25 October 2019

Chief's proposal for MLAs communication budget divides chamber

| Lachlan Roberts
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Chief Minister Andrew Barr

The Chief Minister’s bill would establish a new communications budget for MLAs. Photos: File.

The ACT Government wants to re-introduce a dedicated communications budget for local MLAs, but the move has been met with fierce opposition from the ACT Greens who believe the new budget will help Labor get a leg up in the 2020 ACT Election.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr tabled the bill on Thursday (24 October) which would establish a new communications budget for the ACT’s politicians to communicate with their constituents.

In 2016, the MLA’s communication allowance, which was then around $15,000, was abolished and the money was rolled into the MLA’s base salaries, a move that Mr Barr said created “significant unintended consequences”.

Under the current system, Mr Barr said there is no clear oversight to ensure the money is not being used for electioneering.

He said the proposed allowance, which is yet to be determined, would not result in an increase to MLAs salaries but would likely be reimbursed after the MLA’s provide receipts or invoices.

“As part of their ordinary duties, MLAs should be able to routinely communicate with their constituents about their work,” Mr Barr said, speaking to the Assembly. “This is not electioneering.”

Under the current laws, each party is limited to spending $40,000 per candidate at the ACT election, giving Labor and the Liberals a maximum expenditure of $1 million on electoral activities from 1 January 2020 until election day.

Money spent under the proposed communication budget would not be counted under the $1 million cap.

The ACT Greens opposed the new electoral rules, which they say is set to benefit the two major parties ahead of the 2020 ACT Election. Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said the laws would increase the spending power of the Labor and Liberal parties by approximately $143,000 and $131,000 respectively during the electoral year.

“The purpose of having an electoral expenditure cap is to reduce the influence of big money in election campaigns and level the playing field so that the best ideas, not the biggest wallet, win the election,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“While the legislation proposes that this allowance cannot be used for certain overtly electoral activities, it is self-evident that communications during an election year will be designed to raise a member’s profile.”

ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury

ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said the best ideas, not the biggest wallet, should win the election.

But the Chief Minister was adamant that the allowance money will not be allowed to be used for electioneering, including soliciting votes, asking for donations, asking for party membership renewals or making how-to-vote cards.

“It is intended to be to be spent on routine communications between MLAs and their constituents that should be happening regardless of where we are in an election cycle,” Mr Barr said in a statement.

“Without this change, MLAs will be able to keep the money in their own pockets without telling taxpayers how they’re spending it. This is unacceptable and goes against community expectations.”

Mr Barr said the new communications budget would be on a budget-neutral basis and is not about providing additional funds to MLAs to communicate with their constituents, or cutting thier current allocation.

“The Bill I introduced proposes to reduce MLA salaries, which include money for communicating with their constituents, and put that money into a more transparent framework,” he said.

“This will only be done on a revenue-neutral basis. The new system will not cost taxpayers any more money.”

A Canberra Liberals spokesperson said the party remains committed to an election spending cap while maintaining duties as elected representatives. “We’ll have discussions with both Labor and the Greens about what’s being proposed,” the spokesperson said.

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