While campaign finance reform can, if done well, reduce the role of money in elections, poorly-designed changes to campaign finance rules risk providing yet more power to incumbents.
A new research paper, Advantages of Incumbency, has found Australia’s political system significantly benefits incumbents, who receive publicly funded entitlements.
Parliamentarians receive extensive resources to communicate with the public, assist constituents, respond to inquiries, attend public events, play ceremonial roles, and consult and receive feedback. These resources include, but are not limited to, the parliamentarian’s salary; office, printing and travel allowances; and electorate and personal staff. The provision of these resources is necessary and appropriate to facilitate the parliamentarian’s duty to represent their constituents.
However, these resources are also available to parliamentarians during election campaigns.
The Parliamentary Business Resources Regulations 2017, which set out how resources may and may not be used, prohibit the solicitation of support for parties or other candidates, but explicitly permit parliamentarians to use their office and printing allowances “in support of [their] own re-election”.
This provides incumbents with an advantage over challengers, who have no such resources available to them. This advantage is increased by the financial security and mobility that incumbents’ resources grant them. Together, these resources and advantages make it more difficult for challengers than incumbents to conduct a successful election campaign.
The dollar value is quite staggering,
Members of Parliament receive at least $996,381 and Senators at least $885,840 worth of incumbency advantages annually.
Over a three-year election cycle, this triples to $2.98 million for Members of Parliament, and $2.65 million for Senators.
On top of these advantages, established parties and candidates will have received public election funding at previous elections, which can be spent on later campaigns, and are eligible for tax-deductible donations at any stage of the election cycle.[BB1]
As a result, incumbents rarely lose.
- In the 2016 federal election, just 16 incumbent MPs (13%) lost their seats (excluding seats that changed hands after the retirement of a member)—15 to Labor candidates and one to Rebekha Sharkie of Centre Alliance.
- In 2019, only eight incumbent MPs (6%) were defeated by challengers, one of whom was an independent (Zali Steggall).
- The 2022 election was a high watermark for new independent and Green MPs, but even here, the most common result was for incumbents to win their seats. Even in what was considered a historic election result, only 16 incumbent MPs (12%) were defeated, six by independent candidates and three by Greens candidates.
- Across all three elections incumbents or candidates from the retiring MP’s party won 89% of all seats.
- So strong is party incumbency that political parties retained 82% of the seats with a retiring MP.
The massive financial advantage of incumbency makes the barrier to entry to the political system extremely high and limits the competition required for a healthy democracy, reducing vibrancy, diversity and innovation in politics.
Campaign finance reforms intended to reduce the influence of money in politics should be carefully designed to avoid exacerbating existing incumbency advantages, and instead lower the barrier to entry.
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Luciana Lawe Davies Media Adviser