Want Better Elections? Then Let's Have Some Rules


Another election, another round of futile debates about the timing and substance of policy costings. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Labor and the Coalition have both played the costing game at different times. However it is clear that the Coalition, who essentially disowned the PEFO numbers, excluded huge items like Direct Action and their alt-NBN from independent costing, and released material 48 hours before polling, sank to a new low.

Both Labor and the Coalition have legislated to try to ensure the transparency and accuracy of costings against a common fiscal benchmark. The Howard government enacted the Charter of Budget Honesty, which provides for the release of the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) and access to Treasury resources by parties to cost policies during campaigns.  The Gillard government created the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), giving all parliamentarians access to costings advice over the whole political cycle.

None of it has worked.

The recent Labor amendment to the PBO Act to require a post-election audit of all policies within 30 days after a poll isn’t the answer either. It might leave some with a warm glow of post-facto vindication if they’re proven correct, but it fails the much more important test of contributing to the live election process by actually informing it.

Information asymmetry between voters and politicians needs to be reduced. There has recently been some thoughtful commentary on what more we might do to improve things. Unfortunately, because these proposals still essentially rely on parties being pressured by media coverage into compliance, they are likely to fail.

There is no point blaming staff and apparatchiks for gaming the system. It is, after all, a key part of their job to sniff out tactical advantage. It’s proper to attach blame to the parliamentarians themselves, but clearly fanciful to think people will not play the hand they have. Governments use incumbency, and oppositions seek to be the mythical small target.

So all the more reason to take it out of their hands, by setting the rules in advance and by making the parties pay a price in hard coin for non-compliance.

The millions of dollars in public funding to political parties is the obvious lever. We could make post-election receipt of public electoral funding contingent upon full participation in a legislated costing process. This would crystallise a choice for the parties: cash versus tactical advantage. I suspect the deterrent function would be enough. It has the potential, for example, to turn the ALP National Secretary and Liberal Federal Director into key internal voices for costing transparency.

Our elections work to a fixed minimum timetable (to which the PEFO release is connected) making the mechanics easy enough to sort out. The scheme would provide the times for submission, processing and release of costings and perhaps fix a dollar threshold to ensure big spends, saves and revenue items are out early. Everything on the table 10 days out from an election doesn’t seem like too much of an ask. Late announcements of new policy after the costings deadlines could be capped at a very small proportion, even one or two per-cent, of total costings submitted. The public interest is that if you’re campaigning on a big policy, the numbers need to be out.

Such reforms would benefit the country by improving the quality of our public debate and our electoral process. But this isn’t a non-partisan point. In fact I happily confess to making it as a partisan. I think that in the long-run my party, and everybody else’s party, will be better off if rules enforced by penalties applied to all.

And while we are at it, we could make the two prime ministerial contenders attend debates with rules, format and dates set by an independent commission in advance of the election.

The worm turned last Saturday. Just as Peter Costello got rather cranky with Labor in 2007, a Liberal may well be able to dust off Penny Wong’s lines from the last few months and use them in 2016. We’d all be better off if we did it a bit differently. There’s a need for urgency. Once the machinery of politics is running full-tilt towards the next poll it will already be too late.

Did the level of debate this election get you down? Did you have the knowledge you needed to cast an informed vote? Leave your comments below.

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