Anna Bligh believes limits on election campaign spending and political donations will energise grassroots democracy and lead to great participation by voters in the selection of candidates.

The Queensland Premier was speaking at the National Press Club today (PDF here) where she delivered a strong speech primarily aimed at integrity and accountability issues.

She said if there was no action on bans on political donations at a national level by 1 July 2010, she would move unilaterally to ban or cap them in Queensland despite the potential for interstate leakage.  “I realise there’s not a great deal of enthusiasm for these reforms either on my side or in our political opponents,” she said.  However, she believed national reform on political donations and spending was now inevitable.  “The genie is out of the bottle.  Reforms will flow from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”

Bligh drew on her own experience as a new candidate in the 1990s to describe how grassroots campaigns that relied heavily on local involvement (“chook raffles, sausage sizzles, trivia nights” as she put it) had become more expensive as electronic media became the medium of choice for advertising.  Campaign expenditure had increased fourfold since she first stood for election in 1995, she said, and advertising costs were continuing to rise faster than inflation.

However, parties would adapt to spending caps and donation limits and the result would be greater grassroots democracy as politicians relied more heavily on their local branches.  In turn, party members would demand more say in their parties and over preselections.

“What incentive is there for an individual citizen to contribute to a candidate or political party unless they feel like they have some involvement in the processes of that party.  That imperative in turn may lead to initiatives like primaries to choose candidates,” Bligh said.

But “real buy-in will only come from the public when they believe that their participation will actually put someone in Parliament… If we are to become dependent again on our members and branches to fund our campaigns, we may need to find ways of more genuinely engaging with them.”

Bligh acknowledged that her recent reforms had been sparked by a series of crises such as the trial of former Minister Gordon Nuttall and the anniversary of the Fitzgerald report.  However, she denied that the Queensland ALP had a culture of cronyism.  “Brisbane has a shallow gene pool.  You can appoint someone on merit but the suspicion is always that they’ve been appointed because they know someone.  It puts a greater onus on us to be transparent and accountable.”