Without much coverage, the government’s electoral reform Green Paper process has been continuing. Submissions closed on the electoral funding Paper at the end of February. A number of them are worth a look, and not just by wonks.

It should occasionally be recalled that this government has shown a highly unusual willingness to entertain significant reforms to electoral and political accountability and transparency, compared to previous governments of either side. One of the reminders of this is that the electoral funding Green Paper explicitly raises whether public funding of political parties is doing what it was originally intended to do, which was to reduce the possibility of political corruption from private funding and level the playing field between parties.

The amount of private funding raised by political parties to contest elections has increased to the extent that critics argue that the public funding and financial disclosure scheme is not effective in reducing political parties’ and candidates’ reliance on private funding. It would appear that public funding has been integrated into campaign budgets as an additional stream of funding that has in turn helped support expanded and lengthened election campaigns.

The response from a number of submitters, including former Democrat senator Andrew Murray and veteran electoral funding observer Stephen Mills, is that public funding indeed isn’t achieving what it was intended to when Kim Beazley introduced it in 1984. Murray’s submission, by the way, presents a fresh take on the entire subject by considering political funding and accountability as simply one part of the broader issue of accountability for the “Third Sector” of not-for-profits, NGOs, and voluntary organisations.

Public funding for political parties is indexed to CPI, adjusted on a six-monthly basis. But it has increased far beyond the rate of inflation over the last two decades because it is also linked to the number of first-preference votes parties obtain, which has also naturally increased. General election payments to parties from the taxpayer totalled $33.9m in 1998, $38.6m in 2001, $41.9m in 2004 and $49m at the most recent election.

At the same time, spending by the major parties has increased significantly. The lack of expenditure data prevents an accurate assessment but the Green Paper estimates that election expenditure by major parties increased by 116% for the ALP between 1984 and 2004, and 136% for the Liberals, and that Labor spent just under $20m and the Liberals about $22m at the 2004 election. To give some sense of magnitude of how expensive the subsequent election was, the ALP spent $60m in 2007-08, compared to $10m the year before; the Liberals $35m compared to $7m.

Because of the GFC-induced drought in donations, this year is likely to be the first election in some time — perhaps ever — where expenditure actually falls compared to the previous election.

This leads to an issue the Green Paper doesn’t really address, because it really would go too far: the main beneficiaries of the “arms race” that both sides agree has been occurring in political expenditure is the media, and particularly the broadcast media, which can now rely on several tens of millions of dollars in political advertising every three years from Federal elections alone, in addition to State elections and State and Federal Government advertising.

Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the ALP submission calls for the maintenance of public funding but expenditure caps for parties.

For some time I’ve thought a ban on donations, expenditure caps and their replacement with public funding, was the best way to minimise the potential for undue influence of donors, even if it cost taxpayers more — much more — than the $50m current arrangements delivered to the parties in 2007-08.  Now I’m not so sure. Reliance on public funding might not merely establish high barriers to entry for new political parties but further divorce the mainstream parties from the community. Compelling the parties to rely more heavily on their own membership base and encouraging them to more aggressively attract new members would provide for more democratic and representative parties with stronger community links.

But that’s a pipe dream, of course.  The days of mass-membership political parties are over. For all the talk of the potential for online engagement, Australians won’t even join sporting teams any more let alone political parties.

Instead, it seems like we’ve decided, as a community, to outsource politics to a relatively new class: professional politicians. We might vilify them as party hacks and timeservers, but they’re the only ones willing to commit themselves full-time to the task of governing, which the rest of us are too busy getting on with our lives to pay much attention.

The rise of this new class, with an increasingly clear career path from student politics to post-political consultancy/lobbyist position, will eventually garner the same attention from sociologists and historians that the rise of other professions has attracted. One of the intriguing features of such studies might be an examination of how those who don’t fit the professional politician template, like Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Garrett, find themselves targeted by the media and political opponents on both sides.

Perhaps rather than railing at this phenomenon, we should accept it and work out how to more rapidly professionalise politics in order to improve the quality of people within the sector.  The quality is, after all, highly variable — for every Lindsay Tanner, Julia Gillard, Peter Costello or Andrew Robb that the process has thrown up, there are plenty of poor-quality politicians, particularly at the state level. Public funding could be linked to incentives for parties to improve the quality of candidates. One of the Howard government’s best creations, the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, could play a role, or the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Instead I suspect we’ll continue to lumber along pretending we’re a genuine, mass-participation democracy rather than an unengaged community that delegates the trivial task of running the country to a class of men and women we routinely vilify.