07/02/2006 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Speaking out comes at a cost

07/02/2006 - 21:00

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The last State Scene for 2005 highlighted the ways major political parties make it excruciatingly difficult for their candidates to be unseated by Independents.

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Speaking out comes at a cost

The last State Scene for 2005 highlighted the ways major political parties make it excruciatingly difficult for their candidates to be unseated by Independents.

Some of the practices highlighted that favour big-party-endorsed – Labor, Liberal and Nationals – candidates, as well as their sitting members over Independents were: restriction of access to electronic electoral rolls; discriminatory treatment with the GST dues; and the more onerous deductibility require-ments on private donations.

In light of such blatant insti-tutionalised inequalities, it’s hardly surprising Australia’s most outspoken Canberra-based Independent, Peter Andren, has had something to say on this. Before canvassing several of his qualms and criticisms, some background on Mr Andren.

He is MHR for Calare, a regional NSW seat that sits directly west of the sprawling Sydney metropolis.

He entered parliament in 1996, and it’s fair to say he’s succeeded in riveting himself to Calare so that neither of the major parties can now envisage one of their candidates dislodging him.

His previous careers were teaching followed by radio and television journalism.

The exposure he gained via the latter gave him the needed leg-up into parliament, as he had far higher voter recognition than his challengers across Calare by 1996.

According to Mr Andren, Australia’s system of parliamentary governance has been deliberately massaged and molded by the major parties to ensure their members as candidates acquire “incredible privileges and power through incumbency”.

What this means is that the requirements of electioneering are so devised that, once an MP is in, the rules and regulation serve to help ensure he or she stays there.

In other words, removal of incumbents, sitting members, is made as difficult as possible.

And when they are removed it’s no surprise that the one doing the unseating is more likely than not to be a candidate from the other major party.

The Andren case, in a nutshell, is probably best put by saying that no matter who you vote for in the House of Representatives you’re more likely than not to get a Liberal, Labor or National politician.

Writing just after the last federal election in an article titled, ‘Level Democratic Playing Field – You Must be Joking’, Mr Andren said: “In printing and postal allowances alone, sitting MPs [but not Senators] have at least $152,000 available in any one year.

“And there are carryover provisions to enable significant amounts of each entitlement to be moved from year to year allowing for an election-year nest egg.”

Now this is heady stuff indeed because it means that anyone other than big-party backed candidates should be prepared to come up with at least three times $152,000 of their own money, just to match a big party incumbent. In other words, a hefty $456,000 for a three-year term parliament.

Now who can come up with so much? Very few. But that’s just the beginning.

It would certainly help if, in the last year before an election, an Independent challenger to a big-party member campaigned full-time. In such an event, however, the challenger would need to forego their salary, which, even if it were only $44,000, would put them out of pocket by $500,000 compared with the incumbent over three years.

During those three years the incumbent would have had a taxpayer-funded office in the electorate, at least two full-time staffers, a big salary, superannuation, and a lot of free time to go out to meet electors.

And if that isn’t enough to dissuade anyone from considering an uncertain federal parliamentary career, consider the other handy perks big party incumbents have given themselves to help ensure they stay on in parliament.

“According to the Ministerial and Parliamentary Guidelines, ‘the communications allowance’ (up to $30,800 for the largest electorates) ceases to be available at the close of business on the day before polling day,’ Mr Andren continues.

“How rich is that?

“Not the day the election is called, but the day before you all vote?

“Pity the poor Independent candidate trying to compete against that.

“Is it any wonder people of exceptional experience with so much to offer give up in frustration at the ever-increasing cost of mounting any sort of non-party-backed campaign?”

A very good point indeed.

What this means is that on top of the $500,000 or so needed to match a sitting MP one has to find – just to match him or her – a further $90,000 or so.

So, you are getting up around the $600,000 mark without including an office (probably about $25,000 annually) within the electorate you’ve decided to challenge for, and at least one staffer (say another $50,000 annually).

As a list of this nature no doubt shows it would not be too difficult to quickly reach the $750,000 mark, with the ultimate figure probably closer to $1 million just to meet the

requirements to challenge an incumbent.

Read the last paragraph quoted from Mr Andren that it’s not “… any wonder people of exceptional experience …” give up before they start.

Mr Andren has certainly hit the nail on the head in explaining to anyone wondering why there are not more Independents in federal parliament and why there are so many yes-men and yes-women in the major parties.

Put bluntly, if such people stopped saying yes they’d simply not be able to afford to become MPs.

In other words, whomever the parties make the parties demand, and get, loyalty from.

Little wonder Mr Andren concludes this point in his paper as follows: “We are heading towards the second-best democracy money can buy, after the US, where it takes about $1 million on average every two years to mount any sort of an election or re-election campaign for Congress.

“But in Australia the taxpayer is footing an ever-increasing amount of the bill to help re-elect incumbent MPs both at and between elections.”

This is a truly mind-boggling expose, one worth thinking about for some time.

“What do we do about all of this? Mr Andren asks.

“In the absence of any support from the major parties, I can only suggest the sorts of reforms needed.

“The first would be a far more modest cap on printing and communications entitlements; indeed all privileges of office, including travel allowances.

“There must also be a line drawn under all entitlements at the moment an election is called, with all expenses paid from party coffers or public funding of primary votes.

“In addition I’d suggest a cap on the spending in a campaign by any MP of around $50,000, rather than attempting to track down donations through the myriad of trusts, foundations, dinners, raffles and other rorts used to channel political largesse.

“Each candidate would be required to manage and account for every dollar of donation and spending. Such a cap would even the playing field for other serious candidates.

“A pipedream? Perhaps.

“But if the public doesn’t take time to understand the current process and agitate like they did around my Private Members Bill to reform parliamentary superannuation, then it won’t happen.

“The trouble is, we’ve just elected a straight-through-to-the-keeper House of Representatives and Senate.

“And there’ll be no parliamentary inquiries like the one into my parliamentary superannuation bill that triggered such a public outcry, and eventually forced the Latham-led reform.”

There’s a lot of food for thought in what Peter Andren has so clearly and succinctly exposed.

Is it, however, too difficult for voters to digest? Let’s hope not.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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