House debates

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Matters of Public Importance


3:16 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Warringah proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The Australian Public's declining trust in politicians and in the political process.

I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

3:17 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

'The Australian Public's declining trust in politicians and in the political process'—How good is this topic, today of all days! On this day, when there are claims and counterclaims, secret deals to pass legislation, allegations in the media of foreign interference in our political system and ongoing concerns about parliamentarians' standards, it is timely to talk about the topic of this matter of public importance: the declining trust of Australians in their elected representatives and their political institutions. We live in a country with a democratic record that on the whole is to be envied. We have since Federation enjoyed regular, peaceful changes of government through open and transparent elections, and the rule of law is embedded into our political system.

But, while Australians are rightly proud of our democracy, the evidence is clear that they are becoming less likely to trust their elected representatives and our political system and are not all that inclined to engage with it. The 2016 Australian election study conducted by the ANU found that public satisfaction with our democratic processes and public trust in the politicians they elect are at some of the lowest levels ever recorded. This is a wake-up call to Australia's political leadership that Australia is not immune from the problems facing democracy in Europe and the US. The parliament of Australia is the people's house, the highest authority in our nation and the place where many aspects of how we live our lives are determined. It should be a place that all Australians respect and are inspired to contribute to, directly or indirectly. Members of the federal government have the opportunity for nepotism and favouritism in appointments and the granting of contracts, misuse of confidential information, conflicts of interest, misuse of entitlements, decisions that favour political donors and crossover appointments between industry lobbyists and parliament, yet there is no criminal sanction for any of these actions. Currently such conduct is self-regulated by parliament and rarely results in real action and investigations.

Public confidence in our political system is undermined by the absence of transparent accountability systems for dealing with allegations of corruption, claims of secret deals over legislation and ongoing reports of foreign interference. Australians have an expectation that the Australian parliament and Public Service meet the highest standards of integrity. They expect that politicians need to be held to greater account so that the parliamentary process is more honest, productive and inspiring than it has been in the recent past.

There are six things that we need to address. One is establishing a national anticorruption body that has real teeth. This must include an independent referral pathway and discretion to hold public hearings. The public must know of this. There must be accountability. We cannot have MPs and their staff held to a weaker standard than others within Australia. We need to restore the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility. We need to return to an impartial Public Service that provides advice without fear or favour. We need fixed four-year terms of parliament. We need to establish a parliamentary fact-finding office and we need to legislate for truth in political advertising.

I would like to focus on truth in political advertising in particular because that is the starting point of how we all find ourselves in this place. There is an urgent need for this government and this parliament to address this problem. False or misleading claims propagated during recent elections have generated a great deal of public interest, and safeguarding the integrity of our political system must be a priority. According to a national ReachTEL poll conducted following the 2019 federal election, a majority of Australian voters want tougher truth-in-political-advertising laws, with 87.7 per cent of respondents calling for change. This is a critically important issue as the potential impact of misleading and false statements made in the course of electioneering is undoubtedly plentiful. Misleading and dishonest campaigns have an adverse effect on the public interest. They divert attention from substantive issues and may even distort electoral outcomes. To make matters even worse, corrective advertising seeking to clarify matters is often ineffectual, disseminated less widely and ultimately ignored.

The Electoral Act does not require truth in electoral advertising. This comes as a shock to most constituents. They can't believe that that is how low our standard is. The Australian Electoral Commission is unable to act to stop misleading and deceptive conduct during elections. The AEC can only act in relation to conduct which affects the process of casting a vote. In addition, through a number of decisions the High Court has recognised an implied right of political communication in the Constitution.

The question of whether the Australian parliament should enact truth-in-political-advertising laws is not a new one. In fact, the Commonwealth parliament considered the idea back in the 1980s, and until 2002 FreeTV Australia heard complaints against and did not permit misleading political advertising under the Trade Practices Act. Since then Australians have been subject to particularly insidious scare campaigns from both sides of the House. We've had the 'Mediscare' campaign and we've had the death duties campaign, to name just two. These campaigns have sought political profit at the expense of truth and the integrity of our political system.

Australians should be casting their vote based on genuine and factual information. Whilst we can debate competing definitions of truth, everyone can agree to an objective fact-checker, and a minimum factual basis can elevate the national conversation concerning issues that matter to Australians and cut through the fake news, fake advertising and fake political campaigning that demeans us all. South Australia already has adopted political advertising laws without major issue. It is an offence in South Australia to authorise or cause to be published electoral advertisements that are materially inaccurate or misleading. Although the Electoral Commission of South Australia is at times uncomfortable with its role as an adjudicator of the truth, the South Australian example proves that factual-accuracy-in-political-advertising laws are possible.

New Zealand, too, has a national regulation of truth in political advertising, in its case conducted with its advertising standards body. The system has been in existence for decades and over this time has successfully dealt with complicated questions of truth with nuance and transparency. The UK and Canada both have similar provisions. At a time when the confidence of Australians in our political system is at a critically low level, we must take decisive action to defend the integrity of the democracy in our country and act with the moral determination and courage that Australian people expect of us.

In 2002 the Senate finance and public administration committee recommended that some mechanism should be in place to address concerns about improper practices during election campaigns. All sectors of the economy which relate to consumers are bound by strict laws in terms of product quality and product advertising. There should also be constraints on similar activities of candidates, groups and parties in the electoral process. It's unacceptable that misleading customers is against the law but misleading voters is at best a legal grey space and at worst not considered at all. In order to help combat the confidence deficit in our democracy, taking a clear stand against misinformation is critical.

Whilst the South Australian example gives us a good indication as to what's possible, provision in favour of truth in political advertising must balance concerns relating to freedom of speech, and Commonwealth law must be designed so as to ensure it doesn't breach constitutionally implied freedom of political communication. We need to create safeguards against any legislation ensuring truth in political advertising being wielded as a political tool to shut down debate and undermine candidates and parties following due process.

Whilst finding the balance is not an easy task, as it stands today there is little to no protection for voters. This is a time when we need a robust debate concerning the country's future more than ever, a conversation grounded in facts and genuine dialogue, not political grandstanding, slogans and chronic misinformation campaigns. Technology is rapidly developing, and it allows people to literally put words into other people's mouths and promulgate, on social media, videos that are false and misleading, before anyone can correct the record. Given this, it's important that we create a legal framework for dealing with this now. This cannot delay.

I share the expectations of the Australian people that the Australian parliament and the Public Service should meet the highest standard of integrity. It's been quite astounding to me, having sat through the events of the last couple of weeks and the conduct that I've seen in this place, how the priorities that the Australian people face and the things that are going on are superseded by events that we've seen—secret deals when it comes to legislation— (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Ben MortonBen Morton (Tangney, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) Share this | | Hansard source

When I think about trust in politics, I think about governments doing exactly what they said they would do when they sought election. When I think about trust in relation to the last election, I'm reminded about Prime Minister Morrison specifically raising the issue of trust on the day that he visited the Governor-General and called the election. In fact, as reported in The Canberra Times:

Mr Morrison declared the election to be about "trust" and the economic record of the Liberals and Nationals in power in contrast to the higher taxes proposed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

I specifically reviewed the interview transcript today, and I quote the Prime Minister:

… who do you trust to deliver that strong economy which your essential services rely on?

In relation to trust, we can use this opportunity to outline exactly what this government's priorities are and how we're delivering exactly on what we took to the Australian people. It's very interesting that the honourable member referenced today's successful repeal of Labor's medevac law in an argument against trust. This was one of the issues that this government took to the election. This is one of those pieces of legislation that we said we would repeal, and today that repeal has occurred in the Senate. That is how we deliver on trust to the Australian people—by saying what we're going to do and delivering upon that.

This government's priority is to build an even stronger economy. It's about building resilience and rewarding aspiration. It's about lower taxes so Australians can keep more of what they earn. It's about reducing the costs to businesses. It's about equipping Australians with the skills that they need and making sure that we create the employees that Australian businesses need. It's about expanding our trade. It's about building infrastructure. It's about keeping the budget strong. The reason why these priorities are important is that this is exactly what we said to the Australian people we would do, and we're delivering upon that. The government has returned the budget to surplus. The budget, for the first time in 11 years, is in balance. Again, we are delivering upon the commitment that we made to the Australian people, unlike Labor, who hadn't delivered a surplus since 1989.

One of the key things we said at the election was that we would continue to build on our record of working with businesses to create jobs in our economy. In 2019 alone, to October, 202,700 new jobs have been added to the Australian economy, with 251,800 jobs added over the past year. Since 2013, more than 1.4 million more Australians are in jobs, and 55 per cent of those jobs have been full time. That's how we're developing trust in democracy—by doing exactly what we said we would do.

One of the first things that we did—and it was not easy to pass through this House and the Senate with the usual political games that you would expect from those opposite—was deliver tax reform and deliver a further $158 billion of tax relief, building on our already legislated Personal Income Tax Plan. It was the biggest simplification of the personal income tax system since the early 1990s, abolishing an entire tax bracket and making income tax lower, fairer and simpler. We're lowering the 32.5 per cent rate to 30 per cent in 2024-25, ensuring a projected 94 per cent of taxpayers will face a marginal tax rate of no more than 30 per cent. We said we would do it, and we've done it, and we will continue to do the things we said we would do.

We told the Australian people that we would take action in relation to the cost of electricity. They put their trust in this government to take that action. ABS data shows that national electricity prices have dropped around three per cent since December.

We said that we would take action in relation to Australia's emissions, and we've done that. In the year to June 2019, economy-wide emissions fell 0.1 per cent, or 400,000 tonnes to 532 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. We said we'd do it, and we are doing it. Emissions are now lower than when the coalition came to government and have declined each year since 2016-17.

We said we would invest in infrastructure. We said we would build on our $100 billion infrastructure investments and that we would keep the economy strong so that we can deliver the essential services Australians rely on. More recently, we announced a bring forward of $3.8 billion of infrastructure investment to help strengthen the economy, to drive jobs and to get people home sooner. That's how we develop trust in our democracy—by doing what we said we would do and by delivering.

Through our strong budget management, we've also been able to support our farmers and drought-affected communities when they need us the most. Since the last election, we have announced over $1 billion of additional support. We've made changes to the farm household allowance to make it easier to apply for and more accessible, including the introduction of a new special drought relief payment for farmers and graziers that have exhausted their four years of farm household allowance.

At the last election we said to the Australian people that a strong economy is central to everything; only with a strong economy can we deliver on the essential services that Australians rely on. They put their trust in us and, because we can manage the economy, we were able to deliver this additional support for farmers and those drought-affected communities.

We're backing our farmers with the establishment of the $5 billion Future Drought Fund. It will improve the resilience of rural and regional communities. Importantly, we said that we would pass legislation to protect farmers from activists who trespass on their land. We said that we would protect farmers from activists that seek to trespass and to get in the way of hardworking, honest Australians that are working on the land and in farms. That legislation was passed. We're going to get a lecture from the Greens, no doubt, in relation to trust in our democracy, from a party that didn't support the mandate that this government had in order to pass that legislation in this House. They're going to talk about a whole range of other issues about trust, but they fail to maintain the trust that the people expect of governments and to build that trust by allowing governments to get on with it and do what they said they would. They voted against that. If the Australian government took to the people a commitment to protect Australian farmers from activists, the Australian people's trust in our democracy will be strengthened when the government can get on with it and deliver exactly what they said they would do.

This is a government that is delivering record school funding. This is a government that's delivering record health funding. This is a government that has, this year, made 334 new and extended PBS listings, providing new treatment options for many conditions, including cystic fibrosis, asthma, skin cancer, leukaemia and lung cancer, amongst many more. That is benefitting hundreds of thousands of Australians who now have access to life-saving and improved treatment options. More than half a million Australians are accessing cheaper medicines as a result of mandated price reductions on 15 common medicines sold as 175 medicine brands, saving Australians $390 million a year. That's how we develop trust in our democracy—delivering for Australians in very practical ways that make their lives easier, by putting more money in their pockets and delivering on the concerns that they have.

I'm one who likes to talk up our democracy. We live in a democracy that we should be very proud of. When a government takes a commitment to the Australian people to make practical and real improvements in the lives of hardworking and aspirational Australians, delivering on those commitments strengthens the trust that Australians have in our democracy. Deputy Speaker, you're going to hear a lot from people who are going to talk down our system of democracy. I'm very proud and humbled to be a member of this parliament. I take my role as representing not only my constituency of Tangney but also the people of Western Australia and the people of Australia, in my role as an assistant minister to the Prime Minister, very seriously, as I know all members of this place do. We have a responsibility as members of parliament to talk up the strength of our democracy. We live in one of the finest democracies in the world. It is a democracy that is strengthened when governments have the ability to deliver on exactly what they said they would deliver when they took their positions to an election and were re-elected as a result.

3:37 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

People in Australia like democracy, but they're worried that our parliament has been captured by big corporate interests and that too many decisions are made by this government for the benefit of private interests, not the public interest. There are four important things that the government could do within a matter of days to turn around the decline in trust that people have in this place and restore people's confidence in democracy. We need to restore confidence in democracy because we have seen what happens around the world when people disengage from the democratic system. It opens the door to demagogues, and we want to make sure that never happens in Australia.

The first thing that we could do is put in place a national anticorruption watchdog before Christmas, and we could have one before Christmas if the government wanted to. Why could we have one? Because the Senate has actually passed a bill to establish a national ICAC. I was proud to be the first member to introduce a national anticorruption watchdog bill into the House. That was then improved on by the previous member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, and worked on by a number of others. Suggestions were taken on board and a bill that probably had the support of the whole crossbench passed the Senate, because it had the support of the Labor Party as well. It found its way to the House, where the government kicked it off into the long grass. The government are prepared to come in here time after time and say, 'We need an integrity bill for unions,' but they're not prepared to bring in an integrity bill that covers politicians. If you want to restore trust in this place, put in place a national ICAC, a federal integrity commission, because we are seeing at the state level, day after day, what happens when developers and big corporates get politicians from both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party in their pockets. And if you believe that, somehow, corruption only happens within state borders and stops at state borders and doesn't come to Canberra then I've got a bridge to sell you. I think the Australian public know that there is a case for a federal ICAC. The government should listen to the public and pass it—pick it up off the Notice Paper, pass it tomorrow and we'd have a federal ICAC before Christmas.

The second thing that the government could do to restore trust and confidence is get the big money out of politics. Let's limit donations to $1,000 a year, across the board, from everyone. And let's say there are some people and some kinds of corporate interests that we don't want making donations to politics at all—like developers and the tobacco industry and so on—because they corrupt the process. While we're there, let's also limit the amount that can be spent at election time. People get sick of the amount that is spent across the board by political parties at election time and we saw, just last election, Clive Palmer buy an election by spending $60 million on an election campaign. If you limited the amount of spending then that would reduce the incentive to start getting these donations in the first place, and it would mean this place could start acting in the public interest—not for private interests.

The third thing that we could do is run a public-interest test over every decision that gets made here. And, when it comes to handing out money and giving subsidies, we could ask: is this actually in the public interest? We have big corporations—Gina Rinehart's mining companies, for example—who go and put diesel in their trucks and they pay a bit of tax then, and, at the end of the year, they get a cheque back, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer, as a refund for all of that tax that they pay on their diesel fuel! When every other Australian goes and puts petrol in their car, they pay 40-odd cents a litre in tax—when Gina Rinehart does the same, she gets the tax back, courtesy of the Australian people. We don't need to be giving subsidies to the very rich and powerful at the same time as we've got people who are homeless, people who can't even afford to get into their first home and people who are finding it hard to get a decent job, and power bills are going through the roof. Let's run a public-interest test over the decisions that are made here, not a vested-interest test.

The fourth thing that this government could do, if it wants to restore some trust, is start protecting people from the impacts of climate change. People want action on climate change. This government gets up and beats its chest about national security: the government is fond of saying that the first duty of any government is to protect its people. If that's right then protect people from the impact of climate change. People want action on climate change. Three-quarters of people under 34 now know that there is a link between the recent and current fires and climate, and they want action. What is standing in the way? The government is on the coal-company teat and won't take the action that's required. Take action on climate change and you'll start restoring a bit of trust in this place.

3:42 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to thank the member for Warringah for bringing this matter of public importance to the House. It is a very important issue that we need to be discussing. I believe that what restores faith in the political system is delivering those policies, services and infrastructure that make life better for the people that we represent. That includes reforms like the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which our hard-working Attorney has indicated is on the way. There is draft legislation which will be coming out soon.

Deputy Speaker, as you know, I am from the country and, as far as our communities are concerned, there is no greater challenge and no greater issue, no issue more pressing, than that of drought. This drought has devastated our country communities. It's been devastating on the farm and at the farm gate but also right through to our country villages, towns and cities. And the drought marches on. There doesn't seem to be any relief in sight. Every day I get calls from our farmers and from constituents involved in farm related businesses, and they are struggling. There's no question about it: they are struggling. These are hard, resilient, tough farmers that call me, and you can hear the anguish and the strain in their voices. They're worried about how they're going to get through. These are the good operators who have prepared and made the sacrifices, but they are under enormous pressure. I have farm related businesses contacting me saying: 'Andrew, I just don't know how long I can keep the doors open. I just don't know how long I can do it; I'll keep going as long as I can.' I was with the Deputy Prime Minister at a rural supply store in Wellington recently. The owner of that store is a friend of mine. He's got two staff members and he just won't let them go because he is loyal to them. He's burning through his retirement savings just to keep the doors open.

What this government does in this place is vitally important. If you look at the measures that have been put in place to help our country communities get through drought, it is policies like these which build faith and restore faith in the political system. Policies like extending the farm household allowance from three years to four years, and after you come off the allowance being eligible for the cash payments of $7,500 for singles and $13,000 for couples, lifting the cap on the FHA to just over $100,000. The Drought Communities Programme is giving our local councils in drought-affected communities badly needed funds to stimulate local economic activity. A great example is the Dubbo Regional Council which has given Stuart Town about $560,000 to sink community bores, connect their community facilities to bore water for the first time and put in new water tanks. For the first time the hall at Stuart Town is going to be connected to the bore water. The amenities block at the park will be connected to reticulated water.

Just a week or so ago I opened a new deck on the Blayney Golf Club. I sang a little Slim Dusty 'Lights on the Hill' to help them christen that deck. It provided hardworking builders and tradies with badly needed work—

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take the interjection. It is on my Facebook page if you do want to check it out. The Drought Communities Programme has made a real difference. The Roads to Recovery funding boost is allowing our local councils to build that important infrastructure and, again, stimulate our local economy. It is policies like these and programs like these that people respect. When you can deliver them, as this government has, it does restore faith in the political system.

As this drought marches on, drought relief will have to be ramped up. I've said that all along. As conditions worsen, and they will, the relief will have to be ramped up—for a long time possibly, because as we head into this long, hot, dry summer our country communities are going to be tested like they have never been tested before. All levels of government and all our community members are all going to have to come together and support each other, and together we will get through it. It's policies like this that are important for restoring the integrity to the Australian political system.

3:47 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The news is in. According to the ABC's Australia Talks survey results released last week, politicians rank amongst the least trusted professions, beaten to the wooden spoon by the celebrities. This dismal finding is repeated year after year in reputable surveys both in Australia and around the world. But why? On paper, in theory it should be the opposite. Parliament, the legislature, is the fundamental pillar of our democracy. We each represent the voices of hundreds of thousands of people. It should be a respected institution. But that's not what people see. Yes, they may see some policies delivered and, yes, they may see some programs delivered, that's the bottom line. But what they really see—and what I've seen as a new member of parliament, as someone who was an outsider and is now an insider—are these things: bad behaviour, accusations and counteraccusations, debate shutdowns, mudslinging, obtuse political donations and a lack of transparency. And it is quite shocking as a member of parliament to see those things here on the floor of parliament. I am now one of the people who's ranked as one of the least trusted professions in the world. It is not a nice feeling.

All of this comes at a cost. It comes at the cost of seeing secret deals done—secret deals that none of us in the House can understand when a vote is passed through the Senate, for example. This comes at a cost, and not in the way a sudden financial emergency affects our bottom line but in a slow, incremental way, eroding the authority of our institutions and damaging the rule of law.

As I said in my first speech, so many Australians want change desperately, but equally they are scared of change when it comes to trusting the political system to bring it about. Let's work to improve this. There is a way. It's complex, but we can navigate it. We can do difficult things in this House; I'm sure we can. We need a robust federal integrity commission to help restore the trust that so many Australians have lost in their elected representatives. As an independent MP, I, like my other crossbenchers, have been a clear and consistent voice for the establishment of this institution. It was in response to this pressure that last year the government announced plans for its own Commonwealth Integrity Commission. The former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, and her suite of integrity legislation was pivotal in preparing the ground for this announcement, as was the work of the member for Melbourne preceding that. It sets the standard for how we can move forward.

Any federal integrity commission should include public hearings. At the very least, that's what our people want—and discretion to initiate investigations, open referrals from concerned members of the public and, importantly, whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation. I encourage the government, I encourage all of my MP colleagues, to aim for this standard.

Alongside this, this House needs a code of conduct and the creation of two independent positions to offer confidential advice to members and ministers, including the Prime Minister. These changes are critical. Under our current system, integrity issues within the parliament and the executive are dealt with by the parliament, the Prime Minister and the Special Minister of State. These institutions, tasked with upholding political, ministerial and parliamentary integrity and honesty, are also primarily political institutions. Advice from independent bodies would overcome this inherent and very obvious conflict. The code of conduct would require that a parliamentarian ensures that their conduct as a parliamentarian does not bring discredit upon this parliament. This code would include provisions about dealing with conflicts of interest, using position for profit, outside employment, accepting gifts or hospitality, using influence and using public resources. By placing them in a code of conduct we declare to the Australian public the standards that they can and should judge us by.

Some will say that the current system works well enough. Yet how can this be, when the research shows us that 90 per cent of citizens have a negative view of the standards of honesty and integrity held by politicians? Democracy 2025 reports that if nothing is done and current trends continue then fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions, resulting in ineffective and illegitimate government and declining social and economic wellbeing. Some will say that an integrity commission will be politicised, resulting in vexatious referrals, which will destroy the careers of honest people. Well, I ask that we set about doing this work to stop the vexatious referrals and mudslinging that happens in this House. As elected representatives in the highest offices of the land, we should be held to the highest— (Time expired)

3:52 pm

Photo of Dave SharmaDave Sharma (Wentworth, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you to the member for Warringah for putting this issue on the agenda. I do believe that it is an important issue to be discussing—the declining trust in politicians and in the political process. A few weeks back I was at an event held here in Parliament House with the member for Indi and the member for Sydney. The event was to discuss a report to which the member for Indi just referred—Democracy 2025. It is a report from the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, from December 2018.

Some of the findings of that report are worth repeating here. According to the report, 41 per cent of Australians are currently satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, which is down from a high of 86 per cent in 2007. This low level of satisfaction was particularly pronounced among young people. Generation X were the least satisfied, at around 31 per cent, and baby boomers were the most satisfied, at around 50 per cent. The report also shows that this decline in trust is not limited to the political class or political institutions. It mirrors the general decline in the trust in institutions and authority figures, be they law enforcement, the courts, journalists, the press et cetera. It also, interestingly, mirrors a decline in social trust, or the expectation that your neighbours will behave honourably and help you out in a crisis. So, what we're dealing with here I think goes beyond just the political class and political institutions, and we shouldn't limit our concerns to only that.

A couple of interesting findings came out of the report. Those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with the Australian political system than those born here in Australia. There were a number of other bright spots. Three particular features of Australian democracy were singled out in that report that those surveyed liked the most. They agreed with the statement that Australia's been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens. They agree with the view that Australia has a good economy and lifestyle. They also agreed with the view that Australian elections are free and fair.

When looking at this issue, I don't believe that we can look at Australia in isolation. This is obviously part of a broader global trend that is underway. In that context, I highlight a report published by the Pew Research Center in October 2017, which surveyed 38 nations, all of them democracies of varying degrees and colours. While more than half the populations in each of those 38 nations polled considered representative democracy—our system of government—to be a good way to govern the country, in all of those countries these attitudes coexisted with an openness to non-democratic forms of government, including rule by a strong leader, rule by the military or rule by experts. Again, this was especially pronounced amongst millennials, those aged from 18 to 29. While Australia is not immune to this, we fare okay by world standards. In both the UK and the US, for instance, support for the idea that rule by the military or by a strong leader would be a good way to govern the country is higher than in Australia.

To sum up, this is a global phenomenon, I think. I don't believe we have any cause for complacency here in Australia but, generally speaking, in Australia levels of trust are higher. Interestingly in Australia this problem, by and large, dates from 2007 and is particularly concentrated amongst those who have come of age politically since that time.

Explaining this—the causes of what is an obvious malaise—is difficult, and I'd offer a few ideas. Firstly, the end of the Cold War has a part to play. There's no longer an alternative political system that strives for universal application or is a credible threat to our own, which means there's a degree of complacency about our own political system. This is borne out in the differing views and levels of support between migrants and the native born that I highlighted before.

One of the people interviewed for the Trust in Democracy in Australia report was quoted as saying:

What does Australian democracy mean to me? It means a second chance for a peaceful life for my family. We will always be grateful for this opportunity. I don't think Australians know how lucky they are. But I guess they don't know. You only know how good something is when you haven't got it.

That's a generation X, urban new Australian quoted in that report.

There's also been a high degree of political turmoil in Australia since that time—I acknowledge that. Two of the biggest reasons though—and the previous speakers have focused on this—are that politicians are not accountable for broken promises and they don't deal with the issues that really matter. I can't speak to what's gone on in the past, but I can assure this House and you, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, that this government is focusing on the issues that matter and is committed to meeting all the promises we made at the election. Thank you.

3:58 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not agree with the member for Wentworth when he argues that Australia is travelling relatively well—although I must commend the member for Wentworth for being the first government speaker during this debate to actually stand up and do a good job of exploring what we both agree is a very, very important issue. It is absolutely astounding that his two predecessors made light of this debate and instead gave presentations that were thick with denial and distraction. That was not in the public interest.

The undeniable fact is that regard for the political class in this country is at an all-time low. In fact, many members of the community hold politicians in complete contempt and disdain. They lampoon us at every opportunity, and that's entirely warranted. There have been so many episodes which help to explain the collapse in public confidence in politicians in this country, and there was another episode just today in the Senate. It wasn't just that there was a lack of integrity that the parliament has overturned medevac but that it was underpinned by a secret deal, because the public is held to not be responsible or worthy enough to know what this secret deal is. The fact is that the secret deal has been covered up by someone in the Senate. Not everyone can be right in the Senate. Senator Lambie says there is a deal; Senator Cormann says there is no deal. Well, they can't both be right. One of them has to be misleading us. No wonder the public is sick and tired of politics, politicians and some of the political parties.

It is a great shame that not all of the government members are in here, like the crossbench are, talking about how we can reclaim the public's trust. Surely, if there were just a few measures we could grab and implement, or at least talk about today, wouldn't the top thing on the list be the establishment of a federal integrity commission? That, more than anything, would go a long way towards reclaiming the public's trust because for once they would see we have an interest in integrity in this place; for once we would be prepared to put in place effective measures to restore integrity. We don't need this dodgy integrity commission that the government is talking about currently. We need a strong body, a body that can look at corruption in all its forms, including non-criminal corruption—things that should be criminal, like nepotism, cronyism and rorting of allowances. We need an integrity commission that could have public hearings so that the public can go in there, or at least watch it on television, see what's going on and see that something is being done about the collapse of integrity in the political class. We need an integrity commission that could take referrals from the public and from whistleblowers. We need an integrity commission that can make findings of guilt. That's what this country needs right now, not the dodgy construct that has been proposed by the government.

If there were another thing on a short list that we could just grab quickly to do something about strongly to help restore the public's faith in the political class, it's donation reform. It is an undeniable fact that no person or company—or government, I might add—hands over a large sum of money without expecting some sort of return on that investment. There are people and companies handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars and, over time, tens of millions of dollars; how can we believe anything other than that they want a return on that investment?

If we could grab a few things quickly and implement them within months, how about better laws to protect media freedom and better laws to protect whistleblowers? If we aren't going to tidy up our act, then at least others can shine a light on us and shine a light on the misconduct that some people in this place are undeniably guilty of. But what's the government doing? It's doing everything it can to not bring about effective media protections. It's doing everything it can to ignore the fact that our current Public Interest Disclosure Act is woefully inadequate. For a start, security officials, parliamentarians and their staff are explicitly excluded from the whistleblower act. Doesn't that alone say an awful lot about us in this place? It says that we will do everything in our power to protect ourselves and ignore the disdain held by the community for the political class in this country. We're a laughing stock. We're lampooned at every opportunity. We should be in here debating, discussing and progressing ways to remedy that as soon as possible.

4:03 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Warringah for putting this matter forward. Like the member for Warringah, I came to this place only six months ago, after pursuing a career in a completely different field for a number of decades. There are about 27 or 28 of us that joined at that time, roughly six months ago. I wonder, when they reflect on those six months, what they have been surprised about, because I've found there to be a number of surprises. Some of them have been very pleasant surprises, like the genuine endeavours in committees, joint party efforts, to look into issues of concern that cut across partisan politics; and the genuine desire of most people in this place, regardless of their political background, to actually serve and make a difference. There have, of course, been some surprises that have been less than pleasant, such as the waste of time and the playing of games, and the noise in this place, the shouting in this place. I have three teenage sons and I have never encountered that sort of noise, even when they've had 15 of their friends over. There is the feigned melodrama, the feigned hurt, the feigned outrage at certain times—and I'm not pointing my finger at anyone in particular; I think it's across the board.

Like the member for Warringah, I am concerned that there is declining trust in politicians and the political process, because, notwithstanding all its faults, our form of government, a democracy, is the best way to ensure that all people are able to live their best lives. If people lose trust in this system, what will we get in its place? The system is not perfect. This place is not perfect. But it is incumbent on all of us to do the best with it in the best interests of our country and the people who live within it.

Under the leadership of our Prime Minister, when you put aside the noise, when you put aside the theatrics, when you put aside the chatter, this government is getting on with the job. We are delivering on the promises that we made. People may not like those promises and people can attack those promises, hold us to account, criticise them and try to put up different ideas. That's absolutely what we've built this place for. But we are delivering on the promises that we made. We have been delivering tax cuts. We've been expanding our trade borders to access more markets. We have been investing in infrastructure. We have been supporting small businesses. We've been listing more medicines on the PBS. We've been investing more in aged care, an area which is of concern to every single person in this place. Aged care is being reviewed in a royal commission at the moment, and some awful, horrifying and absolutely unacceptable stories are coming to light. We have to address it, and this government is committed to addressing it. It's making changes at the moment and it is also saying it will make changes when the full report comes down and it can consider it.

As I said at the outset, our system isn't perfect, but the democratic system of representative government, having a professional and independent judiciary, having a free media and having an active civil society are absolutely critical to Australia. It's actually incumbent on everybody within this place to do their bit to make sure that the trust in the system is not eroded through our actions. So how do we do that? We all run electorate offices. We have our doors, emails and phones open. We respond to our constituents. We listen to their problems. We help them to try to navigate sometimes very complex systems. We work and we listen to the people we represent. We may be politicians or 'the political class'—whatever that is—but the finest, most critical point is that we are members elected to represent the people in our electorates, and so we must listen, we must engage with them and we must act on their behalf. That is what we can do to try to make sure that this system, for all its faults, is retained, not thrown out because of a lack of trust.

4:08 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Earlier this year Mr Kenneth Hayne AC, QC attended Parliament House to present the Accountability Round Table Integrity Awards. The awards focus on individual commitment to integrity, and both the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, were rightly acknowledged for conducting themselves in a manner that deserved recognition. In congratulating the award recipients, Mr Hayne addressed the room on the importance of integrity. While I encourage all members to read his speech, here is an excerpt that I think is particularly important today:

Personal integrity is guided by standards of eloquent simplicity: honesty and courage. The words are simple, yet point to basic truths.

That personal integrity demands honesty is self-evident. And honesty demands courage. It demands courage because compromise, in pursuit of some apparent immediate advantage, always beckons. It demands courage because ends may be thought to justify the means used to achieve those ends.

In public life, as in private life, an individual’s reputation for acting with integrity, once lost, will seldom be recovered. … And so it is, I think, in almost all forms of human interaction, private and public, honesty is rightly expected. Fail to meet it and trust is lost.

And trust is lost in this place. Today we lost just a little bit more. We had Senator Lambie saying that she's done a deal with government, but she can't tell us what it is. We had the government saying: 'Nothing to see here. There's been no deal.' There's only one version of the truth.

Research conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy has said that by 2025 they only expect 10 per cent of Australians to trust politicians—one in 10 trust us and what we do in this place. That's disgraceful. We are now at a stage where public trust is so low that parliament is now effectively forced to outsource policy deliberations to royal commissions.

How do we regain public trust? How do we act with honesty and courage? The first and obvious step is to create a national integrity commission—one that's well funded, can refer matters itself and doesn't decide that members of this place should be excluded from that process. It must be more than a tokenistic gesture designed to placate a baying public.

The design and implementation of a robust integrity commission should, at the very least, include the ability to self-initiate. As I said, anything less will merely invite cynicism and further mistrust from the community. However, the integrity commission is not a panacea for the challenges facing this parliament. To that end, I've introduced a couple of private members' bills into this place around political donations to lower the disclosure threshold to $1,000 and to promote transparency and accountability by having real-time disclosure. It can't be that on 1 January this year we have people making donations and no-one in this place knows—and not in February the following year but February the year after that. What a mockery that is. What an absolute mockery. No wonder people think that we're in this for ourselves in this place. This place is absolutely awash with money. It comes in from the gambling lobby. Both sides do this.

The National Party still accept donations from big tobacco. It doesn't matter how many Australians are dying from lung disease; they'll still take those cheques. Big tobacco donated $96,000 to political parties in the last annual return, and it's a secret state in this place. Paladin—no-one got to see that tender, did they? And there was the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Closed tenders in this place mean that we have no idea. We have water deals done in this place where we don't get to find out from government exactly what is spent, because it's all commercial-in-confidence long after the deal is done. What a mockery it makes of this place. We stand in here, hand on heart, saying that we need to be so careful with taxpayers' money and yet it is a secret state. We have no idea.

We have bills in this place that weren't even disclosed. How much of taxpayers' money is going to be spent on the implementation of those bills? I go to the plan for government to drug test welfare recipients. We have profits shifting to the Cayman Islands. (Time expired)

4:13 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the member for Warringah for putting this matter of public importance on the agenda this afternoon. I think it's a fantastic debate that we need to have. Every time that somebody in the political system or in public life does something wrong, it diminishes the public standing of those people—just like the games that have been played in here by the Labor Party today. When the broader public of Australia look at the federal parliament today, look at the games that have been played and look at the time that has been wasted, they won't determine whether it was one side or the other, it'll just be a stain on all of our careers. The Independents are just as guilty as anyone. There's a whole raft of people at fault with what happens in this place.

I spent 14 years, before I came here, in the Victorian parliament, where I had to spend most of that time in opposition to the Labor Party. The Labor Party had a minister who was found guilty of putting his dogs into a car and telling the driver to drive halfway around Victoria. He thought this was a good use of taxpayers' money in Victoria. But eventually he got found out and he lost his job. We also had key figures in the Victorian Labor Party who deliberately changed their address. They had a caravan more than 80 kilometres away from the parliament in Melbourne, which they had listed as their primary address. That entitled them to somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, which they picked up every pay for about two years—completely deceitful! But eventually they were found out and they lost their jobs. We also had the red shirt brigade in Victoria with the Labor Party. They worked out a very devious plan to take taxpayer money and use it for their own political campaign to employ workers to hit the streets, hit the phones and, in a paid manner, do the work for which a political party normally needs volunteers. Daniel Andrews and John Lenders devised this plan beautifully so they could take over $300,000 of taxpayer money. They then used that $300,000, which they stole from the Victorian taxpayer, on the campaigns of 20 or 30 members of the Victorian parliament. Many of those Victorian parliamentarians are still in power now because of the money that was spent on the red shirt campaign.

We have just found out now that during this time some developer chap in eastern Victoria had a very close relationship with the Premier of Victoria. This was never brought out into the open until just recently. Just like the people who put in the false claims as to where they live, the guy who put the dogs in the chauffeured van and the red shirts campaign, eventually you get caught. That's the good thing about politics in Australia. If you do the wrong thing, you do so in the knowledge that eventually the systems we have in place now will catch you out, and when they do, you will lose your job and your reputation. You probably did it for $200 or $2,000, some ridiculous amount of money. If you do the wrong thing in Australia in public life, you must understand that you'll get caught. Can we improve on it? We probably can, but with the Morrison government now we have a Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister who are open, calm and delivering on their promises. This is what the people of Australia want. They want you to do what you say you are going to do. My interjection was that Daniel Andrews, in amongst all the corruption and everything they did wrong, is able to point to some level-crossing removals and say, 'At least we delivered on this.' Support our drought affected farmers; governments have to continue to do what they say they're going to do; and everybody in public life has to keep their noses clean.

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion has concluded.