Thursday, 29 October 2020
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
This Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 is simply unsupportable because it will have the effect of watering down the state and territory donation laws. So I will vote against the bill. Frankly, I am shocked that the government would seek to water down political donation laws at a time when the country is crying out for much stronger political donation laws. It is abundantly clear that, at the federal level, our political donation laws are unsatisfactory and need to be reformed deeply. For example, the disclosure threshold of $14,300 is ridiculously high. We are all doing okay in this place, but to the average member of the community that is an enormous amount of money and it is more than enough money to influence a candidate or political party. So why do we tolerate that? In fact, not only do we tolerate that $14,300; we agree that it should be indexed from time to time. It is way too high.
The fact that, currently, the disclosures can be made well after an election is ludicrous, because the fact is that, when a voter goes into the polling booth, he or she needs to know and often wants to know who has bankrolled the candidates and the parties that are on the ballot paper in front of them. Most donations in a political cycle come in very close to an election and so are not disclosed until maybe 18 months later, when the election is long forgotten and people have lost interest in that election. That is entirely unacceptable.
There is no limit on how much any one donor can donate. It is bizarre. In Australia, if you've got a hundred million dollars, you could donate the whole lot to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party or a candidate or whoever you want. That's an absurdity. What that ensures is that the richest donors, the richest people, effectively have more political power than other members of the community. What on earth happened to the idea of one person, one vote of equal value? It doesn't exist in this country, because we live in a country where, regrettably, money buys political power and the people with the most money have the most political power, and that's entirely unacceptable.
There are also no limits on who can donate. It's not unusual for some parties in particular, some candidates in particular, to be very happy to take money from the tobacco industry, certainly the gambling industry, and some other dubious industries. What we in this place should do is have a bill before the House that brings in some of the safeguards that exist in states and territories about exactly who can donate. The fact that the bill on the table will undercut those very safeguards I think is unconscionable.
Also, we don't have any restrictions at all on non-overtly political actors when it comes to what they're up to. I would have thought that if, say, an industry group or maybe an individual was to, say, run an advertising campaign that had clear political connotations and steered people towards one political point of view or another, surely the expenditure on that should be regarded as a political donation. Let's talk about the mining industry, back when the mining tax was a big issue. The behaviour of the mining industry at that point was to any reasonable person a political donation to the LNP because it had the material effect of benefiting the LNP.
We have all sorts of strife when it comes to political donations in this country, and it beggars belief that we're not in here talking about them and addressing them. The fact is we do live in a country where people buy political influence. Let's face it, when a person or a corporation, for example, donate a large sum of money it's not through altruism. It's because they want a return on that investment, and—heavens!—don't they often get a return on that investment. I'm reminded of a somewhat remarkable quote from a former senator—I won't say who it was—who once said that if someone donates $1,000 they support you and if someone donates $100,000 they've bought you. Regrettably, that senator ultimately did take a donation of over $100,000 and was in a very awkward situation, but the point he made is a very valid point. When you look at the returns that we do get from the Electoral Commission you see enormous donations are being made. For example, in 2011 James Packer donated $250,000 to the fledgling Katter's Australian Party at the very point in time when Bob Katter personally had a crucial vote with the poker machine reforms I was trying to push through the parliament. Why did James Packer give Bob Katter $250,000 at that point in time? Was it altruism? No. It was no better, quite frankly, than what happens in some of the countries we criticise for a bag of cash being handed over. The only thing that made it better than a bag of cash in some dodgy country was that, many, many months later, it was revealed to the public, too late to make a difference to the community.
While I'm talking about Crown, it's worth remembering a very interesting statistic. The member for Mayo just last week mentioned the revelation that Crown has donated almost $2 million to political parties in the last 10 years or so. Almost $2 million from Crown has gone to the major political parties over 10 years, and then we wonder why there's no interest in this place for a royal commission into the casino industry and Crown casino. Of course there won't be, because you're all on the take. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party—you're all on the take. Someone is paying millions of dollars in political donations, and what a great return on that investment they're getting.
The solutions are very, very simple. Ideally we would have publicly funded elections. In other words, we would ban all political donations. Instead of any political donation, candidates and parties would get a modest and known amount of money, and that's all they would be allowed to spend at election time. That would be ideal. I know that would be something that some members of the community would not support, but a government with leadership, the opposition, the crossbench—if we all educated the public so they understood the benefits of publicly funded elections, I think we would have the vast majority of the people supporting it.
If we don't want to go that far, we could perhaps adopt the New Zealand model, where donations are allowed but the expenditure is capped in certain areas so that donations become much less important. For example, in New Zealand, the parties are limited in what they can spend on television advertising. If there was a limit on how much you could spend on television advertising here, heavens! Poor old Palmer United Party—they'd be reined in. It wouldn't matter that Clive Palmer is a very wealthy man and buys political influence. If there was a cap on how much TV advertising he could run then all of that wealth would become much less important.
If we're not going to have publicly funded elections and if we're not going to put caps on election expenditure, why don't we do the really easy stuff? Why not have, for example, a donation disclosure threshold of $1,000—not $14,300 but $1,000. That would makes sense. That would mean that anyone who's handing over $50 or $100—a small, modest donation from a regular member of the community—would not be disclosed. That would actually be agreeable to many of those donors. For example, if you're in the Public Service you might not want, for good reason, a $50 donation disclosed, for fear that it might be damaging to your career in some way. It's the same with a teacher or a police officer or even just someone in the workplace whose views are at odds with their boss's. So make those really small donations confidential, but donations over $1,000 should be disclosed.
Another solution, one that is so important, is real-time reporting. There is no technical reason why every single donation in this country can't be up on a website within perhaps 24 hours of the donation occurring, instead of 18 months after the election, when the information is next to useless. At the last federal election, I'm proud to say I had real-time reporting of donations over $1,000. They were up on my website, andrewwilkie.org, within 24 hours. I think Senator Jacqui Lambie did the same thing, and perhaps some of my crossbench colleagues as well. The feedback from my community was very positive. People really liked to see that, and they certainly would like to have seen it rolled out by the major political parties.
That's a very interesting point, actually. We don't need to change the law for candidates and parties to improve their behaviour. I note that the opposition is going to move an amendment to this bill, which I will support, to bring in changes like a $1 disclosure threshold. If the opposition is fair dinkum about that—and I hope they are—they don't need it to become more for them to do that themselves at the next election. If the government's got some bright ideas, they don't need the law changed either to change their behaviour at the next election. But again it's left to us crossbencherse to set the example and take the lead on this sort of thing.
We also need a prohibition on donations from problematic sectors. That is just self-evident. And the obvious one is the gambling lobby. Put an end to Crown casino donating a couple of hundred thousand dollars every year for a decade. Put an end to Jamie Packer giving a quarter of a million dollars to Bob Katter when his vote was crucial on poker machine reform. Put an end to all that. Say the gambling industry is out of bounds, as are other unethical industries, like the tobacco industry, for example. There are other industries we might consider in that list as well. Certainly the state and territory governments are very alert to property developers.
We could also put a cap on the gross amount of donations from any one source during an electoral cycle. I will leave it to experts to come up with the exact figure—maybe $10,000 maybe $100,000. I'm open-minded about what the exact figure is. But these donors that just trickle the donations out a bit at a time, under the threshold every time, need to be reined in. We need to say that no one company in this country and no one person in this country should have more political power than any other organisation or person. So we might make it that $10,000 is the maximum amount that Westpac, CommBank, BHP or someone down the road can donate to any one candidate.
We also need to be much more alert to the fact that, for anyone or any organisation that does anything that materially benefits a political party or a candidate, the value of what they do should be regarded as a political donation. If I start putting billboards up around Hobart supporting the policy of some other political party then the value of me doing that should be regarded as a donation to that political party. I think that's self-evident. Probably the most important thing we should do—and it's already been touched on by the crossbench many times, including before me this morning, is have an integrity commission. The Electoral Act is very narrow. The Electoral Commission has very limited powers—way too limited. If we're not going to bolster the act and the AEC then it is even more important that we have a federal integrity commission that can go to areas where the AEC and the Electoral Act don't go, because there are so many issues which really double up.
We've seen it in the recent times, where political donors mysteriously get a political favour after the election. Why did Foxtel get $30 million or $40 million? Where did that come from? Why did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation get all that dough? What was this land sale for Badgerys Creek the other day? Of course, the governments say there is nothing to see here, that it's just happenstance that a big, fat political donor gets a big, fat political pay-off after the election. It's corruption. And that's why we need an integrity commission of some kind.
Again it's left to the crossbench to take the lead. It's fascinating that it's pretty much only the crossbench that's speaking on this bill.