8 February 2023

What are the real costs of getting someone elected to Parliament?

| Ross Solly
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David pocock

Senator Pocock’s donors have been revealed. Photo: Supplied.

So it cost David Pocock almost $2 million to get elected to the Senate last year.

That’s what it took to overturn history, to get a high-profile independent candidate elected to represent the ACT, and in the process, toss out, for the first time, a sitting senator (Zed Seselja) from one of the two major parties.

On first blush, it would appear the Pocock experience confirms what many everyday Australians have thought for a long time: to be elected to parliament, you have to have very deep pockets or, at the very least, have a group of supporters or friends who do.

READ MORE Big spender: What it took to get David Pocock into the Senate

The oft-quoted claim that if you want to get things changed, best you run for parliament yourself, has been a nonsense for a long time. Of course, you could always run in a safe seat for one of the major parties, which won’t cost you as much, but then you’re tied to their policies and whims.

Your chances of running as an independent and winning on the smell of an oily rag are next to nought. Nearly all independents who were successful last year benefitted from the largesse of Simon Holmes a Court, one of the aforementioned supporters with deep pockets.

Senator Pocock said he would like electoral laws changed so candidates could not be influenced by and feel beholden to generous donors who support their election campaigns. It’s a murky area and not a problem that can be easily solved.

Running for parliament is an expensive business. You have to have a profile and a presence, and that means TV, newspaper and radio advertising (although I suspect more and more focus in future campaigns will be placed on social media than on your traditional media).

You need to produce pamphlets and posters explaining who you are and what you stand for. To be really effective, you probably need to employ people to help you campaign.

And, of course, many people need to give up their jobs to run for election.

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Let’s put ourselves in the position of the potential donor. (I am going to assume most of you reading this are not already in the position of a donor who splashes hundreds of thousands of dollars around to support different candidates!)

Why shouldn’t they give their money to a candidate or a party that they feel will best be able to make decisions that might benefit their business?

For time immemorial, hasn’t it always been that big business will give their (or their shareholders’) hard-earned to the Liberal Party, the union movement will stump up their (or their members’) moola for Labor, and the environmental lobby groups will dig deep to support Green candidates?

Yes, of course, this gives them influence. Where it does get murky is when particular businesses or unions or environmental groups who have been particularly generous start seeing large wads of taxpayers’ money heading their way.

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We only need to look at the United States to see the stranglehold the powerful gun lobby has on politicians, or to the UK to see how Conservative donors benefitted from sham COVID contracts during the pandemic, to see examples of how the political process should not be run.

This is what David Pocock would like to see changed to guard against Australia reaching those giddy heights of nudge-nudge, wink-wink politics. It is indeed very honourable and something we should all support.

I’m just not quite sure how to fix it.

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