20/12/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - A fair go for Indepedents?

20/12/2005 - 21:00


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State Scene wishes to conclude this year’s assessment of the local political scene with some observations about the featherbedding and political funding of political parties.

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - A fair go for Indepedents?

State Scene wishes to conclude this year’s assessment of the local political scene with some observations about the featherbedding and political funding of political parties.

Compulsory taxpayer funding of parties – on the basis of the number of votes their candidates attract at elections – means our once stand-alone parties are now largely mendicant entities, shells of their former selves.

Without federal taxpayer funding from the Australian Electoral Commission they’d probably have already been wound-up, like bankrupt companies.

To ensure they stayed around they have opted to become welfare recipients, mendicants.

And presently there’s pressure building up in senior Liberal and Labor ranks to institute state-based funding from the WA Electoral Commission after each state election.

That said, it should be realised that Australia’s major political parties have legislated for other less well-known cushioning arrangements to help ensure they survive, by giving their candidates the edge over independent candidates who challenge them.

Blatant favouritism of party endorsed candidates over Independents is something Monash University political scientist, Jennifer Curtin, recently canvassed.

Her article, titled: Getting Elected as an Independent: Electoral Laws and Party Favouritism, tells a story that major parties, who together dominate Australia’s national, six state, and two territory legislatures, can hardly be proud of.

Ms Curtin firstly says: “In most cases Independent candidates are denied access to the electronic versions of the electoral roll, and usually only have access to the printed roll.

“While this restriction does not apply to incumbent Independents, it does restrict the capacity of other Independents to produce campaign mail-outs including postal vote information with the same ease as political parties.”

That’s a nifty little trick; challenging Independents are hindered in gaining access to voter details, whereas party-nominated candidates have carte blanche access to such information.

Matters are, in fact, even worse because party endorsed candidates can and do gain access to facilities of senators or House of Representatives members representing their party in state campaigns.

It’s also worth noting that both Liberal and Labor candidates operate powerful centrally controlled computers systems that sift and analyse information about electors, with that information being extracted and made available by sitting members to challenging candidates endorsed by their own parties.

Clearly party endorsed candidates and incumbents have an enormous additional taxpayer-funded advantage over Independents, which isn’t exactly the Aussie fair-go spirit in action.

But there’s more, much more, of this sort of thing, making it even tougher for Independents in any bid to enter an Australian legislature.

Ms Curtin points out that, although Independents qualify for post-election public funding, distributed according to primary votes received at an election, other rules discriminate against them.

“For example, the tax treatment of donations varies for Independents and party-endorsed candidates,” she says.

“While individual donations made to party candidates over $2 are tax deductible to a limit of $1,000, donations to Independents are not tax deductible. In addition, registered political parties can reclaim GST, whereas the GST paid by Independents as individuals is not [able to be reclaimed]. This means Independents pay 10 per cent more than party candidates on advertising, printing and other campaign services.”

None of this is exactly in accordance with the Aussie spirit of a fair go.

She further reveals that Independent candidates are prohibited from running raffles to raise money, while organisations such as political parties can do so.

Anyone defending political parties might argue these are all only little things, minor advantages, so hardly worth making a fuss about.

If they are such little things then they should be promptly removed so that any privilege political parties benefit from should automatically apply to Independents.

There’s no reason why the more than 100-year-old Labor Party, the more than 60-year-old Liberal Party, and the nearly 90-year-old National Party should have institutionalised advantages over Independents.

Isn’t their longevity, national presence and the constant media coverage their MPs receive enough of an advantage over the occasional Independent who may emerge in a contest?

Apparently not. Surely if it’s good enough for the big geese then it should similarly apply to the little ganders.

If the principle of equality isn’t applied, and promptly, all party endorsed politicians should immediately cease referring, in parliamentary speeches and at party functions, to Australia being a fair-go country.

Politicians from the major parties talk long and hard about the need for  level playing fields in the labour market, retail sector, in social welfare entitlements and other forms of government intervention. That being the case, they should immediately institute such a level playing field in the treatment of Independents.

Nor should one think favouritism ceases once candidates become parliamentarians.

Ms Curtin concludes her study by pointing out that this is far from the case.

“Once elected, Independents are not always entitled to the same conditions of work as other parliamentarians,” she says. “For example, Independents are not automatically entitled to undertake committee work, but are dependent on one of the major parties to release one of its places. In most jurisdictions, the fact that Independents do not have party status means their access to certain privileges is limited.

“In the Commonwealth parliament, Independents are not allowed access to the budget lock-up.

“Moreover, the Independents and others on the cross benches often feel isolated from the ‘main’ game of politics in the chamber. Nor is it unusual for Independents to feel intimidated by the behaviour of MPs from the major parties.”

State Scene contacted former Independent Liberal MLA Phillip Pendal to discuss and assess Ms Curtin’s contentions.

He began by saying: “I can empathise with a lot that she’s saying but the issues she raises were not my experience”.

He said he never felt intimidated but added that, before becoming an Independent, he was for 15 years a Liberal MLC and later MLA; in other words he had initially entered parliament carrying party endorsement.

“I knew all those in parliament, many of them very well,” he said.

He said he’d always had a fundraising group independent of the Liberal Party that raised substantial sums from many small donors, both from within and from outside his electorate.

“Donors that were from outside my electorate contributed because of stances I took on certain issues,” he said. “Many of those from outside my electorate, far from seeing me as an isolated MP and an outsider, felt that by being an Independent I was therefore in a more powerful position as an advocate and not weakened at all.

“For example I introduced a major bill for the Police Union to give its members protection against crime bosses intimidating policemen and that bill was immediately picked up by the Court government.

“Another example was the legislation introduced by the Gallop government to extend a range of state tax concessions to self-funded retirees.

“I introduced the bill to give those concessions to self-funded retirees and it was picked up again and its contents endorsed by the then Court government on the eve of 2001 election and was endorsed by Gallop-led opposition.

“The Court government had backed it outside the parliament and the Gallop opposition announced it would do likewise.

“What this meant was that whoever won that election would bring in a bill supporting my moves, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Notwithstanding such achieve-ments and Mr Pendal’s specially fashioned fundraising approach, which he developed while a party endorsed MP, he agrees with State Scene’s contention that Independents should not be discriminated against by the powerful parties that so dominate Australia’s legislatures.


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