Why electoral rules don’t help teals in ‘Kmart election’

Why electoral rules don’t help teals in ‘Kmart election’

Early last year, leading up to the federal election campaign, a series of discreet dinners were held in harbor houses around Sydney. There were several rich people sipping vintage wines, eating delicious snacks and donating five and six figure sums to political candidates.

I would hear from them after the event, but as a nosy, relentless journalist, I never attended; would you invite someone to silently judge your bookshelves? I was caught up in the kind of carb-laden public events that are part of the Campaign 10 (insiders put on 10 pounds every poll). But the gourmet dinners were all perfectly legitimate; while federal laws require disclosure of individual and corporate donations above a certain level, there are no limits on the amount of money campaigns can spend.

Iced VoVo anyone? Political fundraising in NSW isn’t what it used to be, but that’s no bad thing.Credit:Jennifer Soo

However, the upcoming NSW state election has different rules. The history of the NSW Labor Right “whatever it takes” faction has been problematic, but in 2011 it actually got something right. When Kristina Keneally as prime minister limited campaign spending by political parties, candidates and third parties, it leveled the playing field.

As a result, the NSW poll is very much the Kmart election: it looks and feels very different to its luxury federal counterpart. Overall, this is a good outcome – for too long Australian politics has been subject to the “loudest voice is the person with the deepest pockets” rule. But the problem is that it hedges the benefits of cladding.

The current spending limit for independent candidates is $198,700 per campaign. To put that in perspective, financial returns for non-party-backed federal candidates released last November showed the three winning “teal” candidates in NSW spent a total of $4.6 million; Wentworth’s Allegra Spender alone spent $2.1 million. They were not alone; The political party’s spending figures, to be released on Wednesday, are expected to show that the coalition has spent comparable amounts to defend those seats.

Big spender: Teal independent Allegra Spender spent $2.1 million on her successful election campaign in Wentworth. But independents can only spend close to $200,000 on their campaigns in the upcoming NSW election.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

The NSW spending limit includes “in-kind” donations such as office space for campaign headquarters, staff, cars and even the cost of catering at a fundraising event. One campaigner told me to stay under the limit, most dry events now ask people to bring a plate – tea and Ice VoVos, anyone? It’s also much harder for campaigns to hire expensive pollsters and advisers—as a result, they’ve done much of that work themselves.

Unfortunately, these rules make it much more difficult for new parties and candidates. Compounding the disparity is the substantial public funding available to sitting MPs and their respective parties.

An analysis of similar election funding rules in Victoria found there was a $100 million “wall” protecting those already in power from those trying to get in.

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