Are we becoming obsessed with Rupert Murdoch and the power that he wields? The lengthy discussion on Q&A last night almost seemed to suggest he’s got more power than the Prime Minister. Wayne Swan’s recent essay in The Saturday Paper also painted a picture of excessive influence, usually negative, over government policy. There was another interesting example of Murdoch influence and rent-seeking in Victoria this week after the Herald Sunproduced a front-page splash yesterday demanding $25 million in funding for a consortium of medical agencies which included the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute:

Lo and behold, by lunch time yesterday, both parties had rolled over and committed the $25 million. If a member of the Napthine family demanded government funding for a Napthine charity and collected within hours of making the public pitch, there would rightly be outrage. But because it is children’s medical research, the Murdoch family and the last week of an election campaign, it almost seems that anything goes. The paper had an obvious conflict of interest pushing handouts to the family of its proprietor, but because there are very few governance rules that apply to media companies, there hasn’t even been a hint of discussion about the obvious conflict of interest. Today’s Herald Sun editorial tugged on the heart strings while trumpeting the paper’s power. Below a diatribe on ABC budget cuts, it stated:

“Who would deny a chance at life for sick kids? Until the Herald Sun intervened yesterday with a call to find the money to diagnose rare genetic conditions, desperately ill babies and children remained in danger of dying.”

And it closed with a thank you:

“Premier Denis Napthine and Opposition leader Daniel Andrews have been quick to answer the Herald Sun call. No one will begrudge a single dollar of their commitment to save the lives of sick children. The Herald Sun thanks both leaders.’

Labor was first to commit, but that didn’t buy any more favourable coverage from the Herald Sun. Indeed, today’s splash was a hatchet job on Andrews for tearing up the East West Link contract, and there was a further story on page 4 showing the Labor leader with a goofy smile. Melbourne’s Parkville bio-medical precinct is world class, and it deserves government support. But snap funding decisions should not be made five days before an election, oiling the loudest squeaky wheel in town.

The Murdochs have had their hands out for years to get more funding from Victorian taxpayers for their major Melbourne charitable endeavour. Maybe things would have been different for Ted Baillieu if he had said yes. I was talking to a former Labor minister earlier this week who was appalled by the “shopping list” of pledges that have been made so far during the campaign. And the me-tooism has also been profound, giving neither side any electoral advantage.

Out in the new marginal seat of Yan Yean, Liberal candidate Sam Ozturk has become known as the “$1 billion man” given the commitments he has made for new road and rail projects. The size of the commitments will leave very little room in the budget to respond to events as they arise in the years ahead while retaining Victoria’s AAA credit rating. The closeness of the polls has led to more and more desperation with increasingly reckless financial commitments to marginal seats. However, safe seats on both sides of the political pendulum have been largely ignored.

Given these bizarre political distortions in capital allocation decisions by governments, isn’t it time we did away with the whole notion of marginal seats? After all, the Victorian Parliament recently banned the practice of council ward grants, whereby individual local government councillors could dish out cash to community groups in their ward without any reference to management or other councillors. What we are seeing in this Victorian election is effectively a frenzy of ward grants on steroids. If government were formed by the party which received the most two-party preferred votes in a state-wide plebiscite, we would see a very different type of campaign, based around state-wide decision making, rather than partisan localised pork barrelling.

* Stephen Mayne is a Melbourne City councillor. 

Peter Fray

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