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Issue #1596      June 5, 2013

Editorial

Electoral funding – buttressing the two party system

Tony Abbott blinked first. Both major parties looked like they were prepared to cop the backlash from the community over proposed changes to public electoral funding in return for some nice fat wads of cash. Labor had nothing to lose. It’s facing a wipe-out at the federal election in September and could use some dollars to regroup for a long-term comeback. “We’ve got to support this measure,” Labor’s Anthony Albanese told the Left Caucus early last week. “The party’s broke and we need the money.” Abbott may well have been worried that the scandal could help to lose him the “un-loseable” election and withdrew his party’s support.

A secret deal had been struck between negotiators from Labor, the Liberals and the National Party after more than a year of discussions. Candidates receiving more than four percent of the vote already receive $2.47 for each primary vote at a federal election. The new legislation would have boosted that considerably. They would have received an extra $1 per vote for “administrative” purposes. To sweeten the deal, the first of these quarterly payments would have been backdated to April based on 2010 election results.

This generosity on the taxpayer’s behalf would have put $50 million into the coffers of the major parties over the next three years. Parties having more than five senators or MPs (no prizes for guessing which ones they are) would have got $300,000 a year in “compliance funding”. The effect of these measures would have been to cement the old parties of capital in place and to raise the barrier to newcomers even higher.

It’s true that the threshold for declaring individual donations was to come down from $12,100 (indexed for inflation) to a flat $5,000. This was a concession made by Gillard to independent MP Rob Oakeshott in 2010 in return for support for her government. And it’s true that public funding of candidates could reduce their dependence on donations from rich benefactors, including the corporate sector who expect a return on investment. But this package was not about making it easier for new, straight-shooting candidates to take their place in parliament. It was all about perpetuating the shady, cynical status quo as it enters a new and more turbulent era.

The outrage at the changes brought some of the more principled or more nervous players off the sidelines. Labor Senator John Faulkner said he was “no longer angry and disappointed but ashamed.” Nationals Senator John Williams was more pragmatic when he told Fairfax Media that the deal was “not a good look, for sure.” But as the furore subsided, it was down to business as usual. Independent MP Tony Windsor stirred up a hornet’s nest last week when he claimed Nationals candidate for New England, Barnaby Joyce, was set to receive substantial donations for his campaign including $700,000 from mining magnate Gina Rinehart.

Australians have always been sceptical about “politics” – the charade that passes for government at the state and federal level. People may not be aware of the forces that actually call the shots and set the agenda for Labor or the Coalition to implement but there is an awareness of the dishonesty of the political process in the country. The hostility has been heightened by decades of reports of fundraising dinners for thousands of dollars a plate, money paid for 15 minutes with a premier or minister, the revolving door between the upper echelons of government and big business, slush funds, indulgent overseas trips, and so on.

The problem is that, even while sensing this reality, voters keep voting for the very same parties involved in the corruption. Fortunes in corporate (and in recent times, public) money have been spent on shoring up the two-party system that has served big business interests so well. It may well happen that life for workers and other exploited people becomes so intolerable that all the slick media manipulation in the world won’t save the traditional parties of Australian capitalism. But workers shouldn’t sit idle and wait for such a development.

It would be difficult for left and progressive forces, with their current resources, to break the stranglehold of the major parties on parliaments in the near future. In any case, the fight-back must be waged in communities and workplaces before it becomes a question of parliamentary majorities. Patient, consistent work will set left and progressive forces up for success in the future but it is urgent that its intensity is lifted immediately. If the left doesn’t rise to the occasion, “new” forces on the right certainly will.

Next article – Active and United for a Socialist Australia – Statement on the leadership change

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