13/06/2006 - 22:00

What price political principles?

13/06/2006 - 22:00

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How can WA’s Liberals argue they oppose compulsory funding of tertiary student political activities but back compulsory funding of political parties?

For some time, State Scene has been hearing from in-the-know Liberals that compulsory taxpayer funding of Western Australia’s political parties will be operational by the 2009 election, with the Liberals likely to attract more than $1 million that year.

One didn’t need to ask Labor contacts, since they’ve said such compulsion was Labor policy and all that’s needed is for “the Libs to get their act together”.

That so-called act refers to a mini-rebellion within the Liberal party room before last election, when it was learned then leader Colin Barnett and Labor electoral affairs supremo Jim McGinty had compulsory funding legislation ready.

Because certain key Liberals stymied that plan, the Liberal Party now levies all its state and Canberra MPs $3,000 annually to top-up coffers.

Despite that levy – which MPs can meet by drawing on their electoral allowances, in other words, taxpayers’ money – there’s continued hesitancy about forcing taxpayers to bankroll WA’s parties, something that’s already happening nationally and in three states.

One of those most outspoken on the issue is former deputy and electoral affairs spokesman, Dan Sullivan.

He’s opposed, in principle, and says there’s no advantage for the Liberals since Labor will continue receiving affiliated union funds while Liberal donors will trim donating commensurately.

After Matt Birney’s dumping, State Scene watched to see if Mr Sullivan would be dropped as electoral affairs spokesman.

He was. And Troy Buswell, Mr Birney’s deputy who clandestinely deserted him for Paul Omodei, snapped up this key post.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Mr Sullivan, who unashamedly backed Mr Birney, opposes the milking of taxpayers to bankroll parties.

Secondly, Mr Omodei, who’ll probably find himself without a seat after the 2007 redistribution, needed someone who’ll back taxpayer funding of parties and who is compliant to his view of how that redistribution should shape-up.

Mr Buswell’s gaining of that post was a clear signal taxpayer party funding was on the Omodei-led Liberals’ agenda.

But that’s not the only quarter pressure is coming from for taxpayers’ dollars.

WA Liberal president, Danielle Blain, has made it clear to State Scene she strongly favours taxpayers funding parties.

She knows what’s in the party’s coffers and that a million or so taxpayer dollars after each election wouldn’t go astray.

Remember, also, that sizeable cheques also arrive after by-elections.

But some party members have doubts about compulsory party funding.

Outgoing Pearce divisional president, John Bell, recently said: “Our membership is a fraction of what it once was; we have enormous difficulty obtaining financial support from our traditional supporters and in the organisational wing we appear to be financially unsustainable and we pin our hopes on obtaining public funding to support our administration.

“I have no doubt that this is seen as an easier solution than actually making the party more attractive for people to join or to support.

“As a taxpayer I might question the merit of funding political parties that are unable to attract financial support from the community and their members.”

However, there’s something that’s so far been overlooked and it goes to the very core of Liberal credibility on this issue.

The WA Liberal Parliamentary Party has the proud distinction of having, in 1993, outlawed compulsory student unionism on WA’s tertiary campuses.

No other state Liberal Party can make such a boast.

The road to that pioneering and truly liberating reform was a long and arduous one, having been first promised back in 1976.

But that promise was dishonoured immediately after the 1977 election. And it took Liberal MP, Norman Moore, to honour it immediately upon his becoming education minister in 1993.

One reason he took this farsighted liberating step was that he and his 1990s colleagues believed the principle and practice of voluntary association lay at the heart of the Liberals’ ideology.

He saw no reason that all tertiary students – under pain of being denied entry into a university – should be forced to finance others’ sporting and social enjoyments, as well as their political activities.

Unfortunately, Premier Alan Carpenter, as education minister in the first Gallop government, is a pugnacious compulsionist, and in 2001 reversed Mr Moore’s outlawing of compulsory funding of student unions and thus political and social clubs.

However, the Howard government last year belatedly followed Mr Moore’s 1993 lead by instituting voluntary student unionism nationwide.

Well and good. But there’s still the matter of a gaping contradiction; how can WA’s Liberals argue they oppose compulsory funding of tertiary student political activities but back compulsory funding of political parties?

True, politicians can always do and believe contradictory things. But that hardly inspires confidence and respect.

Where then does all this leave WA’s Liberal Party? Where does it leave Messrs Omodei and Buswell, and Mrs Blain for that matter? Interesting question.

Here’s a party that, after considerable heartburn and debate in the lead-up to the 1977  election, finally opted for the principle and practice of voluntary student unionism with one of the key reasons for that being so that people’s political activities shouldn’t be compulsorily funded by others but by themselves.

But today, what the Omodei-Buswell team is set to do is to contradict this so as to pump-up party coffers.

The 1977 dishonouring of that election promise for campus unions caused great and ongoing consternation, debate and even recrimination within Liberal ranks, until 16-years later Mr Moore ensured it was finally honoured.

Now, 13 years on, the very same party is edging towards securing funding for itself with cash compulsorily extracted from taxpayers via a formula of $1.30-per compulsory vote cast.

Is there any way out of such a hypocritical stance; one that will permit the Liberals to hold their heads high, not in shame, and continuing negotiating with Mr McGinty?

Luckily for them, there is.

What any anti-compulsionist Liberal MP can do when Mr McGinty next moves to institute public funding of parties is move to incorporate a voluntary ‘tick-a-box’ mechanism.

Here’s how it can be done.

When the bill emerges for debate, anti-compulsionist Liberals should move an amend-ment that all future legislative council and assembly ballot papers carry two small printed boxes at their top right hand corner with one designated, ‘yes’, the other, ‘no’.

Alongside them should be printed the following question: “Do you want your vote to attract a $1.30 levy the Electoral Commission will send to the party that you gave your first preference vote to? Tick the ‘yes’ box if you agree; tick the ‘no’ box if you disagree.

If neither box is ticked, or if both boxes are ticked, no money is transferred to a party.

The ‘tick-a-box’ procedure means the Liberals would stay true to their mid-1970s and subsequent 1993 commitment to the principle and practice of voluntary association.

There’s no use urging Laborites to back the ‘tick-a-box’ path, since they’re uncompromising compul-sionists. Remember it was Mr Carpenter, as education minister, who reversed Mr Moore’s liberating campus student union activities reform that instituted voluntarism, which the Howard government has emulated nationally.

Also don’t forget that Mr McGinty, a lifelong compulsionist – except when it came to military service – was student union president at the University of WA, so relishes compelling all to fund his pet hobby horses.

If the Omodei-Buswell-led Liberals continue down their present path of institution public funding of political parties without incorporating voter choice they’ll be the same as the Carpenter-McGinty-led Laborites.

There’s no justification for parties compulsorily dipping into taxpayers’ pockets. Parties, like everyone else, should rise and fall on performance.

Parties shouldn’t become mendicants by relying on what are effectively welfare handouts.

No law says parties shouldn’t be wound-up – replaced by new entities – if they cannot inspire and attract community support.

WA’s parties are increasingly bereft of ideas or people with imagination and the ability to inspire. That more than anything explains why they’re so bereft of funds, and are eyeing off the possibility of compulsorily securing them.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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