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State Scene: Joe Proprzeczny - Out of the political loop

 

ALTHOUGH politicians work assiduously refining their interview skills, occasions arise when those efforts fail them badly.

The most recent case of such a breakdown came in the wake of revelation that WA taxpayers were to be slugged a compulsory vote levee (CVL) of $1.28 a vote, thereby making parties even more dependent upon welfare than they presently are.

So dismal was Liberal leader Colin Barnett’s performance on the CVL that he’s now widely referred to as ‘Back Flip’ Barnett.

Attorney-General Jim McGinty, who doubles as Health Minister, has also been severely damaged.

Any future cuts in health outlays will prompt many to remind him of his moves to pump more than $2 million into party coffers with health facing only the scalpel.

Clearly Premier Geoff Gallop’s decision to combine health and electoral affairs under one minister was unwise.

It’s ironic indeed that it should be Messrs McGinty and Barnett who emerge so badly from the CVL controversy since they, more than anyone, have set themselves on becoming premier.

Mr McGinty came close by becoming Labor leader, only to be tapped on the shoulder by Labor’s power brokers who told him just before the 1996 election that he was leading Labor to electoral disaster, prompting him to quietly move aside for Dr Gallop.

Nor can Mr Barnett be described as a favourite of his parliamentary team.

Many, perhaps most, would like to see him, if not right out of parliament, then well away from the frontbenches.

His many Liberal critics are not convinced he has what it takes to be leader, let alone premier.

That said, it’s worth remembering whenever the major parties cry poor – as Messrs McGinty and Barnett have done – that after the 2001 Federal election each nationally received nearly $15 million, or $1.72 a vote.

Furthermore, that generous Federal CVL is indexed, so it will be nearly $2 a vote next Federal election.

Understandably many voters are wondering just where party demands for public cash are likely to end.

State Scene’s guess is we’re many tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars, away.

I’d be amazed if West Aussies, by say 2010, aren’t paying well over $4/vote at State elections and close to double that Federally.

But why are parties increasingly looking to unwilling taxpayers to bankroll them?

Sydney University politics academics Rodney Smith and John O’Mahony answer that question thus:

“As parties face rising campaign costs and declining participation and voter loyalty, they shift their sources of support from civil society to the State.”

The words “civil society” here mean voluntary party memberships and voluntary donors, while “the State” means Federal and/or State treasuries.

Other political scientists say insatiable party demands for taxpayer cash arise from the fact that parties provide the legislators – the MPs – so they can hand themselves taxpayer funds.

If Smith and O’Mahony are correct, we’d better get used to paying to keep parties we don’t necessarily support, in some cases often deeply dislike, solvent.

The underlying reason for their demands for money is two-fold – high campaigning cost and the fact that parties are appealing to fewer people as organisations worthy of joining.

Politicians claim they want more members, but that’s not really true. What they really want is more money.

Members cost money, whereas money means they can spend big on campaigns.

They can hire expensive pollsters, advertising agencies, spin-doctors, psephologists, artists, and well-paid big-spending party functionaries.

The problem with members is that they expect to be serviced.

Members expect newsletters, recognition by MPs, and want to attend meetings and conferences, all of which costs money, and lots of it.

The amounts that must be expended servicing members is way out of kilter with what anyone is willing to pay for membership.

Members can also be nuisances to party bureaucrats.

They telephone, ask questions, and want explanations about parties’ stands on particular issues.

The only reason parties today want members is to man polling booths on election day.

Parties no longer need members to propagate their message because of television, direct mailing and the letterboxing companies.

Federal MPs presently receive $125,000 annually to cover costs of printing propaganda, which amounts to $375,000 each over the life of a parliament.

Both Labor and the Liberals have evolved into what one political scientist dubbed “catch-all” parties, meaning organisations that have shed their earlier strong links to certain ideological outlooks in order to win office via broad community acceptance and appeal.

In other words, parties don’t want altruistic members because such individuals may get incorporated into party platform policies that MPs dislike.

Party members today are there to take orders and accept policies handed down by party leaderships, not the other way around.

Parties are no longer venues for policy development and debate. They are vehicles for acquiring and holding power – winning elections.

But the change from policies bubbling upwards within parties to trickling down from leaderships has had its toll on parties.

As Smith and O’Mahony put it, this trend has led to “declining participation and voter loyalty”, thus the need for more outside money, namely, from State and Federal treasuries.

But the more taxpayers are compelled to fund parties, the fewer members those shrinking, but increasingly costly, organisations are likely to attract.

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