NSW councils are calling for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into electoral funding law, after legal advice showing new legislation could actually make elections less fair – and may actually be unconstitutional
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) president Linda Scott said the Electoral Funding Act 2018 – rushed through the parliament in May – imposed inconsistent expenditure caps for candidates and appeared set to stifle information that could help voters make their choice at the ballot box.
Cr Scott released legal advice that identified a series of flaws and potential unintended consequences flowing from the Act, and called on the Berejiklian government to make good on its promise to refer the legislation to a Joint Standing Committee for review.
“Local government supports a move to clearer, cleaner elections at all spheres of government, but the Electoral Funding Act fails to provide this,” Cr Scott said.
The Act effectively introduced expenditure caps on local government candidates, parties and third-party campaigners but applies complex formulas that do not provide for consistent campaign expenditure across the state.
For example, a candidate for Orange City Council would be allowed to spend 17 cents per voter, compared with 69 cents per voter by a candidate for Dubbo Regional Council.
In rural Walcha, the allowable spend is $8.71 per voter. Meanwhile in metropolitan areas, a Campbelltown City Council candidate would be allowed to spend $0.05 per voter, compared with the $0.44 per voter allowed in Waverley.
“This new legal advice tells us there is no consistency in the application of caps and an obvious disparity in allowable funding – not only between metropolitan and regional areas, but within those areas themselves,” Cr Scott said.
“The provisions of the Act fail to establish a scheme that is fair and equitable to all registered voters across NSW.”
The Act also imposed expenditure caps on third party campaigners – groups such as LGNSW, the NSW Farmers Federation, the Country Women’s Association, ACOSS and the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association.
“The cap for council elections is as low as $2500 per local government area, and around $61,500 per electorate in state elections, making it extremely difficult for community groups to promote key policy issues to voters,” Cr Scott said.
“This legislation could be perceived as a gag law, and may be inconsistent with the implied right to freedom of communication – a position the courts have said is necessary to ensure voters can exercise an informed choice at the ballot box.”
Cr Scott said it was time for the government to make good on its commitment to review the legislation properly by referring it to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
“LGNSW welcomed the state government’s commitment to refer the Act to a parliamentary inquiry in May, but more than two months later this has not occurred.
“LGNSW is calling on the government to refer the new electoral laws to a parliamentary inquiry immediately.
“The Act clearly requires sensible amendment well ahead of the 2019 state elections and the 2020 local government elections, and that means acting now.
“It’s the only way councils and communities will get the electoral certainty, consistency and fairness they deserve,” she said.