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Mainstream media targets Independent candidate spending

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Reporting on political campaign spending has resulted in false claims against Independent candidates (Screenshot via YouTube)

Recent articles focusing on the social media spending of Independent candidates at the 2022 Federal Election are the latest attempt from the mainstream media to prop up the status quo of Australia’s political duopoly.

The social media spend of Independent candidates was first reported by the ABC and regurgitated a few days later by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian; a few rants on Sky News after dark soon followed.

The articles “uncovered” that Independent candidates and Climate 200 were outspending all other individual candidates on Facebook. For those who aren’t politically engaged (the vast majority), these articles give a false impression that the campaigns of Independent candidates are going to outspend the major parties, which is of course completely untrue.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Liberal and Labor Parties spent $14.5 million and $13.3 million respectively on television, radio and newspaper advertising during the 2019 Election. Those figures don’t include outdoor advertising, such as billboards and any other costs such as printing, t-shirts, legal advice, flights, corflutes, software and offices that come with all political campaigns.

In truth, the total spending of political parties (or any candidate) during an election remains unknown. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in their review of the 2019 Federal Election, determined that campaign spending has increased exponentially since 1987 and that accurate figures on campaign spending are not available, as electoral spending returns haven’t been required since 1987.

However, the 2008 Electoral Reform Green Paper cited by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters estimated that the Liberal and Labor Parties spent a total of $22 million and $19.4 million on the 2004 Federal Election respectively — and there is no reason to believe those totals haven’t increased exponentially at each Election since.

For those who are politically engaged, the social media spending of independent candidates makes sense. Many Australians are stuck in a Labor vs Liberal mentality which is reflected in their attitude at the polls. For these voters, their decision this year will be a question of Morrison vs Albanese, with little care of whom the Labor or Liberal candidates in their electorate are.

The social media spend of Independent candidates is vital in informing their electorates that an alternative exists. Candidates of major parties don’t need to do this because voters know that there will be a Labor or Liberal/Nationals candidate in their electorate at every Election.

This is why we see a higher social media spend from Independent candidates; getting their name out there early is vital and Facebook advertising is a cost-effective method of achieving exactly that. Independent candidates can’t afford to slap their face onto every billboard in their electorate, which is exactly what some politicians are doing.

Surely the unknown amount of election spending on advertising and other areas outside of social media is the real story here. What use is there in informing the public that Independent candidates are spending $30,000 on Facebook ads each month without citing the huge spending of the major parties in other areas?

By writing articles on the most cost-effective advertising method available to Independent candidates, instead of highlighting the huge election spending of the major parties, the mainstream media is propping up the status quo of Australia’s political duopoly.

The amounts spent on social media are only known because Facebook and Google provide that information directly to the public. Imagine if spending on billboards was easily available information. Imagine if all political donations were disclosed in real-time and imagine if no donors were hidden. Imagine if we knew how much the major parties had spent on their campaigns before we voted. Imagine if there was a cap on election spending.

Australian politics needs serious election spending and donation reform. That’s the real story the mainstream media should be focusing on. Independents spending money on Facebook ads to get their name out there is not news and it’s not noteworthy.

Sky News and The Guardian, in their coverage of this topic, also incorrectly referred to Independent candidates as “Climate 200” candidates. Whilst there is certainly nothing negative about receiving financial support from Climate 200, they are not a political party. If the mainstream media is going to label candidates receiving funding from Climate 200 as “Climate 200” candidates, they should start referring to Liberal and Labor candidates as Ampol or Santos candidates for fairness and consistency. At least there are no strings attached to donations from Climate 200.

In addition to the millions of dollars that the majority parties receive in donations and then spend on elections, those who receive over 4 per cent of the first preference vote also receive election funding payments from the AEC. Whilst minor parties and Independent candidates receive this funding also, the fact that The Liberal and Labor Parties received $27,569,610.09 and $24,684,039.58 of taxpayers' money from the AEC after the 2019 Election is probably something the country and the media should also be talking about.

Hayden O’Connor is an I.T. professional from Tasmania who currently lives in Melbourne. You can follow Hayden on Twitter @HaydenJOConnor.

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