Major parties vote themselves another $15 million


By Lisa Macdonald

Two weeks ago, the ALP, Coalition and Australian Democrats voted themselves a windfall totalling over $15 million.

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1994, passed by the Senate on March 30, was a deal between the mainstream parties kept so much behind closed doors that not even the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was consulted about the proposed changes.

The reason for the secrecy is not difficult to determine. Prior to the changes to the act, all parties represented in federal parliament received electoral funding of $1 for every House of Representatives vote and 50 cents for each Senate vote they received in an election. Payments were based on the costs of the election campaign or the amount of the vote they received, whichever was smaller, and parties had to have their campaigning costs audited by the Electoral Commission.

The changes in the new bill, agreed to by the minister for administrative services after heavy lobbying by senior officials from all three parties, are twofold. First, the amount paid for votes has been doubled — parties now receive $1.50 for every vote in both houses — increasing the amount of public funding to over $30 million per federal election.

Secondly, parties will now be paid for each and every vote they receive, regardless of whether they spent that amount on election campaigning.

Payments to parties for the March 1993 federal election amounted to approximately $7,100,000 to the ALP, $7 million to the Coalition, $460,000 to the Democrats and $66,000 to the Greens (WA). If these election results were repeated under the new rules, Labor and the Coalition would receive around $14 million each, the Democrats would receive $1,450,000 and the Greens (WA) about $164,500 — all from the public purse.

Only the Greens (WA) senators refused to endorse these changes to the act. Condemning its passage as a "disgraceful rort which the public has not even had the chance to debate", Senator Christabel Chamarette pointed to the hypocrisy of this bill, passed "without a word being said to the public, at a time when the treasurer is threatening to increase taxes and expecting to dramatically cut spending on government services in the budget".

More significantly in the longer term, this bill exacerbates the bias already contained in the electoral funding rules. The restriction of funding to those parties already represented in federal parliament will disproportionately benefit parties entering the electoral arena with sufficient money to pay for the extensive advertising and other campaigning costs necessary to win and hold seats. Under the increased funding rules, it is probable that once you're in, electoral funding will help keep you there. If you are not in, you must compete for seats against even better funded incumbents.