Tuesday, June 04, 2013

What to Do About The Poor State of Politics in Canberra

In a recent Quarterly Essay article, former federal ALP leader Mark Latham wrote an article titled Not Dead Yet. With federal Labor's electoral support currently running at 30% of the popular first preference vote, the party may well be dead in all but name only. More importantly, however, the quality of political behaviour and dialogue in Canberra seems to me to be at an all-time low and Latham's belief that, in Labor's case, it's largely due to the lack of lay party members reflects my view as well.

In response to Latham's Not Dead Yet article, I offered the following response to Quarterly Essay but they declined to print it. Here it is now in full technicolour but note that it was written a couple of weeks before the failed attempt by the Labor and Liberal parties to give themselves another $58 million of taxpayer money.

For 20 years, I was an active member of the Liberal Party. After holding many lay party positions, working on numerous committees and standing twice for unwinnable federal seats, I was then elected twice to the WA Parliament as the endorsed Liberal candidate for the safe state seat of Vasse in rural WA. In 2003, however, I lost endorsement thanks to the actions of powerbrokers who wanted a candidate more compliant to their wishes, causing me to resign from the party and stand as an independent, losing by 209 votes to Troy Buswell, now the state treasurer.

This history is important as it demonstrates my long involvement in Liberal Party politics at all levels, hopefully making me competent to comment on Mark Latham’s “Not Dead Yet” article on the current illnesses of the federal Labor Party.

Like “The Latham Diaries”, I enjoyed reading the thoughts of a person who is clearly intelligent, articulate and passionate about the future of his preferred political party. Latham’s “Not Dead Yet” comments on climate change were an unfortunate distraction as they show that, on some issues at least, ideology overwhelms rational thought – Latham does not understand that the electorate’s opposition to the carbon tax is as much about its structure as Julia Gillard’s broken promise or the science supporting climate change.

My main comments on his article are directed at his statement that the Labor Party ‘can no longer rely on the politics of mass scale and common membership.’ I agree and the Liberal Party finds itself in exactly the same situation.

In 1984 when I joined the Liberal Party, it had some 15,000 members in WA and over 1,500 in the federal electorate of Forrest where I still live. Today, those numbers have at least halved but more importantly the role of lay party members in the party has been even more drastically reduced. In recent years, branches have closed; policy-making opportunities within remaining branches have diminished; fund-raising functions are being held annually rather than quarterly; and lay members’ major role is to hand out how to vote cards on election day.

This diminution of lay member involvement came about because of the ability of party powerbrokers to do the following:
·         * Concentrate their power to become the dominant influence within the party
·         * Place a large number of their people into Parliament, especially in the upper house where electors have far less ability to remove ineffective or other undesirable party candidates; and
·         * In government, convince the party room and cabinet to pass legislation (see below) strengthening their hold over the party.

Latham’s solution to the ALP’s current malaise “is to embed itself in grassroots politics – the nation’s true middle ground.” It sounds simple enough but Latham fails to outline the actions needed to achieve this embedding. More seriously, the question needs to be asked: why would Liberal or Labor Party powerbrokers willingly choose to give up their power and encourage grassroots politics? If the result was an increase in lay membership, they would have to work harder to maintain their current level of influence over their respective parties. If the result was the public generation of new policy initiatives with which they disagreed, the powerbrokers would need to change their modus operandi and show their faces in public to try and influence public opinion.

So it should be assumed that powerbrokers will not willingly allow changes to occur within their political parties that might weaken their holds or cause them to work harder. So what to do? Well, the federal and state government legislation that has allowed powerbrokers from all major political parties to reduce their dependence on lay members takes two forms.

First, public funding of election campaigns has overcome the need for political parties to encourage their branches to hold regular fund-raising activities. Today, the public purse is effectively substituting taxpayer dollars for community-generated, grassroots sources of income. Political parties no longer have as great a need to go cap in hand to business, unions, wealthy individuals or other similar sources of political donations, even though such visits are still needed to supplement taxpayer funds.

For example, the current payment to federal candidates who attract more than 4% of the vote at elections will receive 247.316 cents per eligible vote. For a seat with 80,000 voters where the winning candidate attracts 40,000 votes, this would result in a payment of $98,926.40. In WA, candidates who attract more than 4% of the vote at an election are entitled to claim a taxpayer-paid refund of $1.73302 per vote, worth around $20,000 to most winning candidates. At the recent elections here in WA, the Liberal Party will receive well in excess of $2 million from the state treasury. Federally, my guess is that the figure would exceed $20 million.

Second, members of Parliament receive extremely generous printing and similar allowances, purportedly to allow them to communicate non-party political messages to their electorates but in effect to sell whatever messages they believe will help them retain their seat at the next election.

The current printing allowance for Members of the House of Representatives is $75,000 per year plus $0.60 per constituent (potentially worth up to another $50,000), with an additional electorate allowance of at least $32,000. West Australian MPs receive an electoral allowance of $61,985 which can be spent on postage and communications.

Public funding of campaigns may only return a modest portion of a candidate’s or party’s total election campaign expenditure but every dollar raised in this way reduces the number of dollars needing to be raised from supporters, including lay party members.

Conversely, allowances and entitlements paid to sitting MPs are so large that, while they cannot be spent on electioneering, the line between ‘informing my electorate of news’ and ‘political campaigning’ is extremely fine (deliberately so, in my view). In fact, it’s so fine a line that a smart MP can use his or her allowances to pay for the majority of their campaign expenditures prior to the declaration of polls for an election.

Because of the generous allowances that MPs have been able to contrive for themselves over the years, their need to raise funds through lay party members and branches is now comparatively minor. Cursory, tokenistic lip service paid to lay party branches and members is all that is necessary these days for most MPs to retain party and lay member support.

If Latham is looking for a way of forcing existing MPs to embed themselves in grassroots politics, the most obvious and effective solution would be to abolish or drastically reduce (by at least 75%) the above-listed allowances and entitlements. MPs would have no choice but to go back to their electorates (and to their party branches), encouraging people to join up as lay party members. In turn, to retain those lay members and make them believe their membership of the party is valued for reasons more important than just raising money, MPs would have to attend branch meetings and respond to policy initiatives put forward by party members if those policy ideas were also supported by branches and by the party as a whole.

While there is a risk that the abolition of obscenely generous allowances and entitlements may increase  MPs’ and political parties’ dependence on their traditional donors, this is happening regardless of the amount of taxpayer support parties and candidates are receiving. It is certainly not a reason to delay worthwhile efforts to encourage greater lay member involvement in political parties.

No comments: