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Voters turning against major parties and their well-funded backers

Time and again, lobbyists defeat good reform or get special treatment.

Leaders and former leaders of the major parties have been attacking the minor parties and independents almost as forcefully as each other this election, especially in the past week. The Coalition has been especially vociferous against Nick Xenophon's party.

But it doesn't appear to be having much effect. The polls are showing ever-increasing support for minors – now up to 25 per cent.

Unfortunately, the voting system means that nothing like a quarter of the seats in the House of Representatives will go to minors and independents. Paul Keating got the wrong house when he called the Senate "unrepresentative swill".

It's a pity Bronwyn Bishop didn't get preselected again for her seat of Mackellar because, if she had, Dick Smith was determined to run against her as an independent. (At least he has his own helicopter.) Helicopter or not, there is no way Smith, if elected (as was likely, and that's probably why the Coalition ditched Bishop), would have abused perks like Bishop did.

As it happens, Smith was named in a Galaxy poll this week as the most trustworthy person in Australia, ahead of actor Hugh Jackman. Serving politicians were way down the list.

The Daily Telegraph, in reporting the poll, highlighted Smith's made-in-Australia and Australian-jobs campaigns as the reason. But Smith himself points to another reason.

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He said: "Whenever I'm asked to give an opinion, I tell people the same thing: 'This perpetual growth of Australia's population and economy has got to stop. You can't have perpetual growth.' Yet what does Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten always tell everybody? 'Don't worry, we'll make sure that growth goes on forever.'

"So who do the people believe? They're always coming up to me in the streets and saying: 'You're right, Dick, it can't go on.' A lot of journalists agree, too, but they don't dare say it publicly. So there are the politicians out there spruiking all day that growth can go on. And wondering why no one believes them."

So the rise in support for minors and independents can be seen more as a growing distaste for the major parties.

The Coalition called this double-dissolution election to clear the Senate of micro-party senators, who it said had got their seats through gaming the preference system. Polling now suggests this has backfired very badly. The new Senate is likely to have as many minor-party and independent senators as the old one: 18. And these ones will not carry the preference-fiddling smear.

Moreover, the minor parties are likely to increase their presence in the House of Representatives, too – perhaps to the extent of holding the balance of power.

Voters are plainly getting angry at the major parties' pursuit of policies that favour the wealthy, powerful unions and those that profit from high population growth to the maximum extent they can get away with and to the detriment of the bulk of the population. Voters are sensing the major parties do this because their funding base depends on it and because powerful lobby groups warp public opinion.

An Australian Centre for Independent Journalism 2010 survey of major newspapers found 55 per cent of content was derived from public-relations handouts from lobbyists and PR companies, and that a quarter of their content had no significant journalistic input whatsoever.

A former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, John Menadue, estimates there are more than 1000 lobbyists working in Canberra. Nearly 300 lobbying organisations are registered with PM&C.

A 2007 Democratic Audit of Australia report said 10,000 people were employed in the lobbying industry in Australia, spending more than $1 billion a year. It has grown since then.

Of course, the interest groups that represent broader community interests – such as the unemployed, consumers, tenants, public schools, public health, pensioners and the environment – have little money and therefore little or no clout.

In past elections, the trust question has been at the forefront. John Howard often asked: "Who do you trust?" It's being asked less so this election because the answer is becoming unpalatable for the major parties: "Neither of you."

So rather than warn and lecture about the "danger" of minor parties and independents, how about the major parties address the two big dangers they represent? First, being beholden to their donors and, second, being swayed by disingenuous, self-serving "arguments" and campaigns driven by lobby groups.

In the information age, it shouldn't be too much to ask that every donation be recorded within a day on a public website, not after the election as is the case now. It shouldn't be too much to ask that every meeting and what was discussed between MPs, ministers and top bureaucrats on one hand and lobbyists on the other be similarly available.

US President Barack Obama does this. His approval rating is far higher than the two Australian leaders.

Time and again, lobbyists defeat good reform or get special treatment: the mining tax, the carbon tax, poker machine reform, food labelling, big defence spending, private school funding, saving the Great Barrier Reef from agricultural run-off and climate change, and so on.

(Incidentally, why is public spending good for jobs when they are defence jobs in South Australia and not good when they are in public health and education?)

Only big tobacco has lost to the public interest and only because it was so on the nose that no politician could support it.

Even now, the wealthy end of town is hammering against sensible changes to superannuation. Whereas the broad public knows that taking a few carriages off that gravy train is long overdue.

The usual property lobbyists are running a typically exaggerated campaign against changes to negative gearing, which has shut so many young people out of the housing market for so long.

And neither major party mentions population policy. Too-high population growth is the root cause of so many dissatisfactions in Australia: traffic congestion; housing stress; not enough schools or hospitals; environmental stress; water shortages and so on.

The major parties want to carry on with the growth mantra and with Kevin Rudd's "big Australia", because that's what the people paying the pipers want. But this election campaign, and strong support for minor parties, is showing that an increasing number of Australians are waking up to this.

crispinhull.com.au