Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Bruce has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
As I was saying before question time, the measures in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005 will disenfranchise many people, particularly young people such as those up in the gallery today. The reason young people will be disenfranchised is that, as I said before question time, if their names are not on the roll when the election is called their names will not be on the roll for that election. They will not have the period of grace they have now.
The government has claimed it is doing this because it wants to strengthen the integrity of the roll and the electoral system. This bill does not do that; it merely disenfranchises people. As it is, the Australian Electoral Commission has very strong protocols to ensure the integrity of the roll. Through doorknocking and through direct mail they are able to ascertain whether people continue to live at the address where they are enrolled, and if the people they are surveying do not respond they are removed from the electoral roll after all efforts have been made to ensure that they are no longer at their enrolled address.
It is curious that the requirement to come up with a photo ID will also be very troublesome for a number of people. Obviously people who do not drive do not have a drivers licence to rely on. People who are from non-English-speaking backgrounds will find the increased complexity of the system difficult to comprehend. People in rural and regional Australia, and in remote Aboriginal communities in particular, will face a higher risk of exclusion from our political processes. But, as I said earlier, it is young people whom I particularly want to focus on today. Antony Green, who is a noted expert in this area, said in his submission to the Joint Standing Committee into Electoral Matters inquiry in 2004:
If suddenly the election is called two or three months early, people will not have regularised their enrolment. You will cut young people off, as the numbers show ...
Professor Costar, whom I spoke of earlier, told the same committee inquiry:
Good reasons would need to be adduced to justify the denial of the vote to such a large cohort of citizens; especially the new enrolees, most of whom would be young people ...
You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I mentioned earlier that 75,000 new enrollees were enrolled in the period of grace at the time of the last election. Those 75,000 new enrollees would miss out entirely under the system that the government is proposing. If the government were serious about strengthening democracy and improving the integrity of the electoral system there are many things it could do. For a start it could address the very high rate of informal votes. We know that in the last election 639,851 people voted informally. Surely with better voter education we could bring that figure down. It seems shocking that over 600,000 people wasted their votes in the last federal election.
The other thing the government could do if it were serious about strengthening democracy and improving the integrity of the electoral system would be to improve voter turnout. Almost three-quarters of a million people who were enrolled to vote did not turn out to vote in 2004. The exact figure was 743,478—that is, almost three-quarters of a million people did not turn out to vote in the last election.
The government also has the opportunity to pre-enrol more 17-year-olds. At the moment, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker, a 17-year-old can fill out the paperwork with the Australian Electoral Commission and lodge that paperwork before they turn 18, and their enrolment becomes effective on their 18th birthday. The day these young people turn 18 they go onto the electoral roll. This is a provision that the Australian Electoral Commission offers, but it is certainly not something that this government has promoted. If we are serious about the integrity of the electoral roll—getting people registered and getting them registered in their right names and at their right addresses—surely provisional enrolment of 17-year-olds is something the government should be supporting and throwing some resources into. Instead, we have a piece of legislation that will disenfranchise, on the count of the last election, probably over 75,000 young people enrolling to vote for the first time and over 300,000 people who have changed their address since the previous election. You are looking at hundreds of thousands of people who want to vote, who are desperate to vote, who are desperate to send the Howard government a message, missing out on their chance to vote.
It is extraordinary that people speak of young people as somehow not being interested in politics. That is not my experience of young people at all. I am lucky enough to engage with young people in my own electorate and in the schools that I visit, and through Labor’s youth consultations I have been able to meet young people around Australia. They are passionate about this country. They are passionate about international politics—issues of poverty, the Iraq war, refugees, global warming and the rights of workers in developing countries. All sorts of issues are raised with me as I travel around during my youth consultations. I tell you: it is not that young people are not interested in politics and not interested in how the world is run; it is that they have received a consistent message from this government that their voice does not matter. They are being told now that it does not matter whether they get a vote, even if they are entitled to one. In fact this legislation will make it harder for them to vote.
This legislation comes on top of 10 years of discouraging young people from speaking out. It comes on top of junking the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition after decades of bipartisan support for this peak body. It comes after reducing young people’s entitlement to youth allowance and other income support. It comes after ignoring the plight of thousands of young students who are homeless every night in Australia. We believe that up to 26,000 young people under the age of 24 are homeless on any given night in Australia. These are the issues that young people care about, and to rob them of their vote and their ability to vote by introducing this regressive legislation is a disgrace.
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.
I rise, like my colleagues, to oppose the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I am surprised and saddened that in 2006 in Australia we are discussing a bill that acts so strongly to weaken what is a great electoral system in this country. This bill is without any doubt entirely about political power. It is about weakening the power of voters and about strengthening the power of political donors in this country, all for the absolute good—and only the good—of the Liberal Party.
I have believed in the power of the vote ever since I was a child—the power of a single vote in this country. That was years before I discovered what that really meant in a marginal seat. In a seat like mine, which I hold by 0.7 per cent, the numbers that change the course of government are very small. In a community of 3,000, 10 people changing their mind gives a swing of 0.7 per cent. In the local soccer club of 100 people, one person changing their mind and voting the other way gives a swing of 0.7 per cent. In those circumstances, one person who is informed, engaged and active in a community can dramatically change the course of an election.
But this is not just true in marginal seats. Unfortunately, we cannot lock all of our electors in the one electorate—they cross borders, they go into safe seats and they work in other seats, they play sport in other seats, they get their information from across the community. So even people in safe seats, who sometimes feel quite powerless, have extraordinary power to influence the votes of the very small number of people who ultimately affect the direction of an election. Individuals in our society have extraordinary power—and so they should. When I was campaigning I discovered the many people in my electorate who no longer believe in the power of their vote, who believe that it is not particularly useful to engage in the political process at all. By opting out, they make that lack of power a reality.
I believe that this parliament, all of our parliaments and all members of this House have a fundamental responsibility, as custodians of the important positions that we occupy temporarily, to leave our democracy in a better state of health than we found it in. That means more empowered voters—more informed, more engaged, more active. We should be judged not just by what we achieve in government or in opposition but by the state of the political process and the reputation of the positions that we hold when our terms are over and we pass those positions to the next person.
We do that, unfortunately, in Australia at the moment in the context that the average person is becoming less and less sure of the political process. Many believe that politicians do not listen any more to the people in the street but that we do listen to unnamed voices of wealth, big business and power. Our job is to improve the integrity of the democratic process in our local areas and federally and to leave our electorates more engaged, more empowered and more informed. That does not mean only empowering the voter but ensuring that the real power is with voters and that it is not unduly influenced by the flow of money through the electoral system. The power is with voters and not with donors. That means that donations to political parties need to be open. People need to feel that their vote is important and they need to engage and participate. Business needs to know that policy cannot be bought with campaign donations. The structure of our systems must allow broad participation as candidates, not based on wealth alone. We must not follow the American path where winning and losing becomes more a matter of money and advertising than the characteristics of our candidates. How this government will be judged at the end of its term will depend greatly on the support for the bill that it has put before us today.
This bill fails the test of lifting the integrity of our democratic system by fundamentally undermining the value of the voter and profoundly increasing the value of political donations. It is ironic that this bill has in its title the words ‘electoral integrity’. When you see that, you might think that it does actually improve the integrity of the system. You would be foolish to think that, of course, because we have seen in the last couple of months many bills with names that make a lie of the content of the bill. We have seen Work Choices legislation that offers no choices to workers. We have seen Welfare to Work legislation that traps people into welfare. This electoral integrity bill undermines the electoral integrity of our great system.
Let us start looking at the ways in which our system is weakened by this bill. There are quite a few. They are all significant changes. Some make it easier to have political influence and to participate in the political process, and some make it harder but, ironically, it makes it easier to participate in the political processes in areas where the general public would find that a negative. It makes it easier for people to donate secretly to political organisations—to donate behind closed doors by raising the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to $10,000—and easier to donate by increasing the threshold for tax-deductible donations; in other words, asking taxpayers to subsidise political, behind closed doors donations. This is a movement towards donocracy, not democracy. It makes it harder in areas where the Australian public would feel it should be easier. It makes it harder to vote. It does this by closing the roll essentially on the day that an election is called and by making it more difficult to enrol in the first place. It makes it more difficult for ordinary people to vote. It makes it harder for community groups to comment on government policy by introducing new disclosure regulations for organisations, but it makes it much easier for people and businesses with extra cash to donate to political parties secretly. When they do donate, it asks taxpayers to subsidise the donations but then will not give you a list of whom exactly you subsidised.
There is a lot of concern about the changing power in our society. I hear about it at the mobile offices when I am out there and when I am doorknocking. There is a growing feeling that there is very little that an individual can do in the political process. They are losing their power and that power is gradually being transferred to big lobby groups, big business and big money. This bill is all about encouraging that shift in power. It goes a long way to making that perception a reality in a very strong way. People are worried about that transfer of power. It has been going on slowly and surely with election costs going up every election in a dramatic way, gradually following the path of the US. But this bill is overt. This bill puts the agenda absolutely out there in the open. This bill is about nothing else but transferring the power away from the voter and giving that power to money.
Interestingly, it makes two groups disappear. It makes a number of voters disappear. About 300,000 voters will disappear from our roll in the next election because of these changes, and when those voters disappear they lose their power altogether. On the other side, it makes a whole stack of political donors disappear as well. But when you make a donor disappear you increase their power; you make it possible for them to feel comfortable in making a political donation without scrutiny by the public or the media.
Labor is strongly opposed to the provisions of this bill which make it more difficult for people to vote. The first change is the closing of the roll on the day that the election is called, effectively reducing the time that people have to update their enrolment from the current seven days to just 8 pm on that day. There are a few small exceptions: people under the age of 18 who will turn 18 between the calling of the election and the election and new citizens, but that is a very small number. For the vast majority of people, the roll will close at 8 pm on the day that the election is called. This bill will also introduce new proof of identity requirements for people enrolling to vote and new proof of identity requirements for people lodging a provisional vote. At the same time as it improves the flow of secret money, this bill introduces a set of regressive changes that make it much harder to vote.
These changes are supposed to be about electoral integrity but they are far from that. The Australian Electoral Commission, an organisation held in extremely high regard by Australians, which has managed very clean, well-organised elections for decades, says that there is not a problem with the roll. It has made it very clear that it does not believe there is an issue with the integrity of the electoral roll. The experts are quite baffled by the government’s decision to change these laws in the light of that statement by the Electoral Commission. Even the Australian National Audit Office reported in 2002 that the electoral roll is one of high integrity, so there is very little evidence out there that the electoral roll is so distorted that it warrants disenfranchising up to 300,000 voters in the next election in order to improve its integrity.
Professor Brian Costar has argued:
If there is a fault in the current Australian electoral procedures it is not in rampant enrolment fraud but the very real perception of secretive influence peddling produced by the excessively free flow of political money.
Again, this bill increases the ability for secret money to flow and makes the electoral roll less accurate than it is now.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters conducted a really thorough investigation into the integrity of the electoral roll back in 2001. During that inquiry the Electoral Commission testified that it had compiled a list of possible cases of enrolment fraud during the decade of 1992 to 2001. It identified 71 cases of electoral fraud—one per 200,000 enrolments. In order to expunge the electoral roll of as many as 71 fraudulent enrolments, we are looking at introducing a set of regulations that will effectively mean that up to 300,000 voters cannot vote in the next election. The main way it would do that is through the early closure of the electoral roll at 8 pm on the day the election is called. Currently, we have seven days before the roll is closed.
These changes will substantially affect the least powerful in our community. Young people in particular will be affected. Anybody essentially who moves house a lot will be affected by these changes. People in public housing, new citizens and young people will all be dramatically affected by these changes. In the 2004 election, over 280,000 people enrolled to vote or changed their enrolment details after the election had been called, 78,000 of whom were new enrollees, 78,000 were people changing or updating their existing details, 96,000 people were transferring intrastate and 30,000 people were transferring interstate. These are all people with a legitimate right to vote. These are all people who I have always thought did have the right to vote but who will be excluded from the next election and the election after that simply because they moved house at the wrong time.
Remember that in this country we do not have fixed terms. If we did have a fixed election date, there might be some justification for saying, ‘You know the election will be called on 1 June; you had better be enrolled before then.’ This is not the case. The next election could be called perhaps late this year, any time next year or early the year after. Can we really expect those 280,000 people who are moving at any particular time to be continuously on the roll? All it requires to lose your right to vote is to have moved last week or a month ago and still be waiting for your change of address to come through.
This is an outrageous disenfranchisement of legitimate voters. There can be no doubt that the only reason the government would be doing this is to shore up its vote. The government is well aware that the people who are most likely to be disenfranchised by these changes tend not to support the government. This is simply about the government shoring up its vote. In order to do that, it claims to be improving the integrity of the roll through taking out those 71 fraudulent enrolments by literally disenfranchising up to 300,000 voters.
The weekend before last I doorknocked in one of my public housing areas. In that area I would estimate that as many as one in 10 people are not currently correctly enrolled. In some of the unit blocks it is even higher than that. I know from the hours that I have spent in shopping centres in those areas—because I have worked very hard in those areas of high unenrolment—that a lot of it has been deliberate. In the last election in particular when I was campaigning in those areas I found many people in the streets saying, ‘I am not voting; there is no point.’ In those areas they were clearly choosing not to vote. I have worked very hard because, as I said earlier, I believe that it is a very important function of each politician to improve the quality of the democratic process and that does involve trying to bring back into the democratic process people who currently feel very much left out of it. I know that the vast majority of those people are unenrolled on purpose, that they have lost faith in the system, and I know that as hard as I work to get those people enrolled—and I am having quite a bit of success—making it as difficult as this government plans to make it for those people to enrol will only encourage that attitude.
The government in this bill is proposing changes to the enrolment requirements that are really quite onerous. The new proof of identity requirements for new enrollees and those updating their details are a bit of a nightmare of red tape, I have to say, particularly if you have just moved, particularly if you do not have a drivers licence, particularly if you do not have a passport and particularly if you do not walk around with your birth certificate or know where it is or have the money to get one from Queensland or whichever state you come from. A person enrolling or updating their details under this bill will have to provide one or more of the following types of identification: a drivers licence, a prescribed identity document to be shown to a person who is within a prescribed class of electors and who can attest to the identity of the person or an application for enrolment signed by two referees who are not related to the applicant whom they have known for at least one month and who can provide a drivers licence number.
I know that some of the people in those public housing areas have not known anybody in that area for a month. They could have moved in last week and not have known any local person for a month, they might not have a drivers licence or a passport and they probably do not have a chequebook in order to send a cheque off to whichever state to pay for their birth certificate. Not only that, they are not the keenest voters. They need to be encouraged to vote. They need to be taken by the hand and told, ‘Your vote is worth something.’ They do not need this government to make it so difficult that the inclination to opt out is made even easier.
It will be particularly difficult for young people. For a start, 30 per cent of people in New South Wales between the ages of 16 and 19 do not have a drivers licence and between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of adults do not have a drivers licence. In Parramatta we have a very large population of itinerant people. We have up to 500 homeless people sleeping out per night, and they are just the people sleeping out. There are many more in temporary accommodation concerned about a hell of a lot of things other than changing their enrolment when they are looking for accommodation, particularly when they do not have permanent accommodation.
These are incredibly onerous requirements for the most vulnerable people in our society—people whom we should be bending over backwards to bring into the democratic process. The votes of these people are so important in determining the direction of this country. These people have no other power in the political process other than their vote. These are not people who can make political donations, these are not people who can lobby effectively and these are not people who join political parties. They are the weakest people in our society who have just one go at political influence and that is their vote. That is all they have. In this place we should be bending over backwards to make it easy for them to exercise that vote. We should be ensuring that we take them by the hand and take them down there and show them exactly how powerful they are in this process—and they are powerful. And I have no doubt that that is one of the reasons why the government is trying to ensure they will not get a chance to vote. (Time expired)
I begin by commending my colleague the member for Parramatta on her most perceptive and analytical exposition of the reasons why the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005 ought to be opposed. Prior to the member making her comments I happened to be sitting in my room and had the opportunity to hear some of the comments made by the member for Fremantle, particularly about the issue of financial donations to the political process, and I might come back and comment on that later.
Having heard those very erudite contributions, I want to say a few words for the public record so that the voters in my electorate know how I voted and felt about this important issue. One thing that really concerns me is that we have a wonderful democracy and we have an abiding principle that all adults have an equal right to vote and that their vote should be considered of equal value. I think that is a fundamentally important underpinning of our country’s open, accessible and democratic electoral system. Up until now, according to the history of electoral changes and reform, much of which has been very progressive, it has usually been done with the support of both political parties—for example, the introduction of secret ballots, votes for women, preferential voting, compulsory voting, although I note in more recent times the differences of political opinion that are emerging about that issue, and votes for 18-year-olds. All those major and significant milestones in our electoral history have enjoyed bipartisan support and I am really concerned that, for the first time, reforms are being proposed in this House which have a distinctly partisan political approach to them. They are reforms that are not brought here on the basis of some expert evidence or are the impartial views of the Australian Electoral Commission but being promoted by certain members of the government who perceive that these changes would give government members some political advantage in future elections.
As the local member, I believe, as argued by the member for Parramatta, that it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to encourage the people I represent to believe they have a stake in the political process and that the views and opinions of every person—whoever they might be, however wealthy or poor, however engaged or disengaged, whether they are in work, those at the top end of the income scale or those on pensions and benefits—who comes to my office and seeks my support is equally important to me. It is only once every three years that people in my electorate have the opportunity to express their view about the competing policy platforms of the major political parties.
On a couple of occasions people have come to me and said, ‘Jennie, I didn’t vote for you in the last election,’ but that is no problem for I have always taken the attitude that, regardless of who they vote for, the most important thing is that they cherish the fact that, unlike many other countries in the world, they have a process that allows them a secret ballot and one chance every election period to express their point of view about matters that are of significant concern to our nation.
I am opposing this bill because all the changes that are raised in it are in complete contradiction to the principles that I believe in and to the principles that underpin our democracy. I think we ought to look at the reasons for the arguments advanced that the so-called integrity of the roll needs to be enhanced or that we need to prevent electoral fraud. I do not think this nation has any history of electoral fraud. The member for Parramatta referred to 71 cases of fraudulent enrolments that were investigated over a decade. Yes, you might find isolated cases of wrong enrolments, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the integrity of our electoral process or the roll that is prepared for our elections.
The acceptance of the integrity of the process is well shown in our history. Even when my party has won a majority of the two-party preferred vote but has failed to win enough seats to govern, Australians have accepted that outcome. I think there is a great deal of faith in the system. People might not like politicians, but I do not hear people raising with me their concern about widespread problems in our electoral system.
Believing as I do that every vote and every constituent is equally important and valued, I would never support anything which made it more difficult for people that I represent, whether they vote for me or not, to have the chance to express their opinions on election day. I am particularly concerned about the proposals for the early closure of the roll. I am also concerned about the greater identity requirements, which are going to impact on people who are already marginalised, and the new requirements for provisional voters to show proof of identity on polling day or soon thereafter.
I do not accept the minister’s argument that the changes are designed to ensure the integrity of the roll. I do not accept that personally and I find it of interest that no evidence was produced in submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters or in any testimony made to the joint standing committee to indicate the concerns that allegedly bring these changes before us. In fact, the committee majority itself conceded:
... to date the committee has had no evidence to indicate there has been widespread electoral fraud.
I can only repeat that I have come to the conclusion that the real motivation is the belief that the changes foreshadowed in this bill would give this government some future partisan political advantage.
The early closure of the roll is going to have a marked impact on people’s ability to vote, particularly young people and people who have moved into an electorate, as many do in my electorate, and find that they are going to be caught short. It may appear on the surface that the proposal will close the roll at 8 pm on the third working day after the issue of the writ. If you look at the fine print, there are only a couple of exceptions. For the majority of people enrolling for the first time, that decision will have to be made and exercised by eight o’clock on the first day of the writ being issued. Only existing enrollees will be given three days to change their details.
Why this change? That is really the question that is at the bottom of my strong opposition to these proposals. In 2002 the Electoral Commission argued:
It would be a backward step to repeal the provision which guarantees electors this seven day period—
which is what is in place now—
in which to correct their enrolment.
The commission’s longstanding view has been that last-minute enrolments constitute neither an administrative overload for their staff nor a source of fraud. In its submission to the 2000 parliamentary inquiry the commission stated:
... early closure of the rolls will not improve the accuracy of the rolls for an election. In fact, the expectation is that the rolls for the election will be less accurate, because less time will be available for existing electors to correct their enrolments and for new enrolments to be received.
I find it really remarkable that the government’s proposals are in direct contrast to the advice of the independent Australian Electoral Commission. I came across an article written by researchers at Swinburne Institute which looked at the changed position—the almost somersault in position—that has been adopted by the AEC in the last 12 months. It seems to coincide with the appointment of the new Electoral Commissioner, Mr Campbell.
In March 2005, when the AEC made its first submission to this inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 election, the AEC then expressed no concern about the workload it faced at the election when voters were given seven days grace. Nor did it express its support for the argument that the last-minute rush of enrolments creates opportunities for fraud. Yet, interestingly enough, as Costar and Browne in their article point out, almost exactly a year later, appearing before a Senate committee on 7 March 2006, the recently appointed Australian Electoral Commissioner, Mr Campbell, expressed almost exactly the opposite view.
If I have to choose between the views of people who have worked in the commission for lengthy periods of time and the commission’s long held view that the seven-day closure was not a problem and its new view, which I find interesting, I have not been able to get to the bottom of this remarkable change in attitude other than Mr Campbell indicating that the early roll closure would mean less work for the commission and that it would ‘make life easier’ and give the commission ‘time to concentrate on the other issues we have to deal with in the preparation for the election’. Costar and Browne in their article argued:
This new attitude from the commission is not only a departure from its thinking a year ago. It is at odds with the commission’s longstanding view that last-minute enrolments constitute neither an administrative overload nor a source of fraud.
What impact will this earlier closure have on people in my electorate? I am particularly concerned that it will have an impact on young people. I am particularly concerned that it will have an impact on people with lower levels of education, on the Indigenous Australian community in my electorate, on the many migrants and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and on the growing numbers of people who either are homeless or have no fixed address. All the studies, even the AEC’s report Youth electoral study, show that young people are disengaged as it is from the electoral process. Often they do not understand the voting system and they do not perceive themselves generally as well prepared to participate in voting. So I would have thought it was our responsibility as politicians to be out there actively encouraging the participation of young people in the democratic process, showing them that they have a stake in that participation. After all, we do want to have more informed, more engaged and more active constituents in each of our electorates. The one thing that we can be sure of if these changes come into practice is that it will be young people enrolling for the first time who will be severely disadvantaged. Why would any government want to put any unnecessary barriers into the process of young people being able to exercise a vote?
Professor Costar, one of the experts on electoral reform issues, argued just recently that good reasons would need to be adduced to justify the denial of the vote to such a large cohort of citizens, especially the new enrollees, most of whom would be young people who actually need encouragement to become civically engaged. So no good reason has been produced by the government to support the disenfranchisement of thousands of young Australians. I am particularly concerned about the ability of people on the margins—the homeless and the transient populations—to have proof of identity to the extent required in these new changes.
What impact will the changes have? People have already said that, in the seven days after the writ for the last election was issued, 78,000 people enrolled for the first time. They had seven days. If they had one day, how many of those 78,000 people would have got a vote? In that period of time, 345,000 people updated their details. Even after the closure of the roll after that seven-day period, another 150,000 Australians tried to enrol. Under the proposed changes, nearly all of the 78,000 could potentially be excluded from voting, as could an indeterminate percentage of the 345,000. In fact, the large number attempting to enrol late—the 150,000 who still tried to get a vote after the closure of the roll—suggested that, if anything, the period of grace should be extended rather than shortened.
I had a look at the figures in my own electorate, and I rang my divisional returning officer just to understand the impact it might have in the electorate of Throsby. In the last election, between the time of the issuing of the writ and the close of the roll, there was a total of 1,805 enrolment changes—1,805 people changed their details or wanted to add their name in that seven-day period. Many of these 1,805 electors could be denied a vote if these new procedures were to become law. Another 859 changes occurred following the closure of the roll and up to polling day. Of these, unfortunately, 185 were new enrollees. I presume they were young people who would not have been able to exercise their vote on election day.
I come back to saying that our electoral system should do everything to have committed, involved and active constituents participating in the democratic process and that we should always reject any barriers or restrictions in the way of achieving that outcome. It is for similar reasons that I am concerned about the increased requirements for identification on enrolment. Obviously we have to make sure that people are enrolling correctly in their electorates. Some enhanced requirements were suggested but have not been implemented, yet this government’s bill wants to introduce even more stringent requirements when the earlier provisions such as requiring production of a drivers licence or identification by two people on the roll have not even been put into place.
I want to say in conclusion that, at the same time as making it harder to vote, the government is intent on making it easier to donate to political parties. The member for Parramatta and the member for Fremantle addressed this issue in some considerable detail. I am most concerned about the impact of raising the declarable limit for disclosure from $1,500 to $10,000—that is, that donation details would not be made public until the threshold of $10,000 was reached. I have serious concerns because I do think there is a view out there that money opens doors, money buys power and money buys access, and the ordinary citizen becomes somewhat disillusioned with the process. I think this can only encourage massive sums of money to be offered to the coffers of both political parties away from public scrutiny, transparency and accountability. I think the member for Parramatta referred to it as an emerging ‘donocracy’. The member for Fremantle argued very cogently that raising these disclosure limits undermines the notion that each citizen will share equally in political power. The changes enforce the perception that not all of our citizens are equally able to influence their representative—that money buys influence and power. She argued that we run the risk of becoming a ‘corporate democracy’ run by ‘money politics’.
The incessant money chase that currently permeates every crevice of our political system is like an unending circular marathon. And it is a race that sends a clear message to people: that it is money, money, money—not ideas, not principles but money that reigns supreme in American politics. The way to gain access on Capitol Hill, the way to get the attention of members of this body, is through money.
I know that we are certainly going down the route of America in many areas, and I think we should be very careful and learn from their experiences of the potential for abuse and corruption of the democratic political process when transparency is not part of the system.
For all those reasons, the bill before us is unacceptable. I find it amazing that a government would make it harder for people to vote and to be engaged in the political process and in the same bill make it so much easier for corporate and other bodies to donate in secret to political parties. I think that these proposals are the antithesis of the values that I believe in and the processes that I try to implement in my electorate to make sure that all citizens are actively engaged.
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.
I have strong feelings about the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. The last campaign that I fought my way through was easily the most bitter and ugly campaign in which I had ever been involved, for or against The Nationals. The Nationals dragged my own family into the fray, which is something that I had never seen done before. Maybe it had occurred somewhere before in Queensland, but in 32 years of being a member of parliament I most certainly had not seen it occur, nor during my father’s involvement before that. As for the gentleman who was running against me for The Nationals, I had never seen him at a National Party meeting in my entire life. He obviously had no interest in the party or its beliefs whatsoever but when the opportunity to become a member of parliament arose he suddenly became very interested in politics. One would have to ask whether or not a person who has never shown any interest whatsoever in a political party for his entire life—and he was well on in years; he was not a spring chicken—and then suddenly becomes interested has a belief system that is backing his commitment.
We counted the road signs on the highway between Cairns and Townsville—we were doing the whole run—and there were 15 corflute signs of theirs for every one that we had. We spent $6,500 on the corflutes, so presumably they had spent 15 times more than we had. On the basis of what was spent on television, around $350,000 would have been spent on the campaign to unseat me in that electorate. If you looked at the figures, you would know that, however bad I may have been and however clever their candidate may have been, it was a fairly ambitious sort of task to pull a swing of 20 or 25 per cent or whatever it was. I think that money yields benefits. If you have got the money to put a person into the field for a good year in which he does nothing else, that in itself is probably $100,000: he has got a car, he has got fuel and he has got overnight accommodation. This person seemed to be in the field doing nothing else for a full year, presumably, and the party picked up nine, 10 or 15 per cent—I do not know what it was. They did pull up a good vote, but it did not particularly worry me, because I think our vote went up half a percentage point or something of that nature. It was almost identical to what it was at the election before last, so it did not make any impression upon us.
But for those people in the party who asked whether it was money well spent when Larry Anthony, a very fine former member of this House and a very decent person in every single respect, lost his seat and had very little money to spend on his campaign, one wonders whether the money was well spent or whether it was just a venting of people’s hatred and viciousness. I would say that the latter is probably the only interpretation you could put upon the behaviour of the people involved.
As far as being able to buy votes, I remember when we had to give a little boat to a little Aboriginal community. It was getting close to federal election time, and I was a state minister at the time. Without thinking I asked our candidate to come up when I was handing over the boat, and I remember my reaction afterwards was that I felt really cheap and I knew that my actions had been enormously inappropriate. And that was just having the candidate there when I made a handover of a small boat. It would not have been any more than a few thousand dollars for the boat, and it was something that had to be done. The point I am trying to make is that I felt like taking a shower afterwards.
But, during this campaign, day after day and week after week we picked up the paper and read about the Regional Partnerships program, and there was someone or other from the National Party up there, handing out a cheque for this, that or the other thing. Last week I was approached by people who said—and I have no hesitation in saying this because I think it is a true thing to say—‘How would we get money from that fund?’ I said, ‘If you contact the local National Party and offer to hand out how-to-vote cards for them at the next election, I think you’ll get the money.’ And they all burst out laughing. I said: ‘The great tragedy is that I’m not laughing at all. I’m being quite serious. If you want to get that money, then you have to indicate that you are a supporter of this party. That’s the way that it operates.’ Now, if that is—
I would remind the member for Kennedy that this is the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I have allowed the member a great deal of latitude and I bring him back to the matter and the bill before the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the bill refers to ‘electoral integrity and other measures’, and I am pointing out where integrity operates and where it does not operate. I am pointing that out fairly bluntly, but I think it needs to be said. You should read my submission to the Senate inquiry on regional sustainability, Mr Deputy Speaker. The minister resigned but he resigned at midday, and I was going in to give my submission at four o’clock that afternoon. If I were him, I would blush with embarrassment and I would hand my resignation in because no decent person, I think, can have done what was done there without seeing it as an onus upon himself to resign.
The money provided is not provided for you to advance the interests of your political party. That money is provided for you. We are using money to fight an election campaign, and the government is saying that we are moving from $1,500 declarable to $10,000 declarable. So what is the money being contributed here? If you are utilising the resources of the country, the government and the taxpayers to campaign—every single one of us is campaigning all the time in a sense—I think there is a point where decent people realise that this is not really about helping the people of the area that we are paid to represent. This is simply about winning a political contest.
Let us turn to the issue. There are people who are very well equipped to trace money, even though they are not legally obliged to trace money, and there are people working on those traces at the present moment. I am absolutely intrigued by the decisions that have been made, for example, in the sugar industry. I am absolutely intrigued by the massive amounts of money that were spent in the last federal election campaign. I was in the party for a long time and my father never had access to $350,000 in election campaign funds. I think I ran three election campaigns federally for the National Party. The first one was not a marginal seat; it was a 6½ per cent seat so, technically, it was not a marginal seat. I had to win a non-marginal seat but the polls were indicating that we were running neck and neck. I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I did not have $350,000 to knock off the ALP member for Kennedy. I was given very little support at all. Fortunately, I had an income from my superannuation from the state parliament and I was able to campaign full-time for that year.
We are intrigued to know where the $350,000 came from. I give fair warning in this place that there are ways of tracking down this money. We know who has benefited, from the decisions subsequently made in the sugar industry. We know where the benefits have flowed. One company here appears to have got $195 million in handouts. The deregulation of the sugar industry has delivered to the millers literally hundreds of millions of dollars that, under the old system, would have gone to the farmers.
I proudly belonged to the party. I read the book on John McEwen and just felt so proud that I was associated with a political organisation that had been led by such a man, who had instituted for us the world sugar price agreement and who had instituted for us, along with Doug Anthony, the wool scheme, which gave us decent prices for 20 years.
I will remind the member for Kennedy again: I have given him a lot of latitude in his address to this bill. I bring him back to the matter before the House, which is the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I am having a problem identifying how I could possibly relate the sugar industry to the bill before the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker, with all due respect, I find that extraordinary. What I am saying to you is that, if after an election a company profits to the tune of tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars and the donations have been very generous in certain electorates during the election campaign against people who were diametrically opposed to the deregulation of that industry, that is the very heart and soul of what this bill is about. Parties will be able to receive $10,000 without having to nominate who they got it from.
I can remember one of my friends with a big company who said, ‘This company does not give money.’ I said, ‘I noticed you at a lot of government and political functions, and I don’t think you get invited there unless you make a donation.’ He said, ‘No, we give them individually.’ So individual names appear and the amount of money is much smaller. It was a very big company and a very naughty company later on, as it turned out—after this friend of mine had left, I must emphasise. So at the very heart and soul of this bill is whether by making political contributions you can buy an IOU from a political party that you can call in subsequently.
I do not deny an industry such as the mining industry the right to back a political party that has a very aggressive attitude to developmentalism. That is not what I am talking about here. What I am talking about here is a fundamentally different situation where you can provide that money to influence the political party in making a decision which they would not normally make. I proudly belonged to a party that had as its very essence the right to collectively bargain. It was inherent in our wool industry, our tobacco industry, our sugar industry and our wheat industry, and we had been the party that instituted that. Every page in the McEwen profile we turned over said that, and it was similar with Doug Anthony. Why did they change their position? I say that the reason lies in the same place as the answer to where the $350,000 came from that was used in the campaign against me in the last election. Where did that money come from? Those are the questions that we want answered.
What is happening here is the door is being closed on ever answering those questions in the future. They are closing the door so that nobody can see what happens behind that closed door. That may be good for the interests of a political party in the short term, but the current government will not always be in parliament, as the other side will be in government some time. Heaven only knows that so many people suffered as a result of similar nefarious activities that took place in the Hawke and Keating administrations. Heaven only knows that Hawke and Keating may have been the kings in that area, though I would not like to say that they are not being rivalled for their kingly status at the present moment.
But the decisions that were made to deregulate those industries benefited greatly certain corporations and reduced us to a situation where we had a suicide every month in the sugar industry. That is what happened to us on the other side of the coin. A lot of those people still have loyalty to the National Party and they believe in the National Party. They still think it is the institution that it once was, and I sort of think really that that is nice. I have never held it against them that they have maintained that. As for the fact that their own lives have been totally destroyed by the actions of that particular party, that is upon the consciences of those people and one day they will have to go to meet their maker and explain to Him what happened there.
But today what we are doing is closing the door so that people cannot see what is going on behind that door. If you are a corporation and you provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of support, you do not do that because you are Santa Claus. You do that because you will get an IOU that can be called in somewhere down the track. That is the nature of political donations.
Quite separately from that, I will reiterate this point. I have said it before but I will say it once again: there are genuine people who believe that it is in the best interests of them, their families, their district and their country to provide donations to a political party. But, to me, they have never been the sorts of people who give $10,000. They are not those sorts of people. They are the people who will give $1,500 or less. What is happening here is that we are extending the figure from $1,500 to $10,000, so that will incorporate the corporate donors, and the corporate donors want something in return. Unfortunately and sadly, I personally believe that they have got a very good return on the investment they have made in my old political party that I was once so proud to belong to. For those who read Hansard, I would say: do not think about what that particular political party is today. Think about the once greatness of that party that instituted the International Sugar Agreement, the party that instituted the wool price scheme that gave us decent prices for our products.
I will finish on this note. When I was burying my father I had to think about the really important things that happened while he was a member of parliament in our area. I thought: the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us in western Queensland—and, I would say, probably in inland Australia—was the wool scheme. As a young man, when I left secondary school I did not see any remote hope that the wool industry could survive. My very first financial venture was to buy sheep for a pet food operation, because I thought that all that sheep could be used for was pet food! You would remember it well, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. Because of those brave and courageous men—and I name them: Doug Anthony and John McEwen—we were able to enjoy 20 years of prosperity in that industry.
It was only brought down by the likes of Mr Keating. I think that not only was he influenced by very generous donations over a long period but it wove its way into his thinking. He thought that just giving into the big corporations all the time was a good thing to do. He was conditioned to that response. When he abolished the wool scheme, within three years—as you will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker—the price for our product dropped clean in half. Now, to quote Alan Jones, ‘half of that industry has vanished’.
These people who give big donations—in the main; not all of them—are people whom we have to ask very serious questions about. I have had donors who have contributed over $1,500 and they never worried about using their names, because they knew that I believed in the things that they believed in. It was money well spent and they were proud to be able to wear it. They did not have to hide behind closed doors or behind an act that enabled them to remain behind closed doors.
In summing up, I thank the honourable members who have contributed to the debate on this very important legislation. I would also like to thank the chair and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the committee’s comprehensive report into the 2004 federal election, and the chair and members of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for their inquiry and report on the provisions of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. Having been chair of the joint standing committee from 1997 to 2001, when quite a number of recommendations along very similar lines as these were made, it is very pleasing to now be the minister taking through the parliament the legislation which will enact these changes.
The opposition have made a number of claims about the proof of identity and close of roll provisions in these reforms. Firstly, they claim that the proof of identity requirements will disenfranchise thousands of Australians; secondly, they claim that closing the roll early is aimed at disenfranchising the young; thirdly, they claim that closing the roll early will disenfranchise over 280,000 Australians; fourthly, they claim that the 1983 election is proof that closing the roll on the day the writ is issued will disenfranchise thousands of Australians; and, finally, they claim that these changes are not required because there is no substantial proof of fraud on the roll.
Let me start with the proof of identity provisions, which require proof of identity for people wanting to enrol, re-enrol or cast a provisional vote. The notion that asking people for proof of identity in the form of a drivers licence or in another form is asking too much and will disenfranchise thousands of Australians simply is not true. At the time of the 2003 census, it was found that more people in Australia held a drivers licence than there were people entitled to vote. For those Australians who do not have a drivers licence, a broad range of options will be available for them to provide proof of identity that will meet the identity requirements for electors. These provisions will substantially improve the integrity of the roll and will overcome the absurd situation where, under Labor’s electoral laws, it is easier to get on the roll than it is to hire a DVD. These are logical, practical measures, and I am perplexed by Labor’s opposition to them.
The second claim made by the opposition is that these changes are aimed specifically at disenfranchising young people. According to the latest Australian electoral study, 41 per cent of young people voted Liberal at the last election compared to just 32 per cent who voted Labor. We love young people, and they are voting our way, so I categorically reject claims by the ALP that we are seeking to deliberately disenfranchise young people.
The third claim made by the opposition is that over 280,000 people will be disenfranchised by the changes to the close of roll period. This is one of the most misleading claims by the opposition in this debate. The figure of 280,000 represents roll transactions made during the close of roll period before the 2004 election. The figure includes 126,799 divisional transfer transactions and 157,311 new enrolment and re-enrolment transactions. Under the bill, those who are enrolled but are changing address will have three days from the issue of the writ to update their details. Had these arrangements been in place for the last four elections, from the time the election was called people changing division would have had five business days to change their details in 2004, six business days in 2001, four business days in 1998 and six business days in 1996. That is an average of five business days from the time the election was called, which is more than enough time for people to change their details.
Clearly, the 126,799 electors who changed division in the close of roll period before the 2004 election would not have been impacted by these changes and it is misleading to suggest otherwise. That leaves the new enrolments and re-enrolments. Under the bill, new enrolments and re-enrolments will have to enrol by the day the writ is issued. Had these arrangements been in place for the last four elections, from the time the election was called people enrolling or re-enrolling would have had two business days to change their details in 2004, three business days in 2001, one business day in 1998—with one day’s notice—and three business days in 1996, which is an average of two business days from the day the election was called.
There were 157,311 new enrolment and re-enrolment transactions received in 2004. Of these, 110,231 were received either in the first two days or in the last two days of the close of roll period—that is, either electors enrolled early or they enrolled at the deadline. The case can be made that there will always be electors who either enrol early or enrol at the deadline. This will be the case regardless of the length of the close of roll period. These 110,231 electors would therefore not have been affected.
Figures from fixed-term jurisdictions show that even with four years notice there is still a rush of transactions the day the roll closes. Using the 2004 close of roll figures, the number of electors then that may have been affected under the proposed arrangements is close to 47,000, not the 280,000 that the Labor Party claims. But let me remind the House that using the 2004 enrolment figures is a complete hypothetical. While it has been shown that the impact would have been much less than the ALP claims, that does not take into consideration the significant and specifically targeted advertising campaigns the AEC is currently developing and will implement for the next election. These will be aimed specifically at informing the community of the changes.
The fourth claim the opposition has repeatedly made is that the 1983 election was proof that closing the roll the day the writ is issued will disenfranchise thousands of Australians. This is what the member for Bruce had to say on the matter in this place on 29 March this year:
In 1983 the electoral roll was closed on the day that the election writ was issued ... on polling day approximately 90,000 people found themselves unable to vote because they had not enrolled in time.
… … …
in 1984 Labor sought to enfranchise the 90,000 voters who missed out on the opportunity to vote because of the early closure of the rolls in the 1983 federal election.
So what has the Labor Party achieved in the last 22 years in this place? In 1983, 90,000 people who turned up on polling had their votes rejected because they were not on the roll. Let us fast forward to the 2004 election, 20 years after Labor implemented its policy of an extended close of roll period, presumably with the impact of reducing the number of provisional votes being rejected on polling day. At the 2004 election 180,865 people cast a provisional vote on polling day. Of these votes more than 67,000 were rejected because the applicants were not enrolled at all. A further 22,000 provisional votes were rejected for the House of Representatives because they were enrolled in the wrong division. So under pre-Labor policy in 1983, 90,000 provisional votes were rejected. Under Labor policy in 2004, 89,000 provisional votes were rejected because they were not on the roll or were enrolled in the wrong division. Clearly, Labor’s policy has done absolutely nothing to extend the franchise. The same number of provisional votes were rejected in 1983 as were rejected under Labor’s policy. All Labor’s policy has done is unnecessarily expose our electoral system to vulnerability, a vulnerability that this government is committed to fixing.
Finally, and most concerning, is the claim by Labor that these changes are not required because there is no substantial proof of fraud on the roll. I cannot emphasise enough that the government remains firmly committed to ensuring the continuing integrity of the electoral system and reducing the potential for electoral fraud. The electoral process is at the core of our democracy and is the basis of the Australian people’s acceptance of the election outcomes. Voting is a fundamental right, an absolute right, and that is why we must protect its integrity. There is no point in providing the franchise if we cannot protect its integrity.
However, when it comes to fraud the ALP prefer to turn a blind eye, presumably because they are beneficiaries of such fraud. May I remind members opposite of rorts perpetrated by Mr Mike Kaiser, the disgraced Labor roll rorter, who was forced to resign from the Queensland parliament, now deputy federal director of the Labor Party; or Ms Karen Ehrman, a Queensland state ALP candidate who went to jail for electoral fraud. I remind members opposite of Mr Christian Zahra’s own false enrolment when he was not an Australian citizen and of the roll rorts committed by a former Labor staffer of Mr Colin Hollis. And I remind them of cases such as Curacao Fischer Catt, the pet that was enrolled in the New South Wales seat of Macquarie. I recall another one—Giddy Goanna. Giddy Goanna got enrolled in the electorate of Groom.
The guilty opposition takes a position of absolute complacency on this issue. The government will not be complacent. The government considers that measures in this legislation, particularly proof of identity for enrolment, re-enrolment and provisional voting, and the early close of the roll, will go a long way towards strengthening our electoral system and stopping fraud before it happens.
Can I add that no-one needs to be disenfranchised by these changes if they obey the law. The law is that you must be enrolled—unless the Labor Party is proposing that people should not follow the law. Is the Labor Party actually saying that the law should be broken? If you obey the law and enrol you are not disenfranchised.
Turning to the provisions in this bill to increase the disclosure threshold to amounts above $10,000: the government considers this to be an appropriate threshold on the two-fold basis that the current thresholds ranging from $200 to $1,500 were too low when originally set and have since been eroded by inflation. It has also been Liberal Party policy since 1984, and we do not back off from that. The opposition claims in relation to this matter have been alarmist and nonsensical. Figures provided by the Australian Electoral Commission show that, had these arrangements been in place for the 2004 financial year, the following would have been disclosed: the Australian Labor Party, 82 per cent of all private funding, amounting to $56 million; the National Party, 83 per cent of all private funding, amounting to $8 million; the Liberal Party of Australia, 80 per cent of all private funding, amounting to $52 million; and all other parties, 81 per cent of all private funding, amounting to $124 million. Clearly, transparency and accountability is not lost through the increase to the disclosure threshold. The increased threshold will ensure that these significant donations will continue to be disclosed and people will know who is making them.
Why then is the opposition so opposed to these changes? The answer is simple. The ALP know that under the new arrangements honest, hardworking Australians can support the party that supports small business and they can do this without the fear of retribution and intimidation from trade unions and their Labor puppets. The Labor Party opposes a more competitive democracy. Much has been said in this place about donations, corruption and the receipt of multiple donations. The member for Bruce spoke about political donations, once again on 29 March this year. He said that claims:
... that amounts of $10,000 and below were not enough to improperly influence political parties
… … …
completely ignores the fact that, as explained, a party can receive multiple donations from the same donor. This fact clearly increases the chances of corrupt behaviour …
So multiple donations increase corrupt behaviour, according to the member for Bruce. He continued:
... you would not have to be Einstein to work out that as the amounts of money increase so do the chances of inappropriate, or even corrupt, behaviour.
This is where it gets interesting, because when it comes to multiple donations the Australian union movement wrote the book. In 2004-05 more than 260 separate donations from the unions flowed to the ALP. In 2004-05 the top multiple union donators to the ALP were: fifth-ranked, the AMWU with 27 donations; fourth, the CEPU with 31 donations; third, the TWU with 32 donations; second, the CFMEU with 46 donations; and top of the rank, the MUA with 47 donations. That is a total of 185—worth over $1.6 million—and that is just the top five.
By his own admission, the member for Bruce believes that the receipt of multiple donations clearly increases the chance of corruption. I wonder how much inappropriate and corrupt behaviour 260 individual donations from the union movement buys in the Australian Labor Party. I wonder which of the union donations actually bought the opposition leader’s endorsements for the bids to have the members for Bruce, Maribyrnong, Corio, Isaacs and Hotham thrown out of their seats.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I see that as a grossly offensive, personal reflection on the Leader of the Opposition. I ask that it be withdrawn immediately.
I will withdraw. My point is that everything the ALP say in criticising the electoral reforms before this House is absolutely and categorically refuted by their own actions and by the actions of their union masters. The truth is that these changes will not affect transparency and accountability. The hypocrisy and misinformation the opposition continues to spruik contributes nothing to this debate.
With respect to the tax deductibility of political donations, the government agrees with the JSCEM’s view that a higher tax deductibility level would encourage more people to participate in the democratic process. The government believes that public involvement in the democratic process has a significant social value. By changing the tax deductibility arrangements, the bill will encourage greater public participation in the democratic process. The legislation also provides tax deductibility for donations to Independent candidates and members at a federal or state election. This will provide parity of treatment between Independents and political parties.
I reject opposition claims that these changes are somehow aimed at benefiting the Liberal Party. In making these claims, the opposition have clearly missed the point that the parties with the greatest reliance on donations of less than $1,500 are the minor parties and Independents. The reality is that these tax changes will make it more economically viable for the supporters of the minor parties and Independents to contribute to their campaigns. That will actually lead to an increase in the competitiveness of the democratic process. By opposing these provisions, the ALP have shown their hand. The last thing the Labor Party want is a more competitive, democratic process. It is not the first time the ALP have shown their hand on what they think of a competitive democracy—need we be reminded of Labor’s intentions when they changed the electoral system in 1984. Former Labor frontbencher Graham Richardson revealed in his book Whatever It Takes that when Labor changed the electoral system they did so with the aim of ensuring:
... that Labor would embrace power as a right and make the task of anyone taking it from us as difficult as we could.
That appears on page 144 of the book. Who was the Special Minister of State at the time? It was none other than the current Leader of the Opposition.
With respect to prisoner voting, the government remains firmly of the view that people who commit offences against society sufficient to warrant a prison term should not, while they are serving that prison term, be entitled to vote and elect the leaders of the society whose laws they have disregarded. People being detained on remand, those serving alternative sentences such as periodic or home detention, those serving a non-custodial sentence or people released on parole will still be eligible to enrol and vote.
On the subject of third-party disclosure, the government believes that NGOs must be held accountable for any activities that they engage in which are clearly related to electoral matters. The provisions in the bill will require third parties who are engaging in political campaigning in the non-election period to disclose their expenditure on an annual basis where expenditure incurred exceeds $10,000. I will be moving government amendments to this part of the bill. Changes will be canvassed in more detail when I formally introduce those into the House shortly. Let me say that they were developed in consultation with the not-for-profit sector and the response has been very positive.
In conclusion, there are a number of other measures in this bill that will strengthen our electoral system that have not been covered in great detail during the debate. In summary, these provisions relate to expanding AEC demand powers, increasing nomination fees for candidates, removing requirements for publisher and broadcaster returns, requiring divisional offices to be located in the electorate they service, setting minimum requirements for the continued registration of political parties following a federal election and providing for the deregistration of parties that do not meet the requirements, and a number of other matters. Most importantly, through this bill this government achieves, more than any government before it, a reduction in electoral fraud, the removal of vulnerabilities in our electoral system and the protection of the integrity of the fundamental democratic right of Australian citizens to cast a vote. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)
That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Griffin’s amendment) stand part of the question.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.