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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18798

Mr ANDREN (9:09 PM) —The current row involving the Manildra Group and political donations to major parties and members highlights the need for a legislated cap on election spending in this country—otherwise we will challenge the US as the best democracy money can buy. How can we argue any longer that political donations are simply a vital part of our democratic processes? How can any company or individual with a vested interest in government policy not stand accused of trying to influence that policy outcome by donating to the government of the day or, indeed, to crucial senators or the opposition?

In the 12 months or so prior to this government's decision on an ethanol subsidy, the Manildra Group provided over $300,000 to the coalition plus over $66,000 to the Labor Party. More than six months after the 2001 election, the company donated a total of $112,000 to the National Party—this from the company producing 96 per cent of the now protected ethanol. This is not about the virtues of ethanol; it is about political donations. While a proper, non-financial lobby by the biofuel or any other industry is legitimate, any means of buying or any perception of buying supportive policy should be outlawed. In a 1983 committee report to this parliament, a recommendation was made for the introduction of public funding for elections. It argued it would reduce the importance of money to election campaigns, thereby removing the taint of corruption. The committee also said it would return political parties to the people as the parties became less dependent on big donors.

Noble thoughts—but 20 years on nothing has changed except the amount of public funding. The first public funding federal election in 1984 cost the taxpayer $7.8 million at 31c a primary vote. In 2001 it was $38.5 million at $1.87 a vote. If an election were held tomorrow, indexation would bring it to $1.90 a vote and a total of well over $40 million. That surely is enough to run any legitimate campaign. Fifty-thousand dollars per candidate indexed to CPI should be the legislated spending cap in any election campaign. That could cover a couple of mail-outs to each of the roughly 40,000 households in a federal electorate, leaving $40,000 for a moderate television, radio and press campaign and the printing of handout leaflets, letters, how-to-vote cards and posters for the booths and campaign office—an office separate from the incumbent's electoral office, by the way. I know this because that is about the cost I have incurred in three election campaigns.

Indeed, in 2001, I handed back to the electorate the public funding I received in excess of my campaign requirements. The major parties do not just grab the lion's share of public funding—$32 million of $38 million at the last election—but other fundraising and donations ensure a war chest of many more millions, obviously to support a party system that is steadily losing public support. Under current laws there is no need to dip into party funds until the PM, or indeed a state premier, makes the policy speech. It is open slather on normal allowances till then. Apart from direct donations from corporate friends—no doubt there is a bit of a conflict at the moment with oil company and biofuel donations sloshing around—there is the fundraising lunch or dinner, sometimes attended, as we now know, by donors with a range of policy barrows like immigration to push. There are also the raffles with no tickets and no prizes—publicly declared prizes, that is.

But wait—there is more. Not content with direct public funding of elections and party think tanks, there is the use of millions of dollars in unjustified travel and overtime for campaigning in defiance of conventions—not regulations: we do not want them!—that such resources can only be used for the re-election of the member or senator to whom those resources apply. In the UK the purchase of media air time for political advertising is prohibited. Free air time is provided by statute to qualifying parties. There is also limited public funding for distribution of candidates' material under the Representation of the People Act, unlike in Australia where it seems representation of vested interests is becoming the law.

While far from perfect, the UK model, if implemented here along with an individual $50,000 in cash or kind spending cap, would dramatically reduce the cost of campaigns. All donations should be from individuals to individual candidates only and should be limited to $1,000. These reforms would level the playing field for smaller parties and Independents and crucially reduce the ability of any individual or organisation to influence and compromise party policy, however subtly or secretly.