Monday, 13 February 2023
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning up Political Donations) Bill 2023; Second Reading
Andrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source
That this bill be now read a second time.
Late last year, with the passage of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill, Australians saw a glimmer of hope that this place was ready to take integrity seriously. It was a genuinely significant occasion and, despite the flaws in the commission, the government should be commended for following through with its election commitment of legislating a strong, independent national integrity agency.
But our work is obviously far from done because to restore Australians' dwindling trust in politicians and the political process, we must also legislate to require truth in political advertising, enhance our media freedom laws, provide better protections for whistleblowers, and significantly overhaul our political donations framework. Which is why today I'm reintroducing the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning up Political Donations) Bill 2023.
And I say reintroduced, because when I tabled a similar bill in 2022 it received no support from either major party which, while shameful, was unsurprising when you look at the vast wads of cash the major parties received in the last financial year.
Indeed figures released by the Australian Electoral Commission earlier this month show an absurd amount of money continues to flow to political parties and candidates, often by big corporate entities. In the 2021-22 financial year, for instance, an election year I might add, the coalition received $118 million in donations and the Australian Labor Party received $124 million. Which is bad enough in itself, but made all the worse by lax legislation which ensures the public doesn't know where much of that money came from.
For a start the current disclosure threshold for political donations of $15,200 is way too high, and the current legislation doesn't require donors to disclose if they donate just below the threshold on multiple occasions. So in practice this means, for example, a gambling company can donate $15,199, one dollar below the threshold, on multiple occasions without the public ever knowing about it.
No wonder dark money, that's money with no identifiable source, reached a record-breaking $119 million last year, or some 40 per cent of political party revenue.
And the situation in Tasmania is even more dire, where the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party didn't disclose more than 80 per cent of their donations, and the Labor party almost 90 per cent.
This is plain wrong and my bill will fix it. For a start it lowers the disclosure threshold to $1,000 and requires aggregation, so that multiple donations received from the same source must be disclosed if the sum of all donations meets the threshold.
The bill also requires real-time disclosure of donations, which would be an enormous improvement on the current situation where political entities are only required to disclose donations once a year. In other words at present up to 19 months can pass between receiving a donation and the public becoming aware of it. So, for example, Australians went to the ballot box last May oblivious to the fact that the Minerals Council gave over $100,000 to the Labor Party, and Adani gave almost $110,000 to the Queensland LNP.
To remedy this the bill requires political entities to provide a return to the AEC within two business days of receiving a donation over $1,000. The AEC must then publish the information on its website as soon as reasonably practical. Problem solved.
Indeed if this bill had been enacted before the last election, Australians would have known that one of the biggest online sports gambling companies, Sportsbet, donated $278,000 to the three major parties during the last financial year or that Star Entertainment Group, which notably was found unfit to hold a gambling licence in New South Wales and Queensland, donated $212,000.
Surely voters have a right to know who has bankrolled a candidate or party before casting their vote, because the reality is that government policy is overwhelming shaped by political donations.
How else do you explain sluggish action by the government and alternative government on critical issues such as climate change or gambling reform? Remember, when someone hands over hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, it comes with an expectation of a return on that investment.
This is not a new concept, because several states already require real-time reporting of donations, just as they also ban donations from some unsavoury sources—which brings me to the next point, donations from certain sectors and how they continue to severely impact policy and decision-making.
For instance I have no doubt that the reluctance of both major parties to pursue meaningful reform on climate change is influenced by the enormous amount of money they receive from the fossil fuel industry.
Indeed analysis conducted by the Australian Conservation Foundation shows fossil fuel companies donated $1.4 million to Labor, and $900,000 to the coalition, suggesting the entities sensed a change in government. As ACF Corporate Campaign Manager Jolene Elberth notes:
The fact fossil fuel interests donated more to Labor than to the Liberal and National parties suggests the coal and gas firms sensed Labor was headed for victory and shows the whole point of companies donating to political parties is to gain access to decisionmakers.
This flow of money also highlights the fact that politicians and parties should not be accepting donations from sectors whose businesses cause direct harm to Australians. So that's why the bill prohibits donations from fossil fuel companies, gambling companies, liquor companies and the tobacco industry. It also increases penalties for corporations who breach electoral laws.
Money buys power in this country, and the bigger the money the greater the power. In which case we should all be horrified to learn of the analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity which found that, in the lead-up to last year's election, a mere 10 donors gave 77 per cent of all political donations. But my bill will put an end to that, implementing a cap of $50,000 on the total amount any one donor can donate during an electoral cycle.
It's also why the bill implements a cap on the total amount candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns. Frankly, it's outrageous that Clive Palmer spent a staggering $116 million on last year's federal election, surpassing the unprecedented $80 million he spent during the 2019 election. Politicians should be elected on their policies, their values and what they can offer their community, not on who has the biggest war chest.
And finally, the bill expands the definition of 'gift' to include any payment or activity valued over $1,000 that has the effect of materially benefitting a party or candidate. It also captures money spent to attend political fundraisers and functions.
The community is demanding political donation reform, and many people were dismayed that the earlier version of this bill was not supported by the government and the opposition. There must not be a repeat of that. This time around, the major parties must put selfinterest aside and support the bill.
To conclude, I'd like to thank the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Uniting Church in Australia for their constructive engagement on this bill. In my remaining time, I invite the member for Mayo, who is seconding the bill, to make a few comments.