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Joe Poprzeczny - The cost of communicating

POLITICIANS call it informing constituents. Journalists generally dub it, junk mail. Most voters refer to it as propaganda.

However you describe the mounting quantities of printed matter being dispatched from Federal MPs’ offices to letterboxes Australia-wide, the latest jump in MPs’ printing allowance to $150,000 annually for that ‘bumph’ its certainly generous.

According to one estimate, Federal MPs’ average annual outlay for political ‘bumph’ a decade ago was about $5000, so less than a million dollars annually by the entire Federal parliamentary contingent, or about $2.25 million over the life of a parliament.

But, during the past dozen or so years, letterbox ‘bumph’ has mushroomed to incredible heights. And the trend is upwards.

Last month, Federal MPs were notified by Special Minister of State Senator Eric Abetz that someone called the “Administrator-in-Council” had “signed the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2003”.

MPs are to now receive $150,000 annually, a jump of $25,000 each, or a cool $3.75 million annually added to public spending.

As a result, the 150-strong Federal MP contingent will now annually receive up to $22.5 million, or $67.5 million over the life of a parliament, to print that ‘bumph’.

But there’s a further twist.

The Abetz circular said the Administrator-in-Council had introduced a “mechanism to allow for the carrying-forward of up to 45 per cent of the entitlement from one year to the next”.

So MPs can now add to the $150,000 outlayed in their third or election year up to $67,000 from the preceding year’s allocation, meaning a campaign propaganda war chest of $217,000 to combat challengers.

That’s a handy piggy bank for an incumbent’s campaign, with each one receiving up to $450,000 for dispatching political ‘bumph’ to voters over three years.

And let’s not forget that that $217,000, which can be earmarked for the crucial third campaign year, follows outlays of $150,000 in year one and 55 per cent of that figure, or $83,000, in the second year.

That’s a handy advantage over challengers.

Although State Scene had difficulty finding the origin of this so-called “entitlement”, one informant claimed it was from 1984, when Hawke Labor Government Minister, the late Mick Young, revamped the Electoral Act.

And amounts have been growing ever since. But there’s much more.

Australia’s political parties are already handsomely publicly funded on a per-vote-cast basis.

The latest determination set the amount per vote cast at $1.90 and this will be nearly $2 per vote cast by the forthcoming Federal election, since it’s indexed six monthly.

A huge $38.6 million was paid to all parties after the last Federal election.

Because some parties wanted one cheque at central offices one cannot give a State breakdown of the $38.6 million.

Labor received $14.9 million nationally, while the Democrats obtained $2.4 million nationally.

WA’s Liberal Party received $1.6 million; WA’s Greens  $223,129; and WA’s One Nation $247,578.

When one adds the $67.5 million that Federal MPs will receive for printing ‘bumph’ to the $50 million or so parties are likely to receive for votes at the coming election, one gains an appreciation of how dependent political parties have become on taxpayers, rather than their dwindling memberships.

But this forthcoming $117.5 million only scratches the surface of actual taxpayer funding of parties.

Another item in the Abetz circular said the latest “entitlement” changes included: “A mechanism for providing additional mobile telephones for personal staff of non-Government parties and Independents and additional personal computers in electoral offices”.

In November 2000 WA Independent MLC Mark Nevill told State Scene: “Facilities in offices of Federal MPs were extensively used in both State and Federal elections.

“Stationary, printing leaflets, folding machines, laser printers, postage and air charter were used.

“This provides a massive advantage to the parties of incumbent members.

“Politicians were always asking for the activities of others to be transparent – but avoid even rudimentary scrutiny of their own party activities.”

Coincidently, Mr Nevill’s last point was followed up in a question by NSW Independent MHR Peter Andren to then Special Minister of State John Fahey on August 6 2001.

“What assurances can Mr Fahey give that Senators and Members entitlements to staff facilities and allowances as provided for by determinations of the Remuneration Tribunal, the Parliamentary Entitlements Act and the MPs’ Staff Act will not be used for party-political business at the next [2001] federal election and the campaign headquarters of any political party?” Mr Andren asked.

Mr Fahey replied: “The request for an assurance that equipment and personnel will not be used for party-political purposes is like asking the Minister to give other MPs an assurance that Mr Andren, will not use his existing facilities for his one personal political purposes.

“It is not, nor should it be, for the Minister to produce such assurances.

“Otherwise the Minister would need to be fully advised of everything that goes on in the office of Mr Andren and the offices of his colleagues.”

To State Scene this sounds very much like an admission that strict accounting and scrutiny are absent, meaning electoral services can become additional taxpayer-funded party campaign facilities, as Mr Nevill alleged.

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