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Feb 19, 2014

'The day democracy died': how SA killed micro-party dissent

South Australia's new legislation significantly raises the barrier for entry for minor parties. Liam Mannix reports at InDaily that this year's election will have a lot fewer candidates as a result.

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Party registration changes approved by the major parties in South Australian Parliament have run a scythe through the ranks of the micro-parties, with many groups that contested the last election unable to stand this time.

The Australian Democrats, who had representatives in South Australia’s Parliament from 1977 to 2009, won’t field a single candidate. And they aren’t the only ones; micro-party political figures have estimated between 25% and 50% of previously represented parties aren’t going to field a candidate.

Neil Armstrong, an olive-oil salesman standing for the Fishing and Lifestyle Party, has put up $6000 of his savings — all of which he expects to lose — just “for the principle to stand up and fight”. The Independent Climate Sceptics won’t field a candidate either. InDaily has been told One Nation is also out.

Electoral reforms passed with the support of the Liberal and Labor parties late last year dramatically increased the cost of registering as a candidate for the upcoming election. The parties say the reforms were needed to stop micro parties “gaming” the system and winning seats based on few votes. Candidates for the upper house are required to put up a bond of $3000 each, up from $450, and get 250 signatures in support of their nomination.

“When [SA Deputy Premier] John Rau introduced that legislation that was the day democracy died in South Australia,” Armstrong told InDaily. “To put it in fishing terms, they are a protected species, mate.”

Armstrong, 63, is standing against the state government’s changes to marine parks legislation. “I’m here to stick my finger up at the government, shake my fist and say you’re doing this wrong. And I’m not going to take it anymore. We have been done over by minority groups. The Greens have way too much influence over the Labor Party — that’s how this legislation came into being,” he said.

Armstrong reckons that with 10% of the vote the Greens are a minority of “latte-sipping tree huggers”, and he represents the “silent majority” who are too often unwilling to stand up and fight for their rights.

Armstrong and his running mate, Port Lincoln tackle shop owner Damien Smart, have stumped up the money needed to nominate out of their own pockets. But Leon Ashby, a candidate in the last state and federal elections for the Climate Sceptics, hasn’t been able to find the cash or signatures.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” he said. “It’s making politics elite. It’s too expensive. We didn’t have enough time to get the 500 signatures. This has stuffed us all up, so to speak.”

Ashby believes some 50% of minor parties have been forced out. Armstrong, who has been participating in minor party conferences, put that figure at closer to 25%.

The Democrats won’t field a candidate either, national secretary Stuart Horrex has confirmed. The Katter Party, however, is expecting to field two candidates — although head office won’t reveal the names, with Bob Katter expected to be in town Thursday to announce them himself.

Even the “latte-sipping tree huggers” themselves have been affected. SA Greens leader Mark Parnell — who voted against the changes in Parliament — says he has had to find $150,000 to get the names of 50 candidates on ballot papers across the state. “We have to stump up $150,000 cash — or bank cheque. I think it’ll be a bank cheque,” he said.

Rau says he doesn’t like the reforms much, but they are better than the old system — and he hadn’t been able to pass his preferred option, optional preferential voting, through Parliament.

“[We] put the barrier to entry at a level which was sufficiently high to stop people who were just having a lucky dip and attempting to game the system. I make no apologies for it,” he said. “If we had a first-past-the-post system I would agree with you entirely, you could embrace the old Maoist adage of let 1000 flowers bloom. Because those people who get negligible support could not possibly be elected under any circumstances.

“The present system we’ve got is capable of being gamed and manipulated. Why is it democratic that one large single bloc of common thought is defeated by 100 slivers of disconnected thought?”

Shadow attorney-general Stephen Wade said yesterday electoral reform originally proposed by Labor and not supported by his party would have made things far worse for minor parties. “The Liberal Party supported modest electoral reform after the last Senate election to try to reduce the risk of undemocratic harvesting of preferences,” he said.

“We strongly and successfully opposed Labor’s proposals that would have wiped out minor parties and effectively made it impossible for independents to be elected. We would be concerned if genuine candidates were deterred as a result of the reforms. We have committed to a review of the laws after the election.”

Meanwhile, the minor parties still in the game have been busily working out the complicated preference flows needed to have a shot at getting elected. Headed by Glenn Druery, the Minor Party Alliance has been meeting over the last few months in South Australia to iron out preference flows — the idea being that if all the minors pass preferences to each other before the major parties at least one micro candidate should get up.

InDaily has been told the large majority of micro-parties are involved in Druery’s meetings — except Armstrong from the Fishers. “I play the game straight, I’m just a normal person,” Armstrong said. “This gamesmanship, hell, we’ve sort of decided we want to get in on first preferences, not on everyone else’s.”

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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