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The cost of elections

By Valerie Yule - posted Tuesday, 12 October 2010

One man, one vote, was thought to be the ultimate in democracy. We now have one man, one vote, but it does not guarantee democracy. What can be done to remove the influence of big donors from the political parties? Those who give vast sums to both the major political parties can win an election no matter how the voters decide. Should their money determine government policies?

We can attempt to keep donations under visible control by transparency, in which all donations greater than $1,000 must be immediately recorded for public gaze. We could also cap donations, although this is unlikely to get past Mr Gary Gray, the Special Minister of State, in charge of “reform”, who denies the fact that money-raising events and political donations are used to provide access to those in power and to give broad hints as to policies.

The key is the cost of elections. More and more money is needed by political parties for their voice and policies to be heard. We are too small a country to be able to afford this escalating cost. Who benefits? The advertising industry and the media.


When the taxpayer finances parties by paying so much per vote received in the previous election, this only allows the cost of elections to balloon further. The media and the advertising industry like this solution. So do the parties which did well in the previous election - making it a recipe for stagnation.

We could look at the other end of the question: what all this money is spent on? Advertising is the main reason why political parties owe debts to big donors.

Why can’t television ads and advertising agencies be ruled out of electoral expenses? What happens if voters could be informed of the issues without the frills of advertising?

Do their advertisements tell the truth about the situation in the country and the policies that are planned? The advertisements are made by spin-doctors with all the know-how of those who study what will sway the voter who wants to be entertained rather than informed. They are better at judging what will appeal to the common people than communicating the policies as they are. The more advertising, the less real political content. We see this most of all in the United States, where only millionaires can try for the Presidency, and balloons and ballyhoo are the hallmark of political rallies.

TV advertising is not “free speech” because it is paid for, and is open only to those who can pay big. It should be discouraged, and clearly labeled with how much it cost and who paid for it.

Because of the expense, the advertising only attends to limited issues and prefers to feature only the leaders of the major parties - the leaders are made the focus as if politics were a grand football game. Meanwhile, people often vote for faceless candidates.


Yet there are many things that could be done to make elections as compelling in interest as your favourite football team.

Information for voters must be presented as news, not by advertising. The media have a responsibility to present the parties’ policies on all the important issues that will face the next government; to inform the public on all the candidates and their chief policies; what costs will be; and who pays for them. Election news should be as exciting and take up more time than the sports news, and. It is possible to ensure that the news slots are not shanghaied to become undercover political advertising.

The media could present election material under two headings - trivial pursuits, serious pursuits and rude sledging. The trivial pursuits include ALL leader personality cults, gossip, funny events and polls. The serious pursuits are about policies, past records, future problems, and relevant information about all candidates.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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