Saturday, August 23, 2008

Duffy as Political Reformer and Iemma lover

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)", said Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, and you get the sense from reading Michael Duffy that he's always feeling Whitmanesque, since contradictions are the essence of the Duffy world view.

If he's not arguing the need for more freeways because it saves on greenhouse gases - even if he thinks there's no real cause for concern about the world or greenhouse gases - then he's arguing that the more choice the Internet offers, the less useful it is to our herd mentality.

Such is his multitudinous manner that this week the Duffy manages, in his column "Iemma stokes the glimmer of greatness in Wollongong's ashes" to affiliate himself with both the eccentricities of the Greens and that most disliked politician of the moment, Premier of NSW, Morris Iemma, who is leading the Labor Party to a landslide thrashing at the next election by a band of Liberals nobody likes much but who provide the only alternative.

What brings Duffy to these strange bedfellows? Well both are pushing along the notion of shifting the political system from donations to having a full public funding for political campaigns (and we know why that's so dear to the Greens, though Duffy doesn't care to mention this or give any thought to it).

Iemma is proposing to roll out the recommendations of the Nile report, based on the Canadian system, in two phases - first for councils, and then in relation to the state, prior to the next state election.

Yep, suddenly the Duffy has not only gone green, he's gone socialist. From his vision of a world supposedly better off with modest government, and the private sector in charge (especially when it comes to public transport), Duffy suddenly believes that increased government funding, and government intervention, will lead to better things. Well there's a lay down misere libertarian position for you - "increased public funding is the price we will have to pay for a cleaner democracy".

Moreover, and here's the killer: "Iemma's behaviour on this matter has been consistent and admirable. If this continues he could become, to the surprise of many people possibly including himself, one of Australia's great political reformers".

Yep, suddenly Iemma is coated in glory because he's going to embrace a system that will see the public gouged even more so that politicians can prance and preen during an election campaign on the public's purse. Well as the Dodo said, everybody has won and all must have prizes.

But Duffy's analysis is superficial, as would be any reform if it's not done boots and all. Let's think here about the aim - a kind of salary cap for political campaigning (and we know how well the salary cap has worked for rugby league, don't we). But thus far politicians have been adept at finding money to spend in all kinds of ways - the standard one being the use of government funds to promote government programs which coincidentally and obliquely promote the incumbent government. The Howard government carried this form of advertising/nee political campaigning to a nauseating extreme (perhaps to the point where there was a backlash as the gap between the message and the reality became obvious) but state governments do it all the time, never mind if there's auditors and a two month lay off before the elections.

But now more important is third party advertising, which is rapidly turning into swift boating Australian style. The union movement was the face of third party advertising on the federal scene in the last election, and their campaign on Work Choices blew away both the Liberal party's response and a hastily organised, poorly considered and implemented response from the big end of town (from which more than a few big enders abstained).

How do you stop this kind of advertising by third party/proxy? To do so would inevitably involve considerations in relation to free speech. It's surely appropriate for people and organisations to declare their allegiances and their support for political groups, provided they say who they are and who is responsible for the editorial content.

Way back when, Hawke and the gang - with the opposition agin it - wanted to restrict political advertising in election campaigns, but after thoroughly examining the Constitution and finding no mention of it, the High Court took on itself the right to discover an "implied" right to freedom of political expression.

So you can say what you think, and support whom you like. The activist judges said so, and the Liberals applauded them for being so activist. As a result, it's likely that campaigns will skew this way more and more, especially if the politicians can in the meantime loot the public till of the necessary millions for their formal campaign. Duffy blithely notes that at the last state election the parties spent $36.4 million and $11.78 million kicked back to them, as well as receiving another $6.65 million over the previous four years from the public purse for 'political education'. Duffy blithely expects a debate as to how much these amounts should be increased.

But why should there be an increase? Why not say the major parties get five million each, leaving the rest for whatever minor parties can get their shit together to squabble over the rest, Pauline Hanson style? Well of course that's naive and foolish and it will never fly. Politicians are clever people, and their minders even more clever. Their aim is power, and whatever they need to do to get that power. And if that means money, then money, by hook or by crook, they will have. 

And when in power, they take care of themselves and whatever will be likely to keep them in power. Don't worry about it Jake, it's Macquarie street.

But Duffy worries, because Duffy is a worrier. He worries about the way Labor might have an advantage over the Coalition because of its links with the unions, but that's the least of the worries associated with any reform (especially at the moment when Iemma is so on the nose with unions, unionists and the Labor party faithful). Why are the unions so significant? Nobody's joining, they've lost their clout to the extent that even Iemma is emboldened to ignore them. Ah, but they did do an effective Federal campaign, which the Duffy-endorsed Nile proposals will do nothing to stop.

Duffy doesn't worry about Liberals from the big end of town kicking in to support the Liberals, probably because the gentle folk of Ku-ring-gai couldn't organise an unseemly savage attacdk ad campaign to save their lives, let alone save themselves from the big end of town, or from developers, or from the newly rich Chinese folk wanting to live in their leafy suburbs. 

Sadly it seems all the big end wants is someone who can manage the state in reasonable style, and know the Liberals offer as little vision as the Labor party. 

Why has it come to this? As Duffy notes, the reason for all the handwringing is that in the past Australians joined political parties in large numbers and paid fees that supported those parties - but it should also be said that in the past the fees didn't support the campaigns, as there was always a little bit of stumping up by true blue loyalists when the antagonists got into the ring every three years or so.

The real problem for Duffy - the bear in the room so potent that Duffy dare not speak its name, except in his references to the scandal of Wollongong - is Duffy's long standing, deeply neurotic fear and loathing for developers and their capacity to tweak the ear of politicians by offering money and support.

But this relationship goes back generations - I can remember a mayor in the town in which I grew up who just happened to be a real estate agent, who somehow managed to buy up in an area where the council just happened to be zoning. He retired a multi millionaire, in much the same way as a government minister in South Australia - nice chap, off to the opera each year in Paris - managed to mint money by seeming to know where the government might like to build some freeways.

What effect will the kind of campaign reform being promoted have on the likes of the Wollongong scandal, or the other innumerable examples that can be offered of politicians getting too close to people with the power, the money or the influence to beguile them? What impact will this kind of campaign reform have on those other shadowy players, the fundamentalist Christians, who have had excessive influence in the state Liberal party these last few years, and whose siren song distracted Howard when he should have been returning to the centre?

The answer is bugger all. The scandals will continue, and there will be fresh ones - such as the scandal surrounding Pauline Hanson's returns from the federal system - as politicians discover another publicly funded trough into which they can dip their snouts. While at the same time third party advertising will blossom like a thousand flowers.

Now there's no point in wringing hands and saying there's no point in doing anything, because corruption will always win. But there's also a reason for ongoing concern when someone like Duffy wholeheartedly embraces public funding as the solution.

As proposed, the legislation will be half baked and half arsed, and any decent political spiv will be able to drive a cement mixer through the loopholes, fill it up with electioneering money, and make off like a bandit who got the idea by watching lottery advertising.

The day Iemma goes down in history as one of Australia's great political reformers is the day he leads his party to defeat. In the meantime, it will undoubtedly be a step forward if politicians no longer follow that great and fearless state premier Robin Askin, who liked his donations to come in brown paper bags, and in unmarked bills, circulated, in small denominations since you're asking.

But we're not talking about corruption here - of the kind which led to the Wollongong scandal, corruption pure and simple, and ongoing since Eve took a bite of the apple (or so the fundamentalists would have us believe). We're talking about structural renovation which somehow will stop politicians and their minders from being political and being - like moths to the flame - a lure for all kinds of people anxious to bend their power to private benefit.

Dream on Duffy, and forget your libertarian aspirations. You might contain multitudes, but expecting increased government funding of the kind proposed by the enfeebled Nile Report to be the solution is as silly as those wet folk who think governments can turn back the tide of development as we pursue our relentless love of growth and consumerism. I guess the only joy in your column is the way you manage to align yourself with the Greens and with Morris, to the consternation of your ideologically inclined followers. I guess the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter has aligned with Mars.

Now here's a bet - stay tuned next week for a Duffy rant on how people demanding bigger government or more government funding for some pet hobby horse are deluded. Walt Whitman lives.

So the week's scorecard:

Contribution to the debate on political reform: 2
Useful advice on how to contain politicians: 1
Eccentric enthusiasm for strange bedfellows: 9
Willingness to empty the public purse: 10
Neurotic fixation on developers: 9
Contradictory positions on government spending: 8

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