political ads
The Liberal Party's infamous 'fake tradie' ad from 2016.

As if having Clive Palmer shout at you during the My Kitchen Rules ad break wasn’t bad enough, now every one of Australia’s 226 federal politicians have been given the green light to star in their own TV and radio ads — all paid for by you.

Despite Parliament currently being in recess, the government found time this week to quietly remove the long-standing ban on MPs and senators using their office budgets to pay for TV and radio airtime. The changes are effective immediately, just in time for politicians to splash even more public cash on their re-election campaigns.

Given MPs are provided with an annual office budget of around $246,000 each, depending on the number of voters in their electorate, the news was unsurprisingly greeted with joy by Australia’s advertising industry. Senators meanwhile receive a fixed rate of $109,370 per year in office allowances. By my calculations using Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data on the number of electors, that makes a grand total of $46 million up for grabs.

While most of that money will already be allocated on other essential office expenses –stationery, printing, portraits of the Queen and so on — a sizeable chunk of it may now be redirected to broadcasting messages about what a great job your local MP is doing, in case you didn’t know that already.

The move has sparked an inevitable backlash from opposition parties, with Labor going as far as to say it will force MPs and senators to repay any money they spend on TV and radio adverts before the election, should Labor win power.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Australian Conservatives described the change as “another example of politicians gaming the system” while One Nation was rather more blunt in simply calling it “a crock of shit”.

And it is a crock of shit, resulting in an even bigger chunk of parliamentary allowances being funnelled into blatantly party political campaigning instead of what they are actually intended for: providing MPs and senators with the resources required to properly represent their constituents.

Yet this specific change is just a symptom of a much bigger problem with parliamentary allowances. Politicians already use their office budget to print millions of leaflets promoting party policy, some of which don’t even mention the name of the MP or senator who paid for it — very handy when you want to send a box full of leaflets to a neighbouring target seat at election time. They use their travel allowances to trot around to party fundraisers and byelections, all above board as long as they tie it in to a quick chat with a local nurse and file it under “parliamentary business”. They spend thousands of dollars on newspaper adverts promoting themselves or a particular issue they feel strongly about. There is almost no restriction on how a federal politician’s office budget can be used just as long as they steer away from directly asking for either votes or money.

As Crikey reported last year, even MPs retiring from Parliament are racking up big bills on campaign material promoting replacement candidates.

Let’s be clear: this is not the norm. The UK, US and New Zealand specifically ban the use of parliamentary allowances for electioneering. Australia, meanwhile, takes an intentionally vague approach to what parliamentary allowances can be spent on and what they cannot, conveniently allowing political parties to use them to subsidise their own campaign spending. Let us not forget too that Australia’s political parties already receive tens of millions of dollars of public money through the AEC to pay for election campaigns.

The government, in its defence, says this week’s changes are simply modernising the rules, given that many politicians already pay for campaign videos on Facebook. That is true, though hardly a good reason to open up the floodgates further.

The government should instead bring an end to the brazen use of parliamentary allowances for electioneering. At a minimum, any spending on TV or radio advertising should come with a clear statement that it is funded by parliamentary allowances. I suspect that in itself would shame many politicians into thinking twice before spruiking their wares directly into your living room.

Even better, Australia should follow the lead of the UK, US and New Zealand by outright banning the use of parliamentary allowances for party political campaigning.

What rules would you like to see in place? Send your thoughts to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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