Peter Costello gets into trouble for the smart-alec smirk he has when he thinks he is scoring a political point. But so far at least no-one in the media has commented on the smug little coyness John Howard displays whenever he is questioned about the election date. He clearly enjoys playing "I’ve got a secret".
But no-one is questioning why this should be his secret to have. A more basic question than when the election date will be is why should this be the Prime Minister’s prerogative?
Electoral system laws have always received close attention in the development of constitutional democracies. Although partisan interests have often intruded, many countries have displayed a willingness to reform their systems in the interest of promoting reforms for the larger good. Moreover in nearly all established democracies, the integrity of the electoral system – the accuracy of the rolls, voting and counting procedures – is fiercely protected, and so does not favour one party over the other.
The elaborate attention given to developing and enforcing electoral laws is in contrast to the primitive state of rules on electoral campaigning. As the nature of election campaigning has changed over the generations from a more decentralized, labour-intensive activity to a more centralised, capital-intensive one, campaigning laws have not kept pace.
Moreover this neglect has not been politically neutral. On the whole it has favoured incumbents over oppositions. Setting the election date is one such advantage. Why should it be that the government is allowed to choose the date which it thinks gives itself the greatest chance of winning?
Incumbents have many advantages, some the inevitable fruits of being in office and having control of the purse strings and policy levers. We have become used to the pre-election budget being the most generous and the immediate post-election budget the most stingy – although the Howard Government’s cash handouts in 2004 are a novelty. Being in office gives the governing party a much greater latitude in affecting the agenda. They can escalate attention to some events by dramatic actions and rhetoric – notably in 2001 asylum seekers and security threats – and seek to minimize attention to others.
However there are other areas where incumbents have moved to increase their advantages in ways that are neither inevitable nor enhancing our democracy. Three of these have grown considerably in recent decades: One is the use of government resources as a partisan propaganda agency. Greg Barns recently drew attention to how the Government Members’ Secretariat had replaced the Labor Government’s National Media Liaison Service, and performed essentially the same functions as a hit squad against opposition claims and a means of helping the campaigning activities of government backbenchers.
A second is the use of government advertising for partisan purposes. Each recent government in Australia has abused this capacity more than its predecessor, and the Howard Government has taken it to giddying heights. Government advertising is a necessary and legitimate vehicle for public information, but the ads for the GST and the current spate of ads promoting the virtue of changes to Medicare could have come straight from Liberal Party headquarters.
A third area of advantage is that incumbents usually have more capacity for raising finance than oppositions. Each election is more expensive than the last. Already in the United States (according to the Guardian 20-7-2004) the two presidential candidates have spent more than was spent in the 2000 campaign, even though the election is still just over three months away.
While Australians assume that television advertising in elections is natural, only ten of 18 long established democracies in affluent countries allow it, although that figure is up from only four two decades earlier. Campaign advertising has become so expensive that most of these countries have substantial public subsidies for political parties, and nearly all those countries also require some disclosure of political donations, although typically – as in Australia – these are not very stringent or effective.
Reforming political finances is fraught with difficulty, and at the moment in Australia there is a bi-partisan consensus not to try, even though it goes to the heart of our democratic future. We will probably need to wait for a major scandal for meaningful reform in this area.
Election campaigning has been a dynamic area as major parties have become extremely pragmatic and ruthless in their pursuit of victory and in their adaptations to the changing campaign environment, including television and most recently the internet. There are many aspects of election campaigning where we must leave it to the wisdom of the public to reward or punish. It is probably impossible to enforce any standards about accuracy in political advertising, or for that matter in political promises and rhetoric more generally.
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