For bodies that depend heavily on taxpayer funding, political parties are some of the least regulated, least accountable institutions in the country — which is exactly the way they prefer it.
After last year’s federal election, federal political parties were paid $68.6 million in taxpayer funding, based on their share of votes (another $1 million went to independent candidates who achieved more than 4% of the primary vote).
That’s separate from the $300 million that will be spent on staff for politicians in their electorate offices and for ministerial advisers, and $220 million spent on the remuneration and administrative expenses of MPs and senators (there’s also around $34 million spent a year on services for them).
In other jurisdictions, there’s other forms of taxpayer support. In Victoria, for example, beyond the $29 million in public funding handed to the political parties after the last election (that amount has been significantly increased for future elections) there is also administrative expenditure funding worth several million dollars, or policy development funding.
Now, running a democracy isn’t cheap, and each of these forms of support can be justified as the costs of having an effective and functional democracy. But as we described yesterday, a solid portion of this funding is not for democratic activities or policy development or enabling MPs to better serve constituents, but for politicians to engage in intra-party activities on behalf of themselves or factional leaders.
The major parties, in particular, are defrauding the taxpayer by using money intended as a cost of democracy to fund their own internal conflicts.
And note that the majority of this funding is directed at staffing for politicians, not the politicians themselves. Politicians are directly accountable to the electorate every three years at the federal level and every four years at the state level; staffers are not accountable to the electorate except indirectly — i.e. they may lose their jobs if their employer loses her seat or they lose government.
Indeed, there is little to no accountability for staffers. They can be called before the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), if it chooses to use its powers of compulsion. But they are not accountable to parliament in any way, with both sides of politics having acted to ensure that staff cannot be required to appear before parliamentary committees.
And government staffers — far more numerous, and with access to far greater resources than those working for oppositions — are also protected by the unwillingness of police forces and prosecutors to embarrass governments by prosecuting or even investigating political misconduct.
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For example, the AFP refused to investigate the serious leak of a classified report by someone in Peter Dutton’s office or in a senior position in the Home Affairs portfolio, and refused to investigate the peddling of fabricated documents by Angus Taylor’s office.
Victorian police refused to charge anyone after investigating the notorious Andrews government “red shirts” scandal — as blatant a misuse of taxpayer money as has been seen in that state for years.
And in the unusual case where the AFP recommended prosecution, in the case of the staff of Michaelia Cash leaking what turned out to be an illegal raid on a trade union, the government’s hand-picked director of public prosecutions overruled the police and refused to prosecute.
This apparent immunity to accountability even for criminal acts, however, is of a piece with the broader lack of accountability of political parties. As Crikey has endlessly rehearsed, political parties have only limited donation reporting requirements under federal law, and the requirements that do exist are poorly enforced — politicians and parties can disclose donations many years later without consequence.
Overall financial disclosure requirements are significantly less for political parties than for major charities, which are regulated by a bespoke regulator. Nor are political parties, other than in relation to specific kinds of direct funding, subject to the ANAO.
Political parties have also given themselves exemptions from privacy laws, allowing them to accumulate huge databases of Australian voters (all controlled by political staffers and party executives) with no accountability for the use and abuse of that information.
They’re exempt from other laws like the Do Not Call Register, and laws dealing with false and misleading advertising they apply to everyone else engaging in advertising. And under parliamentary rules, politicians are prevented from using fora such as question time to inquire about party administrative and operational matters.
Political parties, and the staff who make up the bulk of the people within them, operate inside a bubble in which taxpayers pay them handsomely but they’re not subject to the kind of requirements that other recipients of taxpayer funding are — or even that most citizens are.
Is it any surprise when staffers behave as though they’re beholden to no one but their factional bosses?
How do we fix political funding? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.