House debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005

Second Reading

4:44 pm

Photo of Gavan O'ConnorGavan O'Connor (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to oppose the Howard government’s Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005 simply because this is quite a deceptive and sinister attempt by a failing government to eke out a partisan political advantage by manipulating the provisions of the Electoral Act and Australia’s electoral processes. Quite dishonestly, I believe, the government attempts to portray this bill as introducing greater integrity to Australia’s electoral processes. In fact it does the opposite, and therein lies the deception of a government that arrogantly believes it can prostitute our electoral processes for partisan political advantage—and, what is worse, it expects to get away with it.

This is a government that has abandoned any standards of propriety in relation to ministerial and government behaviour. This is a government led by a Prime Minister who gave Australians the non-core promise, the never ever GST, the children overboard scandal and the deceit over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and who now denies any knowledge of the AWB scandal over which he and his ministers have presided. And now we have a cynical and quite deliberate attempt to undermine our great democracy by a range of measures in this bill dressed up as enhancing democratic processes in this country.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I recently participated in a parliamentary delegation, led by your Speaker, which visited Malaysia and Japan. By the way, Mr Deputy Speaker, it was a very successful delegation, well led by the Speaker—and of course by the deputy speaker, me, if I can be so humble as to give all the members of that delegation a pat on the back. I think we did this country proud. The more I travel and visit other countries, the more I have come to realise just how precious our Australian democracy is. I think that would be a view that is shared by all members of this place. I am not casting any aspersions on the countries that I visited recently, because this is a view that I have developed over a long period of time visiting other countries. I merely make the observation that we ought to be proud of our history, our democratic institutions, processes and practices and, above all, guard them against those who seek to compromise our great democratic traditions.

I have been around politics for a long time and I make this observation: the worst offenders when it comes to attempting to rort and compromise democratic practice in this country are the conservative Liberal and National parties. We have seen this at the state level in Victoria under the last Liberal Premier, Jeff Kennett, and we have seen the erosion of individual rights and the assault on civil liberties that has been conducted under the guise of the war on terror by this government. The worst offenders when it comes to a wholesale assault on the rights and liberties of Australians are indeed the Liberal and National parties, and here in this legislation today they are at it again.

This bill drips with deceit and hypocrisy. It is not hard to see when you cast your eye over the major provisions in this bill. In an age where apathy often rules the political landscape, where public cynicism casts a deep shadow over that political landscape, we have in this bill a thinly veiled attempt by the government parties to disenfranchise thousands of Australians under the quite spurious justification of restoring integrity to electoral processes. This is clearly demonstrated by the changes proposed by this government to voter enrolment practices and by the new proof of identity requirements.

With regard to the early closure of the roll, the proposal in this bill to close the roll on the third working day after the issue of the writs will have one important consequence: it will effectively disenfranchise, at a conservative estimate, around 280,000 Australians and exclude them from the national vote. That will be a source of national shame to any country that calls itself a democracy. At present the roll closes seven days after the election writs are issued. The government has made two minor exceptions to its new provisions, but as it stands this measure is deliberately being pursued because of the partisan electoral advantage all commentators consider will flow to the incumbent conservative government as a result of these changes.

Dispossession cannot be justified on any available evidence. Indeed, the Australian Electoral Commission had this to say in a 2002 submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters:

7.3           The AEC is on record repeatedly expressing its concern at suggestions to abolish or shorten the period between the issue of the writs and the close of the rolls. That period clearly serves a useful purpose for many electors, whether to permit them to enrol for the first time (tens of thousands of electors), or to correct their enrolment to their current address so that they can vote in the appropriate electoral contest (hundreds of thousands of electors). The AEC considers it would be a backward step to repeal the provision which guarantees electors this seven day period in which to correct their enrolment.

So the experts in the trade, the independent people that we charge with the responsibility to keep our elections fair, have made the strongest statement that this measure will curb the democratic rights of hundreds of thousands of Australians, and that is a source of shame and disgrace for any government that calls itself a liberal government. In putting this on the legislative table, members opposite ought to hang their heads in shame.

Moving on to other provisions of the bill, of particular concern to the opposition is the proposal to amend the Electoral Act to increase the declarable limit for the disclosure of all political donations from $1,500 to above $10,000 and indexing this to the CPI. Quite frankly—let’s not pull any punches on the floor of this House—this is a licence to rort. That is what it is: it is a licence to rort the electoral process and for people in the community to disguise the fact that they are attempting to purchase influence by the donations that they make to political parties.

One of the great strengths of our democratic process has been the transparency we have been able to achieve under the current law in this area. The system may be imperfect—and nobody is claiming that it has perfection—but low limits ensure as best we can that there is a level of transparency and accountability in this very important area. This proposal is a recipe for massive amounts of money going into party coffers without the public being aware of it. The dangers of this for democracy and our political system ought to be apparent to even the most cynical operators on the other side of the House.

Let me outline in some detail for members opposite what might be in store for communities across Australia if these provisions are enacted. In my own community in Geelong we are in the middle of unravelling an unsavoury affair involving the secret donations by Liberal businessmen in Geelong to local government councillors and candidates, including some from my own party, I regret to say. So I bring impartiality to this debate, because what has happened in my community involves both my party and the Liberal Party. The affair has been dubbed ‘Costagate’ and the matter is currently being investigated by a municipal inspector, Merv Whelan, appointed by the Bracks government to examine the affair. It demonstrates the corrosive impact that large, undisclosed campaign donations can have on democratic practice and good governance at any level of government in this country.

Members should keep in mind that we are debating in this bill a provision to increase the threshold for undisclosed donations from $1,500 to 10,000. In November 2004, the conservative Geelong Business News ran a very interesting article on the forthcoming municipal elections which belled the cat on an unholy alliance between the Liberal dominated Costa Group, led by prominent Geelong businessman Frank Costa, and the right wing of the Labor Party, led by none other than ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles and state ALP member John Eren. As history now reveals, the alliance had a financial basis in substantial sums of money being channelled by Mr Costa and other Liberal businessmen to Labor and other candidates. Mr Costa has publicly admitted that he took the hat around to at least five of his Liberal mates and asked them for $10,000 each, which was paid over to his assistant in cash and cash cheque form and then doled out to Labor and other intermediaries to pay for the campaign costs of Labor councillors and others.

The Geelong community was justifiably outraged when this matter came to public attention, but it was blissfully unaware of the ‘cash for councillors’ saga until the media took a deep interest in the matter. When Mr Costa was approached about these undisclosed campaign donations, which had hitherto been a secret, well kept from Geelong ratepayers, he disclosed that three Geelong councillors and other candidates had received undisclosed campaign donations.

But then the real problem started—and this is the point we are making about this bill: if you seek to lift the disclosure limits to $10,000, you will create the sort of problem that my community has faced in Geelong. Prominent Geelong businessman Robert Riordan first denied ever handing over the cash and then later disclosed that it was handed over to a small committee to disburse it to councillors and candidates. Councillor Saunderson, Labor councillor, Labor unity operative and confidant of Mr Marles, who recently contested the seat of Corio, first denied receiving the money and later admitted that he had, but has steadfastly refused to disclose whom he received it from or whether he was part of a small committee that Mr Riordan claimed doled out the dough. Councillor Tom O’Connor—no relation—who has no political affiliation, first denied he had received the money, then said he had and then again denied he received it.

Councillor Brazier, another Marles confidante and supporter, had the good sense not to deny she received the funds, but, in an extraordinary loss of memory, could not remember who donated over $6,000 to her municipal campaign. There is not one member on either side of this House who, having received $6,000 from a campaign source, would not remember who fronted with the money. Yet here, in the bill before us today, this government wants to increase the limit of disclosures from $1,500 to $10,000.

The lessons are quite clear: a failure to demand the disclosure of donations of up to $10,000 by local government candidates in Geelong has led to a web of deceit that has done enormous damage to the credibility of the City of Greater Geelong and to good governance in the Geelong region. The community lives in hope that Mr Whelan’s investigation will shed some more light on this saga. We hope that Mr Whelan can shed some light on the fourth councillor who received funds, the fifth donor and the names of those on the small committee who doled out the slush fund to these councillors. This is the problem that you are potentially going to create here. We certainly hope Mr Whelan can shed some light on the crisis meeting held at Mr Costa’s office and attended by Mr Marles and others, before Mr Whelan’s meeting with council, to hammer out how they were going to handle his investigation—not an open approach to making donations to the political process but ‘how we are all going to cover it up’. This is what your bill is going to create.

The Geelong community is also hoping that Mr Whelan can shed some light on even more disturbing information that council candidates recommended by Mr Costa were interviewed by Mr Eren, a Labor member in Geelong, and his electorate officer, Councillor Saunderson, at Mr Eren’s electorate office in Geelong for their suitability to stand at these council elections. This is an extraordinary saga that clearly demonstrates what will happen when you lift this $1,500 limit to $10,000 and give enormous scope for people to go via the back door in making political donations.

We cannot afford to damage public confidence in our democratic procedures and processes as a result of these sorts of provisions. Under this government’s proposals, even if disclosure laws were in place in the Geelong instance, upping the limit to $10,000 would have permitted the sort of behaviour that has transpired in this affair to remain undisclosed. For those interested in good governance and keeping our electoral system honest and free from corruption, mandatory disclosure of donations with low limits is essential to the transparency and accountability required to preserve good democratic practice.

The AEC, in its annual disclosure returns for 2004-05, indicated that over $143 million was received by the major parties in funding. That is the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Eighty per cent of those donations were donations of under $10,000. If these changes proceed then those 80 per cent of donations will be undisclosed. That is very unhealthy for transparency in electoral processes and for accountability of candidates and donors and it is a danger to democratic practice in this country.

The final matter of substance in this bill that I want to refer to is the onerous proof of identity requirement that the government will now demand. Good democratic process should be about encouraging the widest legitimate public participation in our electoral process in national elections, indeed in state and local government elections. Only this afternoon I spoke to students from Clonard College who were visiting Canberra, the national capital, about the importance of these matters and of making sure that the great democracy we hand on to them is in the best shape possible and that they defend it—they defend the individual rights that are guaranteed in our community and they defend the democratic processes that at the end of the day ensure that they have freedoms to enjoy.

The greater identification requirements for enrolment and for provisional voters in this legislation will make it harder for Australians to enrol and will make it harder for them to cast their votes on election day as well as increasing the bureaucratic burden on the Australian Electoral Commission.

These are serious matters. There are some measures in this bill that, reading through it, I could support and that I am sure other members on this side of the House could support as well. But when you get to the fundamental provisions in this bill, and when you read the detail carefully, you see what a threat to democratic practice this legislation really is. The worst feature of it is that, under the guise of restoring integrity to democratic processes in this country, this government is seeking partisan political advantage. That is regrettable.

The mark of good governance in this country, and the mark of a government of substance, is when it goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that what it introduces in these particular areas does not give itself partisan advantage. That is the great measure of whether a bill reaches particular standards in democratic practice. I warn members opposite: if you do not want across Australia the sort of thing that has happened in my community, by increasing the limits from $1,500 to $10,000, then do not let this particular measure go through in your legislation. If you want to enfranchise many, many Australians, hundreds of thousands of young voters, and get them into the political process, you should abandon the measures in this bill. Ultimately, that will be the best defence that we have as an Australian democracy with these people who are taking an interest in and voting in the political process.

I oppose this legislation. I do so on the basis of experience in my own community. I do so on the basis that I know that the young people I spoke to today from Clonard College want to be a part of the political process. They do not want to be disenfranchised by measures that are contained in this piece of legislation.


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