Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Plan, Campaign, Action!

Campaign finance has been an issue in NSW for a long time.

When lobby groups and companies are allowed to make large donations to political parties it is very difficult to accept politician's word when they say that the donations do not influence them in any way.

At the very least, these donations buy access.  More importantly, however, the look suspicious, which is almost as bad because it breeds a cynicism in politicians and their decisions, with a corresponding decrease in support and engagement.

In South Africa (where I spent the first 14 years of my life, and where it is easier to simply assume that politicians are corrupt, because the prospect that these decisions are honest decisions is too horrifying to contemplate) there is a particular phrase that I like: riding the gravy train.

A person will get into a position of power (elected or otherwise) and ride the gravy train to prosperity, to the detriment of society as a whole.
Cartoon by the brilliant Zapiro
It is easy to simply demand that political donations be banned, but the fact remains that political parties are essential to our democracy, and they need to be funded somehow. Membership fees could not possibly suffice unless they were enormous, and in a time of falling engagement in the political process this would be unsustainable.

Banning political donations (or, at least, the big ones) would also require some form of public funding for campaigns, and this will have a corresponding effect on the budget's bottom line.

Having said all that, the biggest reason that the rules have not been changed to date is the same reason we never see changes in the rules that govern the operation of parliament and the appointment of the speaker - these changes would benefit the opposition more than the incumbent. They are easy to complain about in opposition but there is little motivation to take action once in power.

The exception to this rule is when the government is almost assured of a defeat - much of the planning can then take place with a view to an expected time in opposition. NSW was of course in this position for much of 2010.

This lead to NSW Labor introducing changes in October 2010 that: 

  • limited donations to political parties at $5000
  • limited donations to individuals at $2000
  • limited a candidate's campaign expenditure to $100 000, whilst a party could chip in a further $50 000, and
  • limited upper house party expenditure at $1.05 million

What infuriated the Coalition at the time was the fact that third parties were able to spend up to $1.05 million.  Given that there are 22 unions affiliated with the Labor party, this in theory would allow those 22 unions to spend a total of $23 million on a campaign.

What O'Farrell's complaint conveniently ignored was the fact that there are a number of 3rd parties closely affiliated with the Liberal Party who would be able to take advantage of the same "loophole".

In any event, this was no doubt at least in part why, as part of his 100 Day Action PlanO'Farrell committed to "Enact Campaign Finance legislation that includes restricting political donations to individuals".
From the cover of what no doubt was a glossy brochure
On the Liberal's website, he commits to, amongst other things:
You will note that this makes no explicit reference to third party spending, which is more than a little concerning, and perhaps suggests that he was not ignorant of the fact that the Liberal Party is probably as well placed to take advantage of the "loophole".

The above quote comes from a post on their website dated 6 October 2010.  An earlier post (on 9 September 2010) is phrased differently, committing the Coalition to:
You will note that the promise to cap election spending by "other groups including unions and employer groups" was dropped from the list in the October posting.

Now, that may be a simple question of brevity, because we do not know precisely what changes O'Farrell plans to make.

Ignoance of what changes are planned is of course the precise issue raised by this Herald article.

The 100 Day Action Plan promised to "enact" the changes within 100 days, a time limit which expires next week.  As parliament is presently not in sessions and will not be sitting til well after next week, it appears that this promise will not be kept, or at least not as soon as expected.

As I said earlier - it is easy to be righteous and demanding when in opposition, but once it power it can be just as easy to put off change.

This is more than a little odd, especially given the profile O'Farrell gave the mooted changes before the election. The Herald in fact claims that this is the "only one of his action plans he has failed to deliver."

In the absence of an explanation O'Farrell is practically begging the opposition and the media to speculate as to why, and the Herald obliges, saying:
Presumably only upon being contacted by the journalist, O'Farrell claimed that the reason for the delay was "due to the government agreeing to a review of NSW electoral laws, including the Election Funding Act." Apparently he wants to "ensure that any legislative changes do not conflict with the end goal of that review."

The explanation is not a convincing one. It seems far more likely that John Kaye (GRN) is right when he says that the Coalition is (ignoring the hyperbole): "so addicted to corporate cash that the government was prepared to breach this unequivocal promise to let the rivers of gold flow for two more lucrative months".

It's all silly politics, because surely O'Farrell must have seen this attack coming. All he needed to do was take some positive steps (perhaps by releasing some draft legislation for comment) and he could point to a process in place.

There was another story published by the Telegraph earlier this week that said that MPs have been complaining about O'Farrell being too focussed on the plan, to the exclusion of all else.
Robertson took the opportunity to explain what a nothing list the 100 Day Action Plan was, saying "When you set the bar as low as Barry O'Farrell did in his 100-day plan, you can hardly expect a prize when you manage to jump over it... The majority of the O'Farrell government's 100-day plan involves handing a piece of a paper to a bureaucrat."

Another anonymous Coalition MP fed a quote to the journalist about how "We have not been able to concentrate on anything else," such has been the focus on the 100 Day Plan

It may well be that Labor has engaged in some savvy politics by feeding the Telegraph the quotes earlier in the week about how piddling many of the action points were so that when the story about the lack of campaign finance change was run it would be all the more powerful.

There may well be nothing sinister in the fact that the changes have not been made yet, and it may be that case that it was just one big goal too many for the first 100 days. 

If O'Farrell is to be believed, then it was pretty poor planning that, of all the changes, he promised, this was the one that fell by the wayside.

Especially in this state, it is just too sensitive an issue to give the media a sniff.

And that's what he did.

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