Revelations in the past week of branch stacking in the Labor Party in Victoria and misuse of travel allowances across the political spectrum come just as voters’ confidence in politicians and politics was increasing as a result of their handling of Covid 19.
Every now and then someone gets caught stacking or rorting and is removed, but the endless recurrences across all parties suggest the problem is endemic. To use a domestic simile, the institutional response is like someone cleaning the kitchen benches and floor which will have to be done again and again, instead of acknowledging that vermin have infested the whole kitchen and radical, more robust, and permanent solutions are needed.
It is in the interest of the leaders of all parties to clean up the mess. For example, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, while acting swiftly against the stackers, still lost some of the lustre that he earned with his handling of Covid 19.
Other parties can hardly point the finger. Over the years, senior figures (and junior ones) in nearly all parties have been caught stacking or conjuring up travel-allowable parliamentary business to coincide with non-allowable away-from-hometown family and friends’ celebrations; big sports events for which they have been provided free tickets by corporate sponsors; or party fund-raisers.
To continue the domestic simile, scoring momentary political points over the misconduct is like a pot calling the kettle black.
All too often party leaders put out lame defences along the lines, “We have one or two rotten apples, but we get rid of them quickly. We acknowledge our travel ‘honest mistakes’. We don’t have a serious corruption problem at the Federal level. There are no brown-paper bags full of cash.”
But cash is a major poison. And we now know that even small gifts (like tickets to a sporting event and entertainment in a corporate box) set up a corrupting sense of obligation.
Branch stacking is getting easier as party membership falls. The ALP has about 38,000 members according to the party’s 2010 national review. The Liberal Party has about 50,000 down from a peak of 200,000 in the 1950s.
It is just a few hundred per electorate, less at state level. Take away the people who do not or cannot attend pre-selections, and you do not need many phantom memberships to swing a pre-selection. Gather up a score or so of people on the political fringe happy to “join” the party as long as someone else pays and pays for renewals and pre-selection is virtually in the bag. If it is a safe seat the rewards are large – not just the MP’s salary and allowances but also a slew of staff jobs and perks.
To stop this, cash should be banned as payment for party memberships. Applicants should swear (on pain of criminal sanction) that no-one else is paying for, or reimbursing, the fee.
Political parties should be required to make their membership lists public, through the Australian Electoral Commission. It would scare off the phantoms.
Further, inspired by the explosion of electronic meetings during the pandemic, party branch meetings and pre-selection meetings could be done electronically, making it easier for more people to attend and harder to stack.
The evil of branch stacking is that it results in MPs being beholden to the stacking organiser, not the public. The broad public interest becomes overwhelmed by a series of cascading false majorities. It begins with a branch and an electorate, then to a faction, then to a party and then to a government. In the end, 50% of 50% of 50% of 50% – that is as little as 6.25% – can control the whole show. Even allowing for a bit of padding, it shows how quite small groups, often on the ideological extreme or just in it for the power and money, can exercise control.
Couple this with the influence of corporate donations and small wonder confidence in the political system is so low, Covid notwithstanding.
The trouble with corporate donations is their disproportionate destruction of the common good. Research by behavioural economists shows that even quite small gifts result in an obligation mindset in the recipient. It is almost hard-wired by evolution. The recipient “owes” and must repay.
The people who run big corporations are not fools and are highly cost conscious. They do not hand out free tickets to sporting events with food and drinks in the corporate box for the fun of it. They do it to influence politicians and policy, almost invariably in the corporation’s interest and against the public interest.
In these Covid-inspired co-operative times, our political leaders could do themselves a favour. They should ban corporate donations (including those from unions); restrict individual payments to, say, $1000 a year and, through the Electoral Commission, publish details of them all. That done, the public would accept a doubling of public funding for political parties based on their primary vote.
Political candidates would then be freed from the irksome and tiresome tasks of fund-raising, favour-swapping and deal-making so they could get on and win public and voter support with good public-interest policy.
Party leaders would be freed from the embarrassment of hacks stacking branches and peddling influence.
Ministerial and MPs’ diaries should be made public along with summaries of what lobbyists argued for at ministerial and MPs’ meetings.
Details of fund-raising gala meals where corporate leaders pay not to eat, but to chew the ear of the politician, should be made public, through the Electoral Commission, in real time on the internet – who attended, seating plan, the lot. It these days of big computer databases, which can be analysed, interrogated and mined, it is not too difficult to do.
Backing all this up would be a tough anti-corruption body at the Federal level.
That might inspire enough confidence in the system for more people to join political parties thereby making stacking that much more difficult.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 20 June 2020.