South Australian independent candidates call for change after missing out on election public funding scheme

Four South Australians who stood at the state election are calling for change to the electoral rules, claiming they are difficult for independents to navigate.

Lou Nicholson, Liz Habermann, Heather Holmes Ross and Airlie Keen say they missed out on receiving public funding to cover some of their campaign costs, despite being eligible.

Candidates are eligible for public funding if they secure a certain percentage of votes, but only if they register by 5pm on the day they announce they are running.

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

Airlie Keen, who ran in the seat of Hammond, said the Electoral Commission calculated her registration deadline too soon.

“They put my deadline at 5 o’clock on the Friday but my announcement was actually only released to the media that evening and after 5 o’clock, so by any measure, how can you meet a deadline that’s before your current announcement?” Ms Keen said.

A blonde woman wearing a blue top in front of a bridge over a river
Lou Nicholson says while the public funding scheme was not a motivation for running, it “softens the financial blow”.(ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

An Electoral Commission of South Australia (ECSA) spokesperson said they believed “the provisions of the Electoral Act in relation to funding have been administered correctly”.

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

“Following the 2018 election, ECSA tabled a comprehensive report in parliament addressing and recommending changes to the funding provisions in the Electoral Act.”

That report identified four independent candidates at the 2018 election who would have been entitled to the public funding payment if they had lodged in time.

“There are difficulties in informing independent candidates about public funding their identities will be unknown until they nominate or make a public announcement,” the report read.

“Even though ECSA provides information about the lodgement deadlines on its social media accounts and website, these are often missed by independent candidates.”

Lou Nicholson — who came within 350 votes of winning the seat of Finniss — said her application for public funding was rejected as she filed her forms six minutes too late.

She said the scheme was difficult for independents to navigate.

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

“The major parties support their new candidates to navigate the complex Electoral Act.

“So it is the independents, already facing an uphill battle, who are set up to fail by these early, arbitrary and strict timeframes.”

A man wearing a suit and colorful tie speaks to the media
South Australian Attorney-General Kyam Maher says the government will consider changes to electoral legislation.(ABC News: Ethan Rix)

Independent state MP Dan Cregan said he would introduce the bill aimed at “levelling the playing field”.

Candidates who opt-in to the current public funding scheme must limit spending to about $100,000 and agree to audits and regular disclosures.

Mr Cregan’s bill would see candidates automatically enrolled in the funding and expenditure cap, and therefore the integrity and audit rules.

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

“In my view, these steps will better meet public expectations around electoral funding and integrity and require candidates not subject to spending caps to make that known to the community,” he said.

Ms Nicholson, Ms Habermann, Ms Holmes Ross and Ms Keen have written to Attorney-General Kyam Maher and Electoral Commissioner Mick Sherry seeking their support from Mr Cregan’s bill.

Mr Maher said the government would consider, as part of the regular post-election review process, if changes were needed to “make it more equitable for independents who run for parliament”.

“There are laws that the Electoral Commissioner abides by, and makes decisions upon, so if laws need changing that’s certainly something we’ll look at,” he said.

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