The fragility of Australian democracy has been illustrated again in the past week with further exposure of unsatisfactory political funding rules and the preselection defeat of the arch-conservative longest-serving Member of the House of Representatives Kevin Andrews for the safe plush eastern Melbourne seat of Menzies.
The surprising thing was not that Andrews lost. Nor was it the size of his defeat.
Nor was is surprising that he lost despite the endorsement of a queue line of federal ministers and party luminaries. Perhaps he lost because of that support not despite it.
No. The astonishing thing was the minuscule number of paid-up Liberal Party members who voted in the pre-selection – just 292 of them, 111 for Andrews and 181 for his opponent, former Special Forces captain and barrister Keith Wolahan.
And, hell or high water, every member of a branch deciding a pre-selection turns up for the pre-selection. After all, it is the only significant thing branch members do, other than being seen to be party members.
We can take it, therefore, that the 292 pre-selection voters were virtually the totality of the Liberal Party members in a seat where being seen to be Liberal is perhaps a tad more important than in most electorates.
If the party has only about 300 members (0.3 per cent of voters) in a stronghold seat it means nationwide the party has only 35,000 to 40,000 members. Labor probably has a similar number.
It is indicative of a fragile democracy.
Don’t get me wrong. I am delighted Andrews lost. His views on euthanasia and abortion smack of the self-righteous imposition of one’s own view of the world upon others, especially the hopelessly vulnerable.
The worrying thing is how few people it took to do it. If there was any “branch-stacking” (and there is no evidence that there was) it did not have to be a very large stack.
Look at the figures. Party membership costs about $100. In the Andrews pre-selection just 35 changed votes would have made the difference. That is just $3500 worth of memberships – not very much to topple the longest-serving Member of the House of Representatives.
I am sure nothing untoward happened in the pre-selection, but the numbers reveal the weakness of the system. Hitherto, the left and the right factions of each of the major parties have fought pitched pre-selection battles.
The ideological brawls within parties can be more vehement as the brawls between the parties and no battlefield is more pitched within parties than the pre-selection battlefield. Not only does one’s faction get a member of parliament, but it gets a whole swathe of fully paid-for ideological fighters in the form of staff members and electorate officers.
That is the battle to date. But what if each of the major parties looked at the Menzies pre-selection and thought: ”What if we infiltrate the opponent’s party and become members of it so we can vote in ‘their’ pre-selections?”
At fairly minimal costs, Labor stooges could become Liberal members and vote in pre-selections for candidates who present as least electable by the electorate – and vice versa. It would be for the trifling cost of a few thousand dollars.
Indeed, this happens to some extent in US primaries. There, any voter can register as a Democrat or Republican and vote in primaries. Some states have open primaries allowing anyone to vote in them. Anecdotally, some ardent Democrats vote in Republican primaries for the least electable candidate and vice versa.
In any event, in Australia the precipitous drop in party membership has put too much power over the selection of candidates and development of policy in too few hands.
It makes it easier for extremists and loonies to get pre-selected, like Craig Kelly. It makes it easier for a few wealthy and powerful people to influence policy. And they do, through donations and lobbying.
The donations regime federally is tardy, opaque, not effectively enforced and laced with loopholes.
This week the Australian Electoral Commission released donation returns from last financial year – like taking out of the fridge a jar of mouldy mayonnaise long past its use-by date. Almost invariably Australians only learn after an election of huge donations made just before the election – donations which in 2019 were large enough to sway the result.
There is no cap on donations. Donations of up to $14,300 can be made anonymously and can be made multiple times by the same donor without disclosure.
The Centre for Public Integrity has been analysing political donations and concluded this week that 35 per cent of donations over the past 20 years amounting to $1bn have been made anonymously.
The centre is an independent think tank dedicated to preventing corruption, protecting the integrity of our accountability institutions, and eliminating undue influence of money in politics in Australia.
It is fighting an honourable battle, but the Coalition Government shows no sign of fixing the donation regime. Labor, too, receives large slabs of money from unions, so it goes along with much of it.
Corporate political influence is insidious. Large corporations and industry sectors can give what for them are fairly paltry sums. Yet these sums constitute a very large percentage of the major parties’ income. They have become dependent upon them.
Public policy in Australia is driven more by the parties pandering to their corporate donors than to the public interest. Examples abound; climate policy, food labelling; beverage container deposits, pharmaceuticals delivery, health insurance, public transport, private education, taxation, water extraction, banking and so on and on
There is hardly an element of public policy that has not been poisoned by corporate influence.
Our democracy would be better served if corporate political donations were banned and a cap on individual donations be set at $1000. The ban should be coupled with greater encouragement for individuals to join political parties (especially with online meetings) to help balance out the influence of big business and big unions and a strong anti-corruption body to weed out and punish abuses of public trust.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 6 February 2021.