Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005
I am pleased to be able to speak to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I listened with interest to some of the previous speakers, particularly those who referred to the integrity of our system and to the tendency to follow the American path in relation to ‘donocracy’, as I think it was just called—the capacity of money to influence the outcome of policy.
One of the problems that I see with this legislation is that it reinforces a concern—and one that I think in a sense adds to the erosion of the credibility of the parliamentary and democratic processes—that many people in the electorate have about donations being made to political organisations, particularly through associated entities but through other processes as well, that are not disclosed in any shape or form under the current arrangements. This legislation is very wide ranging and covers a number of issues, and some of them I support. But, on balance, I will be opposing the legislation and introducing some amendments. I know my colleague the member for Calare will be introducing some amendments as well—again, some of which I support and others which I do not.
The common thread throughout the debate that is taking place is a concern about proper and adequate disclosure of donations made by people to political parties—and to Independents, for that matter. There should be proper disclosure when issues such as fuel and renewable energy are being debated, which is occurring at the moment. When various obstacles are put in the way of a constructive renewable energy industry moving forward, one has to wonder who is pulling the strings. The government has been fairly active in moving forward in many other areas, so why is there reluctance to do anything about fuel prices? There is a lot of talk about global energy costs and external factors but very little talk about internal factors and things that can be done domestically. Maybe the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, who is seated at the table, or the minister who will be replying will be able to help me understand this. There is no way that a voter, or even a member of parliament, for that matter, can ascertain who is pulling the strings of the political processes and the political parties, particularly through the associated entity arrangement that has been in place over many years.
I will be moving amendments that essentially maintain the requirement for media broadcasters and publishers to file returns following elections. I think both sides of the political fulcrum are going to oppose that amendment. I will be interested to see whether they do and to hear their arguments as to why they would oppose disclosure by the media. We all recognise that the media play a very important role in the political process, particularly during election campaigns, so why shouldn’t they have to disclose? The only argument that I have heard is that disclosure is an administrative burden on the media. If the government and the opposition vote against my amendment because they are so concerned about administrative burdens, they should have a look at what is happening with the myriad other pieces of legislation that are before the parliament. This concern about the administrative burden that the media would have to put up with really interests me, and I would like to hear the argument pursued by the minister who will be responding.
The issue of public disclosure by media in our current laws is that it only gives a check on the process of disclosure. If we remove that, we remove another check as to who is paying the piper, who is pulling the strings and who is getting something for donating money. The donation will not be observed. In my seat of New England, the only way that you can find out the potential spend of the National Party candidate, for instance, is to look through the media disclosure, because the National Party candidate will inevitably have a nil disclosure. Some people in the public arena might think: ‘He didn’t spend anything. Isn’t he a great candidate? That’s the sort of candidate we want—someone who stands on their own resolve.’ But that is not the reality of the situation.
People are donating a massive amount of money, essentially through associated entities, which is finding its way to the candidates. Some of that money then goes into media for publicity for that candidate, but we do not know who is pushing the buttons of that particular candidate. As an Independent, I have to disclose my donors. People are well aware of how much is donated and who is donating it to my campaigns. But a National Party candidate does not have to do that. I think the broader electorate would rather know who is paying the piper so that they can make an adjudication on the issues that come before the parliament and see what is going on.
Another amendment is for associated entities to become more clearly defined and for their reporting requirements to show who their donors are. In a democratic process, I would have thought that for all of the major parties to have constructed this mirage and to camouflage donations was quite destructive to our political process. At the end of the day, people do not elect parties. They elect individuals to represent their electorate in this place; they do not elect a party. For the parties to hide behind these associated entities is, in my view, a rort of the system. If we need any proof from other democratic nations of where that takes us—of where money, rather than policy and principle, actually becomes the game—we need only look to the United States to see the massive input of political donations there and the whole economy that has been derived from them.
I will be introducing an amendment that requires each candidate, regardless of party affiliation, to file an individual return that indicates their donors and expenditure. I think most people would view that as fair; I think they would view that as happening now. But when they see a massive media campaign taking place in the media and on television screens, and they look up a particular candidate’s disclosure form and it says ‘nil’, they wonder how that happens. We know how that happens, but I think one of the things that has to come out of this process is that people really do need to know what is going on in this so-called democratic institution.
Transparency is obviously a very important part of this process, as is integrity. Before I heard the minister’s second reading speech, I was pleased to see that the bill is actually called the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. On the issue of integrity and our parliamentary processes, and related to the Electoral Commission, I would like to show how our processes can be abused. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be aware of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into Regional Partnerships. You would be aware of the allegations of political bribery that were made. You would be aware of the involvement of Greg Maguire, a businessman from Tamworth. I would like to read from the findings of that inquiry as they relate to the Australian Electoral Commission—and this shows how the process can be abused. Under the heading ‘Possible offence by a witness’, the report states:
1.46 The Committee took evidence from Mr Greg Maguire, a central figure in the allegations of Mr Tony Windsor MP that he was offered an inducement not to stand for the seat of New England at the 2004 federal election. During his appearance before the Committee Mr Maguire claimed that his companies had made contributions to Mr Windsor’s state and federal election campaigns. When asked to provide details to the Committee, he refused to answer but instead undertook to provide the information on notice. The information was important for corroborating some of Mr Maguire’s evidence and was material to the Committee’s examination of the matter.
1.47 Contrary to his undertaking at the hearing, Mr Maguire subsequently failed to provide the information to the Committee. The Committee wrote to Mr Maguire on three occasions to remind him of his undertaking. On the final occasion the Committee drew his attention to Senate procedural resolutions which make it an offence for a witness to fail to answer questions and provide information when required to do so. Mr Maguire informed the secretariat that he would not be making a response.
1.48 During this process the Committee received fresh evidence which raised serious doubts about the veracity of Mr Maguire’s statements. The Committee provided this evidence to Mr Maguire and invited him to comment. Mr Maguire also refused to respond to this material.
1.49 The Committee is deeply concerned by Mr Maguire’s evasiveness on this matter. His refusal to provide relevant information made it difficult to not only corroborate his evidence before the inquiry but also to verify whether Mr Maguire—
and this is a key point—
had disclosed these election contributions to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
1.50 Given the obligation on both donors and recipients to disclose both cash and in-kind contributions to election campaigns, the Committee is concerned that Mr Maguire may be in breach of the Electoral Act. The Committee is particularly troubled by the conflicting evidence provided by Mr Maguire and Mr Windsor, as well as Mr Maguire’s refusal to clarify the matter despite repeated requests by the Committee for him to do so. The Committee intends to write to the Australian Electoral Commissioner asking that the matter be investigated.
That process has taken place. The matter has been referred to the Australian Electoral Commission for investigation. But there are a number of issues that are pertinent to this debate today and to the integrity of the political process. Firstly, when a witness appears before a Senate inquiry they are obliged to tell the truth. In this inquiry, not only were these witnesses under the normal provisions of parliamentary privilege and the normal matters that covered that inquiry but these witnesses had also sworn an oath.
Mr Maguire has made certain commitments to the committee that he has not felt obliged to comply with. It is going to be extremely interesting to see what the Australian Electoral Commission does in the assessment of this breach of protocol before a Senate inquiry. If the Electoral Commission decides that it cannot hear the matter—and that may be its course; I do not know—it will become a matter for the Senate to deal with. If the Senate does nothing to deal with this particular matter, the message it sends about the integrity of our political process is that you can make a whole range of allegations and you can say you are going to perform in terms of the delivery of evidence to a parliamentary inquiry and not do so. I think it will be an extraordinary set of circumstances if in fact that does occur. Hopefully it will not. Hopefully the Australian Electoral Commission will make inquiries. But to this day I have not been contacted by the Australian Electoral Commission asking about political donations from one Mr Maguire.
Mr Maguire also made the point to the committee that he could not recall which of his 37 companies had made the supposed donations to one Mr Windsor and that he would provide information on the 37 companies. To my knowledge he has not done that. When you do a search of some of these companies, you find Mr Maguire apparently has two names: Gregory Kenneth Maguire and Gregory Kevin Maguire. So I think there are some real matters of integrity that are going to be before this independent body, the Australian Electoral Commission, which makes decisions on the integrity of our election process. I would ask this parliament and the Special Minister of State, who will be responding soon, to make sure that the Australian Electoral Commission does everything in its power to examine this matter, referred by a Senate committee, of a witness who was under oath. It is an extraordinary circumstance that in one of our committees a sworn witness agreed to provide information under oath but that information has not been provided.
I will be moving some amendments to this bill and I know my parliamentary colleague the member for Calare will be introducing many amendments as well. Hopefully some of these amendments will be accepted, but in total I doubt very much whether I will be supporting the general thrust of this legislation. What it does is an insult to the voter in that people can make political donations in this nation, that those donations are hidden and that there is no capacity for the normal voter or even a member of parliament to find out where the money went and what deals were done in terms of the money—with the little nods and winks that would be going on as money is donated—when that money cannot be sourced back to the original wallet from whence it came. I think that is an extraordinary thing. The Electoral Act is bad enough at the moment but to be making it worse by way of amendment, in terms of the public disclosures that people make and the capacity for individuals to look at their democratic processes and ascertain the integrity or otherwise of donations, is appalling.