A look at the best way to buy your vote

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Les Cole­man

Elec­tions are a top­i­cal sub­ject, per­haps more than ever in the wake of Don­ald Trump’s suc­cess­ful bid for the White House. He and Hil­lary Clin­ton each spent close to $1 bil­lion.

Whether the race is for the US pres­i­dency, Aus­tralia’s par­lia­ment, the UN sec­re­tary-gen­er­al­ship or the right to host the FIFA World Cup, elec­tions cost money, and this height­ens voter cyn­i­cism.

Check­book Elec­tions?, then, is top­i­cal be­cause it sets it­self the ob­jec­tive of com­bin­ing qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive modes of in­quiry to un­der­stand which cam­paign fi­nance re­forms work and why. The book is a col­lec­tion of papers by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and — apart from a some­times slow pace and flowery lan­guage — is an in­ter­est­ing treat­ment of its sub­ject.

The book is edited by Amer­i­can aca­demic Pippa Nor­ris and Syd­ney aca­demic An­drea Abel van Es. Its most valu­able part is nine chap­ters that pro­vide coun­try case stud­ies de­scrib­ing cam­paign fi­nance leg­is­la­tion and elec­torates’ ex­pe­ri­ence. This is book­ended by some in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sion of the­ory and a sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis con­clud­ing that reg­u­la­tion works.

Along the way, con­trib­u­tors ask com­plex ques­tions. How­ever, given im­pre­ci­sion in con- cepts such as fi­nance, in­tegrity, gov­er­nance and reg­u­la­tion, the book is equiv­o­cal in its out­look on cam­paign fi­nance reg­u­la­tion. Not sur­pris­ingly, it ad­mits to dif­fi­cul­ties in es­tab­lish­ing the re­sults and im­pact of re­forms.

It sur­prised me that in­tu­itively ob­vi­ous con­tentions con­trib­ute to the lack of a con­clu­sive an­swer, es­pe­cially the ob­vi­ous point that fi­nance has the po­ten­tial to cor­rupt and so its reg­u­la­tion should im­prove elec­toral in­tegrity.

Chap­ter 11 is headed Why Reg­u­late Po­lit­i­cal Fi­nance? and jus­ti­fies over­rid­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties’ self-reg­u­la­tion on the grounds that they have a monopoly on can­di­dates, lack transparency and do not share in­for­ma­tion, which threat­ens po­ten­tially high costs to the com­mu­nity from weak­ness in elec­toral in­tegrity.

Un­for­tu­nately, the next chap­ter, Does Reg­u­la­tion Work, finds the op­ti­mum re­sponse is elu­sive. Specif­i­cally, it reaches the un­re­mark­able con­clu­sion that po­lit­i­cal sci­ence ex­perts ex­pect that heavy reg­u­la­tion leads to pos­i­tive cam­paign fi­nance prac­tices. The ev­i­dence, though, is not as kind.

An ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is that Rus­sia has tough cam­paign fi­nance reg­u­la­tion and Swe­den al­most none, but this is not mir­rored by do­mes­tic or in­ter­na­tional views of the elec­toral in­tegrity of the two na­tions. In fact, cam­paign fi­nance re­forms rarely im­prove voter per­cep­tions of elec­toral in­tegrity (as op­posed to that of ex­perts). Reg­u­la­tion works only when its let­ter is en­forced and its spirit has broad sup­port.

The book is an in­ter­est­ing anal­y­sis of path­ways to con­tem­po­rary reg­u­la­tion of po­lit­i­cal fi­nance. It shows, though, that cam­paign funding is no eas­ier to reg­u­late than other sys­tems lu­bri­cated by money: bank­ing and in­vest­ment, for in­stance, sim­i­larly suf­fer chronic de­bil­i­tat­ing scan­dals. The ap­proach in each in­dus­try is sel­f­reg­u­la­tion within broad bounds, and in elec­tions this spreads across funding dis­clo­sure, and lim­its to con­tri­bu­tions and ex­pen­di­tures. Un­for­tu­nately this ap­proach rarely suc­ceeds and elec­tions are cor­rupted in many coun­tries.

More broadly, the book iden­ti­fies elec­toral dis­hon­esty as part of the in­sid­i­ous plague of so­cial and eco­nomic cor­rup­tion that spares no coun­try. It as­sumes, though, that elec­toral cor­rup­tion can be con­tained by reg­u­la­tion. This does not sit easily with moves by In­done­sia and the US to all but dereg­u­late their po­lit­i­cal mar­ket­places. Al­though these two quite dif­fer­ent coun­tries are among the largest democ­ra­cies and thus could serve as point­ers to pos­si­bly broader moves to­wards lais­sez-faire reg­u­la­tion, the book dis­misses them as “mav­er­icks”.

If money brings scan­dal to even the old­est democ­ra­cies such as Italy, Ja­pan, the US and Bri­tain, is there a bet­ter ap­proach? The case study for Swe­den pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing al­ter­na­tive for Aus­tralian vot­ers (and those in many com­mon law coun­tries) be­cause reg­u­la­tion is min­i­mal while the state pro­vides about twothirds of po­lit­i­cal par­ties’ cam­paign funding with­out any strings. For a coun­try where reg­u­la­tion is gen­er­ally in­tru­sive, a light touch with elec­tions is in­trigu­ing, es­pe­cially as Swe­den has been largely free of cam­paign scan­dals.

Swe­den also hints that ben­e­fit could come from a ban on me­dia spend­ing on elec­tions (the me­dia out­let would be pros­e­cuted for any breach, stop­ping work­arounds), and limit me­dia ap­pear­ances to vanilla presentations by can­di­dates. No rock stars, videos or sat­u­ra­tion cov­er­age. Elim­i­nat­ing the high­est cat­e­gory of ex­pen­di­ture would evis­cer­ate the power of donors. Given that the book dances around a bet­ter way of fi­nanc­ing and run­ning elec­tions, per­haps this should be the ed­i­tors’ next project.

is a fi­nance aca­demic at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. His next book is Ap­plied In­vest­ment The­ory: How Eq­uity Mar­kets and In­vestors Be­have, and Why.

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