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Civil society takes up fight to make democracy equal again


25 September 2019 at 5:20 pm
Maggie Coggan
The multi-million dollar individual candidate spends seen in the 2019 federal election should be stopped warns a coalition of civil society groups, who are calling for an immediate cap on election spending.    


Maggie Coggan | 25 September 2019 at 5:20 pm


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Civil society takes up fight to make democracy equal again
25 September 2019 at 5:20 pm

The multi-million dollar individual candidate spends seen in the 2019 federal election should be stopped warns a coalition of civil society groups, who are calling for an immediate cap on election spending.    

Pointing to Clive Palmer’s $60 million campaign for his United Australia Party, the 12 organisations warned that excessive campaign spending by wealthy individuals set a dangerous precedent for future elections.

While Palmer’s campaign failed to win a single seat, he claimed to have secured the Coalition government’s win with his preferences with an anti-Labor advertising blitz in the final weeks of the election that cost around $8 million. 

In a submission to the joint standing committee on electoral matters inquiry, the group led by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the Human Rights Law Centre and the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, said spending caps meant Australians could enjoy an equal share of political power.      

Alice Drury, a lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said Australians were tired of only those with enough cash to buy a national platform getting air time for their campaign.   

“Our constitution protects Australians’ equal opportunity to participate in our representative democracy, yet billionaires can and do use vast sums of cash at election times to buy space that is completely out of reach to the rest of us,” she said. 

A 2018 survey showed Australians’ satisfaction with democracy has plummeted from 86 per cent in 2007 to just 41 per cent in 2018. Of all reforms put to survey respondents, the most popular option, with 73 per cent support, was reform that limits how much money can be spent in an election and donated to political parties.

Jolene Elberth, the ACF democracy campaigner, told Pro Bono News that failing to limit electoral spending could mean an increasingly unequal political system for years to come.       

“When politicians or political parties have to focus on raising money in order to outspend their opponents, not only does that shift their focus away from their representative duties and responsibilities, but it opens up the increased possibility of corruption that political donations bring,” Elberth said.   

“It is a really serious part of this cycle of spending more money, which leads to a need for more donations.” 

She said it was important that civil society groups spoke up loudly on the issue, as they were often a way for the public to participate in democracy. 

“Civil society is an important part of our democratic system, because it gives people an easy way to engage in political or election-based issues,” she said. 

“We’re also not working in three or four year electoral cycles. We’re taking long-term vision and policy goals and we need a healthy democracy for that to happen.” 

The submission also noted that spending caps were more straightforward than other reforms, as they applied equally to all actors unlike donation caps, which if applied to charities that engaged on election issues could hinder their participation. 

“They hinder advocacy by charities and not for profits, which rely on donations, but do not affect industry groups and corporations which draw upon member fees and revenue,” the submission said. 

Elberth said because the issue affected so many aspects of the community, it was important for civil society groups to know exactly how this issue could affect them.   

“The influence that industry groups have through expenditure spreads across all issue areas,” she said.  

“We see it in the environmental sector, but we also see it in the health sector with pharmaceutical companies, we see it in gambling reform and we see it around alcohol regulation.”


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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