Regulating donations to political parties

Author: Dr Danial Kelly

Public concerns and suspicions about the potential of influence, undue or benign, of political donations seem to be on the rise. Disengagement with mainstream politics by the electorate is manifest, partly due to distrust of politicians and integrity of government. I don’t hear anyone claiming the current state of politics or electoral campaign behaviours to be healthy or conducive to good governance.

In recent times New South Wales has probably been the most active jurisdiction in the area of electoral reform with the aim of improving governance in that state. As a result, a collection of prohibitions have been legislated, including the following:

  • Anonymous donations of $1,000 or more are banned, as are donations from property developers and tobacco, gambling and liquor businesses.
  • Donations from foreign sources are banned.
  • Donations to parties are capped at $5,000 per year and donations to candidates, groups, elected Members and third party campaigners are capped at $2,000 per year.
  • In kind donations are capped at $1,000.
  • Membership and affiliation fees cannot be used for the purposes of electoral expenditure.

These reforms are appropriate responses to specific concerns but there are two reasons why they will require later changes if good governance is desired. The first is that they are targeted responses to specific existing concerns, which necessarily means that if new concerns arise in the future, additional legislative amendments will be required. The second relates to a bigger issue that directly affects voter engagement in political life and the quality of governance at a plenary level: the high volume of negative and destructive campaign advertising that most political parties spend big on.

In the 2016 Federal election Labor ran a campaign heavy on negative advertising, spending nearly $4 to $1 on negative compared to positive advertising. The Liberal party were not as negative, spending $1 to $2 on negative compared to positive. Public funds end up paying for a great deal of that advertising. In fact, over $60 million was distributed to parties and candidates for election expenditure in respect of the 2016 Federal election. For the 2014 NSW election about $22 million of electoral expenditure was funded by the public. Is our money being put to good use?

In the 2016 NT election the CLP and the ALP produced some of the most woeful electoral campaign advertising yet. Political opponents were almost portrayed as auditioning for the next “Dumb and dumber” film. The only guaranteed outcomes of this type of advertising are contributing towards a consensus that all politicians are stupid and unfit for office and, consequently, discouraging potential candidates of quality who just might be able to make a valuable contribution to good governance.

Negative advertising in the format of brief media (often 30 seconds or less) is pumped out in massive volumes. The rampant repetition of negative messages compounds the ‘dumb’ message. I heard more informative and articulate announcements walking through sideshow alley at the Royal Darwin Show.

We need to stop and think about how harmful this colossal volume of extremely base electoral campaign material is to good governance.

A cap on the total amount of election campaign costs that each candidate is allowed to spend would significantly address this degeneration. The cap would be modest, say $15,000 – 20,000.

Completely banning political donations has been touted but there seems to be agreement that it would not be feasible, constitutional, or in the public interest. The NSW ban on specific donors unnecessarily demonises specific groups. A cap on each candidate’s election campaign budget allows all who have a legitimate interest in good governance in the NT to contribute without discrimination. Having a modest cap reduces the high volume of mind-numbing low quality advertising.

The current system of two large political parties combined with seemingly unlimited paid advertising is destructive to democracy and consequently good government. A cap on total campaign funds does not prevent any right to express a voice or freedom of support. It just puts in place some boundaries to improve the quality of the campaigns that result in parliamentary membership. To accomplish this, a three-pronged approach is suggested:

1) All expenses related to campaign material and advertising must be allocated to individual candidates, not parties. Individual candidates may elect to use part of their capped budget for party purposes.

2) A maximum budget for campaign material and advertising be set (maybe at $15,000 – $20,000 which still allows for substantial advertising, but not the massive amounts of mindless and repetitive nonsense we see now).

3) The Electoral Commission to be required to publish on their website a standard amount of information on each candidate (say 1000 words) to be provided and endorsed by the candidate. (Candidates can still publish an unlimited amount of information on their own websites so there is no concern about restricting information per se. Website publishing will only marginally at most affect the capped budget.)

The likely outcomes of this three-pronged solution would be:

  • the public can access a substantial amount of quality material for each candidate,
  • no candidate or party would be able to flood voters with ‘dumb’ advertising,
  • a more sophisticated public conversation around policies, etc; and
  • an election campaign environment that ultimately is more conducive to good governance.

*Image courtesy The Conversation

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