Unelected independents struggle against incumbents with entitlements, says Rob Oakeshott.
Unelected independents struggle against incumbents with entitlements, says Rob Oakeshott. Jeard Williams

'Incumbency benefits' make political reform difficult: ex-MP

FORMER federal independent MP Rob Oakeshott says the grip the major parties have on power, exacerbated by "incumbency benefits", was the reason why major reforms had become so difficult.

Mr Oakeshott, who has served in federal and New South Wales parliaments, said he believed it was an "anomaly" that federal politicians could use their entitlements to boost their election campaigns.

He said in his time in the NSW Parliament, MPs were not allowed to use entitlements in campaigns because it disadvantaged candidates challenging incumbent politicians.

His comments follow ARM revealing earlier this week federal politicians had used more than $19 million of taxpayer-funded entitlements to boost their profiles during the 2010 and 2013 election campaigns.

"For an unelected independent, this is the big problem you face trying to get elected," he said.

"It's not whether you might be the best candidate; it's that you just don't have the money to compete in advertising in the final two months before a ballot."

But ARM's analysis of entitlement claims showed Mr Oakeshott also spent $57,099 on his printing and entitlement claims during the 2010 election campaign, the final election he contested as an incumbent.

Those funds were out of a total $483,427 he claimed on the entitlement between July 2009 and December 2014 - putting him in the middle range of lower house MPs claiming on the entitlement during that period.

But he said without the "power and money" of the major parties, he saw the entitlement as a "valuable tool to compete against the major parties in those final months".

He said if people accept that advertising worked, the entitlement was "what pays for it", along with private donations.

"In raw politics terms, this is the one issue that hasn't been addressed - advertising does work, and you can do a lot of advertising during the campaign under the entitlement," he said.

"That window (election campaign periods) is where all the money is spent, both through the power of incumbency benefits, public funding and private finance.

"That, to me, is both the key strength of the major political parties and the key weakness of our democracy."

Mr Oakeshott said the imbalance between major party incumbents and independent candidates was "exactly the reason why major reforms have become so difficult".