South Australia’s independent candidates call for change after missing public election funding scheme

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Four South Australians who stood in state elections are calling for a change to election rules, saying it is difficult for independents to navigate.

Lou Nicholson, Liz Habermann, Heather Holmes Ross and Airlie Keen say they have not received public funding to cover some of their campaign costs, despite being eligible.

Candidates are eligible for public funding if they obtain a certain percentage of votes, but only if they register before 5 p.m. on the day they announce their candidacy.

Liz Habermann, who narrowly lost the Flinders seat, said she was unaware ECSA would use press reports about her decision to run to calculate the deadline, even though she had not yet been officially nominated .

Airlie Keen, who showed up at the Hammond headquarters, said the Electoral Commission calculated her registration deadline too early.

“They set my deadline at 5 p.m. on Friday, but my announcement didn’t go out to the media until the same evening and after 5 p.m., so how can you meet a deadline that precedes your actual announcement?” said Mrs. Keen.

Lou Nicholson says that while the public funding program wasn’t a motivation to race, it “softens the financial blow.”(ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission of South Australia (ECSA) said he believed “the financing provisions of the Elections Act have been properly administered”.

“ECSA can only operate within the parameters of the legislation provided to it,” the spokesperson said.

“Following the 2018 elections, ECSA tabled a comprehensive report to Parliament addressing and recommending changes to the funding provisions of the Elections Act.”

This report identified four independent candidates in the 2018 election who would have been eligible for the public funding payment had they filed on time.

“It is difficult to inform independent candidates about public funding because their identity will be unknown until they nominate or make a public announcement,” the report said.

“Even though ECSA provides information on filing deadlines on its social media accounts and website, these are often missed by independent applicants.”

Lou Nicholson – who came within 350 votes of winning Finniss’s seat – said her application for public funding was rejected because she filed her forms six minutes too late.

She said the program was difficult for independents to navigate.

“Current elected members are automatically included in the plan,” she said.

“Major parties back their new candidates to navigate the complex electoral law.

“It is therefore the independents, already facing an uphill battle, who are doomed to failure by these early, arbitrary and strict deadlines.”

A man in a suit and colorful tie speaks to the media
South Australia’s attorney general, Kyam Maher, said the government would consider changing the electoral law.(ABC News: Ethan Rix)

State Independent MP Dan Cregan said he would introduce a bill to “level the playing field”.

Applicants opting into the current public funding program must limit their spending to around $100,000 and agree to regular audits and disclosures.

Mr Cregan’s bill would see candidates automatically signed up to the funding and spending cap, and therefore the integrity and audit rules.

Candidates could opt out under Mr. Cregan’s bill, but must apply a statement to their election advertising notifying the public.

“In my view, these measures will better meet public expectations for campaign finance and integrity and will require candidates not subject to spending limits to let the community know,” he said.

Ms Nicholson, Ms Habermann, Ms Holmes Ross and Ms Keen have written to Attorney General Kyam Maher and Election Commissioner Mick Sherry asking for their support for Mr Cregan’s bill.

Mr Maher said the government would consider, as part of the regular post-election review process, whether any changes were needed to “make it fairer for independents running for parliament”.

“There are laws that the electoral commissioner follows and makes decisions about, so if the laws need to be changed, that’s definitely something we’ll look into,” he said.

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