A gated Australian Fin Rev op-ed published on Thursday 31.
David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrats Senator-elect for NSW.
For some reason it is news when a minor party receives a million dollars in electoral funding, but not when the Liberals and Labor each receive over twenty million and the Greens over five million. What ought to have been news, but wasn’t, is why any party received funding at all.
My party, the Liberal Democrats, opposes government funding of most things that private individuals or organisations are willing to pay for voluntarily. Since plenty of people are passionate enough about politics to stump up their own money, the question we ask is, why should everyone be forced to pay?
We would have returned the million dollars we received from the Australian Electoral Commission if it had led to the end of electoral funding. But giving it back without changing the system would be similar to a rich socialist giving his money to the government in the hope it would bring an end to capitalism. Like peeing in a wetsuit, you feel all warm but nobody notices.
As it stands, the major parties are totally hooked on public funding. It accounts for the bulk of their revenue and funds most of their election campaigns. Moreover, they rarely miss a chance to double dip with by-elections, even in safe seats. For every first preference vote they receive $2.48, indexed of course.
There is no opposition from the Greens either; they want to ban donations from for-profit organisations, cap them from individuals and not-for-profits, and limit election expenditure. All of which would increase reliance on public funding.
In NSW, the Liberal government has gone even further. Indeed, it is now so difficult for political parties in that state to raise funds that state-level public funding is inescapable. Only individuals on the electoral roll in NSW may donate, to a maximum of $5000 per year; associations, unions, clubs and businesses may not. There is a ceiling on electoral expenditure (which only the major parties can hope to reach) and expenditure is reimbursed. It’s an incumbent’s dream.
The traditional argument is that public funding reduces the risk of donors buying favourable policies, based on the adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. That is garbage. The vast majority of politicians are principled people whose opinions and votes cannot be bought. Those who are not can be bought in various ways and in any case tend to be more interested in personal rewards than donations to their party.
The rules in NSW were no barrier to Obeid or McDonald, for example. Nor do they prevent someone with plenty of money, like Clive Palmer, from using it to start a new political party and win the balance of power in the Senate.
The underlying problem is that governments intrude too much into our lives. There would be less need to lobby a government that did less. As it stands, business success can often depend on favourable ministerial decisions and there is no shortage of people keen to enlist the government’s support to impose their views on the rest of us.
A better option would be to leave political funding to those who care enough to put their hand in their pocket. Public funding forces taxpayers to contribute to parties they would never support voluntarily. It is ludicrous that their money pays for virtually every political poster, leaflet and television advertisement.
Even better would be to also leave voting to those who care enough to turn out voluntarily. Compulsory voting takes what purports to be a right to vote, something we regard as integral to democracy, and turns it into a legal obligation like paying taxes.
It is not a right when you can be prosecuted for not exercising it, and Australia is one of very few countries that thinks it is.
In short, it is high time Australia stopped treating democracy like an obligatory dose of castor oil and let people decide for themselves whether to donate their money and vote.