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Death of the minor parties

11 June 2011 1,507 views No Comment

ECENT draconian, anti-democratic provisions, especially in NSW, are threatening the survival of small parties such as the Australian Sex Party and the eccentrically named Outdoor Recreation Party.

As for aspiring political minnows, well, it’s getting tougher to register as official political parties in the populous state.

In last year’s federal election, 21 political parties nominated candidates in NSW for the Senate. In this year’s state election, only 14 political parties nominated candidates for the Legislative Council, its state equivalent.

Based on the potential for success, these numbers should have been reversed. The first 20 candidates elected to the NSW Legislative Council required 185,000 votes, while the 21st required about 100,000. By contrast, election to the Senate required almost 600,000 votes in NSW for the first five positions, while the sixth needed 440,000 votes. Even with a double dissolution, when the whole Senate is up for election and these numbers are halved, winning a seat in the Senate is more difficult than winning a seat in the Legislative Council.

There are fewer political parties in NSW state elections because registering them ranges from difficult to nigh on impossible. Therefore state politics is fast becoming a closed shop, designed to benefit the major incumbents. The consequences for democracy are significant. For example, in the 2010 federal election comedian Austen Tayshus (Sandy Gutman) stood for the Australian Sex Party, gaining a credible 2075 votes against Tony Abbott in the lower house seat of Warringah. Yet, because of much stricter registration requirements in NSW, in the 2011 state election he had to stand against now Premier Barry O’Farrell for the Outdoor Recreation Party, which, unlike the Sex Party, was already registered in NSW.

Prior to 2000 a political party in NSW needed just 200 members and a constitution to be registered. In the 1999 state election there were 80 political parties, leading to the famous tablecloth ballot paper. Under the preference system then applying, this even allowed one candidate to get elected to the Legislative Council with only 7264 primary votes.

Determined to prevent a repeat, NSW state parliament changed the law to require political parties to have at least 750 members on the electoral roll, pay a $2000 registration fee and be registered one year ahead of an election. Preferences were made optional and left to voters rather than the parties.

The process of gaining registration was further complicated by a requirement for party members to complete a NSW-specific membership form, and for the NSW Electoral Commission to then write to each member asking that they write back confirming their membership — 750 clear and unambiguous responses had to be received for registration to be granted: a bureaucratic nightmare. Although those who join political parties are less apathetic about politics than most, many find it absurd to confirm what is obvious and do not respond. So, in practical terms, political parties in NSW require considerably more than 750 members to achieve registration.

Consequently, many parties that participate in federal elections are unable to participate in NSW elections. Among them are the Australian Sex Party, registered federally and in Victoria, and the Liberal Democratic Party, registered federally and in South Australia and the ACT.

The impact of this is substantial. In the federal election the Sex Party gained 73,500 Senate votes in NSW while the Liberal Democrats got 95,700. If repeated in the NSW state election the Sex Party could have taken enough votes from other parties to have affected the outcome, while the Liberal Democrats’ vote was almost enough to win a seat in the Legislative Council in its own right. Given a small flow of preferences it might well have won the final seat ahead of the third Greens candidate.

Those who voted for these parties in the federal election but could not vote for them in the state election are likely to have contributed to the 230,000 informal votes cast in the recent NSW state election. With no party representing their views, deliberately voting informal could seem a logical response.

Incumbent parties in NSW also benefit from new rules governing campaign expenditure, public funding and donations to political parties, which came into effect on January 1 this year. Electoral expenditure has been capped under a formula that limits the three parties (counting the Liberal/National coalition as one) that nominate candidates for all 93 seats plus the Legislative Council to a total expenditure of $9.3 million. A minor party that nominates solely for the Legislative Council, or for the Legislative Council plus up to 10 Legislative Assembly seats, may spend up to $1.05m on the campaign. A party or candidate that attracts 4 per cent of the vote will have their nomination deposit refunded, but public funding of campaigns (based on reimbursement of actual expenditure) is not available unless a party’s candidates achieve at least 4 per cent across all the electorates contested and at least one candidate is elected.

In other words, the money only goes to the victors — who benefit handsomely. A party that spends its allowable $9.3m on a campaign would receive almost $7m in public funding. Even without fundraising during the four years until the next election, that is more than enough to run another effective campaign.

Although fundraising remains important, the new limits have reduced its overall significance. A registered party, including its members and candidates, is not permitted to accept more than $5000 from a single donor. Transfers between federal and other state divisions of a party to the NSW division are subject to the same limit. This will have an impact on the major parties, but only by affecting their fundraising to top up public expenditure.

For a small party seeking to participate in the electoral process, it is a matter of life and death. Even if a party has negotiated the registration process, it must bankroll its election campaign not only without public funding but also without accepting donations exceeding $5000 from party members or supporters.

As a result, it is highly likely that at the next NSW election in 2015 there will be fewer parties than there were this year. The major players will be pleased. Like major corporations squeezing out their rivals to reduce competition, existing political parties are always looking for new ways to get rid of their political competitors. And Australian democracy is all the poorer for it.

Published in The Australian, June 11 2011. Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 34 books, most recently the co-authored Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace, published by Hale & Iremonger.