A month or so ago there was a big controversy in Australia over government funding of political parties. The (then) Gillard government had to back down on a plan to give parties recurrent funding in addition to election campaign funding, after the opposition – spooked by the public outcry – went back on its previous support for the idea.

As I said at the time,

Public funding of political parties and campaigns has now established itself across the developed world. … The amounts spent keep increasing, but we don’t seem to get better politicians or better politics as a result; we just hollow out political parties as they rely more on the taxpayer and less on grassroots members.

One thing I didn’t mention is the fact that there would probably be more sympathy for public funding if the parties were actually doing their job. But instead political parties seem to be taking more and more money to do less and less: they look less than ever like genuine community organisations, and more of their work gets done by the state itself.

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For a recent example, take the ad currently being run by the Victorian government about its new fire services levy. If you haven’t seen it on your TV screens you can watch it here.

I pick this example because it’s down near the less-controversial end of the spectrum. I think it’s a good ad; the policy it’s defending (replacing an insurance-based levy with a property-based levy) is widely supported and seems to me completely sensible; and it does actually play some role in providing information that citizens need.

Nonetheless, it’s clearly not just an information bulletin. It’s a piece of advocacy: its main purpose is defending and justifying a government policy. And whether or not we agree with the policy or think that the justification works should have no bearing on whether we think this is a proper function of government.

So my question is, with all of the money we the taxpayers give them, why can’t political parties do this sort of thing themselves? If the Liberal and National Parties have introduced a policy that they think needs promoting, why can’t they pay for the promotion? Why have we become so comfortable with governments extolling their achievements at our expense?

Of course governments need to provide information about government programs, and there’ll be cases – this is probably one of them – where that information would be incomplete without some explanation of why the program was introduced. But the relentless invocation of “fairness” tells the viewer that this ad has gone beyond that purpose and has become an advocate, not an informant.

And as I said, this is a long way from being the worst example. Some advertising campaigns are unrelated to any specific policies at all: think of the Keating government’s “One Nation” campaign, or John Brumby’s “Working Victoria”. Others manage to advertise a policy that hasn’t even been legislated yet: the Howard government pioneered this with the GST, and Julia Gillard followed suit with the carbon price.

On the latter occasion I put the point like this:

This is still a political battle, and we don’t elect governments to wage political battles, we elect them to govern. If there’s partisan advocacy to be done, partisan organisations should be doing it: political parties and interest groups, not taxpayer-funded spin machines.

But perhaps since political parties themselves (and for that matter many interest groups) have become “taxpayer-funded spin machines”, no-one sees much point in making the distinction.

There used to be a country that had comprehensively erased the distinction between party and state – it was called the Soviet Union, and it ended badly. We’re nowhere near that point yet, but if we give up on the idea of political parties as independently functioning entities, then I think we’ve lost an important element of democracy.