The O’Farrell Government’s credibility on election funding in NSW has begun to falter less than a year after groundbreaking reforms were hailed by the Premier as the "fairest electoral funding system in the country".
A new parliamentary inquiry has now been set up by the Government to investigate the public funding of minor parties. This is looking more and more like a political fix to effectively pay off the Shooters’ and Fishers’ Party for their support for government legislation. The Shooters are demanding an additional $340,000 a year from the public purse — a tripling of current administrative funding and an amount that should outrage the opposition parties and the public.
Normally even the sniff of a "cash for votes" deal would elicit a justifiably hysterical response from opposition parties, especially the Greens who have built a reputation in NSW for political integrity through the Democracy for Sale campaign. But on this issue there has been barely a murmur.
O’Farrell announced the Inquiry into Administrative Funding for Minor Parties on the same day as the deal with the Shooters to pass the sale of the electricity generators. In addition to government support for shooting in national parks, the Premier made clear in a media release the following day that the funding inquiry was also part of the agreement.
The context for this inquiry is that the Shooters are furious at changes earlier this year to laws which banned donations from corporations and other organisations, including shooting clubs and hunting associations.
The Shooters have been on the record with their support for keeping corporate and organisational donations. In the last disclosures available from the NSW Election Funding Authority for the year to 30 June 2011, the Shooters received $450,000 in reportable donations with the majority from shooting clubs and associations.
In short, it was clear to many watchers from the outset that this inquiry into administrative funding was being set up to justify increasing funding for the Shooters and Fishers Party to make up for the money lost because of the previous donations reforms.
As reported in the Sun Herald on 30 September, the Shooters have asked for public funding in the order of $500,000 a year or $250,000 per Member of Parliament (MP). This would more than triple current administrative funding of $83,000 per MP. The level of payment called for by the Shooters in their submission would be for minor parties with four or fewer MPs, presumably meaning the Greens with six MPs would miss out and continue to receive $80,000 per MP. This arrangement would see the Shooters with two MPs receive $500,000 per year and the six Greens $498,000.
It is also interesting that the Labor, Liberal and National Parties also haven’t respond to this inquiry. While they are major parties surely they would have an interest in how much of a leg up was being given to their minor party competitors. It is fair to assume that if the Government agreed to this inquiry as a payoff to the Shooters that the Coalition would remain quiet, but with just a single media release Labor seem sheepish too.
The law that first introduced the administrative funding provision was the Election Funding and Disclosures Amendment Bill 2010 passed by the previous Labor Government before the 2011 State Election. This legislation was finally passed with an agreement between Labor and The Greens.
This administrative funding model that now provides $83,000 of funding to the political parties for each MP elected replaced the earlier Political Education Fund (PEF).
The PEF was based on the number of primary votes for a Party’s Legislative Assembly candidates multiplied by the cost of a postage stamp. To give an indication of the impact of this funding change, had the PEF still been in place after the last state election the Greens would have received just over $256,000 per year. But under the new admin funding model for their current six MPs they receive $498,000 per year.
As an interesting aside, despite originally supporting the bill that introduced the per MP funding model, the Greens in a submission to a concurrent and more general inquiry currently underway into the NSW Act recommended that administrative funding based on the number of MPs be scrapped altogether for a fairer model based on the vote for each party.
The change for the Shooters is even starker. Because they don’t traditionally stand in many lower house seats, under the old PEF model after the 2011 election they would have received just $1407 compared to $166,000 with two MPs under the new system.
(These PEF figures were calculated based on the number of votes that
the Shooters candidate who received more than 4 per cent of the votes (only one)
and the Greens in a similar situation.)
The major parties also fared pretty well out of this deal. Labor, the National and the Liberal Parties all have more than 25 MPs in the Parliament. This means all three parties receive the maximum administrative funding of $2 million per year. For the Liberals this is about double what they would otherwise have received under the PEF. In sharp contrast for Labor, whose vote crashed at the 2011 election, the new arrangements mean that instead of just under $600,000 they would have received under PEF they still get the $2 million maximum. To be clear, there is another source of public funding for elections, the Election Campaigns Fund. If a party or candidate gets over 4 per cent of the primary vote, they can claim reimbursement for election expenditure on a sliding scale as a percentage of the current expenditure cap
Public funding of political parties and elections is an important way to remove the influence of corporate and organisational donations on the political system and to support minor parties to engage with the voting public. With the right controls it can help to limit the arms-race of major party spending that we have seen in the past and create a more pluralistic political system where different views can be effectively expressed.
The current inquiry and the submission by the Shooters for a tripling of administration funding for the smallest of parties when such substantial increases have only just recently been introduced raises questions about the use of administrative funding and the operation of that part of the act. It also risks undoing the effect of limiting corporate and organisational donations in the first place.
The sequence of events so far in relation to this inquiry into administrative funding for minor parties raises the question: where are the political voices calling for the protection of the public good that comes from an equitable public funding model? Premier O’Farrell’s credibility, built through championing donations reforms earlier this year, now risks being undone by political deal making.
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