Ramping up fees for candidates creates major headache for minor parties
‘THE Major Minor Party’ is a play performed by Sydney theatre group Version 1.0. Last week it had its world premiere at the Canberra Theatre. Based around the rise of the Sex Party in Australian politics, the play examines the relationships between our major and minor parties.
It couldn’t have come at a more auspicious time. A few kilometres away across Lake Burley Griffin in the federal parliament, the major parties were involved in another form of theatre that related to minor parties.
A few weeks ago the major parties announced a joint deal in which they agreed to double the nomination fees for candidates contesting the next federal election. It will now cost each candidate $2000 to nominate for the Senate and $1000 for the House of Reps.
At exactly the same time as the curtain rose on the ‘Major Minor Party’, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced an agreement by Labor and the Coalition to rearrange the funding and disclosure mechanisms concerning donations to political parties in Australia.
They tried to give each other an extra dollar a vote over the $2.70 a vote they now receive at election time and to give successful parties an extra $300,000 allowance for so-called “administrative support”. But none of this funding would have gone to the many minor parties who did not elect an MP. Thank goodness Tony Abbott had the sense to agree to scuttle such an inequitable piece of legislation.
Then, only a few days ago, the major parties agreed to rush a law through federal parliament that completely exempted the three government departments that oversee the running of the federal parliament from answering Freedom of Information requests.
This highly unusual outbreak of political bonhomie between two bitterly divided parties did not go unnoticed out in the electorate, especially because the initiatives would have such devastating effects on most of Australia’s minor parties. It now looks as if there will be between 30 and 40 minor parties contesting the federal election. This upsurge in participatory democracy has caused some consternation in the backrooms of the main parties.
Julia Gillard’s decision to set an election date so far ahead is one of the reasons there are so many minor parties vying for election. Suddenly many of them had an achievable deadline to aim for to get their 500 names and their federal registration completed. They also had an Australian Electoral Commission giving them a countdown on the number of days left before they could lodge their applications.
Moreover, for the first time in many years, the policy platforms of some of these minor parties seem strong enough to lure voters away from the main parties and the Greens.
The doubling of the nomination deposits was brushed aside by most journalists as an administrative issue of not much importance. The Greens prepared an amendment against the new fees, but it was left to a couple of seemingly strange bedfellows to speak out about the crippling effect they would have on minor parties.
The head of the Australian Sex Party, Fiona Patten, and Democratic Labor Party senator for Victoria, John Madigan, both sang from the same hymn sheet. Patten said it would cost a minimum of $32,000 to run a national Senate campaign and a further $150,000 to run a candidate in each House of Reps seat. With a total bill of $182,000 before they even started to campaign, she maintained this would cripple many minor parties and that party officials would be mortgaging their homes and eating into their savings simply to stay in the parliamentary race. No Labor or Coalition officials would be in this position, she said, as they had all their deposits covered from the public funding they received at the last election.
Madigan reiterated statements he had made at a Sydney Institute speech a couple of months ago. He said he had tried to have a motion put that would have seen the fees double – but over four years, to give small parties time to adjust. He claimed the Coalition at first accepted his move, but when they realised the Greens would also support it and it would succeed, they backed away, allegedly because “it would not have the debilitating effect on the minor parties they desired”.
Madigan claims he then contacted half the minor parties on the register and all of them saw the fee increases as a deliberate attack on their ability to contest the forthcoming federal election.
Madigan then contacted both Labor and Liberal parties and told them that he would not forget what they had done “when the majors come on their three-year prowl for preferences”. Strong words indeed from a man who only narrowly beat Patten at the last Senate election with the aid of Liberal preferences.
Doubling nomination fees will not make a scrap of difference to minor parties such as the Palmer United Party or Family First, who are or have been funded by the wealthy. Palmer will nominate and pay for candidates in every House of Reps seat and a full Senate ticket in each state with what to him is merely beer money. In contrast, most of the other minor parties will spend almost every last dollar they have, and more, just to nominate a similar size ticket. Many of them will get nowhere near achieving this.
Remember that until a political party is registered or contests an election there is no accounting for how much money can be spent on setting up a party structure and getting in place everything that is required.
Do we really want to see only minor parties in Australia that are capable of being funded by millionaires? And do we want to see a blatant attempt to bankrupt minor parties through huge financial inequities?
Why can’t we do what New Zealand does and fund all registered political parties from the public purse? Any party that manages to get itself through the rigorous registration procedures of the Australian Electoral Commission deserves to be on an equal footing and receive public funding.
If all campaigns for registered political parties were paid for from the public purse and all got a similar or pro-rata allowance (whether they get elected or not) then there’s little chance of graft or fraudulent behaviour with election funds. On top of that, a broad policy base that reflects all political groupings in Australia could be instituted, so that active democracy can thrive.
By the end of last week, most rank-and-file members of the Liberal and Labor parties might have believed it was all over. But it wasn’t. A new law to exempt government departments dealing with the running of the parliament from Freedom of Information requests was rushed into the House of Reps and passed.
Yet there was already an independent review underway on whether this legislation was really necessary. So why didn’t they wait? A widespread public perception is that both major parties were seemingly intent on smashing Australia’s minor parties and covering their tracks as they went.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is now available as an e-book.
The Weekend Australian, June 8 -9, 2013, Inquirer p 22.