There was a really interesting story in the Guardian yesterday from Michael McGowan and Joe Hinchliffe about a prospective One Nation candidate and his experiences in the nomination process.
Rob Sinclair, who had previously been listed as an independent candidate in Parramatta, offered to run for One Nation in the same seat. The party attempted to convince him to run in another seat, and at the last minute attempted to get him to fill out a nomination form with the electorate name blank.
This comes on the back of a candidate being nominated for One Nation in the NSW seat of Banks, while also running for the Federation Party in the WA seat of Brand. That candidate, who has local links to Brand but not to Banks, claimed that he nominated for the Federation Party after One Nation told him they did not need him to run for them, and was surprised to find he had been nominated.
While there’s some question marks about how One Nation finds it’s candidates, I think there’s a bigger issue with the rules that determine who gets a spot on the ballot paper: rules that demand large nomination fees but allow parties to nominate anyone they want right across the country.
In an election where a record number of candidates are running in the House, potentially driving up informal rates, I don’t think we have the right settings on who can form a party, and the rights of parties to drop in candidates.
First up, it’s worth noting what the current rules are regarding nominations.
Nominations for the House of Representatives require a fee of $2000. In addition, there are other criteria that differ between parties and independents.
An independent candidate needs to be nominated by 100 electors from the division they are running in, although an incumbent independent MP only needs to be nominated by a single elector.
Party candidates don’t need local nominators, just the sign-off of the party’s registered officer. To have that privilege, parties need at least 1500 members (a recent increase on the previous number of 500). Once the party clears that threshold, they can nominate candidates anywhere in the country, regardless of local presence, as long as they can stump up the fees.
These rules are the culmination of four decades of law changes.
Prior to 1984, there was no legal recognition of political parties as part of the electoral system. Candidates all nominated individually, with no party names on the ballot or special nomination privileges.
The 1984 election was the first time that parties were able to register, and candidates with party endorsement were able to have a party name on the ballot paper. But party candidates still required the same nominators as independents – at the time it was just six.
The law was changed prior to the 1987 election to not require nominators for party candidates. While independents only needed six nominators in 1987, that increased to 50 in 1998 and 100 in 2013.
Meanwhile we’ve seen increases in nomination fees and higher barriers to party registration, both aimed at reducing the wide range of parties and candidates running in elections. While that may have succeeded in the Senate in 2022, it’s clearly not worked for the House, where a record number of candidates have nominated.
I think this balance is off. Increasing nomination fees may effectively stop some people from running, but I don’t think it deals with the real problem.
If we go back to first principles, let’s consider the purpose of barriers to nomination.
They are necessary because exceedingly large ballot papers make it harder for voters to identify the serious candidates, and under a compulsory preferential voting system it drives up informal voting. I suspect if we had no nomination fees or nominator requirements we’d have many dozens of candidates in each seat.
But whatever rules are in place should be fair and not so high that it is not possible for a candidate to meet them if they are serious. I also think there is value in determining that a candidate actually has some small level of support in an electorate.
I don’t think we should limit who is able to nominate for an electorate to those who live in the seat, but I think it’s a problem when parties can toss candidates in from across the country without any local presence.
There are numerous stories of One Nation candidates being nominated in electorates where they have no local connections, not even in the same state. There’s also plenty of history of Palmer-endorsed candidates having little to no local links. That’s not to say that the major parties haven’t ever endorsed candidates who aren’t from a local area, but they usually have at least some local presence and could find nominators if needed.
One Nation and the United Australia Party would have each spent about $300,000 in nomination fees, but would have needed 15,100 evenly-distributed nominators to nominate a full slate of independent candidates, ten times the number of members required for party registration. While $300,000 is a lot of money, it would be a tiny share of the UAP’s campaign budget, and well within the budget for One Nation too. I think finding local people to nominate a candidate would have been a far more accurate test of presence.
I’m sure One Nation has a presence in local areas, and could find a local candidate who can find the nominators if need be, although yesterday’s article implies that the party, if anything, preferred candidates who don’t plan to campaign. But perhaps not in every seat. The party had less than 60 candidates a week out from nominations closing, and this shot up to 149 at the last minute.
That’s before we even mention the Federation Party, a small party who shot from zero to 61 candidates at the last minute. That’s $122,000 in nomination fees, but no need for a demonstration of a tiny amount of local support.
I think our laws have now reached a point where it is more difficult to register a small party, but then give far too many privileges to those who reach that threshold. If our ballot papers are getting too large, we can’t just rely on financial disincentives, which can rule out genuinely local candidates with small budgets while doing nothing to stop parachuted candidates funded by billionaires. A nominator requirement would bring some balance by imposing a test of local support and organising, not just the size of a bank balance.
Perhaps the nominator requirement shouldn’t be 100 for a party, perhaps 50 would be more appropriate. I know for the big established parties it would be a real headache, but perhaps it would be worth it to bring some balance to the kinds of people who nominate for election.
Thanks to Michael Maley for his knowledge and research about when these electoral laws have changed over recent decades.