The 2019 federal election: Was there a level playing field?

Marian Sawer

The multifarious attempts at voter suppression in the 2020 US presidential election might prompt Australians to be grateful for the quality of our own electoral administration. Uniquely, Australia has had since the 19th century a tradition of professional electoral administration, with electoral administrators taking professional pride in an electoral roll as comprehensive and accurate as possible.

But the quality of Australian electoral administration, underpinned by statutory provisions such as compulsory voting, is not sufficient to ensure that democratic principles such as political equality prevail. I have recently been looking at whether the concept of the level playing field is useful in assessing equal opportunity in electoral competition. It has been used by superior courts in a number of countries including Australia, being referred to 18 times by the High Court in Unions NSW v New South Wales.

Outside the courts, the concept has been elaborated in the democratisation literature. Here it foregrounds how electoral competition can be distorted, even without fraud or repression – the more usual focus of electoral integrity assessment. The level playing field as elaborated by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way encompasses access to state resources, the media and the law.

 This is a good starting point, but in developed democracies we need to investigate the hierarchy of incumbency benefits, rather than simply those enjoyed by the governing party (and, of course, the need for effective campaign finance regulation, but that is another matter).

While we hear a lot about benefits enjoyed by parties in government, such as the partisan use of government advertising or discretionary grants programs (‘pork barrelling’), we tend not to hear about benefits more widely shared by elected politicians and parties. 

One little-known incumbency benefit is the Stronger Communities Program introduced in 2015, that benefits all sitting members of the House of Representatives. It provides $150,000 a year for each federal electorate, with applicants only being eligible to apply if invited by their federal MP.  Shared interest in benefits such as this program may be seen as the basis for cartel party behaviour.

Independents, together with cross benchers from minor parties, are also able to negotiate additional benefits when they hold the balance of power.  While all federal parliamentarians are entitled to four electorate staff, cross benchers each gained an additional three staff members after the 2016 election and four after the 2019 election. 

Apart from electorate staff and ‘personal employees’ employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, other incumbency benefits enjoyed by federal parliamentarians include parliamentary allowances covering travel, printing, communications, the maintenance of electoral databases and training in their use. The use of parliamentary allowances for electioneering purposes has long been normalised in Australia, particularly at the federal level.

While the parties in government enjoy the lions’ share of ‘personal employees’ paid for out of the public purse (over 450 at the 2019 federal election), the Opposition had 95 and the Greens 17. Apart from staff, there are other incumbency benefits enjoyed by parties that have gained parliamentary party status. Such benefits include public funding administered by the Finance Department for both party think tanks and international activities.  

For example, under the very secretive Australian Political Parties for Democracy Program initiated by the Howard Government the Liberal and Labor Parties are given $1 million a year and the Australian Greens $200,000 for international work. The funding of party think tanks includes funding of the Nationals’ Page Research Centre as well as the Menzies Research Centre, the Chifley Research Centre and the Green Institute.

The hierarchy of incumbency benefits at the federal level is presented in Table 1 (click image to see in detail), showing it is not just parties in government that benefit from access to state resources. Rather there are diverse political actors competing on the playing field, with incumbents having an advantage over challengers such as parties not represented in parliament.

Attempts to lessen incumbency advantage are more likely to be found at the State level.  For example, in NSW and Victoria parties with elected members have access to administrative as well as campaign funding. To compensate, and to ‘support political diversity’, registered parties without elected members can access designated funding. In NSW parties benefiting over a number of years include the Socialist Alliance and the Voluntary Euthanasia Party.

At the federal level, the use by incumbents of public resources for campaign purposes, contrary to international guidelines for fair elections, calls into doubt our democratic credentials. While the High Court may uphold the principle of political equality, and our electoral administration may be impeccable, unequal access to public resources distorts electoral competition. There is an urgent need to repair the framework whereby resources intended for representative and other government purposes instead tilt the electoral playing field.

Marian Sawer is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) at the Australian National University. Her research article ‘The level playing field: Assessing fairness in electoral competition’ was published in December 2020 in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.