Tony has been using the phrase 'democracy funding' as his framing of the issue of public funding of political parties. He has a number of pieces on it, the most recent of which is here.
I am always suspicious of things the Right attack hard on, and they are attacking hard on this, so let me explain why I support public funding of democratic politics, and why the Right are opposing it. First some points in support:
- Public funding is disinterested. There is no quid pro quo possible for public funding, unlike funding from sectional interest groups. Public funding is therefore 'clean' and means that the party institutions do not rely on big business or unions or hidden trusts (or Brethren churches) to finance their campaigns. Disinterested public funding would mean parties could fight on their principles regardless of the amount of "money" that comes in behind those principles - their funding would be determined by votes received, not how rich their backers were. That's good for democracy.
- Cleaning up politics. National in particular is guilty of hiding its funders behind secretive trusts. In the most recent election, it went to the extent of lying about a well-financed campaign by the Brethren Church in support of its political ambitions. By implementing funding through the public purse, and removing the ability to make large or secretive donations, the transparency and cleanliness of politics can be assured. That's good for democracy.
- Honesty about public funding. As Helen Clark has noted, up to $350m of parliamentary funding could in theory now be disallowed if the draft Solicitor General's opinion is found to be correct, meaning all parties would have been breaking the law for many years. Parliamentary Service staff are compromised in many situations by the "political" nature of their work which simultaneously is about working for politicians, but not for "politics". It's dumb and in other countries the rules are much plainer. Straight public funding and workable rules for taxpayer funded Parl Service staff and funding would make life easier for everyone, and be more honest for voters. That's good for democracy.
- Revitalising political parties. My experience of Labour and knowledge of other parties, shows me clearly that most people spend most of their political time raising funds for election campaigns. Policymaking, discussion about values and the future always comes second to raising cash. This leaves policy and power in the hands of parliamentary parties, and away from the broader base of activists in the political parties. With proper public funding, the focus can go on what parties are meant to actually do: debate and develop policies, and talk with the public about their vision for the future. This would increase the number of people who want to engage with party organisations, and increase the power of party organisations relative to the parliamentary parties. That's good for democracy.
- Fair distribution of campaign resources. The money parties have to campaign with would be based on their electoral support, not how deep the pockets of their backers are. If we believe that we should have a one person one vote system, and that every vote is equal, then what could be fairer than to say that the key tool to win votes - campaign funding - should be determined in the same way, with a strong per-vote element to public funding? By making sure funds related to real support, such a change is good for democracy.
It's win win win all around... and of course, it favours the left. Why? We can unpick this by looking at why the right opposes public funding of political parties.
- Murk is Good! Right wing parties hide their funding and hate the idea of transparency. The status quo allows shadowy elements to have an unhealthy influence - over policy making (National's ACC policy and large donations from insurance firms, as an example), over campaigning (Brethren) and so on. Transparency would reduce the amount the right gets to campaign with.
- We have more money and power, let us use it dammit! The right stands for the interests of those with money and power. The left stands for redistributing money and power more fairly. Of course those with great wealth will try and protect it, and those with least cannot spend as much. The right spent far more than the left in the 2005 campaign (remember that National's billboard campaign began long before the 3 month limit, and that National failed to declare the Brethren's campaign). They hate the idea of evening up the scales.
- We don't have as many activists! In most parts of New Zealand, Labour has a stronger on the ground presence than National. If the money equation was made fair through public funding, then National would be on the defensive. That would be bad for National, but it would be good for democracy. The honest efforts of citizens getting out and supporting their parties - not with a cheque but with sweat - should be able to make a difference to political outcomes. It can, if money is made fairer.
No doubt you can think of many others. It is funny to see the representatives of established power and money trying to portray public funding as an attack on legitimate political support. There is a lot of nonsense talked about how state funding would somehow disempower non-parliamentary parties. As I've noted, the opposite would most likely be the case.
The only concern I have with public funding is the possibility that it might entrench the current suite of parties, at the expense of new movements and currents. This can be managed though, with a responsive system that looks forward as well as back. That'd be detail to be worked out.
In principle, though, the only question one needs to ask is this: Who should own the funding of our political parties? All of us, or the rich backers who always want a payoff for their dollars?
The answer's obvious. Democracy funding is in the public interest. The sooner we join the rest of the developed world and implement it, the better.