How Do Australians Think About Political Finance? As 'Partisans' or as 'Skeptics'?

Zim Nwokora

Dr. Nwokora is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Melbourne

The financing of parties and elections (“political finance”) raises a whole host of controversial questions. Here are three:

  1. Should businesses and trade unions be allowed to donate to political parties; if so, how much?
  2. Do such donations threaten to undermine Australian democracy?
  3. What political-finance reforms would improve Australian democracy?

In a recent paper published in Australian Journal of Political Science, I investigate how ordinary citizens form their views about such issues. The literature on citizens’ opinions on political-finance is surprisingly thin. In contrast, research has generated a clear sense of how politicians think about political finance: they are motivated by ‘staying-in-office’ and ‘improving their party’s chances of winning future elections.’

If politicians are motivated by ‘office’ and ‘partisanship,’ how might we describe citizens’ motivations? One plausible hypothesis is that citizens view political finance in much the same way as politicians. Ordinary citizens don’t stand for election, so they can’t have office motivations. However, most citizens do hold a preference for a party – they are ‘partisans.’ If they back a party, they prefer its candidates to be elected instead of another party’s candidates. A citizen might therefore prefer a political-financing system that advantages the party which she supports. Following this logic, we would expect Labor voters to echo the positions of Labor MPs and for Liberal voters and Liberal MPs to hold similar views. More generally, we would expect a party’s voters and its elites to hold similar opinions, and for these views to differ from those held by another party’s voters and elites.  

An alternative hypothesis is that the major division is not between citizens who support different parties, but rather between citizens as a whole and the entire class of political elites. In this case, we might expect citizens who vote for different parties to hold similar views on political-finance issues. This particular hypothesis resonates with an emerging literature that highlights significant and increasing scepticism among citizens about traditional politics. Citizens doubt that mainstream politics can (or will) solve their problems and they probably distrust politicians and political institutions (e.g., parties and parliaments) more than ever.

If citizens’ political-finance opinions are driven by scepticism we would expect different observations than if they are driven by partisanship. For example, we would expect citizens’ voting behavior to be a poor predictor of their opinions on political finance. On the other hand, we would expect citizens’ strength of scepticism to influence their political-finance opinions. For example, a citizen who thinks that the existing political-finance system works reasonably well would have sharply different views across a range of issues than another citizen who believes the system is entirely dysfunctional.

In the article, I develop and test these two hypotheses – ‘partisan citizens’ versus ‘sceptical citizens’ – as accounts of public opinion on political finance. The empirical examination draws on a purpose-built survey of Australian residents, the first of its kind to be conducted in Australia. I draw on survey results to develop measures of partisanship and scepticism, which I use to account for the distribution of survey responses to questions about political finance. The central finding from this analysis is that the indicators representing the sceptical-citizens hypothesis have greater explanatory power than the indicators representing the partisan-citizens hypothesis. Partisanship is far from irrelevant; it matters a great deal for some specific issues. But, across the sweep of political-finance issues covered in the survey, it appears that partisanship matters less than scepticism.


The citation for the full study is: Zim Nwokora, ‘Sceptical Partisans: How Citizens Think About Political Finance,’ Australian Journal of Political Science (2015) 50(1), 73-92.

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