House debates

Thursday, 29 October 2020


Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

10:23 am

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. This bill makes technical amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and is mirrored by amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to ensure consistency across all electoral events.

These amendments remedy anomalies in legislation and improve clarity, to enhance electoral processes and allow greater workforce flexibility for the Australian Electoral Commission, so they can use more modern workplace practices.

This bill progresses technical amendments that were previously supported by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and carried over from the last parliament. These amendments were deferred to facilitate passage of only the most urgent amendments ahead of the 2019 federal election. This bill also includes further technical amendments proposed by the AEC following the 2019 federal election.

The bill contains a number of measures variously designed to modernise electoral processes, build greater workforce flexibility to allow the AEC to streamline election delivery, and strengthen electoral integrity.

The bill includes necessary amendments in response to the High Court decision in Spence vs State of Queensland to better clarify the interaction between federal and state electoral laws. These amendments narrow the operation of provisions that were passed in the last parliament, to reflect the High Court's findings about the exact limits of the Commonwealth's legislative power.

The revised provisions ensure that federal law only applies exclusively to donations that are expressly for federal purposes, while fully respecting the application of state laws to amounts used for state purposes. The new rules do not purport to apply federal law exclusively to amounts that are 'untied', namely donations that are not specifically pledged to either a federal or state purpose.

To ensure integrity, the revised rules provide that if a donation is initially made for federal purposes but is subsequently used for a non-federal purpose, then the recipient will lose any immunity from state or territory law for receiving or keeping the gift. For example a political party may need to disclose the amount under state law and may be liable for penalties if the donation was not permitted under state law.

The bill also clarifies changes made through the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018. These changes simplify and clarify funding and entitlement rules including the rounding and indexation of public funding entitlements for eligible candidates, parties and groups.

It makes clear for avoidance of doubt that public funding for joint Senate tickets is split in proportions decided by the relevant parties and the bill allows amendments of public funding applications, including permitting applicants to clarify or add information to justify their claim;

It also fixes an unintended contradiction between rules related to the de-registration and registration of political campaigners and associated entities.

The bill allows greater workforce flexibility for the AEC and more nationally consistent processes. For instance, it allows the Electoral Commissioner to devolve functions of a divisional returning officer to other AEC officials. This enables the AEC to more effectively utilise its resources to ensure greater service delivery to its stakeholders, while maintaining public confidence.

The bill reduces unnecessarily prescriptive practices, including by allowing the AEC to use the most effective postal services; permitting them to supply pens as well as pencils in polling places; and allowing variation in the order of the three questions that must be asked of voters to ascertain their entitlement to vote.

The bill removes the obligation for divisional offices to be pre-poll voting centres, as many are not suitable due to poor access for people with mobility issues.

A particularly welcome reform is to permit party and candidate names to be printed under a preference box on a Senate ballot instead of alongside it, to reduce the possibility of one-metre-wide Senate ballot papers.

Removing stringent rules where they do not always work, will reduce public confusion, without diminishing the integrity of the electoral process.

The bill extends telephone voting to eligible Australian voters living in Antarctica, to improve the secrecy of votes for Antarctica voters and streamline operational process.

This bill will help modernise many aspects of our electoral process. Although the individual technical changes are modest, together they will help the AEC run a more efficient and responsive service for the public.

In conclusion, it is important that we remain committed to improving electoral legislation in a non-partisan manner which promotes public confidence, enables our electoral system to evolve in a modernising environment, and strengthens democracy.

I commend the bill to the House.

Leave granted for second reading debate to continue immediately.

10:29 am

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 seeks to make a number of amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984, and Labor is happy to support this bill. The amendments are technical and varied. They were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its review of the 2016 federal election. These recommendations flowed from submissions by the independent regulator of our elections, the Australian Electoral Commission.

The amendments contained in this bill include amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to clarify the interaction between federal, state and territory electoral funding and disclosure regimes, following the High Court decision in Spence and Queensland. It makes technical amendments in relation to entity registration and public election funding rules, and allows a senior Australian Electoral Commission staff member, rather than a senior divisional returning officer, to be on the redistribution committee for the Australian Capital Territory. The bill also amends aspects of voting and scrutiny processes in both the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act, including extending electronically assisted voting methods to Australians working in Antarctica.

The bill has been considered by JSCEM. The amendments that were the subject of most of the submissions to JSCEM's inquiry were the changes to sections 302CA and 314B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The amendments to 302CA seek to rectify drafting errors after the High Court's decision in Spence and Queensland found that section to be wholly invalid. That section provided that, if a donation was made to a federally registered party and that donation was required to be, or may be, used for federal purposes, then the relevant state or territory law would not apply. This provision allowed gifts to be made to a party which may not be permitted at a state level as long as the gift was used or might be used for federal purposes. Under the proposed amendment, for the Commonwealth law to apply, the donation must be used for federal purposes. It is not good enough that it might merely be used for federal purposes. The amendment in section 314B would mean that donations which are above a state's threshold for disclosure but below the federal threshold, which is currently $14,300, would not need to be disclosed to the state electoral commission if they are expressly given and used for a federal purpose.

These amendments clarify the Commonwealth's power to make laws in respect of Commonwealth elections. It is appropriate that the Commonwealth has the power and that the laws it makes are not overridden by state laws. State parliaments are still free to make laws in relation to state elections. This bill is not trying to interfere with that. This bill simply confirms the Commonwealth parliament as the legislature responsible for making laws in relation to Commonwealth elections. Labor therefore supports this bill, now that two important amendments have been made in the Senate, which I'll expand on shortly.

Labor believes in a uniform federal system that treats federal parties and candidates equally, regardless of which state or territory they come from. The rules that federal parties and candidates play by should all be contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, not the various electoral acts of the eight different states and territories of our nation. If that were the case, then we would have a US style of government, where the laws that govern a federal election would be different depending on which state we lived in. We're seeing those different laws playing out right now, with some states not allowing postal voting for the current US presidential election. We are fortunate in Australia to have a uniform federal system for federal elections, and, if we do not make the changes contained in this bill, then we will be undermining that system.

As many of the submissions to JSCEM noted, the Commonwealth laws on political donations lag behind those of some of the states. But, if we do not make these amendments and state laws continue to apply to federal actors, then it is entirely possible that a state government could implement a law that is actually worse than the Commonwealth's. A state government might try to restrict the role of third-party participants in elections, such as unions or charities. If we do not make these changes, then those regressive laws could apply to participants in federal elections. The argument that these amendments should be opposed because the state laws are better doesn't hold water. We wouldn't be trying to apply a state law if it were worse, so we shouldn't want to apply it just because it is better. What we should be aiming for is a better federal system.

We recognise the concerns raised by some of the submissions to the JSCEM inquiry. We are pleased that the government listened to Labor's concerns, and an amendment was passed in the Senate to require federal donations to be paid into dedicated federal campaign accounts. Several state jurisdictions already require that separate state campaign accounts be maintained. Separate federal accounts will provide an additional layer of transparency and accountability and ensure that actors in the electoral process cannot use the Commonwealth Electoral Act to circumvent state electoral laws.

Labor also successfully moved an amendment in the Senate to delay the bill's commencement date until 1 December this year. This will ensure that the AEC and parties have time to familiarise themselves with the new regime and ensure that they have their compliance systems properly in place. In addition, there are currently state jurisdictions that are undergoing state or local government elections. The starting date later in the year, particularly later from when this bill was first introduced, lessens the risk of confusion for voters and election participants.

Many of the submissions to JSCEM's inquiry also highlighted the need for comprehensive donations reform to improve the transparency of our electoral system. That is Labor's position, and we have a proud history in this area. It was Labor's amendments that secured a ban on foreign donations. It was Labor's amendments that linked public funding to campaign expenditure, preventing parties from profiting from the electoral system. And let's not forget that it was Labor, under Prime Minister Hawke, that was first to introduce a donations disclosure regime, back in 1983. Indeed, even in my university honours thesis, back in 2003, I wrote about these particular issues. According to a 21-year-old version of myself:

… the expenditure of funds—

in an election—

is a form of freedom of speech. However, the political equality of "the people" is eroded if the wealthy can determine the results of elections based on who they donate funds to and therefore provide the means to expend more money on an election campaign.

…   …   …

The Australian electoral campaign finance regulatory regime is one that was established to increase equality for electoral participants, provide a level of transparency and in doing so provide for a pluralistic society in Australia.

Now, as I stand in the House today, Labor are continuing with our reform agenda. We currently have two bills before the Senate to deliver on our commitments. The first of these bills seeks to lower the disclosure threshold from the current $14,300 to a fixed $1,000 and removing indexation which has resulted in a blowout of the current threshold. The other bill would require real-time disclosure, where donations would be disclosed within seven days. Interestingly, this was also a recommendation from my honours thesis.

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Ahead of your time!

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

I so was. Thank you, member for Brand. The Morrison government should be supporting these bills to protect the integrity of our democratic institutions, so today I move an amendment to the motion, in the terms circulated in my name, calling for reforms to increase transparency in our system by reducing the disclosure threshold to $1,000, removing indexation of the threshold to prevent the threshold increasing over time, and requiring recipients of political donations to disclose them within seven days so that the public can know whose money is in play in funding campaigns. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that Australia's electoral system would be strengthened by:

(1) lowering the disclosure threshold for political donations from the current threshold of $14,300 to $1,000;

(2) removing the indexation of the political donation disclosure threshold; and

(3) requiring recipients of political donations to disclose those donations within seven days".

To further reduce parties' reliance on fundraising and provide a relatively more level playing field to parties and candidates contesting elections, the rate of public election funding should be increased, and parties and elected Independents should be provided with administrative funding to help cover the increasing costs of compliance now being imposed by these and existing provisions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Finally, we note that there were some concerns raised in JSCEM's inquiry regarding the potential for a polling official to ask a voter for identification. The current provisions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act are extremely prescriptive regarding the wording and order of questions an official must ask a voter to ascertain their entitlement to vote. The amendments in the bill provide officials with some flexibility to rephrase some of those questions. As Labor's dissenting report from the JSCEM inquiry pointed out, Labor does not support so-called voter ID laws. We do not support anything that would undermine our compulsory system of voting by discouraging people from voting. However, the Australian Electoral Commission has said that the questions can cause difficulty in circumstances where a voter has English as a second language or where they have hearing disability. We believe the flexibility provided by the amendment is warranted and we are satisfied with assurances from the Electoral Commissioner that it will not result in polling officials asking for identification. On that basis, I commend the amendment that I moved and the bill to the House.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

The amendment is seconded, and I reserve the right to speak.

10:39 am

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

[by video link] Isn't it amazing: the government doesn't have time to deal with a federal ICAC because, apparently, it's dealing with the COVID pandemic; but it does have time to bring legislation to the parliament to allow for the laundering of political donations, to allow for the weakening of our federal donations laws so that state rules which restrict donations from developers and other kinds of corporations can now be circumvented by making a donation directly to the federal parties. Apparently, we can't get around to having a national integrity commission which would put the blowtorch on politicians and make sure that there was no corrupt behaviour happening in Canberra; we can't do that because the legislative workload is too big. What the government has got on the table to pass instead is this bill which says we are going to make it easier for developers, big corporations and corporate money to influence politics. Surprise, surprise, the Liberals are doing it hand in glove with the Labor Party, who are rushing this through with some very short speeches to make sure this gets all done and ticked off with a limited amount of public scrutiny.

Let's be clear about what this bill does. This bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020, is designed to make it easier for corporations to donate to big political parties where the state laws would make it harder for them to do it. In other words, this bill opens up a loophole that allows corporations to get around state laws which, for example, might say developers or other forms of corporations cannot donate or that might have more stringent requirements about when the public gets to find out who has donated. All of those things that state governments are starting to take some steps to rein in, because they are having an impact and because it's been bringing a bit of sunlight, transparency and integrity to politics the government now wants to open that up and make it easier for corporations to get around those state laws.

What does it say about the priorities of this government at a time when people are crying out for a national integrity commission where politicians would be held to the same standard in Canberra as they are in state parliaments. People want that because they have seen state ICACs send ministers of both Labor and Liberal persuasion to basically have them convicted. They have seen them convicted of criminal offences. Because those ICACs have been successful at the state level, the public knows, rightly, that corruption doesn't stop at the ACT border. The idea that politicians in Canberra are somehow of a different ilk than politicians in state parliaments is fanciful—and the public knows that. That's why the public is demanding that the federal government take action and legislate a national integrity commission.

What is crystal clear is that a big part of the reason politics has become so corrupt is the influence of corporate money. Corporations are able to make massive donations to big political parties—to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals. Political parties take those donations and, in return, the corporations expect the politicians to do their bidding. That is why people are so fed up with politics. Politics increasingly works for the developers and for the big corporations, but it doesn't work for the people. We see it time after time after time. We see it with our climate change policy in this country. The gas and coal corporations donate millions of dollars to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals and, as a result, climate policy in this country gets taken backwards. We had a successful carbon price when the Greens were sharing power; because of corporate power in politics, it got repealed.

We've seen it with the mining tax. A proper mining tax would mean people wouldn't have to pay as much to send their kids to school with so-called voluntary school fees. Or you might not have to pay as much for your electricity bill because it hadn't been privatised; instead, we had revenue coming into the public kitty that was available to be invested in public services. That mining tax got knocked off because of the influence of big corporations and mining billionaires. When these people and these corporations donate to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals they expect something in return—and they get it. That is part of the reason people are fed up with politics. So not only do we need a national integrity commission—a national ICAC, which the government says it's too busy to do, because instead it's busy passing laws to weaken donation rules—but we also need to get the corporate money out of politics with donations reform.

When the government said, 'We're bringing a bill to parliament that is going to bring about donations reform,' for a moment some of us were a bit excited, because we thought that maybe the government and Labor had listened to the people who want to get the corporate money out of politics. But, no. What do we have? Instead, we have a bill that opens up new loopholes. Labor and Liberal are both defending this bill and both passing it through the parliament as quickly as they possibly can, with the minimum of scrutiny, because apparently it's more important that political parties are able to get big corporate donations than it is to pass a national integrity commission. In the arguments for this bill, they have said, 'We wouldn't want state efforts to somehow undermine federal laws.'

Do you know what? The states are doing what the federal parliament is refusing to do. Some states, under significant pressure from the public, have taken steps to rein in the role of corporate donations. They have done it in three ways. One way is that they have said there are certain kinds of corporations that can't donate. So in some places you have bans on developers donating, for example.

A second way is they've said there are going to be limits on how much you can donate. That is good, because sometimes that goes hand-in-hand with caps on how much political parties can spend. And that's something we have to do—we have to put caps on not only on how much can be donated but how much can be spent during elections, because if you turn off the ability to spend it at the end, you are going to also turn off the reason to start getting so much money in in the first place. That's something that some state parliaments have done, and it's starting to work. It's starting to get the money out of politics.

The third thing that some state parliaments have done is say, 'Voters have the right to know, quickly, who is donating to what political party.' This is important. This is critical, because, at the federal level, it can be years before you find out which corporations have donated to Labor or Liberal or the Nationals. It can be years before you find that out, and by that time the election has been and gone and you've cast your vote, thinking, 'Maybe, the politician I voted for will act independently', without knowing that they're actually a wholly-bought subsidiary of the corporation that paid for them. Some have suggested that it might be a good idea if politicians were forced to wear the logos of their donors on their suits when they come in, a bit like football players who wear their sponsors on them, so that at least you could have some insight that this particular politician was bought by Santos gas, or this politician was bought by a coal corporation. But, until that happens, the next best thing we've got is disclosure of the donations. So we need to restrict how much these corporations can donate and we need to limit how much can be spent, but, for so long as we have these donations, the public is entitled to know who is donating. These should be laws that apply across the board. Some states have started to do that, so that you know, in closer to real time, about the donations that have being made.

This bill, which Liberal and Labor are ramming through, will enable donors to get around it. How? How do you get around it? You donate to the federal party instead of donating to the state party that might be subject to the state laws, and then you're not subject to those stringent rules anymore. If, internally, the federal party wants to then slosh that corporate money back through to its state entity, well, this law doesn't deal with that. This law leaves that option to them. And won't find out about it for years.

That is why the Greens say that this weakening of our donations laws by Labor and Liberal and the Nationals working hand-in-hand to rush a bill through the House is another threat to democracy. It's another threat to democracy because it allows the big corporations to have a huge say over what happens in parliament. For so long as the money is able to come in and control what politicians do and how politicians vote, politics is going to be about putting the corporate interests ahead of the public interest for Labor and Liberal and the Nationals. So it's no surprise that the establishment parties are lining up to rush this bill through parliament ahead of having a federal integrity commission. They are doing it because they take corporate donations.

The Greens don't take the big corporate donations because we know that when you are taking in donations you have got to be crystal clear that it is not going to affect the position that you take in parliament. So we don't get the big corporate donations that the others do. But they do. They would much rather keep getting the money from corporations, so they are prepared to pass this bill—Labor, Liberal and Nationals—to circumvent state laws that shine a bit of light on political donations. They are passing this law to get around state governments who have taken steps to restrict political donations, and they are doing it ahead of having a federal integrity commission.

This law speaks volumes about the priorities of this government and this parliament. It is apparently more important to keep the door open and find a back door to allow political donations to flow through to state parties through the federal party than it is to tighten things up. It is time in this country to get—

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Spence is seeking the call? Is this a point of order?

Photo of Nick ChampionNick Champion (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was wondering if I could ask Mr Bandt a question. Would he permit me to ask him a question about his contribution?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Does the member accept the intervention of a question?

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

No. I have got the call.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member doesn't accept the intervention. The member for Melbourne.

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

I would love to see if anyone else from the Labor Party is going to get up and defend this bill or if they're just going to try and rush this through the House together with the Liberals. That's a been the history here: pass laws as quickly as you possibly can and hope the public doesn't know that what you're a doing is opening up loophole to allow corporate money to flow into politics.

It is time to get the big corporate money out of politics. It is time to have reform of our donations laws in this country. It is time to ensure that there is a limit as to how much people and corporations can donate and there is a limit on what can be spent during elections. It is time to say there is absolutely no role for the likes of tobacco or fossil fuel corporations to be donating to political parties. We need to know with absolute certainty that decisions that are made in this place are being done for the public interest, not for vested interests and not for the corporate interests. That is what will restore some trust in politics.

We need a federal ICAC, and that is much more important than this bill. The fact that the government thinks that this bill is more important than an ICAC tells you everything you need to know about how the Liberals are just a wholly owned subsidiary of big corporations. We need a federal ICAC, but we need reform to our donations laws as well, real reform that will get the big corporate money out of politics so that people across the country can be guaranteed that parliament is making decisions in the public interest, not for vested interests.

10:53 am

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

I was taken aback, but not at all surprised, to watch the government prioritise this bill on the schedule this week, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. 'Miscellaneous' is the best descriptor of this bill. It's even in the title of the bill itself. The past two weeks of parliament have illustrated beyond doubt the blinding moment we have arrived at as a nation and as a parliament when it comes to the question of integrity in federal politics. Australians feel demoralised and angered by the unending revelations from Senate estimates and the reckless behaviour of some parliamentarians in this place. Australians are asking themselves how deep the culture of entitlement and disregard for the public good goes in our body politic. Australians are desperate to know where the threads lead to and how systemic corruption allegations are. How long is that piece of string, Mr Speaker? This bill and our current integrity laws give Australians no comfort, nor answers, to those questions.

Let me explain for the record what this bill does. This bill locks in the status quo when it comes to the current political donations culture at the federal level. In May last year the High Court upheld the validity of the anti-corruption measures in Queensland, which prohibit the making of political donations by property developers. Those measures in Queensland are decent and improve transparency and accountability in electoral funding. Of course, those measures don't exist at the federal level. Indeed, it's crystal clear that this government wants to minimise and tokenise discussion on transparency and accountability in federal politics as much as possible. When forced to reflect on the need for greater transparency and accountability in politics, through a High Court decision, this government has chosen to produce a superficial bill to lock in the status quo.

This government has turned around this miscellaneous bill in the same time it said it could not possibly pass any integrity reforms, because of the coronavirus response. This could have been a moment for the government to come with clean hands to this parliament and have a robust and principled discussion about integrity reform writ large. Instead, it's decided to back itself in. This is not the bill Australians wanted to see this week. At a moment when Australians want hope for the future of their democracy, this bill is disappointing and cannot be characterised in any way as noble electoral reform.

I have received overwhelming support this week for the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill that I introduced on Monday. I've received support from MPs across this parliament, on both sides, and from the vast majority of Australians across the political spectrum, imploring this parliament to debate and pass sophisticated integrity reforms as a matter of urgency. The Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill that I introduced on Monday includes a comprehensive, independent, statutory review of political finance, funding, donations, and campaign regulation at the federal level, within the next 18 months. The bill I introduced on Monday includes a specific clause that makes it abundantly clear that it is the intention of this parliament to revise federal laws on transparency, integrity and accountability in political campaign finance and campaign regulation so that it meets best practice and is streamlined within the objectives and operation of counterpart laws at state and territory level.

Now, I make no statement on what those final provisions should be. I'm here to work with my parliamentary colleagues in a constructive way to make those reforms as ambitious and as practical as they can be. What I will say is that the vision I and many others in the parliament have for our democracy goes well beyond minor tweaks to electoral laws in Antarctica, like we see in this bill. I cannot express how short this bill falls at a moment when Australians are desperate for honest reflection and a political culture that's pro integrity, not just anti corruption.

The parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have set a disclosure threshold on political donations at $1,000, but there's no equivalent law at the federal level. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia require near real-time disclosure of donations, yet the Commonwealth requires disclosure just once a year, and then seven months after the reporting period has ended. There are caps on expenditure in some jurisdictions, but not for those of us here. The New South Wales Electoral Commission actively pursues breaches, yet the Australian Electoral Commission rarely employs its coercive powers, as the Senate finance and public administration committee heard in 2017.

I have long been on record in this space. I was pleased to second a private member's bill from the member for Mayo in December last year that sought to usher in measured and evidence based political donation reforms. That bill would have extended the definition of 'reporting entities' to include political entities, campaigners and third parties; lowered the political donation disclosure threshold from $14,300 to $2,500; and required real-time disclosure by reporting entities within seven days of a reportable donation being made so that Australians could see and understand who was supporting who at what times, at the right time.

I've also been working with Senate crossbench colleagues, all of whom are enthusiastic to act in this space as well in lockstep with the wishes of the Australian public. This is not the bill Australians wanted to see this week. This is not the direction that Australians want the conversation on integrity in federal politics and campaign finance to go. This bill is exactly what it says it is: miscellaneous.

I call on all parliamentarians in this place to admit we can be more sophisticated and robust when it comes to integrity and when it comes to integrity reforms and to commit to working collaboratively with me and others in this place to have the right detailed conversation, to build a consensus vision and to write laws that reflect who we aspire to be and what the Australian people are crying out for. Let's get real about this. Let's stop talking about miscellaneous things. Let's talk about the real issue here and let's instil some values into this place.

(Quorum formed)

11:03 am

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

This Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 is simply unsupportable because it will have the effect of watering down the state and territory donation laws. So I will vote against the bill. Frankly, I am shocked that the government would seek to water down political donation laws at a time when the country is crying out for much stronger political donation laws. It is abundantly clear that, at the federal level, our political donation laws are unsatisfactory and need to be reformed deeply. For example, the disclosure threshold of $14,300 is ridiculously high. We are all doing okay in this place, but to the average member of the community that is an enormous amount of money and it is more than enough money to influence a candidate or political party. So why do we tolerate that? In fact, not only do we tolerate that $14,300; we agree that it should be indexed from time to time. It is way too high.

The fact that, currently, the disclosures can be made well after an election is ludicrous, because the fact is that, when a voter goes into the polling booth, he or she needs to know and often wants to know who has bankrolled the candidates and the parties that are on the ballot paper in front of them. Most donations in a political cycle come in very close to an election and so are not disclosed until maybe 18 months later, when the election is long forgotten and people have lost interest in that election. That is entirely unacceptable.

There is no limit on how much any one donor can donate. It is bizarre. In Australia, if you've got a hundred million dollars, you could donate the whole lot to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party or a candidate or whoever you want. That's an absurdity. What that ensures is that the richest donors, the richest people, effectively have more political power than other members of the community. What on earth happened to the idea of one person, one vote of equal value? It doesn't exist in this country, because we live in a country where, regrettably, money buys political power and the people with the most money have the most political power, and that's entirely unacceptable.

There are also no limits on who can donate. It's not unusual for some parties in particular, some candidates in particular, to be very happy to take money from the tobacco industry, certainly the gambling industry, and some other dubious industries. What we in this place should do is have a bill before the House that brings in some of the safeguards that exist in states and territories about exactly who can donate. The fact that the bill on the table will undercut those very safeguards I think is unconscionable.

Also, we don't have any restrictions at all on non-overtly political actors when it comes to what they're up to. I would have thought that if, say, an industry group or maybe an individual was to, say, run an advertising campaign that had clear political connotations and steered people towards one political point of view or another, surely the expenditure on that should be regarded as a political donation. Let's talk about the mining industry, back when the mining tax was a big issue. The behaviour of the mining industry at that point was to any reasonable person a political donation to the LNP because it had the material effect of benefiting the LNP.

We have all sorts of strife when it comes to political donations in this country, and it beggars belief that we're not in here talking about them and addressing them. The fact is we do live in a country where people buy political influence. Let's face it, when a person or a corporation, for example, donate a large sum of money it's not through altruism. It's because they want a return on that investment, and—heavens!—don't they often get a return on that investment. I'm reminded of a somewhat remarkable quote from a former senator—I won't say who it was—who once said that if someone donates $1,000 they support you and if someone donates $100,000 they've bought you. Regrettably, that senator ultimately did take a donation of over $100,000 and was in a very awkward situation, but the point he made is a very valid point. When you look at the returns that we do get from the Electoral Commission you see enormous donations are being made. For example, in 2011 James Packer donated $250,000 to the fledgling Katter's Australian Party at the very point in time when Bob Katter personally had a crucial vote with the poker machine reforms I was trying to push through the parliament. Why did James Packer give Bob Katter $250,000 at that point in time? Was it altruism? No. It was no better, quite frankly, than what happens in some of the countries we criticise for a bag of cash being handed over. The only thing that made it better than a bag of cash in some dodgy country was that, many, many months later, it was revealed to the public, too late to make a difference to the community.

While I'm talking about Crown, it's worth remembering a very interesting statistic. The member for Mayo just last week mentioned the revelation that Crown has donated almost $2 million to political parties in the last 10 years or so. Almost $2 million from Crown has gone to the major political parties over 10 years, and then we wonder why there's no interest in this place for a royal commission into the casino industry and Crown casino. Of course there won't be, because you're all on the take. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party—you're all on the take. Someone is paying millions of dollars in political donations, and what a great return on that investment they're getting.

The solutions are very, very simple. Ideally we would have publicly funded elections. In other words, we would ban all political donations. Instead of any political donation, candidates and parties would get a modest and known amount of money, and that's all they would be allowed to spend at election time. That would be ideal. I know that would be something that some members of the community would not support, but a government with leadership, the opposition, the crossbench—if we all educated the public so they understood the benefits of publicly funded elections, I think we would have the vast majority of the people supporting it.

If we don't want to go that far, we could perhaps adopt the New Zealand model, where donations are allowed but the expenditure is capped in certain areas so that donations become much less important. For example, in New Zealand, the parties are limited in what they can spend on television advertising. If there was a limit on how much you could spend on television advertising here, heavens! Poor old Palmer United Party—they'd be reined in. It wouldn't matter that Clive Palmer is a very wealthy man and buys political influence. If there was a cap on how much TV advertising he could run then all of that wealth would become much less important.

If we're not going to have publicly funded elections and if we're not going to put caps on election expenditure, why don't we do the really easy stuff? Why not have, for example, a donation disclosure threshold of $1,000—not $14,300 but $1,000. That would makes sense. That would mean that anyone who's handing over $50 or $100—a small, modest donation from a regular member of the community—would not be disclosed. That would actually be agreeable to many of those donors. For example, if you're in the Public Service you might not want, for good reason, a $50 donation disclosed, for fear that it might be damaging to your career in some way. It's the same with a teacher or a police officer or even just someone in the workplace whose views are at odds with their boss's. So make those really small donations confidential, but donations over $1,000 should be disclosed.

Another solution, one that is so important, is real-time reporting. There is no technical reason why every single donation in this country can't be up on a website within perhaps 24 hours of the donation occurring, instead of 18 months after the election, when the information is next to useless. At the last federal election, I'm proud to say I had real-time reporting of donations over $1,000. They were up on my website,, within 24 hours. I think Senator Jacqui Lambie did the same thing, and perhaps some of my crossbench colleagues as well. The feedback from my community was very positive. People really liked to see that, and they certainly would like to have seen it rolled out by the major political parties.

That's a very interesting point, actually. We don't need to change the law for candidates and parties to improve their behaviour. I note that the opposition is going to move an amendment to this bill, which I will support, to bring in changes like a $1 disclosure threshold. If the opposition is fair dinkum about that—and I hope they are—they don't need it to become more for them to do that themselves at the next election. If the government's got some bright ideas, they don't need the law changed either to change their behaviour at the next election. But again it's left to us crossbencherse to set the example and take the lead on this sort of thing.

We also need a prohibition on donations from problematic sectors. That is just self-evident. And the obvious one is the gambling lobby. Put an end to Crown casino donating a couple of hundred thousand dollars every year for a decade. Put an end to Jamie Packer giving a quarter of a million dollars to Bob Katter when his vote was crucial on poker machine reform. Put an end to all that. Say the gambling industry is out of bounds, as are other unethical industries, like the tobacco industry, for example. There are other industries we might consider in that list as well. Certainly the state and territory governments are very alert to property developers.

We could also put a cap on the gross amount of donations from any one source during an electoral cycle. I will leave it to experts to come up with the exact figure—maybe $10,000 maybe $100,000. I'm open-minded about what the exact figure is. But these donors that just trickle the donations out a bit at a time, under the threshold every time, need to be reined in. We need to say that no one company in this country and no one person in this country should have more political power than any other organisation or person. So we might make it that $10,000 is the maximum amount that Westpac, CommBank, BHP or someone down the road can donate to any one candidate.

We also need to be much more alert to the fact that, for anyone or any organisation that does anything that materially benefits a political party or a candidate, the value of what they do should be regarded as a political donation. If I start putting billboards up around Hobart supporting the policy of some other political party then the value of me doing that should be regarded as a donation to that political party. I think that's self-evident. Probably the most important thing we should do—and it's already been touched on by the crossbench many times, including before me this morning, is have an integrity commission. The Electoral Act is very narrow. The Electoral Commission has very limited powers—way too limited. If we're not going to bolster the act and the AEC then it is even more important that we have a federal integrity commission that can go to areas where the AEC and the Electoral Act don't go, because there are so many issues which really double up.

We've seen it in the recent times, where political donors mysteriously get a political favour after the election. Why did Foxtel get $30 million or $40 million? Where did that come from? Why did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation get all that dough? What was this land sale for Badgerys Creek the other day? Of course, the governments say there is nothing to see here, that it's just happenstance that a big, fat political donor gets a big, fat political pay-off after the election. It's corruption. And that's why we need an integrity commission of some kind.

Again it's left to the crossbench to take the lead. It's fascinating that it's pretty much only the crossbench that's speaking on this bill.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member. I didn't interrupt the member during his presentation, but I remind members to be very careful they don't breach standing orders by casting aspersions on the motives of individual members of the parliament. I will just make a general reminder.

(Quorum formed)

11:20 am

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

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 makes a collection of unrelated amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Hidden beneath the innocuous title of miscellaneous measures—well, really calling them miscellaneous says it all—is an effort to override something serious. It's an effort to override state and territory legislation to make political donations less transparent, directly against the wishes of the Australian people.

It's telling that after the minister introduced this—I can only describe it as a rubbish bill—and the shadow minister supported it, the only people speaking on this insulting legislation to the Australian people and to our democracy is the crossbench members. If you ever wonder why we are Independent, this issue and this type of legislation is exactly why.

In Australia, if you donate anything less than $14,300 there are almost no disclosure requirements at the federal level. This bill could have addressed that. Indeed, over time there have been numerous bills presented by the crossbench before the other place, and in this place, that have sought to do that. But, rather than address the lack of transparency of political donations, this bill seeks to override the more stringent state and territory legislation, seeking to do just that.

Let's be honest about what's going on here: the government and the opposition need this bill because the current clause, which the government introduced in the last sitting of parliament, section 302CA, was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court last year. The section relates to how federal political finance laws for political donations interact with state and territory laws. In 2019, the High Court in Spence v State of Queensland, ruled by majority, held that section 302CA of the Commonwealth Electoral Act was invalid for going beyond the limits of Commonwealth legislative power conferred by sections 51 of the Constitution. Clause 302CA had been worded carefully to ensure that it was up to parties—of course we would be trusting the parties—to determine whether a donation would be used for federal or state purposes; therefore, trying to get around the prohibitions that exist at state level. If deemed destined for federal level, then Commonwealth reporting requirements would apply. This meant that it's to the advantage of major parties, as Commonwealth legislation sets a much, much lower bar than the legislation in all state and territories bar Tasmania. This is deplorable.

In recent years, states and territories have moved to level the playing field and increase transparency around disclosure of political donations, especially from property developers, mining companies and liquor and gambling groups. But, since the High Court ruling last year, the law has operated such that both federal and state law operate at the same time. Therefore, where some donations may not be captured at a federal level, they are at state and territory level. This is a good thing, as they are then beholden to the state and territory reporting laws. This bill dangerously seeks to override that.

The bill is carefully worded in response to the ruling of the High Court to make sure that donations to federal parties will not be subject to the strict reporting requirements of states and territories. I would rather see the removal of the unconstitutional section 302CA and section 314B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act rather than rewarding that. That would have been if the government had been actually intent on improving transparency around donations. But, no, it is trying to get around any kind of accounting or transparency. What's interesting is that it's supported by the opposition, by Labor, because there are obviously also a lot of questions around transparency when it comes to union donations. What we desperately need is an even playing field.

If we had a scheme between state and federal donation regimes that operated together as one scheme, that would be common sense. So state branches of political parties would have to disclose their donations according to the rules in their jurisdiction. But, in the absence of strong donation laws at the Commonwealth level, the only way to ensure that state branches don't use technicalities and loopholes to hide their donations are the state disclosure regimes. We're not talking or advocating here on the crossbench for something that maybe stands outside of what's been recommended by most Australians or by the appropriate bodies. This is recommended by the integrity experts in submissions to the inquiry on this bill, including the Human Rights Law Centre and the Centre for Public Integrity. In their submission, the Centre for Public Integrity said:

The Commonwealth Government should be strengthening our electoral laws, not weakening them. The Commonwealth should look to the precedence set in Australian states on the regulation of money in politics.

The Human Rights Law Centre said:

The free flow of money into Australia’s political system threatens the integrity of our democracy. Major political donations are designed to have political influence. Big donations may give donors extra access to politicians or, as put by the High Court, establish the donor as a politician's "client".

These are the words of the High Court. Further:

Occasionally, political donations may lead to quid pro quo corruption.

Again, these are the words of the highest court in Australia.

What proposed new sections 302CA and 314B are trying to do is get around that ruling of High Court and destroy the efficiency of the state disclosure regimes. It's highly disappointing that this legislation has the support of both sides of the House. But it does not have the support of the crossbench. States are the only jurisdictions that are doing something about at least prohibiting donations and reforming political donations at this stage. The need for transparency and accountability in the funding of our political parties is imperative, but, because it goes to them, it's the very reason why they are united in supporting this. When we talk of political donations, we are talking of political donations from the private sector, from the unions, across the board.

Look at decisions made by parties when they are in government. I would have to say, under the current government, the decisions to build new coal-fired power stations and coalmines and to open up gas fields and spruik a gas-led recovery are decisions that don't make sense where commercial rates are not being paid. The Leppington land sale has to be an example that is so prominent in our mind. We need to know where the imperative for this is coming from. Is it ideology? Is it maybe to win seats? Or is it to line the pockets of those making the decisions or that will benefit from the decisions? The reality is that, without strong laws on disclosures of political donations, we won't know why the government continues to make uneconomic decisions that go against the interest of so many sectors.

States are doing their bit to clean up politics. We have certainly seen a lot of headlines from state politics over the years where corruption has been caught and there is an integrity commission to enable the proper investigation of corruption allegations. But, here, instead of trying to improve our status and increase the trust of the Australian people in our democracy, the government has gone around the Constitution to subvert those laws at the state level and is now sharpening its response and trying to get around the High Court decision.

It's clear that we desperately need an integrity commission to keep an eye on dodgy deals and dodgy spending of public money. The government in this place continues to delay implementing such a body. I thank the member for Indi for moving to establish an Australian federal integrity commission and a code of conduct for members in this place, and I urge the government and the opposition to bring that bill on for debate as soon as possible.

Regular surveys show that 80 per cent of the Australian people support the establishment of a federal corruption watchdog. The reality is that a federal integrity commission would provide a forum for investigation and inquiry, an opportunity for wrongdoers to be exposed and for those wrongly accused to be exonerated. All sides of politics claim to support the need for a federal integrity commission, but the Australian people have seen no action. The government promised to establish an integrity commission over two years ago but has repeatedly delayed and prioritised other legislation. If the opposition, Labor, are so strong on this commitment, I call on them to make very clear that they support the model put out by the member for Indi and supported by the crossbench or at the very least come up and explain what the elements are they don't like about that model. But let's be clear: you can't say you stand for anticorruption and integrity but not get behind the legislation that is before this House.

Of course we also need a bit of truth in political advertising. The Commonwealth Electoral Act that is amended by this legislation is also where the governance of political advertising is found. Amazingly, truth in political advertising is not protected under any Australian law. The Australian consumer law against misleading and deceptive conduct relates only to trade and commerce. The Electoral Act only makes it a crime to mislead or deceive an elector about how to mark their ballot paper. Not even the advertising standards board will review political advertising. Civil action can be taken only where the content is defamatory, and while it may be impractical to have every poster, social media post and broadcast ad reviewed for truth we must regulate for a minimum standard of truth in political advertising.

South Australia has had a prohibition on misleading or deceptive statements in electoral campaigns since 1985. This year, the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a very similar law. Polling by The Australia Institute shows that nine in 10 Australians support legislation for truth in political advertising. It is certainly time for the Commonwealth government to look seriously at the need for political honesty, and it is certainly time for the opposition to get behind it. But, instead of that type of legislation, we have this kind of miscellaneous legislation.

It so clear that, with the advent of technology that supports the creation of deep fakes and so much fake news, we absolutely need to have some legislation on truth in political advertising as well as so much more legislation around political donation laws. The ability to alter and distort images, videos or voices to portray a candidate as doing or saying something they have never done or said has already been used overseas by both domestic and foreign actors. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission considered the threat of deep fakes in their recent digital platform review. Similarly, the threat of deep fakes is a concern of the review of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the 2019 election.

Australia has a chance to be a world leader in legislating against the use of deep fakes, so I urge the government to think about the real issues we have to protect democracy and to increase transparency, rather than putting up this kind of miscellaneous legislation that seeks to undermine democracy and get around rulings of the High Court. I won't be supporting this bill in its current form, as it seeks to weaken protections against undue influence at a time when Australians need those protections strengthened.

(Quorum formed)

11:36 am

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

This bill won't get media attention, but it should. I always say to my community, 'Pay careful attention to legislation when both the majors are pushing it through, and you have one person speaking from each side and you have the entire crossbench'—well, virtually the entire crossbench; all those who are present, including the member for Melbourne—'against it.'

This bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020, will make donations easier for developers and big donors who may be restricted by individual states' donation laws. We have a system in Australia where most states have tighter donation laws than those at the federal level, and you see here a piece of legislation that is going to weaken that for some of those states. The majors have come together, saying, 'Let's get this through. We've got to get this through. This is important. It's going to make it easier for those big donors, easier for those developers. They're going to be able to go to expensive events and make donations at those state events, and it's going to go to the federal parties, because that's okay.' It actually makes a mockery of the work that many state legislators have done to rein in political donations and try to improve their standing in the community. There are lower disclosure rates in those states, but, of course, federally you can have someone donate $14,300 before anyone in Australia is any the wiser. You can have a family of five donate $70,000 at some glitzy affair, and nobody knows. Nobody knows, because it goes to the federal party.

The member for Clark mentioned money that Crown casino has generously donated to the major parties over recent years. I think $1.7 million is about the tally, if you have a look at the Australian Electoral Commission information. A member in here came up to me after we'd been talking about this, and he said, 'That's not a lot of money.' Who are we kidding in here? The Australian community does not want to see unions and big corporations give over millions of dollars to political parties.

In 2018, a report by the Museum of Australian Democracy found that trust in democracy was on the decline, with satisfaction in democracy having more than halved in a decade, and trust in key institutions and social leaders eroding. When the public has lost trust in politicians, when that is at an all-time low, political donation reform is one way that we can very easily restore trust in this place. What do we see? We don't see legislation to lower the threshold coming to this place, we don't see legislation to put in place a cap and we don't even see legislation for real-time disclosure; what we see is legislation to make it easier for shovelfuls of money to go into the major political parties.

We should be following Canada's rules. In Canada, no man, woman or child can donate more than Can$1,600 to a political party or, indeed, to an independent candidate. They don't accept money from the corporations— corporations can't donate. They don't accept money from unions. That's the kind of transparency, the kind of trust, the kind of system that we need to look at. Also, if a donation over $200 has been received the candidate needs to disclose it. In Canada they manage to run that quite effectively, yet here we don't seem to move. In fact if we do move, we move in the wrong direction. As I said, we can't even get a bill up in here to lower the threshold to a thousand dollars.

We need to get money out of this place, not create more loopholes that mean even more money flows from the big donors. If we in this place—all of us, individually and collectively—truly believe we want to improve the trust the Australian community has in us, we need to get money out of this place, not bring more in.

11:41 am

Photo of Karen AndrewsKaren Andrews (McPherson, Liberal Party, Minister for Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to thank all those in this chamber who have contributed to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. I echo the Minister for Finance's thanks to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their thorough review of the bill and their examination of the issues raised in submissions. The committee found that the reforms in the bill will deliver important enhancements to our electoral system.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Australia. This bill is a housekeeping piece of legislation that helps facilitate the proper functioning of our parliamentary democracy. The reforms in this bill are important to help modernise parts of the electoral system and to assist the AEC to deliver effective and timely electoral events. Many of the amendments in this bill were included in an earlier technical amendment bill in the last parliament. While those reforms were recognised at the time as necessary, they were carried across to the current parliament so the AEC could focus on the delivery of the most urgent machinery changes ahead of the 2019 federal election.

This bill contains numerous improvements. Key among these, it extends a confidential voting service to Australian voters working in Antarctica; removes the requirement to designate some divisional offices as prepoll centres where they are unfit for purpose, including lacking disability access; helps contain the width of the Senate ballot by allowing candidate names to be printed underneath preference boxes instead of only alongside boxes; clarifies the interaction between federal, state and territory funding and disclosure regimes; and allows flexibility in wording of questions to help find a voter on the roll, which will better assist people with a non-English-speaking background or those with a hearing disability.

In summary, these reforms will improve the operational efficiency of elections, remove overly prescriptive language in the act, improve services to particular disadvantaged or geographically remote voter groups, and strengthen electoral integrity and administration. Once again, I thank my colleagues for their contribution and commend this bill to the House.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Burt has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

As there are fewer than five members on the side for the noes for this division, I declare the question resolved in the affirmative in accordance with standing order 127. The names of those members who are in the minority will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings. I thank members for their cooperation with the division.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.