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Democracy in the ACT: Part 1

By Kim Huynh - 19 June 2017 9

Recently I was invited to give my two cents on the 2016 ACT election and to offer suggestions to a parliamentary committee on how to improve future polls. Last year I ran as an independent – gokimbo2016.com.au – so my assessment and recommendations are geared towards giving indies and micro parties a fighting chance. As it stands, they have next to none.

To promote the independent cause is to promote diversity and democracy in the ACT, the only jurisdiction in Australia that’s governed entirely by established parties. The fact that none of “us” indies came close to winning in 2016 has a lot to do with our lack of preparation and nous.

However, another key factor is that there are only five seats up for grabs in each electorate. This means that a candidate has to get around 17% of the votes after preferences to win. Only a celebrity could reach this quota without major party support.

After announcing his retirement last month, Electoral Commissioner Phillip Green suggested on ABC Radio Canberra that dividing the city into three electorates with nine seats would make for better accountability and representation in the Legislative Assembly. This would reduce the quota to a little over 10% and open the possibility of a significant parliamentary crossbench.

Such a change has not been flagged for consideration by the committee reviewing the 2016 ACT election and Electoral ACT, which is chaired by Labor MLA Bec Cody.

Instead the committee has been asked to consider issues of donations and voter participation that, while worthy of review and reform, are unlikely by themselves to make any difference to electoral outcomes.

Recent changes to the regulation of electoral donations and public funding in the ACT nigh guarantee that the major parties and the Greens will profit from every election and that minor parties and independents will lose out.

  1. A quadrupling of public funding from $2 to $8 per vote to candidates who attract 4 per cent or more of the primary vote meant that taxpayers had to fork out over 1.7 million dollars after last October’s election. Almost all of this went into party coffers: $750,000 to the ALP; $717,000 to the Libs; $200,000 to the Greens, $30,000 to the Sex Party and $19,000 to me. By way of contrast, federal candidates receive about $2.60 a vote, in WA it’s $1.80 and in Victoria $1.50. There are no reporting requirements, spending guidelines or taxes paid on electoral returns.
  2. Part of the justification for quadrupling the public funding was that it would reduce the chance of undue influence on candidates who rely on private donations. While this is a worthy goal, it’s not served by the major parties cooperating in early 2015 to lift the $10,000 cap on donations.
  3. At the same the Electoral Act was amended to remove the restriction on receiving donations from foreign entities; that is, people and organisations not enrolled in the ACT. It’s worth reversing this change given recent reports that politicians from the major parties in NSW and at the federal level have received millions of dollars from Chinese business people despite warnings from ASIO and foreign affairs officials.
  4. The decrease in the electoral expenditure cap from $60,000 to$40,000 also makes it more difficult for independent candidates. While parties can promote policies and initiatives using a collective fund of up to $2 million across 25 candidates, independents can hardly air a single TV advertisement without breaking the rules. This means that the parties have protected themselves against not only wealthy people like Clive Palmer who want to enter politics, but also grassroots crowdfunded candidates. A proposal has been placed before the committee to increase the expenditure cap for independents which is better than nothing, but not by much.

As it stands, in the ACT the major parties extract far more money than they need or deserve from taxpayers, while also being totally unconstrained in their ability to accept funding from private sources within and beyond Canberra. The only restriction on electoral expenditure increases the advantage that the major parties have over everyone else.

It makes it worse when the government asserts that these amendments were devised with a view to ‘levelling the playing field between the various parties and individual candidates and ensuring a transparent and accountable electoral system.’

The Assembly should substantially revise or reverse these four changes. This need not involve a loss of face. I envisage Andrew Barr and Alistair Coe standing together and saying something like this.

Barr: We believe that parties are critical to the political process. They train new public figures and formulate policy. Our parties – the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia – have a great history of serving the people of the ACT and of Australia. But the political system works best when there is competition and innovation. We made changes to the electoral landscape that have stifled these qualities.

Coe: As a sign of our commitment to Canberra and to good politics, we are reinstating limits to private funding that will make us exemplars of accountability and transparency. Moreover, we are reducing public funding to $3 per vote and lowering the threshold to 1.5% so as to encourage as many people as possible to stand up, raise their voices and participate in the festival of democracy.

Barr: Around the world we are seeing a revolt against the political establishment and politics as usual. Canberra is no exception with the 2016 election yielding Australia’s first ever parliament with a majority of women along with a significant number of new and young MLAs from both major parties. The challenge in this context is to acknowledge, accept and indeed embrace calls for cooperation and change, which is exactly what we are doing today.

As unlikely as this scenario is, I’d like to think that it’s never too late for decency to prevail.

What do you make of the 2016 ACT election and the state of democracy in the nation’s capital? If you want to make a submission to the Inquiry into last year’s election and the ACT Electoral Act you can read the discussion paper here. The deadline for submissions is 30 June.

Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist, lectures politics at the ANU and occasionally presents Drive on ABC Radio Canberra. This is the first part of his submission to the aforementioned Inquiry. The second part on electoral advertising and voter participation will be published next week.

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9 Responses to
Democracy in the ACT: Part 1
petunia petal 10:13 am 22 Jun 17

Agree with all your points Kim. Another issue I noticed was lack of a central source of info about what each candidate stands for – I had to proactively ask candidates or look through their social media or website to find views/policies – and the detail was mostly lacking. It would be great if this was located in one place and allowed you to compare – and would also mean we move away from the glib one liners on corflutes.

CanberraStreets 9:36 am 22 Jun 17

Kim Huynh said :

Great comment. Thanks. I would only add that I know a couple of wonderful people who are deeply engaged with the community and inclined to run as Indies but never have and never will because they have no chance of ever winning given the structural obstacles. K

It is a difficult issue to tackle, but with the current disenchantment with established political parties and their candidates, we can hope there will be a new path.

Hare-Clark is intended to reduce the impact of Parties and Factions and so I do believe the issue is about coming up with some mechanism that allows independent candidates get their faces, names and platforms as well known as those of the party candidates. Accordingly, I suspect being a local celebrity may be the easiest course.

I suggested independents did not have the same depth of community engagement as many party candidates – and that the statement was based on a lack of knowledge.

I should remember the old aphorism – “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Kim Huynh 9:37 pm 21 Jun 17

CanberraStreets said :

Canberra may one day catch the “Vote weird and send the established political parties a message” bug, at present the closest we get is having an unprecedented majority of female MLAs (not entirely reflected in the resulting ministry, but getting closer). The problem is, I think, we prefer to go with a known evil than risk our vote on unknown independents.

The candidates from the major political parties have some advantages by being a known quantity in terms of what we are going to get. They also get the benefit of the established and efficient party systems of marketing and support. But to be fair to those candidates, they often have done years of hard graft working on P&Cs, Community Councils, turning up at events and other stuff to get their names and faces known, however vaguely, in their electorate. Very few independents seem to have the same history of community engagement.

While I disapprove of politics as a profession, the people that succeed in it are consistently hard working and driven people. If only they put all that energy in delivering the things that I want, rather than some fuzzy idea of what other people want.

Great comment. Thanks. I would only add that I know a couple of wonderful people who are deeply engaged with the community and inclined to run as Indies but never have and never will because they have no chance of ever winning given the structural obstacles. K

CanberraStreets 10:32 am 21 Jun 17

Canberra may one day catch the “Vote weird and send the established political parties a message” bug, at present the closest we get is having an unprecedented majority of female MLAs (not entirely reflected in the resulting ministry, but getting closer). The problem is, I think, we prefer to go with a known evil than risk our vote on unknown independents.

The candidates from the major political parties have some advantages by being a known quantity in terms of what we are going to get. They also get the benefit of the established and efficient party systems of marketing and support. But to be fair to those candidates, they often have done years of hard graft working on P&Cs, Community Councils, turning up at events and other stuff to get their names and faces known, however vaguely, in their electorate. Very few independents seem to have the same history of community engagement.

While I disapprove of politics as a profession, the people that succeed in it are consistently hard working and driven people. If only they put all that energy in delivering the things that I want, rather than some fuzzy idea of what other people want.

Garfield 10:24 am 21 Jun 17

dungfungus said :

Garfield said :

rommeldog56 said :

Well written Kim.

The next to obliteration of the chances of independents being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly was well document prior to the ACT LA election. The 4 times increase in public funding is indefensible and abhorrent. Then again, along with a certain ACT Labor/Greens pet infrastructure project, reduction in the level of municipal services, worst performing hospital in the country, 2nd highest rate of homelessness in the country, staggering rate of increase in Annual Rates (including for Units), etc, were all well known before the last ACT Legislative Assembly election.- and still ACT Labor/Greens were voted back in (by a very narrow margin I think).

Labor & the Greens won by a very healthy margin. Their combined first preference vote was 48.7% to the Liberals 36.7%. Given all the failings you mentioned by the government I think it also says something about the Liberals that they couldn’t come within cooee after 15 years in opposition.

I also doubt that you’ll find the Liberals complaining about the quadrupling in election funding to $8 a vote given the reported state of their finances after the 2012 election.

It is disingenuous to say “Labor and The Greens won by a healthy margin” as they did not run as a joint ticket.

Your comments about the Liberals are valid however.

In the previous Assembly Labor & the Green MLA governed together under a parliamentary agreement – effectively in coalition. The key Green election policy was to build light rail and the key Liberal policy was to stop it. Any Greens elected were always going to back a Labor government, even if there were some conditions. So in order for the Liberals to form government they had to win more seats than Labor & the Greens combined. Therefore I think its entirely appropriate to compare the combined Labor & Green vote to the Liberal vote in light of the expressed thought that ACT Labor/Greens were voted back in by a very narrow margin.

If, come the next election, Labor abandons the tram or the Liberals start supporting it, or there’s some other seismic shift in position or circumstance, then it may be fair to compare the Liberals to Labor and treat the Greens as a genuine cross bench party that could potentially back either.

dungfungus 9:06 am 21 Jun 17

Garfield said :

rommeldog56 said :

Well written Kim.

The next to obliteration of the chances of independents being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly was well document prior to the ACT LA election. The 4 times increase in public funding is indefensible and abhorrent. Then again, along with a certain ACT Labor/Greens pet infrastructure project, reduction in the level of municipal services, worst performing hospital in the country, 2nd highest rate of homelessness in the country, staggering rate of increase in Annual Rates (including for Units), etc, were all well known before the last ACT Legislative Assembly election.- and still ACT Labor/Greens were voted back in (by a very narrow margin I think).

Labor & the Greens won by a very healthy margin. Their combined first preference vote was 48.7% to the Liberals 36.7%. Given all the failings you mentioned by the government I think it also says something about the Liberals that they couldn’t come within cooee after 15 years in opposition.

I also doubt that you’ll find the Liberals complaining about the quadrupling in election funding to $8 a vote given the reported state of their finances after the 2012 election.

It is disingenuous to say “Labor and The Greens won by a healthy margin” as they did not run as a joint ticket.

Your comments about the Liberals are valid however.

Garfield 8:05 am 21 Jun 17

rommeldog56 said :

Well written Kim.

The next to obliteration of the chances of independents being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly was well document prior to the ACT LA election. The 4 times increase in public funding is indefensible and abhorrent. Then again, along with a certain ACT Labor/Greens pet infrastructure project, reduction in the level of municipal services, worst performing hospital in the country, 2nd highest rate of homelessness in the country, staggering rate of increase in Annual Rates (including for Units), etc, were all well known before the last ACT Legislative Assembly election.- and still ACT Labor/Greens were voted back in (by a very narrow margin I think).

Labor & the Greens won by a very healthy margin. Their combined first preference vote was 48.7% to the Liberals 36.7%. Given all the failings you mentioned by the government I think it also says something about the Liberals that they couldn’t come within cooee after 15 years in opposition.

I also doubt that you’ll find the Liberals complaining about the quadrupling in election funding to $8 a vote given the reported state of their finances after the 2012 election.

rommeldog56 6:51 am 20 Jun 17

Well written Kim. The next to obliteration of the chances of independents being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly was well document prior to the ACT LA election. The 4 times increase in public funding is indefensible and abhorrent. Then again, along with a certain ACT Labor/Greens pet infrastructure project, reduction in the level of municipal services, worst performing hospital in the country, 2nd highest rate of homelessness in the country, staggering rate of increase in Annual Rates (including for Units), etc, were all well known before the last ACT Legislative Assembly election.- and still ACT Labor/Greens were voted back in (by a very narrow margin I think), and not an independent in sight.
Reflects much more on ACT voters & ratepayers actually. The ACT politicians will just take advantage of that apparent apathy.

No_Nose 7:19 pm 19 Jun 17

Democracy in the ACT? You mean how the clear and unambigous wishes of the people were totally disregarded and self government was forced upon them? Is that the democracy you are referring to?

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