SA’s political donation ban ambitious, but must safeguard diversity of voices

(AAP Image/Michael Errey)

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The Malinauskas Government’s electoral amendment bill could represent a potential paradigm shift in South Australian politics, but risks adverse outcomes unless carefully tested in a parliamentary inquiry. 

Key Points:

  • Expenditure caps should account for the taxpayer-funded incumbency benefits MPs enjoy that their challengers do not:
    • Parties that run candidates in most or all seats and in both houses of Parliament can “pile in” funding to target areas, effectively allowing them to exceed the spending cap.
    • New entrants have fixed costs that established parties can spread across many seats, meaning new entrants must spend more to catch up to a major party rival.
  • If parties are to receive administrative funding from the taxpayer, it should be based on the actual costs of running a political party – not how many MPs a party has.
  • In South Australia, major parties are less dependent on political donations than new entrants because the parties receive significant public funding:
    • Premier Malinauskas has flagged changes to public funding to make allowances for new entrants, who under current laws cannot access public funding until the election is over.

“It is heartening that Premier Malinauskas has identified a level playing field for new entrants as the number one concern of political finance reform, even ahead of a possible High Court challenge,” said Bill Browne, Director of the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program.

“South Australia has a proud history of electoral reform, including universal suffrage and preferential voting. The Malinauskas Government’s new bill could follow that legacy, but only if it safeguards diverse voices.

“A parliamentary inquiry would expose proposed changes to SA electoral laws to scrutiny, testing them for any unintended consequences.

“Political donations and other cash-for-access payments can distort government decision-making, undermine confidence and should be transparent, or limited, where possible.

“In other states, well-intentioned but poorly designed changes to political finance laws have backfired: concentrating financial power and making it harder to challenge entrenched power. Avoiding such pitfalls will be essential to the success of this reform.”

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