the dangerous influence and control of
political parties exerted by big individual, corporate, and union donors.

Large donations
from these sources continue to grow exponentially. That is the rub of course –
there is no indication that the majors will reform the current donations system.
If that is so, and public funding of political parties in WA is a done deal,
then let’s at least make political parties properly accountable.

The minimum quid
pro quo
that the public must demand must be that political parties produce an
annual report that fully details their financial statements, the sources of their
income and what it is spent on.

Political
parties should at least be subject to the public accountability regime that applies
to listed corporations and unions. At present they have less transparency than a
local sports club…

Political
governance should be a reform priority. At the least this should include party constitutional
requirements similar to the Corporations Law standards for the constitutions of
companies; one-vote, one value in internal party affairs; and control of a
party being vested in its members.

These reforms
would oblige political parties to meet minimum standards of accountability and
internal democracy and would go some way to addressing the scourge of
branch-stacking and pre-selection abuse that is widely reported to occur in many
political parties…

And there may be more serious and immediate repercussions
from the debate. Sullivan and another Liberal dissident, Rob Johnson, have
suggested that their leader may have breached the criminal code in threatening
to disendorse members
who fail to toe the party line and back public funding.
At the very least, it looks like a matter of parliamentary privilege

Peter Fray

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