SINCE 1996 taxpayers across Australia have shelled out $249 million on what political parties and their election candidates are too lazy to do themselves - get elected.
Public funding of election campaigns is what you would expect of politicians, who have come to realise that total budget revenue of almost $380 billion a year, can be spent in part on pork barrelling ways to get re-elected.
They probably think that, against that giant extortion haul, a mere $249 million in election funding is way below the electoral radar.
In 2010 taxpayers paid out $53.2 million to parties and candidates at the rate of $2.31 for each vote recorded. In the House of Representatives or Senate elections all they had to do was get 4 per cent of the primary vote in order to get their campaign expenditure subsidised, or at best refunded.
When you add the usual Australian Electoral Commission costs, the 2010 federal election cost taxpayers $161.3 million.
Why on earth aren't our political parties and candidates being made to raise their own campaign costs? Why do taxpayers seem so blissfully happy to pay for the avalanche of printed and television propaganda heaped on us every three years?
Public funding was introduced in the 1980s in order to try and neutralise the practice of buying votes. In the recent US presidential election the two protagonists spent $1 billion each on their campaigns, but raised the money themselves.
Republican or Democrat candidates can reject public funding, and have done so in recent years. If they accept public funding they are severely restrained on what they can raise themselves or spend from their own resources.
The cap is about $50,000. As well voters can elect not to contribute towards public funding, and can do so by ticking a box on their tax returns. Fewer than 8 per cent of American voters divert any of their money to the public funding pool.
In Australia we have no such choices. If you win 4 per cent of the primary vote you're guaranteed a $2.31 refund for each person who votes for you. In the 2010 dead-heat election the major parties got $21 million each and the Australian Greens $7.2 million. Even the Australian Sex Party got $11,397 and the Shooters and Fishers Party got $10,727.
Denison independent Andrew Wilkie got $31,876.62 and the other four independents got more than $80,000 each.
In Tasmania, for amassing 280,704 votes the ALP got $648,962; the Libs got $506,148 for 218,931 votes and the Australian Greens got $282,187 for 122,058 votes.
Of course, for incumbents and their parties there's an opportunity for double dipping into the public purse. All senators and House of Representative members are entitled to use all their office resources to get re-elected and get each other re-elected.
The liberty doesn't extend to non-elected candidates, but really, who cares about them.
You may want to think about what the $249 million blown on public funding since 1996, could have been spent on, or what the $53 million blown in 2010 could have been better spent on. The $1.5 million bill for Tasmania could have hired up to 50 people for a year, or built another six or seven public houses.
Political parties say that public funding is needed to ensure elections can't be bought and that all candidates are given a fair go.
If you want a level playing field in election campaigns simply do what the supposedly undemocratic Legislative Council of Tasmania does.
Put a cap on election spending.
It's a lot cheaper than making our political parties and their candidates even lazier.
Barry Prismall is deputy editor of The Examiner.