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Federal

Aug 26, 2010

Campaign finance reforms need immediate balance sheet disclosure

In the spirit of calling for financial updates on major party policies and promises, the independents should request consolidated balance sheets from the major political parties, writes failed Senate candidate Stephen Mayne.

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Now that the three independents have put campaign finance reform squarely on the agenda, the question turns to what changes can be agreed over the next few days.

The low-hanging fruit is to bring forward the existing disclosure regime from the extremely dated once-a-year publication. For instance, if Fidel Castro gave Julia Gillard a $5 million cheque today, we wouldn’t be told about it until February 1, 2012.

Then you could lower the disclosure threshold from the existing $11,000. Similarly, you could make that lower threshold apply on a consolidated national basis, rather than just for each division of the parties.

After that it gets harder. John Faulkner and Malcolm Turnbull want to ban union and corporate donations, limiting formal political party funding to just the public purse and registered individual voters. Foreigners would be out, just like in America.

This would cause a proliferation of third-party advertising by the likes of Get up, the ACTU, big mining companies, developers and any other vested interest group attempting to buy access and policy outcomes. Without direct donations, the media would become more powerful, too.

Another sensitive area is cash for access functions. Why not ban political parties from running functions that cost more than $150.

One of the problems with this debate is that we don’t know the starting financial position of any registered political party.

In the spirit of calling for financial updates on major party policies and promises, the independents should request consolidated balance sheets from the major political parties.

After all, if every community-run kindergarten in Australia has to provide timely balance sheets to the various state governments, why doesn’t the same rule apply to registered political parties?

Apart from churches, political parties get more financial disclosure concessions than virtually any other Australian institution. Independents wanting to clean up and open up politics should end this rort.

774 ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine this morning told Insiders host Barrie Cassidy that he’d been told both major parties were “broke” and could not afford to run another election.

This is wrong at several levels but highlights the importance of timely balance sheet disclosure, rather than the indecipherable lists of income and expenses that we’ll be told about for 2009-10 next February.

For starters, the Victorian Liberals have a $50 million-plus share portfolio as revealed in Crikey earlier this year.

The consolidated net assets of the various ALP divisions and their affiliated unions would still probably exceed $500 million, but we just don’t know because such a balance sheet has never been publicly disclosed and probably never done privately either.

The federal branch of the ALP would no doubt have a big overdraft running right now, but that’s only a timing matter before the estimated $21 million in public funding is handed over in a few weeks.

If another election was held, another $20 million-plus would arrive from the taxpayers based on $2.31 per vote and the ALP would be able to run another $14 million advertising campaign without blinking.

Frankly, when you consider the saturation negative television advertising that was served up during the campaign, there’s an argument for cutting back donations and public funding.

What’s wrong with the public giving the two major parties $20 million on the day the election and imposing $20 million spending cap as well. That would be a level playing field and a direct limit on donations. Spending limits work well in the UK.

And if you really want to open up the system to new entrants, the 4% threshold for candidates to receive public funding should be lowered to 1%.

The other important element of any deal with the independents is that it will need to be imposed on the various state divisions because, like so many things in Australia, the federal branches are largely controlled by the states.

For instance, the Victorian and NSW divisions of both major parties should be revealing profit-and-loss statements for 2009-10, plus balance sheets before going to the polls over the coming eight months.

Stephen Mayne polled a miserable 0.15% of the vote in the Victorian Senate.  Listen to his lame excuses  on 774 ABC Melbourne yesterday.

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Campaign finance reforms need immediate balance sheet disclosure

  1. Andrew Le Clercq

    Hi Stephen, have to agree that public funding tied to a spending cap sounds like a good thing as does forcing disclosure of party full financial records (including p&l and balance sheet). However, I expect it wouldn’t stop unions, big business (e.g. miners) or cashed-up conservation groups pushing their barrows of preference on the telly. Trying to prevent such advertising might be construed as an attack on free speech…

    Btw, have to ask you about your two above the line Senate preference tickets – second preference to Greens AND Family first? Pour quoi?

  2. John Bennetts

    Asking the ALP to disclose the accounting results of the trade unions which are affiliated with it is just as silly as asking the Libs to disclose the accounting results for the various employer organisations in the country, or the right wing think tanks or …

    It would be far simpler to just ban corporate (including corporatised trade unions – and that is all of them) donations and put a cap of $300 or $400 on private individuals’ donations.

    If you are really hell-bent on reform, consider making politically sensitive advertising no longer tax deductible. Exactly how this could be enforced is beyond me, but we are playing in cuckoo land, are we not?

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