Thursday, 29 October 2020
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] Isn't it amazing: the government doesn't have time to deal with a federal ICAC because, apparently, it's dealing with the COVID pandemic; but it does have time to bring legislation to the parliament to allow for the laundering of political donations, to allow for the weakening of our federal donations laws so that state rules which restrict donations from developers and other kinds of corporations can now be circumvented by making a donation directly to the federal parties. Apparently, we can't get around to having a national integrity commission which would put the blowtorch on politicians and make sure that there was no corrupt behaviour happening in Canberra; we can't do that because the legislative workload is too big. What the government has got on the table to pass instead is this bill which says we are going to make it easier for developers, big corporations and corporate money to influence politics. Surprise, surprise, the Liberals are doing it hand in glove with the Labor Party, who are rushing this through with some very short speeches to make sure this gets all done and ticked off with a limited amount of public scrutiny.
Let's be clear about what this bill does. This bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020, is designed to make it easier for corporations to donate to big political parties where the state laws would make it harder for them to do it. In other words, this bill opens up a loophole that allows corporations to get around state laws which, for example, might say developers or other forms of corporations cannot donate or that might have more stringent requirements about when the public gets to find out who has donated. All of those things that state governments are starting to take some steps to rein in, because they are having an impact and because it's been bringing a bit of sunlight, transparency and integrity to politics the government now wants to open that up and make it easier for corporations to get around those state laws.
What does it say about the priorities of this government at a time when people are crying out for a national integrity commission where politicians would be held to the same standard in Canberra as they are in state parliaments. People want that because they have seen state ICACs send ministers of both Labor and Liberal persuasion to basically have them convicted. They have seen them convicted of criminal offences. Because those ICACs have been successful at the state level, the public knows, rightly, that corruption doesn't stop at the ACT border. The idea that politicians in Canberra are somehow of a different ilk than politicians in state parliaments is fanciful—and the public knows that. That's why the public is demanding that the federal government take action and legislate a national integrity commission.
What is crystal clear is that a big part of the reason politics has become so corrupt is the influence of corporate money. Corporations are able to make massive donations to big political parties—to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals. Political parties take those donations and, in return, the corporations expect the politicians to do their bidding. That is why people are so fed up with politics. Politics increasingly works for the developers and for the big corporations, but it doesn't work for the people. We see it time after time after time. We see it with our climate change policy in this country. The gas and coal corporations donate millions of dollars to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals and, as a result, climate policy in this country gets taken backwards. We had a successful carbon price when the Greens were sharing power; because of corporate power in politics, it got repealed.
We've seen it with the mining tax. A proper mining tax would mean people wouldn't have to pay as much to send their kids to school with so-called voluntary school fees. Or you might not have to pay as much for your electricity bill because it hadn't been privatised; instead, we had revenue coming into the public kitty that was available to be invested in public services. That mining tax got knocked off because of the influence of big corporations and mining billionaires. When these people and these corporations donate to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals they expect something in return—and they get it. That is part of the reason people are fed up with politics. So not only do we need a national integrity commission—a national ICAC, which the government says it's too busy to do, because instead it's busy passing laws to weaken donation rules—but we also need to get the corporate money out of politics with donations reform.
When the government said, 'We're bringing a bill to parliament that is going to bring about donations reform,' for a moment some of us were a bit excited, because we thought that maybe the government and Labor had listened to the people who want to get the corporate money out of politics. But, no. What do we have? Instead, we have a bill that opens up new loopholes. Labor and Liberal are both defending this bill and both passing it through the parliament as quickly as they possibly can, with the minimum of scrutiny, because apparently it's more important that political parties are able to get big corporate donations than it is to pass a national integrity commission. In the arguments for this bill, they have said, 'We wouldn't want state efforts to somehow undermine federal laws.'
Do you know what? The states are doing what the federal parliament is refusing to do. Some states, under significant pressure from the public, have taken steps to rein in the role of corporate donations. They have done it in three ways. One way is that they have said there are certain kinds of corporations that can't donate. So in some places you have bans on developers donating, for example.
A second way is they've said there are going to be limits on how much you can donate. That is good, because sometimes that goes hand-in-hand with caps on how much political parties can spend. And that's something we have to do—we have to put caps on not only on how much can be donated but how much can be spent during elections, because if you turn off the ability to spend it at the end, you are going to also turn off the reason to start getting so much money in in the first place. That's something that some state parliaments have done, and it's starting to work. It's starting to get the money out of politics.
The third thing that some state parliaments have done is say, 'Voters have the right to know, quickly, who is donating to what political party.' This is important. This is critical, because, at the federal level, it can be years before you find out which corporations have donated to Labor or Liberal or the Nationals. It can be years before you find that out, and by that time the election has been and gone and you've cast your vote, thinking, 'Maybe, the politician I voted for will act independently', without knowing that they're actually a wholly-bought subsidiary of the corporation that paid for them. Some have suggested that it might be a good idea if politicians were forced to wear the logos of their donors on their suits when they come in, a bit like football players who wear their sponsors on them, so that at least you could have some insight that this particular politician was bought by Santos gas, or this politician was bought by a coal corporation. But, until that happens, the next best thing we've got is disclosure of the donations. So we need to restrict how much these corporations can donate and we need to limit how much can be spent, but, for so long as we have these donations, the public is entitled to know who is donating. These should be laws that apply across the board. Some states have started to do that, so that you know, in closer to real time, about the donations that have being made.
This bill, which Liberal and Labor are ramming through, will enable donors to get around it. How? How do you get around it? You donate to the federal party instead of donating to the state party that might be subject to the state laws, and then you're not subject to those stringent rules anymore. If, internally, the federal party wants to then slosh that corporate money back through to its state entity, well, this law doesn't deal with that. This law leaves that option to them. And won't find out about it for years.
That is why the Greens say that this weakening of our donations laws by Labor and Liberal and the Nationals working hand-in-hand to rush a bill through the House is another threat to democracy. It's another threat to democracy because it allows the big corporations to have a huge say over what happens in parliament. For so long as the money is able to come in and control what politicians do and how politicians vote, politics is going to be about putting the corporate interests ahead of the public interest for Labor and Liberal and the Nationals. So it's no surprise that the establishment parties are lining up to rush this bill through parliament ahead of having a federal integrity commission. They are doing it because they take corporate donations.
The Greens don't take the big corporate donations because we know that when you are taking in donations you have got to be crystal clear that it is not going to affect the position that you take in parliament. So we don't get the big corporate donations that the others do. But they do. They would much rather keep getting the money from corporations, so they are prepared to pass this bill—Labor, Liberal and Nationals—to circumvent state laws that shine a bit of light on political donations. They are passing this law to get around state governments who have taken steps to restrict political donations, and they are doing it ahead of having a federal integrity commission.
This law speaks volumes about the priorities of this government and this parliament. It is apparently more important to keep the door open and find a back door to allow political donations to flow through to state parties through the federal party than it is to tighten things up. It is time in this country to get—