An awkward run of headlines this week for Victoria’s Labor government, facing a state election in exactly a month’s time. It’s been revealed that the six ministers and numerous backbenchers under investigation for misuse of public money in the “red shirts” affair “have refused to be interviewed by fraud squad detectives.”
A decision on whether to launch any prosecutions over the affair, which involved the use of taxpayer-funded staff for party political campaigning, is said to be “imminent”. Whichever way it goes, it is unlikely to play well for the government.
With a change of names and a few other details, the headlines could easily have been from last week in France, where the far-left party, Unsubmissive France (LFI), has been under investigation on remarkably similar grounds.
The claim is that LFI’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, used staff allocated to him as a member of the European parliament for party purposes. There are also allegations of financing irregularities in connection with his campaign for last year’s presidential election.
Mélenchon, however, was even less co-operative than the Victorian ALP. He denounced the police raids as political persecution, and was filmed confronting police at LFI headquarters and telling a police officer “I am the republic!” Paris magistrates have opened a further enquiry into obstruction of justice.
But do not jump to the conclusion that this sort of caper is uniquely the preserve of left-wing parties. The investigation in France actually began with the far-right National Front (now known as National Rally) in 2015 – fifteen of its members, including leader Marine Le Pen, have been charged with misappropriation – before moving on to other parties and politicians.
And in Australia, the Liberal Party has similar form in getting public employees to work for the party. I know this, because I was once one of them: I wrote about the experience for the Age back in 2002.
At that time I made some suggestions for reform, which of course were not adopted. The precise legalities of the practice remain murky – as quite possibly they are in France as well. But the principle, it seems to me, is clear; as I put it, “Electorate resources exist to serve all constituents, regardless of who they vote for. Diversion of them for party purposes should be detected and punished, regardless of which side is doing it.”
In Australia, party membership has atrophied to such an extent that party officials regard with horror the idea of having to recruit volunteers from their own ranks or pay them with party funds. (Although the causation there is not necessarily all that it seems, since the declining membership is partly driven by those officials’ fear of member participation.)
The French would seem to have less excuse, since party involvement there remains high. LFI, for example, was able to get 243,000 supporters to vote in a hastily-organised party ballot between the two rounds of last year’s election.
But a large number of France’s politicians, just like their Australian counterparts, remain firmly convinced that the public purse is there to be utilised for their own purposes.