Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 16 November, on motion by Mr Gray:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I have great pleasure in speaking in support of the reforms being put forward in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. There
In Australia, in contrast, despite the fact that I, for instance, might question the redistribution in New South Wales in the last term which saw rather bizarre strange boundaries between the seats of Blaxland and Parramatta, in general we have a very legitimate recognised honest system, controlled by an independent Australian Electoral Commission. That is a very important part of the broader debate on electoral matters in this country. The opposition has been systematically denigrating our system, alleging corruption, finding any contrived arguments that there should be greater restrictions on people’s voting rights, that there should be more checking of people, that it should be difficult for people to vote and that there should be restrictions in the way in which people exercise their franchise. The most controversial of those areas has been those restrictions which in the past would have made it very difficult for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory to vote because of identity requirements.
After every election attempts are made to find a list of people who voted twice and to find some corruption in the system and after every election the AEC concludes that most of the people who voted twice are people who are intellectually challenged or were errors. We in Australia can be proud of a system that is, by any international standards, renowned and respected. It is no wonder that the AEC is often asked to assist other political systems.
The main measures in this bill are about having public exposure of donations. I strongly support these measures. In the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters report on the 1996 election, the Liberal Party and National Party members stated:
The disclosure thresholds should more accurately reflect current financial values. The scenario painted by the AEC—donors going to extraordinary lengths to avoid disclosure of gifts totalling $90,000—is in most cases unlikely. Even accepting such a possibility, a sum of just $90,000 spread over the State and national branches of a party is hardly likely to engender corruption.
I am afraid I agree with the AEC and not with the opposition. I think $90,000 is a substantial amount of money. I think that there would be more than one person in this country who would be persuaded in a variety of political matters by donations of $90,000. The AEC predicted at that time that there would be an increase in the amount of donations that would go unreported. I would far more respect their integrity and their disinterest from a political partisan point of view than those who ensured that more and more donations in this country would go unreported.
The measures in this bill are that the threshold for reporting donations would go from $1,150 down to $1,000 and that all donations over $1,000 would have to be disclosed. I think the Australian people would regard that as more than reasonable. There are arguments that there are small businesspeople out there who are intimidated, who are too scared to give donations if they are known. I do not think anyone with any credibility would listen to that kind of stuff. This is quite clearly an attempt to maximise donations for the Liberal Party through backdoor operations.
Amongst the other changes is one to extend the probation of anonymous donations to all donations over $50. Once again, why should there be anonymity with regard to these matters? Why should the Australian public not know that particular developers, particular people with very clear interests, are giving money? Why should we not be able to determine whether we think there are questionable decisions being made because of donations in this country?
The bill also bans foreign donations, and that is the matter I mainly want to talk about. I do not want to cover areas that have been covered by other members. It also talks about donation splitting, in other words, making donations to a political party in a variety of state and federal jurisdictions so that they are not put together in one item, thus avoiding public scrutiny. Once again, this is overdue, it is correct and it should be supported.
There is also the closer tying of the amount of money that people get with regard to taxpayer funded electoral assistance to the actual campaign expenses. We have seen a few cases in the past where people are basically running in elections to make a few bucks out of it.
I want to turn to foreign donations. This is a very overdue reform. There are clearly areas where foreign powers and other countries try to affect the political system in another country through donations. In recent decades we have seen some very disturbing instances where this was a possibility. In the 1996 United States elections, after sources close to the Chinese government donated to the Clinton legal defence fund, there was a significant investigation in the United States into the activities of John Huang, Johnny Chung et cetera, which led in the end to 21 convictions. A number of these people had connections to a particular corporation, Lippo, and ties with the Chinese administration. It was alleged that in total $7.4 million was devoted to this. Bob Woodward and Brian Duffy in the Washington Postspoke of the Chinese Embassy in Connecticut Avenue being tied to these efforts. They had favoured George Bush in 1992 but in the 1996 elections there was a degree of uncertainty as to Clinton’s reliability because of his attacks with regard to human rights in Tibet. That is a good instance of the way in which, allegedly, money from other sources was being used to affect the politics of another nation.
We know the Liberal Party has a close friend, Michael—Baron—Ashcroft, a person who managed to make $1 million for the Liberal Party in this country between 2004 and 2005. He is another example of questionable practices. Recently he resigned as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in the UK, having on the way out criticised the electoral performance of David Cameron. He has been essentially a citizen of Belize for decades and failed to reveal, over quite a period of time whilst an officer of the Conservative Party, the fact that he had not managed to pay taxation in the United Kingdom on his earnings. He was also alleged to have paid $3.6 million in a loan to the Conservative Party in the UK in the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal. He admitted in March 2010 that, after arguing for some time his taxation privacy, he had not paid on his overseas earnings. Lord Oakeshott of the Liberal Democrats said, ‘Democracy is in danger if Lord Ashcroft has been pouring millions into Conservative campaigns through an offshore pipeline from a Caribbean tax haven.’ As I say, this is a matter of concern.
You can get a variety of issues. We know in recent years that the United States blocked the entry of funds from Dubai and China in regard to port control in the United States because of security concerns. We know that it is a reality around the world that diasporas tend to be far more hard line and more intransigent with regard to issues in their homeland than perhaps the citizens of those homelands. You can look at a variety of foreign policy issues in our own country. Take the breakup of the Soviet Union and the concern of the Baltic, Ukraine and other communities here. Their intensity around those issues is perhaps stronger than the citizens in the homeland. Obviously it is a lot safer to be very radical around these issues in Australia, where you will not get a bullet in your head. You can also have the situation where a diaspora in another country is not really representative of the population back in the homeland. Those people who have left that country in many cases are perhaps an elite of better off professional people, or maybe they are political refugees with objections. In a political system it is natural that these people can influence the politicians of an area in regard to the foreign policy attitudes of their new homeland. To allow donations from overseas sources to be players in the field is, as I say, quite inappropriate. It is long overdue that we are taking measures here to defeat the possibility of influence on the political system from overseas sources.
Once again, another controversial instance was in Canada where former Prime Minister Mulroney was involved in a major scandal involving West German finance, some of it possibly coming from the Bavarian CSU, in a number of commercial transactions in Canada—national decision making that is still being questioned. In 2008 he refused to go before the ethics committee of the Canadian parliament after the main person who was alleged to have paid him this money was extradited. That is another example of why there must be concerns and serious oversight of foreign donations.
Returning to the question of the way in which there should be some limits, and to give an example of some of the money that kicks around in these systems, it has been estimated that the US Chamber of Commerce donated $75 million to ‘pro-business candidates’ in the last midterm US congressional elections. One of our favoured sons, Mr Rupert Murdoch, is estimated, from sources, to have given $4.4 million. He said in an interview with Politico’s Keach Hagey, about $1 million of them, that he ‘didn’t expect’ that his donations would become public. This is typical of the amount of money that kicks around these systems.
It is more than overdue that there be restrictions on the amount of money that can be kept secret from the Australian public. These measures are about transparency. They are about making sure there is oversight so people can gauge for themselves whether money is having a significant influence on politics. We know that overnight in New South Wales there have been moves to actually do something about the huge influence of alcohol, gambling and tobacco in the politics of that state. Another area is the very disturbing influence of developers. The opposition harks back with constant references to the union movement and how much money the unions give. I have no quibble with massive oversight of them. But that is not the issue here. The issue is that people should be able to see what is really happening. It should not be by backdoor processes. It should not be by hiding donations, by making them through a variety of state branches so they cannot be collected on the one site and so people do not have knowledge. I commend the minister and I commend the committee for working on these matters. When we accomplish these kinds of changes we will be strengthening a political system whose legitimacy and whose integrity is renowned around this world. To do otherwise, whatever the contrived arguments, is simply to have a mechanism to try to ensure that the public does not get proper oversight.
I rise to speak on and strongly oppose the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. Let there be no mistake: this bill is, first and foremost, an attempt by the Labor Party to aid its own political and financial position under the guise of transparency and reform. The reintroduction of this bill by the Labor Party is to fulfil their obligations under the Labor-Greens-Independents alliance—the tail wagging the dog. We are seeing it endlessly and it is already causing enormous confusion across so many policy fronts for those on the other side of the chamber.
This is essentially the third iteration of the same bill. Ironically, it follows coalition calls for a comprehensive inquiry into Australia’s campaign finance laws following the Wollongong sex-and-bribery scandal, a call that was made in good faith and, as we understood at the time, that good faith was to be reciprocated. But what we found is that was opposed by the government. They did give an indication that they were willing to act in good faith for an objective assessment across the board of Australia’s campaign finances. The government subsequently announced the development of a green paper, which we applauded, for electoral reform. Yet ahead of dealing with that green paper, we see a series of cherrypicked amendments, as represented in this bill today, which would essentially advantage the Labor Party: ‘Forget the holistic approach. Forget acting in good faith with each other. Let’s just bring in some grubby amendments to try to disadvantage the coalition parties.’ There was a mad rush to bring these amendments in before the last election. There was no coincidence about that! They tried to get it all passed before we rose last time. The cynicism was exposed, the self-interest was exposed and the crass political nature of these provisions were exposed.
Once again the bill reinforces that electoral reform should not be done in an ad hoc fashion nor cherrypicked for political advantage but needs to be undertaken in a holistic sense as part of a large suite of electoral reforms. This bill contains provisions that primarily discourage business donations. In fact, that is its objective, primarily to discourage donations to one side of politics. We have measures such as that of reducing the disclosure threshold from $11½ thousand, indexed to the consumer price index annually, to $1,000, non-indexed, a measure directed at the heart of small business donations to the coalition parties. We see that the bill requires people who make gifts above the threshold, to candidates or members of groups during the election disclosure period, to furnish a return within eight weeks of the calling of an election. This is a blatant attempt to put the frighteners on small businesses and other businesses who are quite happy to reveal a donation. But to do so and making it public in the context of an election campaign makes it possible for political actions to be taken and makes it possible for intimidation to occur and makes it possible to discourage others who might have the ‘affront’ to make a donation of more than $1,000 to the coalition parties.
It also makes unlawful the receipt of a gift of foreign property by political parties, candidates and members of a Senate group—and we have been quite open-minded about exploring those sorts of issues in a more holistic bill. It prohibits all anonymous gifts above $50 except in two specified situations—again, Labor’s penchant for bureaucracy. This will be unmanageable for so many thousands of volunteers around the country, but in the interests of discouraging donations to my side of politics that does not worry the Labor Party. It also provides that public funding of election campaigning is limited to declared expenditure incurred by the eligible political party, candidate or Senate group or the sum payable calculated on the number of first preference votes received where they have satisfied the four per cent threshold, whichever is the lesser—again a provision that we would be prepared to discuss; we would be prepared to discuss versions of it in the context of a holistic approach.
The new arrangements are set to commence on 1 July 2011. Of course, there is no mention of the privileged and irregular position of the unions in any part of this bill. It is all directed at those people who primarily form part of our support base and who would be keen to see our side of politics sufficiently armed with resources to announce an effective campaign and to put our case for government. But there is no mention of the privileged and irregular position of the unions in regard to political donations and there is no mention of third parties—all the issues that must be addressed if there is to be a balanced approach. These are issues that are fundamental to seeing a balanced approach and for the community to have confidence in the laws that regulate political donations.
What lies at the heart of this bill is Labor’s real agenda to shore up its own fortunes while at the same time severely hampering those of its political opponents. Of course, the significant direct and indirect support provided by the union movement, amounting to over $65 million in the years prior to the 2007 election, is not addressed in this bill. The bill is also silent on the intervention of third parties, such as GetUp!, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and the like, in the political process. The historical trend has been that unions continue to provide massive support to the Labor Party while businesses have either split donations on a 50-50 basis or have withdrawn their support for the funding of political parties altogether.
Much of that 50-50 split and/or the withdrawal of funding altogether has resulted after a concerted campaign over the last 15 years by the Labor Party to intimidate so many businesses around this country. There has been a concerted campaign to identify those donors from the electoral rolls and, by other anecdotal advice, to identify smaller donors and for Labor Party heavies to physically meet with the heads of those companies over a period of time, which has had the effect of either forcing a 50-50 split of donations or, in many cases, discouraging any donations at all.
In terms of delegates to the ALP conference, affiliated unions make up 427 voting members and party members make up only 426. Unions also retain their 50 per cent share of selection committees. There is a great funding source. It is a group that largely dictates to the Labor Party, and yet there is no mention of the propriety or the arrangements of many of the donations that are passed through from the union movement. New South Wales ALP members who are members of affiliated unions number fewer than 2,500 people. That is about 0.6 per cent of the total affiliated union membership in New South Wales of 384,000. Thus, the 99.4 per cent of members of affiliated unions in New South Wales who have actively chosen not to join the ALP are still financing the political ambitions of the 0.6 per cent who have.
Also, this connection with the unions and what it means is revealed today in the Herald Sun in a piece by Phillip Hudson. He revealed that earlier this month we saw Labor’s links with the trade unions writ large with the appointment of the failed Labor candidate in the seat of Melbourne, a former ACTU official, to the lucrative position of chief executive of the Australian Government Employees Superannuation Trust. AGEST has over $3.8 billion in assets and over 140,000 members. That is 140,000 people whose retirement funds, their future, is locked up in AGEST. They are predominantly from the Commonwealth, Northern Territory and ACT governments. Many members in this chamber, including me, have funds in AGEST. The board is appointed by the finance minister and the ACTU. Labor needs to demonstrate today that the appointment of Ms Bowtell, the failed candidate for Labor in the seat of Melbourne, was not a consolation prize for her standing in and losing the seat of Melbourne. The minister responsible, Senator Wong, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, made the too-clever-by-half comment when approached by journalists that she played no part in the appointment, that it was nominated by the board members. She made no other comment. She refused to pursue any other investigation of the appointment. But, of course, AGEST Super was created by the Labor government and the ACTU in 1990. They appoint three directors each and jointly select the chair. The federal minister in charge is the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, who took over from Lindsay Tanner, who stood down as the ALP member for Melbourne, and Ms Bowtell was selected to replace him. Ms Bowtell failed to hold the seat for Labor. She is also a former senior ACTU official who missed out on the role of union president.
The 140,000 people with their life savings for their retirement being managed by AGEST need to be given the comfort that Ms Bowtell has the experience to manage such a responsible job. When selling herself recently to the voters in the seat of Melbourne, Ms Bowtell made no reference to any experience in the investment of funds. In fact, she said, ‘My early career was spent representing workers in the education sector.’ She also said, ‘For the past 15 years I worked at the ACTU advocating for ordinary, working Australian people.’ When you go to the website of AGEST, you find one paragraph outlining her professional credentials to oversee a $3.8 billion super fund—a huge sum of money. It says:
Cath has a law degree and has been a superannuation trustee for over ten years, with five years on the board of AGEST … She has been an active member of investment and audit committees and for six years was responsible for superannuation policy at the ACTU.
There is no mention whatsoever of investment experience. I was an independent member of the board of Sinclair Knight Merz, Australia’s biggest consulting engineering group with 6,000 consulting engineers. After five years, I brought a perspective to that board, but I am not an engineer. I was in no way equipped—and it would be laughable to suggest I was in that position—to take over as CEO of that consulting engineering company. In the same way, there is no evidence of investment experience.
This person will be competing against a great deal of experience and expertise in this marketplace. Usually, those running a multibillion dollar investment fund would have at least 20 years of senior investment experience. What hands-on investment experience and what managerial experience has Ms Botwell had? None of this is canvassed on the AGEST website and none of it has been put in the public arena. We have every right to seriously question the appointment, given Labor’s track record of looking after Labor mates. This is a very serious issue and it goes to the heart of this bill. It shows that Labor is not serious about transparency and that Labor is looking to use any piece of legislation to advantage itself or its mates. It is captured again and again in this bill. We see the issue with GetUp, a third-party group which pretends to be non-aligned, yet in the 2007 election where was all of its focus in the last four weeks? In the marginal seats that we were seeking to defend. And what did you see at the last election? The CFMEU giving a significant $1.2 million to GetUp to run ads against the coalition. They are an arms-length party to the Labor Party. They are a wholly owned subsidiary, in my view, of the Labor Party. They are doing their job.
You are the only one advocating some Liberal Party policies. This bill reeks of partisanship, opportunism and grubby politics. It must be opposed. We will oppose it very strongly. We need to get back to a holistic approach to political donations. (Time expired)
The contribution of the member for Goldstein to this debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 reeked of political opportunism and was totally directed towards promoting his side of politics. If I was to describe his contribution to this debate, I would describe it as: ‘I hate the unions, I hate the ALP, I particularly hate the ALP’s candidate for Melbourne, Ms Bowtell, and I believe that any legislation that changes electoral law reform should be designed to advantage my side of politics.’ It is not about putting forward an argument for fairness, transparency, openness and accountability. The member for Goldstein does not want that. He does not want transparency, he does not want openness and he does not want accountability. He just wants an advantage for his side of politics. If in any way he can see any fairness, transparency, accountability or openness being brought into law, then he is going to oppose it. He is going to strongly oppose it and he is going to make sure that his side of politics strongly opposes it.
I will just run through some of the things that the member for Goldstein said. When I came into the chamber he was saying that the amendments would disadvantage the Liberal Party. Would a bill that lowers the threshold for disclosure of political donations given by political parties disadvantage the Liberal Party? I do not quite understand that. The way I look at it, both sides of parliament will have to make disclosures. Every member of this parliament will have to make disclosures. What the legislation does is put on record those people who are donating to political parties or candidates. I believe that the Australian people have the right to know who is making donations to the people they are voting for. I do not think it should be a secret. I do not think a person should be able to go along and donate, as they can now, a bit over $10,000 to a party or a candidate without the people that are voting for that candidate, the people of Australia, knowing where that political party is getting its money from.
The member for Goldstein says that the disclosure disadvantages one side of politics. I go back to what I have just said. How can it disadvantage one side of politics? It disadvantages both sides of politics if they seek to hide things. It discourages donations to one side of politics. It would have the same impact on both sides of politics. He talks about our side of politics, but I always thought that when we put laws in place in this parliament it was not about us but about making sure the people of Australia knew what this parliament stood for, what the members of this parliament stand for and making sure they know who and what they are voting for.
The member for Goldstein was very upset about the fact that business splits its donations. He did not like the simple fact that returns would have to be submitted earlier. Anything that brought about change that led to openness, transparency and accountability, the member for Goldstein disliked. He argued against it. In arguing that, he was saying what his party stood for, what his party advocated and how his party would be voting. That is not the way we on this side of the parliament look at it. On this side of the parliament we believe that people have a right to know who is donating to political parties. We believe that people cannot just give anonymous donations without some form of accountability.
This bill bans gifts from overseas, with penalties for breaches. It extends the ban on anonymous gifts to encompass all anonymous gifts, except where the gift is $50 or less. Such gifts can be received in two very limited circumstances. The first is where the gift is received at a general public activity—for example, you are at a school fete and someone gives you a donation—and that has to be done in a proper, accountable way. The second is where a gift is received at a private event, and the definition of ‘private event’ is set out in the legislation.
The bill contains measures that tie election funding to reported and verified electoral expenditure directly incurred by a candidate or a party in an election period, with penalties for fraud. That is very important and it is something that I am sure the Australian people would expect. There are measures dealing with gifts to separate divisions of a party to prohibit donation splitting. I suspect that that is something that the member for Goldstein and his colleagues would strongly oppose, because it is all about accountability, openness, transparency and letting the Australian people know how elections are funded and how candidates are funded, and we know that those on the other side of this parliament seem to really fight against that.
Under this legislation, people who make gifts above the threshold to candidates and members of groups during an election disclosure period are required to furnish a return within eight weeks after polling day. Once again, the member for Goldstein is vehemently opposed to this. It puts too much pressure on people who donate to his side of politics, and I suspect that this is a common theme that members opposite have run through this debate. I think it is right that those returns be submitted as soon as possible. They should be timely. This is a very good change to the legislation. The legislation also introduces a requirement for six-monthly disclosure returns of gifts, where previously there was a 12-month time frame.
This legislation comes to the parliament today with, I would have to say, a history of opposition from the opposition. It was previously debated in the last parliament, in 2008-09. The opposition voted against it in the House. In the Senate the Greens and Senator Xenophon supported the legislation we have before us today and unfortunately the coalition and Senator Fielding, from Family First, voted against it—voted against transparency, voted against letting the people know where we get our political donations from and voted against us submitting our returns in a timely manner. They voted against all the good points this legislation contains.
At the commencement of this parliament the government entered into an agreement with the Greens and the Independents that this legislation would be reintroduced as soon as possible. The Greens and the Independents were concerned about the people of Australia knowing where they got their financial donations from and how their election campaigns were funded. We must remember that this legislation very much arises from a government initiative, with the green paper and much work having been put into getting us to this point. The Greens and the Independents know that this is a very important piece of legislation and they know that it is something that the Australian people want and something the Australian people expect. When it does come into law I think it will do a lot to improve the way in which people in Australia look at politicians. Australians like to know what their politicians stand for, what the people that represent them in this parliament stand for. They want to know where they receive their donations from and they want accountability.
It is proposed that this bill will commence on 1 July 2010. I suggest to the opposition that they rethink their position and maybe have a talk to some of their constituents about it. I encourage Senator Fielding to rethink his position and join with Senator Xenophon and the Greens to pass this law so that it will come into effect on 1 July. It does need his support to get through the Senate. It is such important legislation. Delaying the bill has left us in a situation where at the last election the Australian people were unable to ascertain where a number of gifts that had been given to political parties had come from. I am not ashamed to say where donations to my campaigns come from—I am not ashamed in the least. I do not think that members on the other side should be ashamed either.
The member for Goldstein talked about the fact that small business donates to his side of politics. Small business donates to both sides of politics, and both sides of politics understand—well, one side of politics understands, I should say—that a person chooses to donate to a political party for various reasons and it is not about disadvantaging them if they do give a donation to the member for Goldstein’s side of parliament. Rather, it is about openness and transparency. It is not about doing the types of things that the opposition did when it was in government—trying to totally demolish the union movement. On this side of parliament we stand for accountability. On this side of parliament we stand for openness. On this side of parliament we stand for transparency. On this side of parliament we do not stand for advantaging ourselves. I commend this piece of legislation to the House. (Time expired)
I am pleased to rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. The biggest concern that those on this side of the House have with the bill that is before the parliament is that, in typical Labor Party fashion, we have a bill that Labor are looking at implementing that is cloaked with the cloth of transparency and openness. We know that basically the entire frontbench—and, for all intents and purposes, nearly all other members of the Labor side of the chamber—were born and bred from one common heritage: the union movement. The Australian Labor Party unabashedly travel around and say, ‘We are representatives of the union movement.’ It is instrumental that the two members in the chamber, the members for Batman and Melbourne Ports, are perhaps extreme examples of the Australian Labor Party’s pedigree. Both are born and bred 100 per cent union men and nothing other than that. These people come into the chamber, they put their hands together, they wring their hands and they say, ‘We are concerned about the corrupting influence of big money in Australian politics.’ ‘We need to have transparency in the parliament,’ they say. The Labor Party say that they want to see electoral reform that will ensure that the Australian people enjoy a more transparent, open and accountable democracy, one in which our political parties are free from the corrupting influence of big money. That is the central thrust. That is the sales message that the Australian Labor Party provides us.
But when you look at the bill that is currently before the House—a bill that has been defeated twice by this parliament already—it has been defeated because there is a fundamental flaw with the bill, and that is that this bill, when you scratch the surface, actually is not about transparency. It is about entrenching an already unlevel playing field to further benefit the Australian Labor Party. Although I heard the member for Shortland wringing her hands and waxing lyrical about transparency, there are a number of realistic aspects that need to be taken into account with respect to this bill. What I am talking about is this. Let’s take, for example, the first issue that was raised—that of the disclosure threshold. Under the coalition we had a disclosure threshold of $10,000 originally, and it went up to $11,500, indexed for inflation. This bill seeks to reduce that threshold to $1,000, not indexed. We heard members opposite say they were not afraid of transparency and they were happy to say where their donations came from. Well, so is everybody on this side. We are very happy to say where our donations come from.
But the fundamental difference is this. I know that in Queensland when a small to medium sized enterprise or a private individual makes a donation which is disclosed, and if they only donate to the coalition side of politics and not to the Labor Party, then on the Monday morning after the Electoral Commission releases the information on who has made donations trade union officials or the state secretary of the ALP will be on the telephone to that enterprise or individual saying, ‘Listen, mate, let’s send a bit of lolly our way, to the Australian Labor Party.’ And if the person says, ‘No, thank you—I’m a supporter of the coalition,’ then, lo and behold, all of a sudden that business, which might employ a number of staff, starts having trouble from the union movement. Across the country we hear reports of small to medium enterprises that have made donations to the coalition suddenly finding that, if they have not donated to the Australian Labor Party, the bovver boys of the union movement start exerting a little bit of muscle and a little bit of pressure on those people, suggesting that they make donations to the Labor Party as well. That is the reason why the threshold was raised to the level it was. It was a level that provided a safeguard to those that would be intimidated by the union bovver boys so that they could make donations without threat of undue influence.
More importantly, a donation of up to, say, $10,000 is hardly a corrupting influence of a donation. That is the reason why we had that threshold. Now Labor talk about putting it down to $1,000, not because they are concerned about transparency but because Labor know that they will pick up all of those other donations that sit below the disclosure threshold, enabling them to flex a bit more muscle and attempt to intimidate people who make donations. That is Labor’s approach to these disclosure bills. That is the reason why Labor are concerned about transparency. If it is purely about transparency, then why wouldn’t the threshold be $1? Labor has already shaved off the edges by saying it should be $1,000. Why not make it $1? If it is only about the principle of transparency, then make it $1. But, no, they will not. It is $1,000 because they recognise that it is impractical for it to be $1. That is the reason why. Whether it is $10,000 or $1,000, a compromise has already been made about the principle of transparency. So why not allow those who want to participate in the process to make donations?
More importantly, and of more concern, are big money donations to federal politics. Let us look at the 10 biggest donors to the Australian Labor Party. I will run through the list: No. 1 on the list is the shoppies—that is, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association—who donated $1.5 million to the Australian Labor Party; the CFMEU—the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union—donated $1.3 million; the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union donated $1 million; the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union donated $765,000; the Electrical Trades Union, $674,000; the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, $650,000; the Maritime Union of Australia, $581,000; the Australian Workers Union, $568,000; the Health Services Union, $366,000; and The Transport Workers Union, $304,000. They are the top 10 union donors to the Australian Labor Party. That is serious money, money that does not even come close to being matched by donations to the coalition from private enterprise or private individuals.
That is money coming from trade unions into the coffers of the Australian Labor Party, and it is coupled with actual political organisational influence and the ability for these unions to hold executive positions and positions on preselection councils of the Australian Labor Party. And the Australian Labor Party has the hide to lecture the coalition about big money influence. Half of the members—actually, that is an understatement—90 per cent of the members on the other side of the House would not even be in this place were it not for the trade union movement or, indeed, trade union lawyers. There are many examples of members opposite who owe their position in this chamber to the trade union movement. So it is little surprise that the Labor Party comes into this chamber and says: ‘We’re concerned about transparency, so we are going to lower the threshold and we are going to ensure that gives us maximum opportunity’—when I say ‘us’, I mean the Labor Party and their union bovver boys—‘to intimidate and influence those that donate only to the coalition.’
Let us look—because we are concerned about genuine electoral reform—at third-party organisations. One of the most glaring omissions from this bill—which is apparently ‘holier than thou’ to listen to the speeches of Labor members—relates to third-party organisations and political expenditure caps. Take, for example, an organisation like GetUp!. Across Australia, we have seen advertisements on TV of organisations like GetUp!, which holds itself out as being some kind of community activist organisation which simply tries to get Australians mobilised for the best interests of Australia. They say that they are separate to the political process. In my view, perhaps one of the most hypocritical advertisements of all time was GetUp!’s advertisement showing a big resource company pretending that a person had made donations to a minister or to a conservative government in order to secure outcomes that they needed for their mining project. This is GetUp!’s most hypocritical advertisement, because GetUp! is a long, long way from being the pure white organisation it pretends to be. The GetUp! organisation received $1 million of funding from the union movement to promote its activities. It is nothing more than a front for the Australian Labor Party.
No, it is not a conspiracy—you have only to join about three dots, member for Melbourne Ports. I know that you can do it; it is very straightforward. The GetUp! organisation gets $1 million from the trade union movement and runs anti-Tony Abbott advertisements. It is quite straightforward. It is a front for the Australian Labor Party, propped up by the union movement—the same union movement that owns and controls the Australian Labor Party. It is the reason cabinet ministers sitting at the table have the pedigree that they do with the Australian trade union movement.
In addition to that, let us look at what is actually happening with trade unions. Why not put expenditure caps in place?
The member for Melbourne Ports should understand that it is relevant because there are no expenditure cap limits in the bill. If the Labor Party was serious about making sure that we had electoral reform, it would put expenditure cap limits in the bill. But the Labor Party is not doing it, because the union movement, between 1 July 2006 and 30 June 2009, contributed direct and indirect funding of $76.6 million to the ALP. That is $76.6 million directly and indirectly from the trade union movement over three years to help the ALP. Of that, there were direct payments to the ALP from the unions amounting to just under $20 million during that period of time. So $76.6 million came straight out of the pockets of workers in the union movement, straight out of mysterious funds that employers are intimidated into supporting—registered training funds and these kinds of things. We on this side know how it works. We have seen the leaked documents and we know about the compromises that party officials have to make because that is how they go about collecting $76.6 million over three years to fund the Australian Labor Party. And, lo and behold, the bill is silent on expenditure caps. There is no reference to expenditure caps and yet those opposite say they are concerned about the corrupting influence of big money.
As a coalition MP, let me say that we could only dream of access to resources like this. We do not even come close. No wonder Australian Labor Party members sit over there with big grins on their faces, laughing about the fact that they are looking at implementing a bill that is cloaked in the cloth of transparency but which does nothing other than entrench the massive machine of the union movement behind the Labor Party. The Labor Party makes zero attempts to introduce expenditure caps.
I suggest that those members on the crossbenches—who include now for example the Greens member for Melbourne; a man who got direct funding from the union movement as well, lo and behold—ought to be making sure that we put in place expenditure cuts; ought to be making sure that organisations like GetUp!, a front for the Australian Labor Party and funded to the tune of a million dollars by the trade union movement, are not contributing to the political debate. Put expenditure caps on them too. Let us be serious about genuine political reform and not simply cloak it by saying we are about transparency and do nothing except entrench the massive windfall advantage that the trade union movement provides to the Australian Labor Party over the coalition.
That is really what is at the core of this bill, and that is why the coalition makes no apologies for saying we will not support this sham of a bill; we will not support a bill that is pretending to be one thing but in reality is the exact opposite. When the Labor Party is serious about third party expenditure, when the Labor Party is serious about tackling big-money-corrupting donations by the trade union movement to the Labor Party, that is when we will support the bill. Introduce expenditure cuts; introduce limits on third parties taking part in political donations; stop organisations like GetUp! from ripping millions of dollars from offshore and then spending it on political campaigns in Australia. That is what you should do if you are genuine about making sure that we have political reform in this country; that is what this bill is missing. The coalition will not support something that does nothing except entrench the union movement’s power over those Labor members who sit in this chamber and pretend to govern for all of us. Those in the Labor Party do not govern for all of us; they govern for those who fund their campaigns to the tune of $76 million over three years.
This bill is a long way from being the pure white cloth that those opposite claim it to be. It is not about transparency; it is about providing an opportunity for them to have more ability to see who it is that is donating to the coalition parties so that their union men can go around and say to them, ‘Give us a little bit of money as well, or don’t donate.’ That is their track record; that is their form. There are many examples of that having occurred, and it is a great shame that a true opportunity for material reform is now being missed.
It is with some pride that I speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. I do take the opportunity to celebrate the contribution that the trade union movement makes to working Australians. Certainly I am a trade union member and I am very proud to be so. The trade union movement has played a very significant role for many decades in raising the living standards of Australians right across the board, in both Labor and coalition seats.
This legislation is about providing transparency in the Australian electoral system. In Australia we celebrate our democracy and it is appropriate that we do have proper safeguards to ensure that Australians right throughout this nation can have faith in their electoral system. Transparency and accountability in political donations is a cornerstone to a healthy democracy, and that is why the Labor Party is so passionate about ensuring that we do have transparency and accountability around political donations. This bill does provide the mechanisms for that.
The coalition’s track record is absolutely woeful. Time and time again they find ways of hiding the source of their political donations and support. We on this side want to see transparency and accountability in our electoral system. The government is not only keeping to its commitments struck with the Australian Greens and the Independents on forming government, it is also continuing to deliver the necessary reform that we in the Labor Party have supported for many years. This bill continues the government’s reform agenda.
The government proposed these transparency and accountability reforms back in 2008, only months after we were first elected. In May 2008, the government introduced its first bill dealing with political donation reform. This same bill was later amended, on advice from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Unfortunately, those amendments were defeated in the Senate. That was a crying shame. Those involved in the joint standing committee put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that there would be proper regulatory oversight.
The bill proposes reform in six areas. In particular, we are increasing the transparency of political donation disclosure, introducing more frequent and timely reporting of political donations and expenditure, and reforming the public funding of elections. Those reforms do go to the heart of a modern electoral system that is clear, that is transparent and that the Australian community can be satisfied has appropriate safeguards.
I will be discussing only a few of the measures within this bill. Let me start by bringing the House’s attention to one of the proposed reforms in the bill, the threshold for political donations, which is currently $10,000. This bill will decrease the threshold from $10,000 to $1,000 for registered political parties. That makes enormous sense. That will assist our electoral system. Candidates and others who incur political expenditure will need to declare those. This bill also provides more transparency and accountability with regard to political donations and gifts. This bill will also reduce the time frames for the making of returns to the Australian Electoral Commission. The time frame for submitting returns from donors is presently 15 weeks, the time frame for registered political parties is 16 weeks and the time frame for third parties is 20 weeks. Under this bill they will all be required to make those declarations within eight weeks.
Political parties will now have to lodge their AEC returns twice a year. This will provide transparency to the Australian community, which is something that those on this side of the House certainly strongly support. These reforms will also provide the AEC with more information, and that information will be made available to the Australian community. Again that is something that is necessary in a modern democracy. The information will be collected earlier than before. That is something that is critical in this area. This will also help with transparency for the community. All this data will be made available on the public record, and the changes will enable voters to view this information in a much more timely way. This is great news for our democratic fabric.
This bill will also remove the loophole regarding anonymous donations. The current situation is that an anonymous donor can make numerous donations just under the threshold to different branches or divisions of the same political party. For example, a company could donate $9,000 to each branch of a political party and avoid scrutiny under the existing procedures. This bill will remove that loophole. This will be done by using an existing definition of related political parties that has been found elsewhere in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. This will make it clear that each branch of a political party is regarded as part of one political party. The situation that exists at the moment means that each branch or division of a political party is considered to be a different political party. The Australian community do not accept that definition. We on this side do not accept that definition. But those on the other side do. They do that because they wish to hide who is making donations to them, whether it be big tobacco, the big mining lobby or many others. That is inappropriate. The Australian community do not like it.
That is exactly right. The member for Indi likes to hide these things. We have seen that in the past. These matters are critical for informing the Australian community. This is about the transparency of our democratic institutions. We need these matters to be resolved in a timely way. It is for these reasons that the government has decided to reintroduce this bill. We sought to change these arrangements in the last parliament. We still stand by the need for these reforms. We will continue to pursue them, as we said we would. We entered into arrangements with the Greens and the Independents and in doing so indicated that we would continue to pursue these matters. And we will.
The federal government also does not want to see foreign companies having political sway on Australian democratic institutions. For that reason we believe that outside influences should not be allowed to inform our democratic processes. We will be moving to ensure that that cannot happen. This bill will also make it unlawful for a third party to receive any gifts from foreign governments. That is important, because we do not want to see a situation in which foreign governments make contributions to business that then in turn pass on those gifts or donations to political parties. That would be inappropriate. We are very proud to be putting in place measures to ensure that that does not happen. I am proud to be a member voting for this legislation. I encourage the Liberal Party to support it.
Previously, anonymous gifts of up to $11,500 could be made. This is far too much. This bill will reduce this amount to $50, a sum of money that will see far more transparency. This amount will certainly help create transparency when it comes to gifts to political parties. It is something that I support. The $50 threshold will enable practical measures to be taken to ensure that local branch members are clear and transparent with the Australian community and the Australian Electoral Commission without overly frustrating them by forcing them to fill in excessive paperwork when, for example, conducting a local branch raffle, which is something that Labor Party branches conduct on a regular basis. For that reason, I support the $50 threshold. It is a practical sum. It is not anywhere near the outrageous current sum of $11,500. I believe that these reforms will make sure that our democracy stays open to ideas and that donations made to political parties are transparent so that people can follow who has made what donations to what parties. These reforms will not overcomplicate the donation process. They will ensure that we protect our democratic institutions.
Electoral funding is important and it is important that it be tied to electoral expenditure. This proposed reform will aim to address the possibility that political parties or candidates may receive a windfall from payments of election funding. Again, I think we do need to be mindful of that. The proposed reforms will mean that a candidate will receive the lesser amount of either the electoral expenditure that was incurred in an election campaign or the amount awarded per vote. The amount for each vote will not be changed.
This bill will also introduce a range of new offences under the reporting and disclosure regime that we currently have in place. It will also put in place across the board increases in penalties for breaches of the Electoral Act. Again, this will ensure that our electoral system maintains its integrity and that appropriate penalties are put in place. This is critical to maintaining our democratic institutions.
This bill has been around for some time, both in the last parliament and this parliament. I encourage all political parties to support this legislation. These are necessary fixes to ensure that we do have transparency and accountability. I would hope that the Liberal Party sees sense and works with this government to ensure that we do have a transparent accountability framework with respect to electoral matters.
The time I have left is now limited, but I urge all parties, all members of this House and those in the other place to support this legislation, because it is important that we do have accountability and transparency in our Electoral Act.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 should have been passed years ago. Early last year the government introduced a similar bill into the Senate to make political donations more transparent, but the bill was defeated by an unholy coalition of Senator Fielding and the Liberals, both of whom do not want to clean up our election campaign finance system. I hope things will be different this time, with that unholy alliance of Senator Fielding and the Liberal Party still there until June. They will certainly change after June, because the government is determined to see that transparent, open and fair electoral funding is put in place.
We have always had a very strong and clean electoral system in Australia. We rarely hear complaints about fraud or rigged elections. However, it is well known that our election funding system—our political donations system—is in need of reform. In 1984 the Hawke government brought in laws that required all donations to political parties, whether from individuals, companies or organisations such as trade unions, to be declared public. In 2004, however, the previous government gained control of the Senate. One of the first things they did was to change the law on political donations. They lifted the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to more than $10,000 and increased tax deductibility. This allowed large amounts of money to flow to political parties, particularly the Liberal Party, without being disclosed. As the member for Corangamite quite rightly pointed out, it meant that the Liberal Party, by disaggregating the donations—for example, they could go to state branches of political parties as though they were separate entities—could get donations of $80,000 secretly, without the public knowing that it was getting such donations.
As I said, it is possible to make separate donations to each of these political parties under the existing legislation. How abhorrent is that? To hide who has donated to which party during an election campaign avoids the forms of transparency and accountability which the public expects of elected officials. What an abuse of power. With this legislation, Labor has sought to undo this deceitfulness.
Previously, the member for Moncrieff was going on about how we need to apply this measure to third parties. He was whingeing and complaining about GetUp!, which he said was a pro-Labor organisation. Goodness me! He must not have been in receipt of the same emails I have been receiving. If anything, it is a pro-Green organisation. The sum of $1 million donated to Getup! pales into insignificance beside the Minerals Council’s advertising costs during the last election, which went directly to the heart of the government’s capability of handling the global financial crisis. Who was the person behind the mining advertising? Mr Textor. He is perfectly entitled to earn a living; he is a very capable person—full honour to him. He helped get the British Conservatives, with their Liberal Democrat mates, into government. But to say that the mining council advertising, which cost $17 million, was insignificant in the last election is obscuring things and makes GetUp! a very poor comparison. This is particularly so when it is much more focused on criticising both the government and the opposition rather than, as the member for Moncrieff claimed, being a Labor Party front.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 seeks to lower the donation threshold, from $10,000 to $1,000. It means that donations received or given by key participants in the political process will be transparent and accountable, as well as reducing the scope of undisclosed gifts. Of course, it also means that if this legislation is passed then individuals or organisations that give $1,000 cannot do it in different states and be in the same situation they would have been in previously. As the member for Corangamite and others have pointed out, this legislation reduces the time frame for the making of returns. It reduces the current time frames for the making of returns and the disclosure of gifts and expenditure relating to an election by individual candidates and members of Senate groups and donors who make donations within the election period. The time frame is reduced from 15 weeks to eight weeks. The idea behind that is quite sensible—that is, the public should know in a timely way what donations are being given by whom so they can make assessments about whether those donations are tied to people’s political views or judgments, particularly those of political parties. Previously, political parties, associated entities, third parties and donors were required to provide returns to the Australian Electoral Commission once every 12 months. They will now be required to be lodged every six months.
This bill also seeks to ban large overseas companies from exerting political influence on parties by making unreported gifts or donations to political parties. The Australian public will, as a result of the change, be able to scrutinise any possible impact that foreign donations have on political decision making. How could the Liberal Party be opposed to this? I do not suggest that they take foreign donations. Of course they should be opposed to overseas countries making foreign donations, and therefore they should, quite logically, support the bill.
All of this legislation is being contemplated, I would suggest, to reduce the risk of corruption and undue influence. The former shadow special minister of state, Senator Michael Ronaldson, attacked union support of Labor last year when we first introduced this legislation. I imagine the new shadow special minister of state, Bronwyn Bishop, will do the same. If the shadow minister and the coalition were serious, they would wean themselves off contributions from outside players and make it clear to the public who they take money from. For example, the Liberals take money from tobacco companies.
They do—British American Tobacco—and the public have a right to know that. I have said before that previous laws that existed allowed political donations to be concealed from the public, and this gave the bad odour of potential corruption. I commend my friend the Special Minister of State for reintroducing this legislation to ensure that our system is more transparent and accountable.
However, the aspect of this bill that I really think is worth noting is the reporting of election funds and verification of election expenditure directly incurred by a candidate or party for an election, with penalties for fraudulent claims. This House may remember that I spoke in 2007 of the need to reform the electoral expenditure and reporting funds in order to avoid another Pauline Hanson situation. In 2004, the former member for Oxley ran for the Senate in Queensland, spending only $35,000 and trousering $200,000 that she got from the public purse because, as we know, a fixed amount is given by the Electoral Commission according to the number of votes. What Pauline Hanson used to do was run a campaign in the Women’s Weekly and on A Current Affair, get all the free publicity and spend none of the money that was given to her by the public for a legitimate election campaign, score over four per cent, which was the minimum you needed, and trouser the difference—spend $35,000 and take $200,000 from the taxpayers. What a scheme that was! It reminds me of Zero Mostel’s famous film The Producers, where they deliberately tried to have a play that closed on the first night in order for all the contributions that they got oversubscribed from elderly widows to make the play worth while financially. This was an extraordinary scheme by the former member for Oxley, Senate candidate Pauline Hanson, and this legislation will close that sort of thing down. Again, I would think that the Liberal Party would be in favour of this. They are not in favour of Pauline Hanson. They opposed Pauline Hanson. Therefore why would they not support this legislation?
The context of this legislation is also very important. The period from 2004 to 2007 when the Liberals had control of the Senate is widely regarded by many people as a period of hubris for the now opposition, the Liberal Party, when they introduced legislation on workplace reform that ultimately brought them down. But, when they controlled the Senate, apart from introducing their bodgie donations scheme, they introduced legislation such that, when people cast a provisional vote, they had to produce unreasonable amounts of photo ID in order to exercise their provisional vote.
What that meant at the last election I want to make clear to this House. Two hundred thousand Australians sought a provisional vote at the last election; 130,000 of them received letters in the last few weeks saying that they were not granted. They did not get their vote, because of this Liberal Party scam that required them to produce photo ID, not just proof of signature or proof of change of address, which they could easily produce, as they did in the past
At every previous election since 1996 the Liberal Party were elected on the basis of people with provisional votes having matching signatures. On all those occasions, it was perfectly legitimate for them to be elected on the basis of those people’s votes, even in close elections. Now they try to rule out all of those Australians’ rights to vote. In a compulsory voting system, our ethic should be to try and include every person who is a legitimate voter in the voting system, not exclude them. In those elections in which the Liberal Party were elected between 1996 and 2004, 50 per cent of people who applied for a provisional vote got it. Because of the scam that they introduced in 2007, only 20 per cent of people got a provisional vote. One hundred and thirty thousand Australians lost their right to vote because of the photo ID scam that the Liberals introduced at the 2007 elections. Of course, this is their idea, their motivation for the 2006-07 legislation: salami tactics to shave off different groups of people that might vote for the Labor Party.
Another group of people that they have excluded very cleverly over the last 15 years via masterly inaction is people who shift addresses. As you change address—and every member of parliament knows this—the Electoral Commission know where you have shifted to because of their access to databases like the White Pages. The AEC are bound by legislation to write to the ordinary voter and say, ‘Can you please confirm in writing that you have shifted address?’ Unfortunately, only 20 per cent of Australians respond in hard mail. What that has meant over time, over the period of the Liberal Party’s government—and we did not manage to change it in the last three years of the previous Labor government—is that 1.8 million Australians have been taken off the electoral roll by this process.
What we ought to do—and I am confident that my friend the Special Minister of State will eventually do this after June when there is a sensible majority in the Senate—is that, when we know people have changed addresses, when the Liberal Party does not dispute that they have changed addresses, when it is confirmed by different databases such as that of the Transport Accident Commission or the various electricity boards, people should write back to the Electoral Commission only if they are not at that address. Hopefully therefore in excess of 1½ million Australians would be able to be put back on the electoral roll.
This is our responsibility. In a democratic system, in a compulsory voting system, it is absolutely terrible that 130,000 Australians cast a provisional vote and were not actually allowed to vote at the last election. It is terrible that 1½ million Australian citizens were not given their right to vote because they were not enrolled, and I think it will be the responsibility of this government and of the Electoral Commission to clean up this area just as we are cleaning up political donations.
I might say that one very bad idea on political donations that came during the last three years was initiated by Senator Ronaldson, the previous spokesman on these matters, together with his friends in the Greens. That was for pure public funding of political parties. What a crazy idea that is. I have the figures for the 2007 period of the real cost of political parties. Can you imagine the Australian taxpayer taking up the entire cost of funding the Liberal Party or the Labor Party? In the 2004-07 period the real cost of the Labor Party operations was $217 million. The real cost of the Liberal and National parties was $180 million. In order to have pure public funding of the Australian electoral system it would cost the Australian taxpayer $450 million. Do we really want to do that, to pay for political parties, or do we want to build hospitals, pay for our defence forces and pay for the public education system? The current system of some matching funding at election time together with private donations, open and transparent, is an ideal way for an open democratic society like Australia to pursue. But having pure public funding would cost the Australian taxpayer $450 million. When we make decisions on these kinds of issues, we have to have the real costs of what these idealistic Green ideas would cost rather than just proceed with them. (Time expired)
It is a pleasure to follow the member for Melbourne Ports, who has been a passionate advocate of political reform in this place. I know he was pleased that those people so unjustly unable to be on the electoral rolls have now got that opportunity, and I thank him for his fine work on behalf of the Australian community. I rise to speak again in support of the bill. While some may discount its importance, the integrity of the funding of our electoral system is something that cannot be understated. Indeed, it is a fundamental part of restoring the trust of the people of Australia in our electoral system, something I believe was undermined when the former government increased the levels of donations and failed to tighten the loopholes that exist. This lack of action allows more questions over where the money was actually coming from. The bill is about taking the Australian system of electoral funding to best-practice levels and making sure people, lobby groups and corporations cannot dance around the regulations to achieve their own aims and seek to influence the system just from the sheer depth of their pockets. I am pleased therefore to support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 seeking to reform foundation, disclosure and funding laws for political parties and election campaigns.
Simply, the bill aims to improve our system of political donations disclosure and election funding to help ensure that campaigning is fair and transparent. How does it seek to do this? Essentially the bill introduces six measures in three key areas. The first is increasing the transparency of political donations disclosure; the second is more frequent and timely reporting of political donations and expenditure; and the third is reforming the public funding of elections. The measures contained in the bill are not new. They are in fact in response to the Labor government’s 2007 commitment to act on these matters.
A first bill on these issues was introduced in May 2008. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters delivered an advisory report on that bill in October 2008. In December of that year, the government tabled amendments to the bill in response to this report. Unfortunately, that bill was rejected by the Senate. In March 2009, the government introduced another bill encompassing the government’s amendments. That second bill lapsed with the end of the 42nd Parliament. The bill before us is substantially in the same form as that introduced in March 2009 and on which I spoke in this place on 16 March. The measures contained in this bill increase transparency and add to administrative processes for political parties and candidates. As Special Minister of State Gray pointed out in his second reading speech on this bill, it is not the intention of the government to burden parties and candidates, but to increase the transparency and integrity of the electoral system.
The six measures in this bill involve the following characteristics. The first is to set the donation disclosure threshold level to a flat rate of $1,000, lowering it from the current threshold of $11,500. This rate applies equally to all participants in the electoral process, including donors, registered political parties and candidates. The second measure deals with anonymous donations. For the record, under the Commonwealth Electoral Act registered political parties, branches of parties, candidates, Senate groups and people acting on behalf of these categories can receive anonymous donations below an indexed threshold, which is currently $11,500. Anonymous donations above this amount are prohibited. Fundamentally, the bill extends this ban on anonymous donations to all anonymous donations except where the donation is $50 or less and has been received at a ‘general public activity’ such as a fete, where people may place money in a bucket, or at a ‘private event’ such as a dinner, dance or quiz night, where people might donate small sums of money. These activities and events are defined in the bill and specified records must be kept in order for the anonymous donations to be retained.
Historically, the use of anonymous donations by third parties for political expenditure has not been restricted under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. This bill seeks to change this to prohibit the use of certain anonymous donations by third parties for political expenditure. The new prohibition applies to third parties which are required to lodge annual returns of their political expenditure above the current threshold of $11,500. The bill would also change this threshold to $1,000. Political expenditure, which is defined under section 314AEB of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, includes expenditure on the public expression of views on a political party, a candidate, a member of the House of Representatives or a senator; the public expression of views on an issue in an election; the publication of material that requires authorisation under the Electoral Act; the broadcast of political matter and opinion polls or other research on people’s voting intentions.
Only anonymous donations of $50 or less which have been received by third parties at a general public activity or at a private event would be able to be used for political expenditure by entities required to lodge returns under section 314AEB of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The bill would also provide for the Commonwealth to recover unlawful anonymous donations and an amount equal to the amount of unlawful political expenditure as a debt due to the Commonwealth. Together, these two measures, which aim to reduce the disclosure threshold and limit anonymous donations, would enhance the transparency of political donations and the public’s confidence in the integrity of our political process. The government believes that the community has a right to know who is giving what to whom. We wish to end the secrecy around donations.
The third measure would ban foreign donations. This would help to remove a perception that foreign donors could exert influence over the Australian political process. The fourth measure would prevent donation splitting. Currently, large donations may be hidden across state or territory branches of the same party, potentially circumventing the disclosure threshold. Under this bill, separate divisions of a political party would no longer be treated as separate entities for the purposes of disclosing donations.
The fifth measure aims to increase public scrutiny of political donations and expenditure by making information available to the Australian public more frequently and more quickly. The bill would reduce time frames for lodging returns from the existing 15-, 16- and 20-week periods down to eight weeks. More frequent disclosure of political donations and expenditure would also occur. Whereas returns have been required every 12 months, they would need to be lodged once every six months.
The sixth measure seeks to reform public funding of elections by ensuring that election funding is tied to genuine election expenditure. This measure would prevent candidates, or any political party, from making financial gain from the electoral public funding system. Public funding would continue to be paid to registered political parties, unendorsed candidates and unendorsed Senate groups who receive at least four per cent of the formal first-preference votes at an election. Under the bill, they would receive the lesser amount of either the electoral expenditure that was actually incurred in an election period—between the issuing of the writs and the end of polling day—or the amount awarded per vote. In a technical update from the 2009 bill, which I mentioned earlier, the amount awarded per vote would be indexed for inflation. The commencement date for the bill would allow these features to operate from 1 July 2011.
The measures in this bill provide an important, immediate step that can be taken to maintain the integrity of our electoral system—something more widely commented upon by the member for Melbourne Ports, the previous speaker. While some on the other side discount its importance, the integrity of the funding of our electoral system cannot be underestimated. This legislation is a fundamental part of restoring the trust of the Australian people in our electoral system, which was undermined when the former government increased the levels of donations and failed to tighten the loopholes that exist. As the Special Minister of State mentioned in his second reading speech, this bill is about taking the Australian system of electoral funding to best practice and making sure that people, lobby groups and corporations cannot dance around the regulations. I commend the bill to this House.
I too rise to speak in support of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. Whilst this bill is specifically about changes to the Electoral Act, it highlights a much more significant issue relating to the integrity of parliament and the people’s confidence in government. Public opinion of and confidence in governments is not high, and there are understandable reasons for that. It is important that the credibility of our parliament and our politicians is restored. Our parliament is seen as a symbol of the democracy which underlies our culture, our values and our way of life. Regrettably, these values are being eroded. Politics is about power, and the centre of power lies in the parliament. The outcome of an election has significant consequences for many people in many places. The stakes are indeed high. So, for many, the end justifies the means. Self-interest, or political survival, is often pursued at any cost, including in some cases the loss of integrity and honesty. Regrettably, the quest for power has resulted in the erosion of the very principles that the institution of parliament represents.
Many of the means used today to secure political power are directly at odds with the very values that we expect parliament to uphold. Not surprisingly, public confidence both in the parliament and in our parliamentary members has deteriorated and continues to do so. That is very clearly reflected in voter participation in Western democracies where voting is not compulsory. Voting is not compulsory in the UK and USA, and in this year’s elections in those countries the voter turnout in the UK was 65 per cent and in the USA it was 42 per cent. One can only conclude that the people who chose not to vote in those elections did so because they have little faith in the system.
In my own state of South Australia we only recently held local government elections. They, too, are not compulsory. In South Australia the local government elections are conducted under a postal voting system, where the ballot papers are posted out to the homes of each and every elector. The voter response was less than 30 per cent.
Political donations are only one of the means used to affect the political system and to destroy confidence, as I just referred to. There are of course other things that contribute to the loss of confidence in public office. Whilst I will not talk in detail about those today, I refer to areas such as the political campaigning tactics being used, the media reporting of the political agenda and the media debates, and a broad range of other strategies—some of which have been referred to by other speakers in this debate—that are used to manipulate a political outcome.
I come back to the question of political donations. There is much that can be learnt about political donations by looking to what has happened in the USA. In this year’s mid-term elections in the USA, my understanding is that the total spend across the nation for TV ads for that campaign was estimated at somewhere between $3 billion and $4.2 billion. The Republican candidate for governor in California spent $140 million on her campaign.
But there are other trends that we should take note of, because it is my view that the trends in the USA are quite often trends that we pick up here in Australia. In the USA there has been an increase in recent years in the amount of what is referred to as third-party political spending. In 2006, something like $223 million was spent by third-party advertisers or supporters. In 2008, the figure was $397 million. In 2010, the figure reached $564 million. What is interesting about this is that in a landmark 2010 US Supreme Court case the court handed down a ruling that third-party organisations can now pay for ads that talk directly about the candidates. No longer is it simply a matter where a third-party organisation can quite legitimately raise a political matter and talk about it in the context of an election campaign. They can now specifically and directly campaign in support of or against a political candidate. In fact, it was on campaigns against candidates that, I understand, most of that money was spent.
The ruling in the USA is and should be of concern to Australia as well, because if political donations continue to go unchecked in this country one can only draw the conclusion that we will end up with similar kinds of uses for those funds. That would further deteriorate the confidence in this very institution.
I have listened to a number of opposition speakers on this bill and I come to the conclusion that their arguments against it are simply unsustainable. The very fact that they are arguing against this bill, in my view, contributes to the concerns the broader public have about the political system. Whilst this bill does not resolve all of the issues that I have alluded to and whilst it may not resolve all of the issues relating to political donations, it is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of making political campaigning through donations more transparent. When the public see a political party oppose these measures, the first question they ask themselves is: why are they opposing the bill; what is really behind their opposition to it? If the bill is inadequate, by all means move additional amendments to it. By all means introduce additional matters that ought to be considered. But do not block the very matters that quite legitimately have been raised in this bill and that, I believe, would have the broad support of the community and that the community would also see as making the process of political donations much more transparent. That is exactly what we all should be endeavouring to do as members of this place.
If members opposite continue to oppose this bill, I suggest that they will be doing so at the expense of their own credibility, because they have put forward no credible arguments. To attack, as some members have done, third party organisations who have contributed to the political process, to attack the unions, is simply a diversionary tactic to cover their real motives for opposing this bill. Their real motive for opposing this bill is that they do not wish to have the people who donate to their campaigns disclosed. As I said a moment ago, if you do not want the people who are contributing to your campaign disclosed, it means that you have something to hide. If you did not you would be supporting this bill.
This bill covers six critical measures. Most speakers have spoken on each of those measures, so I will go through them very quickly. First is reducing the donation disclosure threshold from $11,500 to $1,000. It seems to me that the $1,000 limit is quite reasonable in today’s society. To go any lower than that would make the whole system unworkable. But it would also be fair to say that anyone who contributes above that amount of money would do so because they have an interest in the outcome of the election, and that ought to be disclosed. In fact, even reducing it to $1,000 may not cover all of the loopholes. I am sure that there will be some smart strategists out there who will find ways of getting around this provision as well, but at least it is an attempt to try to ensure that we have the transparency that the public quite rightly deserves.
The second measure relates to the threshold for anonymous donations of $11,500. Again, why is a donation anonymous in the first place? It is in order to ensure that the donor is not identified. There is no sinister reason in why that person or organisation ought to be identified, but I suspect that there might be good political reason why the opposition would not want that to be the case. The second measure talks about how anything less than $50 may be anonymous. Again, for all practical purposes, you could not possibly have a law that could be administered properly if you did not have a minimal amount like the $50 that this bill contains.
The third measure relates to a ban on foreign donations. Whilst I believe that this particular measure is important, I am also conscious that there may be ways around this particular provision that will be used by those who are intent on influencing the political outcome here in Australia. But, again, we should make it as difficult as possible. Nor should we be in any way influenced by donations that come from overseas corporations or, for that matter, possibly even overseas governments, who all have an interest in the policy making of this government. This is a measure that I strongly support and, again, a measure that I am surprised is opposed by those opposite.
The fourth measure relates to the separation of donations where donations are split from one political branch of a political party to another in order to be below the $10,000 threshold. This is one of the tactics that is currently used. Whilst it will still be possible to do that in the future, this measure will make it so much harder. I believe that this measure will help restore some of the credibility that I was referring to.
The more timely reporting of donations is the fifth measure in this bill. It simply relates to the process of reporting the amounts of political donations that are received. I believe that more timely reporting would simply ensure that there is much more transparency and accountability when political donations are made. If they are made honestly and without any ulterior motive, there should be no reason why that particular provision should be opposed and there should be no reason for any of the donors to object to that particular provision.
The last provision is the reforming of the public funding of elections, which ensures that no-one can stand for office purely for the purpose of benefiting by standing for office because they may collect the $2.31 for every vote they get above the four per cent. They have to demonstrate that they expended the amount that they are going to receive before they receive that money. Given that we are talking about public funds, that seems to me to be an appropriate thing to do.
I am perplexed as to why the opposition oppose this bill. I am perplexed because none of their arguments address the real issues here. It seems to me that, once again, they are simply trying to support those who seek to influence the political outcome of our elections. (Time expired)
in reply—I thank all those who have contributed to the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. It seeks to improve our political donations disclosure and election funding arrangements. The measures contained in this bill are largely the same as those that were first introduced into the parliament in May 2008 and again in March 2009. The 2008 bill was considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its October 2008 advisory report and the government accepted the suggested amendments to that first bill and they were then included in the 2009 version of the bill. Any further delays to the passage of the measures contained in the bill will result in any changes being delayed until July 2012 due to the lead times involved in establishing reporting systems and the need to commence these measures at the start of a financial year.
Let me once again summarise the key measures contained in this bill. The first group of measures in the bill concerns the disclosure threshold and reporting periods. This bill would reduce the disclosure threshold from the current CPI indexed amount of $11,500 to a non-indexed amount of $1,000. This would restore public scrutiny to donations of this size. Transparency in the funding and disclosure regime would be improved by requiring participants in the electoral process to report every six months, rather than every 12 months.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 would also provide consistency by reducing the deadline when the participants in the political process have to lodge disclosure returns with the Australian Electoral Commission to a consistent period of eight weeks. This measure would replace the haphazard deadlines currently in the Commonwealth Electoral Act which include 15, 16 or 20 weeks depending on the person or the entity. To ensure that the new $1,000 disclosure threshold is not avoided by a person giving multiple amounts below the threshold to various branches or divisions of the same political party, the bill treats donations to different branches of a political party as if the donations were given to the same political party or entity.
The second group of measures in the bill relates to the source of certain donations. Specifically, the bill prohibits the receipt of a gift of foreign property. This would remove the perception of foreign donations being able to be used to purchase influence over political decisions. Also, registered political parties, candidates or members of groups will not be permitted to receive anonymous gifts so as to circumvent the reporting obligations. Only anonymous donations of $50 or less which have been received at a general public event, such as a fete, or at a private event will be permitted. Similar restrictions would also apply to third parties and their use of anonymous donations for political expenditure. Third parties that are required to lodge disclosure returns would only be able to use anonymous donations of $50 or less for political expenditure where those donations have been received at a general public activity or at a private event. These measures to restrict anonymous donations would help to end the secrecy around donations.
Finally, the bill seeks to prevent the possibility that some candidates and other groups may obtain a windfall payment of election funding by tying electoral funding to the actual electoral expenditure incurred. The government believes that this bill is an important step in delivering a more transparent and accountable electoral system for Australia. The government remains committed to improving the election funding and disclosure regime to maintain the integrity of the electoral process and to help ensure that the election campaign is transparent and fair. The measures contained in the bill are the first step in achieving such an outcome. I commend the bill to the House.
That this bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time.