A privilege of office that neither big old party can resist abusing: drawing from the public purse to bankroll political advertising campaigns.
Labor now has a huge fight on its hands, trying to explain a difficult policy to voters in respect of which the media and certain vested interests are, it turns out, implacably hostile. Gillard – who before the election made it very clear she saw a “carbon price” and a “carbon tax” as two different things, and that whilst she ruled out the latter she believed in the former – is being pilloried by the shameless for supposedly “changing her mind”. (Misrepresenting her is easy: all you have to do is take her remark about a carbon tax out of context, pretending that she didn’t publicly support one and oppose the other, and then argue that the carbon price policy is a tax and therefore she broke her own promise according to your definition you know perfectly well she didn’t share – and made clear she didn’t share – before making the earlier remark.)
The Government will be sorely tempted to do what got John Howard’s “never ever” GST over the line: go absolutely nuts with political advertising on the public purse.
If it does, it might succeed in scraping over the line next time. But eventually the Liberals will win another election, and they’ll use the precedent to spend even more promoting their pet project (The Policy We Formerly Called WorkChoices, probably).
Whereas, if Labor stood back now and took this moment to pass legislation restricting government “education” campaigns, to put an independent, bipartisan body in charge of determining whether a campaign is political or not, and therefore whether it is to be funded by the public or supporters – well, then it would truly have achieved something for democracy. Something lasting, even, since it would be difficult for the Liberals to repeal without looking like absolute scumbags.
Then again, the pessimist in me says that not enough voters would even care. Labor could hobble itself in this fight and thereby lose the next election, and the Liberals would promptly come in and repeal the Act. And, although the hypocrisy of claiming to be the “small government” party whilst taxing voters to pay for their own ads might seem embarrassing, it will only be a problem for them if the media make it a problem. Which, since the media are the beneficiary of those advertising dollars, they almost certainly won’t.
That’s the problem with being principled in politics – it just helps your more unprincipled opponents win, and thereby helps them destroy all your other principles.
If only political discourse in this country was at a level where not wasting public money on self-promotion was actually a drawback for a political party in Government, rather than a prerequisite.
ELSEWHERE: Talking of corruptly taking benefits from incumbency, US Republicans are boasting about how they’re going to be able to use their control of specific states to gerrymander the hell out of the next Presidential election. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to be ashamed of what is a flagrantly undemocratic scheme – they’re quite open about it.