Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 20 October, on motion by Mr Gray:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010, which once again we find before us. This is now the third time that Labor has tried to ram this flawed, unfair bill through the parliament. Labor tried it in 2008 and they failed. They tried it in 2009 and they failed. And now they are trying to push it through again. This bill is a bad bill because it seeks to entrench a financial advantage for the ALP and the Greens, who are now also the beneficiaries of the some of the unions’ rivers of gold. This is not genuine reform. Mr Rudd promised the Australian people genuine reform. Senators Faulkner and Ludwig promised genuine reform, and yet we are once again presented with this severely flawed bill.
This bill is another example of the suite of opportunistic and ad hoc electoral changes put forward by Labor, this time in cahoots with the Greens. The coalition has always believed that any proposals for electoral reform should be part of a comprehensive package, not released in dribs and drabs. We said that a comprehensive bill should be brought in after the green paper process was completed and the government had issued its response. Yet we have seen seven bills on electoral matters before the House: the taxation laws amendment bill, two earlier iterations of the same bill before us today and four other electoral bills dealt with in July. At the core of the current bill is a cynical attempt to seek partisan gain under the guise of reform. The bill is a deliberate attempt to advantage the Labor Party and the Greens and to entrench that financial advantage. It will disadvantage permanently the coalition, the Independents and the smaller parties like Family First. So once again I say: we opposed the previous bills and we will continue to oppose this bill.
We are not opposed to electoral reform, nor do we disagree with a number of the points contained in this bill, but Labor promised comprehensive electoral funding reform following a response to the two electoral green papers. We have had no response. We have had nothing from Labor. Instead, Labor, having done a deal with the Greens, are again serving up this crusty old bill in the hope that we may now find it appetising. They have done so only because it was part of the cynical deal with the Greens to deliver power to the Gillard government. There is nothing new in this bill, and it is no more appealing than it was previously. At heart, this bill is fundamentally flawed, even though there are some positive suggestions such as the foreign donation ban, which is a legitimate thing to do. We note that it is far more likely to hurt the ALP and the Greens than it is the coalition, but no doubt they will find ways around it. The ban on anonymous donations is welcome, but we feel that setting the limit at $50 is unworkable, when the very decentralised nature of our major political parties will result in an inordinate increase in administrative costs for our parties. We believe that $250 would be a more reasonable figure.
We support prompt disclosure of donations, but we also note the horrendous administrative costs that have afflicted the political parties in New South Wales following the changes in that state. It is notable that both sides of state politics now acknowledge that twice-yearly, eight-week reporting time frames are problematic and that the Keneally government, with the agreement of the Greens, have moved to return to an annual disclosure regime. We do not object to the principle that election funding should not exceed election expenses, but we do question whether it is worth imposing the additional financial and administrative burden on Independents and small parties just to fix a problem that was once seen to have been created by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. It is well to reflect that Pauline Hanson became our first political prisoner in that she was imprisoned for a strictly party political issue, where she was held not to have registered her party. That was eventually overturned.
Finally, we support stronger penalties for infringements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, but in so doing we note the most egregious electoral abuses have been those committed by the Labor Party: the multiple cases of electoral fraud in Queensland which resulted in the Shepherdson inquiry, the Gino Mandarino fraudulent enrolment, the Christian Zahra fraudulent enrolment and the Wollongong City Council sex and bribery scandals. Why is there no strengthening of the penalty for falsely enrolling? Why is there no strengthening of the penalties for fraudulently voting? Why have we skimmed over these crimes, if you are serious about electoral reform?
So let us look at what real reform should look like. I am sure there will be a lot of talk by members opposite about the corrupting influence of big donations. Of course, there is not one instance at the federal level of politics, I believe, that you can point to that supports any such assertions. Let me make it very clear. I do not believe that there is a single member of the federal parliament who acts corruptly due to the influence of donations. I do not extend that to the New South Wales Labor government; that is a very different story which is indeed mired in corruption. But legislation for ethical behaviour will not make a corrupt person act ethically.
So what is this bill really about? It is about coercing coalition donors to stop donating to the coalition or to donate to the Labor Party as well. And we all know how it works. We know that companies which donated exclusively to the coalition are subject to pressure from Labor officials to provide balanced funding to the Labor Party or to face repercussions. And we know getting the balance right is one of those expressions that this Labor Party likes the most.
It is indeed a slogan and in this context getting it right means coercing coalition donors into balancing up those donations to the Labor Party.
Disclosure returns are used by Labor officials to use intimidation to extract money from businesses. Donate just to the coalition and you are bound to get a call from the state secretary of the ALP suggesting that it would be appropriate for your business to donate equally to both parties. If a company failed to pay up, it could find itself blackballed for government contracts in Labor controlled states or the business would suddenly attract a great deal more attention from union officials. By lowering the disclosure threshold to $1,000 from the existing $11,500 those companies and individuals who had previously had some security through anonymity would now find themselves open to a return of such Labor intimidation.
The historical trend has been that the unions continue to provide massive support to the Labor Party, and now the Greens are starting to see their share of that money—money they hope will increase as they become more disillusioned with the Labor Party itself. Conversely, businesses have either split donations on a 50-50 basis or, after tiring of pressure from Labor officials, have simply withdrawn their support for funding of political parties entirely. Were this bill to pass in its current form, the flight of donors would not only be likely to continue but would also be likely to increase apace. Of course, that does not matter to Labor and the Greens, who have the rivers of gold from the trade unions.
Whilst I have said that donations do not influence politicians at the federal level, let us for the sake of argument suppose that there might be some influence peddling by big money, and if big money and the influence that it buys is the problem then consider this: the trade union movement are the biggest money influence peddlers in Australia. Nobody actually knows the total amount of money given by the unions to the ALP and, more recently, to the Greens. Certainly, the unions and the ALP alike like to keep quiet about the level of union affiliation fees—I guess we are a bit grateful to Rodney Cavalier for at least publishing some of them in New South Wales; he had access that the rest of us would never get. But what we do know from the limited information on the public record is this: between 1 July 2006 and 30 June 2009 unions helped the ALP campaign by $76.6 million through direct and indirect funding.
If we are going to talk about television advertising, that is a pretty sorry tale, again, from the Labor Party’s point of view. Having first impugned the good reputation of the Auditor-General and then gone on to have someone inquire into him, and to then appoint the person who criticised him to the job that the Auditor-General formerly had, Mr Ludwig then, of course, exempted them from that decision and they simply spent the money anyway—and all ‘in the national interest’. My goodness gracious me! So I repeat: $76.6 million over three years. Direct payment to the ALP from unions amounted to just under $20 million during this period of time. But independent political campaigning by unions added a further $56.7 million to the left of politics through their overt support of either the ALP or the Greens.
So let us put it in perspective. I have been made aware of a leaked financial statement of the New South Wales branch of the AMWU from 2008. On page 3 of that document, under the heading ‘National Council Political Fund’, I note the following items: affiliation fees, $401,846—and I would hazard a guess it was not affiliated with the Liberal Party, the Greens, Family First or Independents; donations, $209,591—and I would also guess that this was not a donation to the Liberal Party, the Greens, Family First or Independents; election advertising, $8,120. This brings the total for one year of overt political expenditure to over $620,000. But the best is the last. There is a specific line item in these accounts which says, ‘Marginal Seat Campaign: $150,352.’ And that is just one branch of one union and the influence that comes their way.
Before the members on the other side and the crossbench get too high and mighty about the evils of corporate donations, let them first reflect on what the AMWU and every other union spends and what influence they get for that money. A list of the top 12 union donations to the ALP in 2007-08 is instructive: Simon Crean’s old union, Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, $1.5 million; Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, $1.3 million; Communications Electrical Plumbing Union, $1 million; Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, $765,000; Electrical Trades Union, $674,000; Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, $650,000; Maritime Union of Australia, $581,000; Australian Workers Union, $568,000; Health Services Union, $366,000—we are into petty cash now!—the Transport Workers Union, $304,000; Australian Services Union, $244,000; and the National Union of Workers, $236,000. If you want to talk about big money in politics, there is no more powerful influence than trade unions.
What do the unions get for this simple largesse? Union leaders preside over ALP preselections. Union leaders sit on various administrative committees of the Labor Party. The overwhelming majority of Labor MPs are former union officials. I am aware that certain left-wing academics have tried to make the argument that, given the relationship between the unions and the ALP, unions should be granted some sort of special exemption in relation to funding and disclosure laws. I find this argument totally unconvincing. The old myth of the unions as somehow being representative bodies is disproved in both the general—only 17 per cent of workers are now union members—and the specific: official ALP figures show that few union members want anything to do with the Labor Party.
Yet the disproportionate position of the trade unions in the power structure of the Labor Party is worth noting. In New South Wales, for example—and these are ALP sourced figures; as I said, we are greatly indebted to Rodney Cavalier—there were 15,385 financial members of that branch of the ALP as at September 2009. Of these, 4,090 were employed or in receipt of an income but not a member of an affiliated union, 2,444 were members of affiliated unions, 8,400 were students, retired, on home duties, pensioners or unemployed, and 451 were life members. Yet, in delegateships to the ALP annual conference, affiliated unions made up 427 voting members and the party members made up 426. Unions also retain their 50 per cent share of the vote on selection committees. But the key statistic is that New South Wales ALP members who were members of affiliated unions totalled fewer than 2,500 people. That is 0.6 per cent of the total 384,000 affiliated union members in New South Wales. Thus, 99.4 per cent of members of affiliated unions in New South Wales who have actively chosen not to join the Labor Party are still financing political ambitions for the 0.6 per cent who have.
We are opposing this bill, but we are still advocating reform. There are a whole range of other matters which have been left on the backburner and need to be part of a comprehensive approach. In this legislation, is there any mention of donation caps? No. Any mention of expenditure caps? No. Any mention of donation and expenditure caps on third parties? No. Rather, the bill is deathly silent on the intervention of so-called third parties such as GetUp!, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, the WWF and the like. We all know who they support, and it is not this side of politics. This bill will return power to faceless men who give secret donations to seemingly innocuous front organisations.
Over the last weekend we saw confirmation that GetUp! received a secret donation of more than $1 million from the CFMEU construction division.
That is right. This is the same GetUp! which previously lectured us about the so-called corrupting influences of big money. The hypocrisy of GetUp! is breathtaking. They rail against union donations yet they are happy to take them. It reminds me of the old Augustine plea: ‘Oh, Lord, make me pure, but not just yet.’ In the final stages of the 2010 election campaign they happily took a secret donation to run an overtly partisan ad which personally attacked Tony Abbott. Surely this evidence puts the final nail in the coffin for GetUp!’s claims of nonpartisanship. GetUp! is simply a pro-Labor front.
GetUp! claims to have over 370,000 members, but what do these figures represent? You just have to click on a button on their webpage in support of any one of their many campaigns and—whammo!—you are claimed as a member of GetUp! Yet, if you take a serious look at the documentation which shows the constitution of GetUp! Ltd, it shows that to get to be a member with any voting rights is extraordinarily difficult. It sets out the requirements that you have to meet to be a director. They include ‘individual with significant credibility and experience in the union movement or industrial field’. You have to be ‘significantly credible and experienced in the Australian environmental movement’. And they like you to be ‘credible with the Australian media or business’. In other words, the connection between the union movement, Labor and GetUp! is very strong. If we go back in the history of it we will see that one of the previous directors of the company was none other than William Shorten, who then lived at Laura St, Moonee Ponds. He has moved. These recent revelations tell you all you need to know—that it is a front organisation for big leftist money.
GetUp! originated with seed funding from the socialist millionaire and pro-Labor supporter Evan Thornley. According to its own figures, the top 22 donors in GetUp! accounted for almost $2 million or a quarter of GetUp’s total funding in the year to September 2010, including another $50,000 of trade union money from the CPSU. If this bill passes you can expect to see a proliferation of third-party organisations funded and controlled by faceless men. Just imagine a future where the political debate in this country is controlled not by your elected members and senators but by the faceless men such as the self-outed Paul Howes.
There is another loophole in this bill which will work in favour of third parties: overseas donations. Under this bill third parties like GetUp! will still be able to get foreign donations provided that the main purpose of the gift is not for political expenditure. This is a farce—the money is completely fungible. An unscrupulous foreign donor simply has to pretend that their donation is for administrative purposes, freeing up money collected locally for political expenditure. Contrast this with the provisions which apply to political parties a blanket ban on foreign receipts for any purpose. This is a massive loophole. It is another reason why this bill needs to be rejected and the government must return to the drawing board. We need to be presented with a bill which addresses all issues raised in the green papers, not just those which favour Labor and the Greens.
There is nothing in this bill which could be considered reform in any sense of the word. Labor’s decision to pick and choose the electoral reform it wants conjured deep suspicion in 2008 and 2009 and even more in 2010, with the colluding of the Greens in relation to this bill. In my home state of New South Wales we have seen the Greens enter into a devilish pact with state Labor to pass Labor’s deeply flawed electoral bill. Yet when Mr O’Farrell promised even more strident laws, the sorts of laws which the Greens have supposedly been pushing for some time, we found the Greens have colluded with the ALP, to their joint advantage and to the disadvantage of the opposition. Some may be loath to impute bad motives, but what explanation other than rank self-interest makes any sense? We all know that Mr Bandt received substantial union funding to help him win the seat of Melbourne.
In response to the New South Wales bill, the New South Wales Greens said, ‘The laws before parliament are far from perfect and the limits are too small, but taken as a whole it is a step forward.’ The unions of course will be able to donate over a million dollars each, and there are 22 of them affiliated in New South Wales. That is a $22 million war chest for starters. The Greens say that they will have to work with the next government to improve the electoral laws and close loopholes. Isn’t it interesting, however, to see how pragmatic the Greens can become when it is a matter for which they gain a direct pecuniary interest? There is no taking the moral high ground or standing true to one’s principles on this issue by the Greens. Surely the Greens are not hiding behind insincere rhetoric to obscure their new-found funding windfall from certain disaffected sections of the trade union movement. Indeed, a cynical person might be tempted to believe that the legislative rush for this current bill was simply an attempt by Labor and the Greens to entrench a financial advantage for themselves before the next election and to set the coalition, Independents and minor parties at respective disadvantage.
Two and a half years ago we were willing to take Labor at their word on a promise that a comprehensive reform bill based on the outcome of the green paper process would be dealt with by the parliament before an election was called, but it never came; it simply never came. Instead this bill—this zombie bill, twice killed by the parliament already—is disinterred by Labor and the Greens and seeks to walk among us like the living dead. We will not support the bill, and I am surprised that the Special Minister of State, who is sitting opposite me at the table, wrote on 8 April 2009 to some of his donors saying:
Many of my friends and supporters were very generous in their campaign donations in 2007 and took advantage of the fact that donations of up to $10,500 did not have to be declared. Currently contributions under $10,900 are below the donation disclosure threshold and do not need to be declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.
But we will work with government. We will not be railroaded. The bill is a cynical attempt to hit the conservative side of politics and legislate a permanent financial advantage for Labor and the Greens. If this bill passes, we will condemn our country to a future where real political debate will be hijacked by third parties. If this bill passes, elected representatives will become the puppets of faceless men who control the union purse strings and can dish out patronage at their whim. This bill deserves to be defeated. The opposition will indeed be opposing it.
I am very pleased to speak today in favour of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010, which will give effect to the government’s very important commitments to immediately reform the legislative regime that applies to donations, disclosure obligations and the regulation of funding for political parties and election campaigns in Australia. The bill seeks to ensure that election campaigns in this country remain fair and transparent and in order to do so seeks to improve our existing arrangements relating to the disclosure of political donation and election funding.
I would like to begin with a few remarks from the member for Mackellar. It was quite a fantastical dissertation, I must admit, but in between maligning various union members and unions in general, she raised the point that she was concerned that the Labor Party would be coercing coalition supporters to donate to both parties. Evidently the member for Mackellar is somewhat concerned with the competition that this might create. It is one of the more ludicrous assertions that this chamber is likely to hear, and what a terribly thin argument. Really it says less about the opposition’s concerns about election funding reform and more about its capacity to meaningfully mount a convincing argument about the merits of the coalition’s policies and their leadership.
Having attempted to malign a variety of unions in her remarks—unions which have unashamedly, unabashedly, campaigned against Tony Abbott’s and Bronwyn Bishop’s Work Choices—she anticipates that others in this debate will seek to similarly malign corporations.
It was unions who were much maligned in the member for Mackellar’s remarks previously about those who had campaigned somewhat steadfastly against the opposition leader and the member for Mackellar’s Work Choices regime. She anticipates, I believe, that others in this debate will seek to malign corporate donors. Here is a revelation: I do not propose to do so because I think that we are more than capable of articulating a positive position on the bill which is put before us—the bill which so effectively provides for significant reforms to electoral campaign requirements.
The changes proposed to be made by this bill are considerable and they are detailed. In the main, however, the bill deals with three central objectives. It increases the transparency of disclosure obligations relating to political donations and provides for more frequent and prompt reporting of political expenditure and donations. The reforms do not set out to create additional or unnecessary administrative obligations for parties or individuals but seek to increase the transparency and the integrity of the election system. It is quite extraordinary then that the members opposite would be seeking to oppose such a straightforward and fairly innocuous piece of legislation.
Public perceptions of the sources of funding available to political parties and individuals are naturally linked to the regard in which our political system is held. Thorough disclosure of sources of election campaign funding ensures that the electorate can satisfy itself of the independence of policy decisions from undue influence or interference. The history of this legislation has been quite protracted—so much for the legislative rush described in the remarks of the member for Mackellar. The reforms are, as might be expected, detailed and comprehensive. They have involved deliberations over a considerable period of time and it is now timely indeed that they proceed. The government has sought to reform election funding and political donations for some time. The first bill to address these issues was introduced in—
Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: the standing orders require the vote that was delayed in the dinner break to be called on at eight o’clock. I am just wondering why that would not have been done.
I was remarking on the legislative history of this bill. Members who were present during the last term might recall that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had initially delivered its advisory report on that bill in October 2008. In December 2008, the government tabled amendments to the bill in response to that report. Disappointingly, that bill was rejected by the Senate. The government tried to introduce another bill in early 2009, but again, unfortunately, the second bill lapsed with the end of the last parliament. Given the protracted nature of deliberations around the reforms proposed in this bill and the recalcitrance of members of the opposition to date on the topic, it is important that the bill be enacted as law as soon as possible and that the commencement date of 1 July 2011, contemplated in the bill, should have effect.
This government has demonstrated its ongoing commitment to electoral reform in this area by pursuing reform at the earliest opportunity available to it. I hope that other members ultimately in this place will be as committed to genuine reform of campaign finance in Australia. The member for Mackellar remarked earlier this evening that the opposition would like to advocate for further reform. Unfortunately, we have heard little of it and their obstruction on this matter paints a fairly unpalatable picture of their commitment to election reform generally. The practical reforms which are proposed in this bill will have a significant impact upon the functioning of our electoral processes and, ultimately, the representative nature of our democracy. It is critical that they be handled sincerely and implemented as swiftly as possible.
Although the bill includes a substantial number of provisions, I propose to refer only to those key changes which go to the heart of the electoral reform package. Central to the reforms proposed in the bill is a new lower threshold for the disclosure of donations. The current threshold of $11,500 will be substantially reduced to a threshold of $1,000. This disclosure level would apply equally to donors, registered parties and candidates. It will provide transparency and accountability in the donations received or given by key participants in the political process and it reduces the scope for undisclosed gifts. It is curious then that such a relatively innocuous proposal should be so vehemently opposed by members opposite. Central to the reforms also proposed by the bill is the capacity to make anonymous donations—
Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I do not like to disagree with your ruling but I do point out that the standing orders indicate that all business will be suspended at eight o’clock to deal with any votes or quorums that might have been called during the dinner break. The precedent that you have established means that if a speaker starts speaking at 7.59 pm, for example, they could speak for 20 minutes, and if they were the first speaker from the opposition or government side on a bill they could speak for 30 minutes. That would mean that a division or quorum would not be dealt with until either 20 past eight or half past eight. That is a very important precedent to have established, and the opposition believes that, as members are being called back to be here at eight o’clock and as the standing orders indicate that the votes and proceedings should be concluded at eight, you should interrupt the member for La Trobe and call on the vote.