House debates

Monday, 22 November 2021


Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021; Second Reading

4:13 pm

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

This government loves to punch down. They will hang out with billionaires and big corporations, take their money and let billionaires buy elections for them, but, if a charity, an advocacy group or a non-government organisation dares speak up, they come after them and change the law to stop them from speaking out. We have a government that was elected because a billionaire, Clive Palmer, decided to purchase more political advertising than anyone else could afford and use it all to attack the government's opponents and back the government, delivering an election off the back of unlimited spending the likes of which we hadn't seen in this country. That is a threat to democracy. Billionaires and big corporations being able to buy elections is a threat to democracy.

But what does the government do?

Does it say, 'Well, we could change the electoral laws to stop people being able to buy elections by perhaps limiting the amount they could donate to political parties to $1,000 a year so we start to get some of the big money out of politics'? Does it say, 'Let's have a look at limiting the amount political parties can spend during elections to put everyone on a level playing field'? Does it say, 'Let's look at having a federal anticorruption watchdog to stop the revolving door of ministers and politicians and big corporations so that we can have some semblance of guarantee that decisions were being made in this place in the public interest rather than being made for big corporate interests'? No. It does none of those things that would go some way to making this place serve the people instead of serving the billionaires and the big corporations.

But what it does find time to do—when it can't bring an anticorruption watchdog bill, when it can't bring donations reform to the parliament—is come and attack charities and organisations who have spoken out. This bill is about organisations in civil society, in our democracy, who have the right to speak out about policy issues and say, 'Hang on, if party X puts this law in, it's going to affect the people that we are representing and that we're advocating on behalf of.' The government says, 'Those people at the moment are already highly regulated, but we are now going to put additional onerous requirements on them and treat them as political campaigners because they've said something that could be seen as remotely critical of our government.' As a result, there will be a whole lot of new regulations and requirements that these people will have to abide by. Many of them can't afford to do it. So this bill is actually about silencing civil society and democratic groups in an already very highly regulated sector in the lead-up to an election.

Why is the government scared of what groups in civil society might have to say? Is it because the government has kept people in this rich country of ours living below the poverty line for so long and forced people who haven't got a job to go without the essentials and live a life without dignity? Is it because sometimes groups who have to deal with the systemic poverty the government has chosen to put people into speak up and say, 'Hey, hang on, we've got to treat people better in this country'? Is it because the government is worried that they went off to Glasgow with the Prime Minister and the energy minister like cigarette salesman in a cancer ward, saying, 'We're coming here, to this international conference that's meant to be about tackling climate change, to tell you how great gas and coal are'? Is it because the government is worried there will be some groups that say, 'Hang on, we think that, when you look at the people we're dealing with who are dealing with the impacts of the climate crisis already, we should be doing more and getting out of coal and gas'?

The government is so fearful of people speaking up and saying, 'Hey, hang on, we can do things better in this country.' But instead of coming into this place with a law to lift people out of poverty or a law to reform our political system so that big money can't buy decisions or a law that says, 'Let's tackle the climate crisis', it decides to shoot the messenger. As we head towards an election, we are seeing now a government that is becoming increasingly desperate. It is behind in the polls because it has failed to take action on the climate crisis and made inequality worse. If there were an election today, looking at the polls and looking at the history, the governments would be turfed out and the Greens would be in balance of power. It terrifies this government that it might lose power.

So what does the government do? It comes here with a suite of measures that are about shutting people up or, in some instances, taking them off the electoral roll. We have this bill that is aimed at saying: 'If you are an organisation that looks after people but you're not about making a profit, you're no longer able to speak up and say anything political. If you do, we will have to make you comply with a whole series of regulations and requirements you don't have the money to do.' Our worry is that many organisations are going to say, 'I better shut up then because it's not worth the risk of falling foul of this law.' That is what this government is trying to do.

It's not just this bill. The government is also trying to stop people from voting: young people who move from house to house and don't always have the most up-to-date records; First Nations people, who we know are underenrolled for voting at the moment; and other vulnerable people who may have issues with language or documentation. The government is trying to push them off the electoral roll through restrictive voter suppression laws the likes of which you'd expect from the United States, not from a democracy with universal suffrage like Australia.

There is a pattern emerging. The pattern is that this government is so worried about losing the election that, on the one hand, it is trying to shut people up who might vote against it, or push them off the electoral roll; and, on the other hand, the government is courting Clive Palmer again, saying, 'Please, Mr Palmer, we hope you'll write us just as big a cheque as you did last time and buy us the election again.' We saw that from the Prime Minister over the last couple of days when he talked about my area of Melbourne, where we have people marching through the streets with nooses and gallows. The Prime Minister said, 'I can understand their frustrations.' We are coming out of lockdown in Melbourne and Victoria—finally—because people have gotten vaccinated. The Prime Minister then says of a rally full of antivaxxers as well as a number of Neo-Nazis, 'It's alright, I can understand where they're coming from.'

The Prime Minister isn't just giving succour to the far right; he's also making it harder for us to deal with the pandemic, by slowing down the rate of vaccination which is going to get us to the point where we can live something close to COVID normal. But it's part of the pattern that this bill is part of: an increasingly desperate government that can see an election where they're going to be turfed out and the Greens are going to be put in balance of power is saying, 'We'll lop people off the electoral roll on the one side, and on the other side we'll go courting the likes of Clive Palmer and the fringe groups that associate themselves with Neo-Nazis in the hope that Clive might ride to the rescue and buy us the election in Queensland again.'

That is the threat to democracy that we should be dealing with. For a government that prides itself on free speech, why are you trying to restrict what groups in our society are able to say on behalf of the people that they're looking after? You should have nothing to fear from what welfare groups, charities, churches or environment groups have to say. You should be able to deal with it, take it on the chin. But, as we've seen as recently as today, the Prime Minister can't take something on the chin, because he's got a glass jaw. So, instead of just engaging in robust debate, you try and shut it down. That's what this government is doing. It is trying to shut the debate down. These bills are bad bills. We will be seeking to amend them or join in amendments that are made in the Senate.

It's worth reflecting on one final point. Groups in the non-government sector—charities, churches and environment groups—don't engage in political debate just for their own ends. They're not political participants standing for office. They do it because they are at the cutting edge of dealing with people who are in strife, or areas or lands that are in strife, because of government decisions. They are the ones who have to step up and hand out the food parcels when people can't afford to eat, because the government has kept social security below the poverty line. They should be entitled to stand up and say, 'In a rich country like Australia there should be no poverty.' That should be an uncontroversial statement. In a democracy like ours, we should welcome those contributions. They are making those contributions because of the lived experience of dealing with people who are doing it tough.

There are two ways of dealing with that. One is to listen to the churches and the charities and the other groups who are saying, 'Hey, hang on; things need to be fixed in our society.' You could listen and do something about it. But this government is taking the alternative road, which is trying to shut them up. Again, these are people who are just giving voice to the effect of government decisions. This government is running scared because it doesn't want to hear them, because it knows the decisions that it is making are wrong.

I'll come back to what I said at the start: the government shuts down debate and tries to push people off the electoral roll when it thinks they're going to be critical of them, and it says, 'Oh we have to have greater requirements and regulations over who can participate in the political process,' but it turns a blind eye to Clive Palmer spending millions of dollars on advertisements designed to help it and it alone. If you're looking for a problem to be fixed, that has to be addressed, because something is wrong when billionaires can buy elections in this country. Yes, we need changes to our laws to ensure that democracy prevails in this place and that decisions are made for people, not for billionaires and big corporations. But we're not going to get that by silencing the charities and the non-government organisations, who are just speaking out and letting us know the problems that they're dealing with as a result of government decisions every day. If we were serious and the government really wanted reform, we'd come back here and look at how to stop the billionaires and big corporations having so much power, how to make them pay their fair share of tax, and how to get their money out of politics so the decisions in this place are made in the public interest, not for corporate investor interests.

4:27 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021. I happen to serve on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and this bill sees us implement one of the recommendations from our report into the 2019 election, amongst other elements of that report which are being implemented via other bills that are at various stages of moving through the parliament. We, as we do after every election, undertook a thorough round of public hearings inquiring into the conduct of the 2019 election. The intention was to do that physically around the country, but with COVID restrictions that wasn't possible. But I still think we gave excellent access to a whole range of relevant parties that wished to submit their views and experiences with regard to the 2019 election. I think all members of that committee—on which all parties are represented and which is a joint committee of this House and the Senate—would agree that very broad access was provided and we held hearings day by day, although online, on a geographic basis so that people from all the different states and territories had a consolidated period of time to put their perspectives. Clearly, different issues arise in different parts of the country, as well as different issues being raised based on what your political persuasion is or what your activism might be in politics.

The recommendation that we're putting in place now, I think, is a particularly important one. It is important that we always review our democracy and look for ways of continuing to respond to things that develop. In every election, there are going to be new things that occur and come along, and we've got to make changes to respond to those so that the principles of protecting our democracy and having a fair playing field for all in the great contest of ideas continue to be protected.

When it comes to electoral funding, fundraising and expenditure, this is an area that's very important. There are very high standards, particularly for the formal players in election campaigns—obviously, political parties and other more established actors in that space. We in this chamber all know the rules. It would be a surprise to me if anyone who had made their way into the federal parliament had not had experience in ensuring that they comply with the various pieces of legislation that we have to comply with when it comes to elections, particularly when it comes to donations and finance.

It is very important that we have standards in place. We want to have a robust democracy, but we also want to make sure that it is a fair system and that there is transparency over the way in which finance is provided to support people in politics, which is why the member for Melbourne's contribution was so bizarre to me, given his purported interest in some other areas of policy and transparency. To apparently not think that it is a good thing to have standards in place for all participants in the democratic political process, whether or not they be formal political parties or other people with particular interests, and the fact that he doesn't believe—and it seems the Greens don't believe—that those high standards should apply to everyone participating in a democracy is spectacularly hypocritical and perhaps raises more questions than answers around the motivation of some of the rhetoric that he and the Greens use at times when they campaign for transparency in other areas of public policy.

Under the Electorate Act, all political parties have requirements that they have to follow insofar as the declaration of donations received over a certain value. And, of course, there is this double challenge if you operate in the state jurisdictions, where they have rules in place which govern state campaigns. There is a lot of complexity around determining how you are making sure that both your federal and state compliance is adequately occurring, particularly when you operate in multiple jurisdictions where there are different regimes in different states as well as the Commonwealth regime. So I think it would be fair to say that political parties all have very robust accountability mechanisms in place and requirements upon them. I hope that it is not the case that those aren't properly observed by all the parties in this country. I do not make that accusation; I assume that it is not the case and that we have that transparency in place.

So why would we not think that other people who engage in political activities, political campaigning activities, shouldn't have the same requirements in place? If we think that political parties should disclose when they receive a donation over a certain value from someone—if that should be the standard for a political party—why shouldn't that be the standard for anyone who is engaging in political activity? Just because they are not a political party—just because they don't meet some of those triggers in the Electoral Act—they are still seeking to do the exact same thing as political parties seek to do, which is engage in the process and effect an outcome. And, if they are seeking to do that, whether it is supporting a particular person or a particular position, for the exact same reasons that we want to know where the political parties get their money from, we want to know where the money is ultimately coming from that might be supporting some of those causes.

That's the exact sort of transparency that we should expect to be in place across all actors in our democratic process, not just those that are formal political parties. I would be surprised that anyone would find fault with that principle or have a concern with it. When people want to have debates about other issues to do with transparency, I can't understand how anyone could not believe that the concept in this bill of bringing more transparency to other participants in the process is a good and valuable thing for our democracy.

It is also very important that we are wary of foreign influence in our elections and our democracy. That, again, is an area that we need to pay closer attention to. This bill will go some way towards ensuring that we are closing some potential loopholes that could be exploited. It is a reality that we are seeing nefarious activities in terms of supporting and trying to influence the democratic outcomes of elections in jurisdictions worldwide. We have had testimony at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters about a potential risk in our system for people, particularly foreign participants, to influence our democracy. Clearly, the online and fake news and websites and activity on social media et cetera is a very high-risk area, and we have agencies in our country as part of our government that are doing what they can to identify those bad actors, but it's also very high risk that activity in our campaigns is financed from overseas sources. Of course, as political parties we can't receive money from overseas sources. That's a black-and-white situation when it comes to the rules around our funding and disclosure regime, as it well and truly should be. But there is a risk that other shadowy organisations could receive financing from overseas sources and could use that to influence our democracy. If we don't have a robust regime in place to make sure that anyone who is a participant in our democracy, anyone that is seeking to influence the outcome of an election or a particular policy objective being adopted by a political party or a parliament or a government, anyone seeking to push an agenda—we must make sure that any people in those categories are meeting the same high standards that we expect for the formal political actors in our system, being the political parties.

Foreign interference and the risk of that can be reduced by having a clearer regime in place for accountability, transparency and reporting, which this bill will bring about. Also, for people who are seeking to influence our political outcomes from within the country, clearly the requirement of disclosure of where that money is coming from is going to go some way to reducing the risk of that happening. So I'm a very strong supporter of this bill.

I actually agree with the member for Melbourne that it needs to be viewed within the context of other electoral reforms that we are undertaking, and, as I mentioned at the start of my contribution, they are moving at various different stages through the parliament as we speak, but they are all in response to the lessons that we learnt from the 2019 election. There were things that happened in that campaign that I hope never to see happen again in politics in this country, particularly the intimidation of candidates, particularly female candidates, who were targeted and vilified and attacked. In my home state the member for Boothby had some awful experiences that nobody should have to go through who's seeking to participate in our democracy. At the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, we were able to hear about experiences like that and many others, which we are seeking to address so that people feel comfortable and attracted to participating in our democracy.

No matter what our ideological perspective or what our views are on the important debates of the day, we're all the better for more and more people wanting to participate in our democracy. The worst thing we can have is apathy, where there isn't engagement or interest from not only the broad population but also people who are thinking about and considering participating in a more committed way, perhaps by joining a political party, by becoming a volunteer, by donating to a political party and, most importantly, considering running as a candidate, whether it's for a political party or as an Independent. We should not have a situation where people have apprehension about participating in our democracy because they think they potentially won't be safe or they'll potentially have experiences that no person that's seeking to serve their community and wants to make a contribution to the debates of our time should have to go through. So this is part of those reforms that we are undertaking. I was very interested and honoured to be a part of the process of reviewing the election and identifying opportunities like this to strengthen and make our democracy more robust. With that, I commend the bill to the House.

4:39 pm

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

Last night, when I was carefully reviewing the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 one more time ahead of the parliamentary sitting, I supported this bill. It included a simple provision to reduce the amount of electoral expenditure an individual or organisation can spend before they are required to register as a political campaigner from $500,000 to $100,000. These provisions would also apply where the amount of the electoral expenditure spent during a financial year is at least $14,500 and one-third of their revenue for the previous financial year. If this threshold is met, more stringent disclosure rules apply—the individual or organisation must register and be searchable on the AEC's Transparency Register, submit an annual disclosure of gifts and electoral expenditure to the AEC and comply with foreign donations rules. These are, in my opinion, sensible reforms which I can support.

As an Independent, transparency and integrity are at the heart of what I do. I believe Australians deserve to know who's spending money to influence the outcome of an election. I also believe in good governance and proper process when it comes to democratic reform, and that's why I was so furious and very disappointed to discover only a few short hours ago that the minister responsible for this bill tabled a substantial number of additional provisions to the bill without any notice at all—35, in fact. The bill has effectively tripled in size. Within a matter of hours, the government has added 35 new provisions to this bill. No consultation. No prior warning. No briefings offered. Nothing. Just a document handed to the Table Office and quietly uploaded onto the parliamentary website. This is not the way this parliament should operate. It's an accepted rule in this place that a bill cannot be introduced and passed on the same day. What the minister has done here is try and circumvent this rule by introducing complex new provisions, which are effectively a new bill, as a series of amendments. You can see from the time stamp of these amendments that the government finished drafting them on the morning of 27 October. That is almost four weeks ago, yet the minister has given us about four hours to consider them. What's even more egregious is that I even met with the minister 2½ weeks ago, on 5 November, and he would have been well aware of these detailed amendments but said nothing of them.

This bill is also listed for the Senate this evening. It's clear that the government wants to ram the entire bill through the parliament in one day, without due consultation. For me, that's not on. When I met with the minister, I was frank and honest with him and I expected him to be so with me. I said that I'd welcome any new law reform proposals that would increase overall transparency in our political donations system to a level playing field. I really believe in that. In the last sitting, for example, I introduced a bill to require donations above $14,500 to be disclosed within five days and donations above $1,000 to be disclosed quarterly, including cumulative donations. That's what I'd do. Will the government level the playing field and do the same? I think not.

As a community Independent, I don't take millions from corporate donors and vested interests like the majors do. I'm proud of that and wish the major parties would do the same. The major parties will also tell you that it's too resource intensive to disclose their donations in real time. But if I can do it, surely they could do it too. This is the standard of transparency and accountability we should expect from our political electoral system, and I urge the government to truly, seriously, level the playing field and do the same for themselves. There could be serious compliance burdens for the associated entities the minister envisages he will capture under the extended definition in schedule 2. It would have been really useful to talk to him about that, especially for these associated entities if they operate small budgets of only a few thousand dollars.

But I want to be really clear here. I had absolutely supported the premise of this bill. I'm in favour of one set of rules for all, and the minister knows that, but I simply can't support a law that the government hasn't given the crossbench any time to review or contemplate in detail. That would be poor governance, and it is on this basis that I move the following amendment:

That all words after "whilst" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:   ."noting the importance of this reform, the House:   .(1) notes the Government broke with convention and introduced a significant addition to this bill, tripling it in size within a matter of hours, and preventing the crossbench from having an opportunity to review, contemplate or be briefed on the amended bill;   .(2) notes that if the Government wanted to truly level the playing field when it comes to political donations, it could lower the AEC disclosure threshold from the current rate of $14,500 to $1,000; and   .(3) calls on the Government to postpone the second reading vote on this bill until another sitting day, as is the convention with new bills".

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

4:44 pm

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

I second the motion moved by the member for Indi and offer a couple of brief remarks. I agree wholeheartedly with the member for Indi that it is very bad practice for so many amendments to be brought in unexpectedly with not nearly enough time to scrutinise those amendments, to consider them and to debate them. This is woeful public policymaking and it should be condemned. For that reason, I fully support the member for Indi's amendment. And I agree with the member for Indi that, if the government was fair dinkum about the reform of political donations, then it would do just that—it would reform political donations with reforms such as a $1,000 threshold for the disclosure of political donations. There should also be real-time reporting of political donations, effective caps on the amount that any one donor can donate during an electoral cycle and a cap on how much can be spent by candidates and political parties during election campaigns. They're the sorts of effective reforms that are required for political donations in this country.

At the moment, we have enormous sums of money sloshing around and, to some degree, in secret. And let's not forget that no political donor makes a big political donation without expecting a return on that investment. These aren't gifts just for the sake of a gift to candidates in political parties; these are investments by big political donors. A donation of $10,000, $11,000, $12,000, $13,000, $14,000 is big money, and that's why I make a point of declaring in virtual real time any political donation over $1,000 on my website. That's what the community demands. That's what the community needs, not the changes at the heart of this bill, which are really a clamp down on small organisations and community groups, which are often single-issue focused, often to do with the environment, I would add.

This is where I diverge from the member for Indi: I don't think the original bill is a good bill, nor is it worth supporting. I think the original bill is a very blatant ideological attack on small community organisations, small activist organisations, often environmentally focused organisations. So I don't like the original bill, and I certainly condemn this attempt by the government to ram through a large number of changes which will never be properly scrutinised by the crossbench before a vote. They certainly won't be considered. They won't be debated in full. They'll be shot up to the Senate and be out of the Australian parliament much too quickly for the community's best interests. So it's a delight to second this well-considered amendment by the member for Indi.

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Scullin has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Indi has now moved as an amendment to that amendment that all words after 'Whilst' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Indi to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Scullin be disagreed to.

4:48 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021. Let's be clear what this bill does: the bill reduces the thresholds for electoral expenditure that can be incurred by an individual or organisation before they are required to register as a political campaigner. The bill would change the thresholds at which a third-party campaigner becomes a political campaigner from $100,000 on electoral matters being spent in any one of the previous three financial years—down from $500,000; spending the disclosure threshold, currently $14,500, on electoral expenditure in that financial year—down from $100,000; and spending at least one-third of the revenue during the previous financial year—down from two-thirds—on electoral expenditure.

According to the government, the amendments are intended to enhance public confidence in Australia's political process by aligning transparency requirements for political actors who seek to influence the outcome of an election to more closely resemble those for political parties, candidates and members of the Australian parliament. However, what they don't say is that the groups of people that are most likely to be impacted by this are charities and small political players and community organisations just starting to get off the ground. For these groups the changes represent a significant shift in compliance activities, and, more importantly, they're retrospective. The irony is that, in many discussions around federal integrity commissions, one of the biggest sticking points is retrospectivity—that one should not be able to look at government behaviour retrospectively. Yet here we are with amendments in legislation seeking to retrospectively change the rules for small community organisations.

What does it mean—the shift to political campaigner? Changing from a third party campaigner to a political campaigner means that you must disclose your donors. That is a good thing; I don't have any issue with disclosure—if only disclosure rules were fairly applied, from Independents to major political parties and all involved; if only we didn't have such major gaps in our political donations system that enabled millions in political donations to the major parties to go unreported and unaccounted for. Political campaigners have annual reporting obligations in relation to donations received, debts, and total income and expenditure that are essentially the same as for political parties. Political campaigners will also have restrictions on receiving donations from foreign donors, which are, again, essentially identical to restrictions on political parties. Again, I find the hypocrisy just staggering when I think of the debate we've had in relation to blind trusts in this place and the disclosure of where donations and financial support has come from. Finally, political campaigners also need to disclose all foreign donations and ensure that any money received is not from a foreign national.

The change in classification will have a chilling effect on the charities sector in their ability to engage with the political process as a third party campaigner. It's misleading. They will be defined as a 'political campaigner', and that category misleadingly defines independent, issue based advocacy, which the charity sector needs to do to take good care and try to advance policy on the issue they represent. It is now going to be misleadingly interpreted as advocacy that is political, or partisan campaigning. It also subjects organisations to rigorous administrative and reporting requirements and harsh penalties, similar to those of political parties, even when an organisation's advocacy is issue based and nonpartisan. So small charities who are already feeling the brunt of lockdown and COVID, who have really reduced revenue, may now find themselves hit with a retrospective legislation that will ask them to go back and incur significant compliance costs, to go back and look at a campaign that they may have run in the last two years. How that is of benefit is beyond me.

The consequences of this move are perhaps best summed up in the following statement from People with Disability Australia: 'If this bill were passed and we were to risk being labelled a political campaigner, we would feel significantly restricted in the level and kind of advocacy we could engage in, in key moments.' That is People with Disability Australia. This is not political. This is arguing and advocating on behalf of issues.

There is a push from the charities sector to change the name of this grouping from 'political campaigner' to 'large third party'. This shift would be more representative of the charities sector. By law, charities are permitted to advocate for their charitable purpose but are not permitted to be politically partisan. At this point I want to point out that incurring electoral expenditure does not mean that an organisation has spent money on partisan activities. However, classifying organisations as political campaigners, which is what the bill does—this is what the government is seeking to do—gives the false impression that they are political. It exposes them to reputational and regulatory risk. Laws should be made on the basis of how charities advocate, not on how much they spend. The net result will be that charities will do less advocacy to avoid spending over the threshold. As stated by Edwina MacDonald, the deputy CEO of ACOSS: 'We regularly see community and social services organisations that struggle to understand what rules apply to them and what it means for their critical systemic advocacy work.' This confusion and the lack of resources to work through the complex regulatory framework can result in community groups shying away from doing systemic advocacy altogether. This bill will make this risk much worse. So, as a result, you will have a less-informed conversation on issues and on policy, and that is a weakening of democracy.

The amendments that have been brought on by the minister at the eleventh hour I can only see as a cynical attack on community groups that are rising around Australia, tired of the dysfunction and the poor level of politics coming out of major parties. These amendments are absolutely deliberately targeting community groups that are shaking up the status quo. These groups, the 'voices of' groups, are community led movements aiming to support representatives that actually represent the views of their communities. They've become fed up with state political parties and the domination of the duopoly that we have at the moment.

Significantly, with these amendments, the government is expanding the circumstances in which a person or entity is required to register as a political campaigner or associated entity and to provide a return to the AEC in relation to the financial year prior to their registration. This would mean all donors from that year would need to be disclosed, as would total expenditure for that year. I don't object to an increase in transparency of funding in politics. We need much, much stronger laws around clearing up transparency. But I do have to wonder at the lack of consultation that has been taken in the approach to these amendments and their last-minute introduction to the House. The raft of organisations that this will capture remains to be seen, but imposing retrospective reporting requirements on many relatively immature bodies is a grave concern.

The additional compliance and administration costs may also impact on independent 'voices of' groups aspiring to establish themselves and others in the charity sector. Reducing the threshold means that legal and administrative costs for the smaller entity will rise as they seek to manage their ability to comply with the new legislation. The lower threshold poses a very real risk of reducing participation in the democratic process by smaller groups for fear of legal repercussions. Increasing compliance costs is a key tool for those in power to reduce competition for those aspiring to challenge the status quo. That, I have no doubt, is what we're seeing today.

The penalties are significant. Not registering as a political campaigner within 90 days of meeting the threshold will incur a civil penalty. Groups will need to be more careful about their expenditure under this new model, whereas previously they would have needed to be a significant size to breach the $500,000 limit. An amount of $100,000 is not significant in today's political landscape. Let's put that into perspective for a moment, especially when we have major players like the United Australia Party planning to spend in excess of $80 million. The ALP and the Liberal and National parties are spending over $20 million each, but we're not seeing laws or regulations being introduced to clean that up. We're not seeing anything introduced to in any way curb the spending by the UAP or the misleading information that they are bombarding Australian voters with. An attack that will make it harder for small players and charities is what the government is choosing to spend its time on. It's a move designed to reduce the influence of smaller players.

On vague definitions, it's so frustrating to have these pieces of legislation that will impact on so many lives come before the House when they are badly drafted. They are vague. The definitions matter. Precision in the wording matters in legislation. These pieces of legislation are badly drafted. The definition of 'electoral matter' is vague. The definition of 'electoral expenditure' is within the act. 'Electoral matter' is defined as:

… matter communicated or intended to be communicated for the dominant purpose of influencing the way electors vote in … (a federal election) …

'Electoral expenditure' is defined as:

… expenditure incurred for the dominant purpose of creating or communicating electoral matter …

So who will benefit? Lawyers and experts in the field might be adept at navigating the lines drawn by these definitions, but smaller community groups and charities may not have the expertise to interpret these provisions, and thus their compliance costs will increase.

The fact that this bill is being applied retrospectively means that those who were careful to stay under the $500,000 cap in previous years may now have to go back and register as political campaigners and complete the relevant disclosures for the past three financial years if they had spent over $100,000. This is an unnecessary burden, and it's an example of moving the goalposts after the fact. If this were done fairly across a number of areas, I might understand, but I can't help but be cynical and think that it is always about keeping others out of the status quo. It is about maintaining the status quo. It is about preventing competition.

This bill before us does provide for some increase in transparency of money in politics. However, the last-minute introduction of the amendments which deliberately target emerging community groups speaks to a political motivation by the government. Targeting charities with legitimate policy concerns and turning them into political campaigners is underhanded and an attempt by the government to reduce scrutiny. It will weaken participation in our democracy, reserving the ability to participate only for those in the major parties with established administrative and legal resources to comply with the legislation. The bill shows the desperation of those in power to preserve the status quo that they benefit from.

Rather than introducing this bill and its last-minute amendments, in the time that is left for this parliament the government should look at the multitude of other recommendations to increase the transparency of the system. We could reduce donation disclosure thresholds; we could increase the timeliness of donation disclosure and fairly apply it, from Independents to parties; we could prohibit misleading and deceptive advertising, as I asked the Prime Minister about in question time today; and we could establish a federal integrity commission with teeth, with real powers and certainly with retrospective powers. It's clear that the government has no real desire to increase transparency—only a desire to maintain the status quo.

5:02 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go again, witnessing a government and a Prime Minister that will do absolutely anything to win an election, whether it's silencing the ABC or silencing anyone who speaks out against its policies. This government now wants charities silenced, and this cannot be good for our democracy. Charities do a lot of good work throughout our nation: helping those who are needy and assisting people with everything from food banks right through to educating the public on important issues. They have an absolute right to campaign—regardless of what colour the government is, whether it's on our side or their side—when they see something that's going wrong in their area. What this government wants to do is silence charities with this bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021, on the eve of a federal election. As I said, we have a government that wants to silence charities. They constantly speak out against the ABC. They want to silence the independent broadcaster, and now they also want to suppress votes through another bill that will be before this House very soon, making it harder for people to vote. This has been the way this government has operated from day one.

If the Prime Minister were serious about electoral integrity and public confidence in our electoral processes, he would support Labor's bill for the real-time disclosure of political donations and lowering the disclosure threshold from the current $14,500 to a fixed $1,000 so political donations are transparent for all to see. That's what they would do if they were serious about disclosures. They would provide more resources to the AEC for it to be able to investigate and also to do a really important thing: to increase the enrolment and turnover of voters. But we've seen no funding to the AEC, no increase in resources to assist them to educate the public about our voting system and getting people on the electoral roll. All we've seen is this government wanting to silence charities through this bill.

This is a dangerous bill. It prevents our charities and not-for-profit organisations from participating in our political process. These aren't people who are seeking high office. These aren't people who are wanting individual positions or to be elected in this parliament on behalf of a political party. They are people who see something very wrong being done through the political process, through democracy, and want to speak out and educate the public. There is nothing wrong with that. We should welcome debate and we should welcome outside groups, especially not-for-profit groups, participating in our democracy and campaigning strongly when they see something that they disagree with, when they see that people on the lower echelon of our economy are basically doing it really tough and when they see a government that make more cuts to those people, affecting those people even more. They have every right to campaign, to raise funds, to advertise and to donate to whatever political party they wish and see as fit for their needs.

As I said, we have seen lots of people speaking out against this. Earlier in the year, a group called Hands Off Our Charities was formed in response to the controversial changes earlier proposed by this government. Hands Off Our Charities comprises 100 leading charities. They have strongly campaigned against the rules, and earlier in the year released modelling that showed it would cost charities $150 million in compliance costs. Hands Off Our Charities spokesperson Ray Yoshida said the regulations were unnecessary, would stifle free speech and would affect vital services. He said:

This [modelling] outlines the extraordinary red-tape burden the Morrison government is imposing on charities that provide vital services to vulnerable people, including emergency food relief, family violence support and mental health assistance.

This is a group of Australian charities, not-for-profit agencies, that got together to form this coalition and this is what they are saying. So in no way will this assist anyone. All it will do is assist in stifling our democracy and free speech.

If the government were serious about this, they would support Labor's bill and lower the threshold to $1,000 so people are donating in real-time and everyone can know exactly who is donating and to what political party. But to make it harder for not-for-profit groups that have an interest in all sorts of areas is wrong. This bill is going to change the system dramatically. Currently, individuals or entities that spend over the disclosure threshold, which is currently $14,500, and up to $500,000 on electoral expenditure are registered as third parties. The government wants anyone who spends over $500,000 a year on electoral expenditure to be registered as a political campaigner. This bill will lower that threshold to $100,000 or one-third of the annual income so the reporting obligations are more onerous for the people in the second group than they are for third parties. It is just wrong that we are stifling democracy through a bill that will do absolutely nothing to assist our parliamentary process, our electoral process and our processes that make it fairer for people to speak out, as we should in a fair democracy. It makes you wonder why this bill is happening on the eve of a federal election which should be held early next year. And we will have another bill coming before the House in a few more days which will make it harder for people to participate and vote—through the voter ID program—when we know that not a single charge was laid against anyone for voting two or more times in the last federal election. The few people who were found to have voted in two to three different places were mainly elderly people who had forgotten that they had already made a postal vote.

I mentioned that the Hands Off Our Charities alliance was formed when the government tried this back in 2018. That was a coalition of many charities and not-for-profits from a range of sectors, including education. With education, we're talking about schools. We're talking about primary schools, secondary schools and universities. That sector, or people who are interested in that sector, has a right to advocate for good policy in this area for the next generation of Australians. What this will do is make it more difficult to spend money. It gives them more red tape which will be bound up in all sorts of forms and make it harder for these people to advocate on issues such as education.

I spoke briefly about the welfare sector but there are other sectors as well—for example, the Conservation Foundation. This is a group of people who have an interest in our environment, who believe that we need a good environment that is sustainable and that we can hand over to the next generation. They have been campaigning long and hard on environmental issues for many, many decades. It is their right to be able to donate where they wish to donate, to a political party that basically fits their policy. It allows that political party to advocate but also implement policies that are best suited to them. They're not seeking a political office. They're not seeking to be elected. They're not seeking to be part of this process that we have in this place. They're a not-for-profit organisation that deals in a particular issue, and they normally have the best advice possible that suits their agenda. There is no reason why we should be afraid of people's agendas. That's what democracy is all about. There are hundreds of agendas out there. It's all about people having the right to support political parties or anyone running for high office or advertising in any way that they want to support that particular idea.

Other charitable groups that are members of this particular organisation that was formed last year include Anglicare Australia, Amnesty International, Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Council of Social Service, Climate Council, Community Legal Centres Australia, Human Rights Law Centre, Oxfam Australia, Pew Charitable Trusts, Uniting Care Australia and Save The Children. These are organisations that do important work in our society and run on the smell of an oily rag. They are constantly under attack by this government because this government doesn't like it when they speak out.

They also made a compelling submission on the recent Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act in relation to the proposal to reduce the electoral expenditure threshold for political campaigners to $100,000. The submission said the members:

… are extremely concerned by this recommendation as many of the aspects of the EFDR Act, including the threshold for becoming a political campaigner, were very thoroughly consulted and considered prior to its enactment.

So lowering the threshold for becoming a political campaigner would introduce a very significant compliance burden for many third parties and would have a chilling effect on public interest advocacy in the lead-up to elections. I will repeat that: it would have a chilling effect on public interest advocacy in the lead-up to elections. Here we are, on the eve of an election, and here is this government trying to shut the voices of charitable organisations.

We've seen a continual war on charities by this government. The ongoing attacks have prompted open letters to successive prime ministers from the charity sector. A great deal of energy from Australia's great charities and not-for-profits has been chewed up in fighting against the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's war on their work. We've seen the coalition go through six different ministers responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. From 2011 to 2016, the coalition parties fought against the existence of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, a one-stop shop for charities which was supported by a dozen reports before its creation but opposed by the coalition tooth and nail. They only backed down on trying to axe the ACNC when they realised they couldn't get the bill through the Senate.

We've had bill after bill attack charities continuously. We want to see the voices of charities as enriching the public debate. We need those voices to have ideas and views. We're not saying everyone has to agree with their voices, but they have an absolute right to participate in the public debate that's taking place. But this government doesn't want people challenging its policies. It doesn't want people challenging its policies or its plans, and that's what this bill is all about. This government believes that social service charities should serve soup in a soup kitchen but shouldn't talk about poverty, that they should take clothes to homeless people who can't buy a jumper or a blanket to wear to keep warm in winter but not speak out against poverty. That's what this bill is all about. Public policy debates are enriched through the voices of charity, and by stifling their voices we're doing democracy a great disfavour. This bill should not be supported. I am pleased to hear the crossbenchers speak out against it. This bill should be dropped immediately by the government because it does nothing for the debate of public policy in Australia.

Instead of attacking charities, the government should be looking at genuine political donation reform. Lower the threshold to $1,000, if you're serious about it. Lower it to $1,000 in real time. Or, if you're even more serious about it, come up with a threshold for every Senate candidate and every House of Representatives candidate. But, of course, we know they're not serious about it. We know that this is all about silencing voices that are not on the same wavelength as this government. That's the history we have seen in the years they have been in government, always. When someone speaks out they don't like it, whether it be the ABC, whether it be charities or whether it be a group of workers, unions et cetera. To have a true democracy and true debate, we need all voices. I would even advocate on behalf of the ones I disagree with to have their voices heard, not to stifle their voices.

5:17 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm quite pleased to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 today, although I have very serious problems with it. In many ways, the issue the bill is trying to solve is a really interesting one and a really important one. We need a far more transparent process in our democracy. We need to know where money is coming from. We need to lower donation thresholds. We need to do a whole range of things so that members of the public who are voting can see where the money that is flowing through election campaigns comes from—no doubt. But this bill is a really bad answer and an absolute demonstration of this government's seeming inability to look at a problem, pull it apart and investigate what the actual question is, and, through broad consultation, come up with an answer that actually works. It's a government that doesn't consult, and, time after time after time, comes up with answers that are simply bad ones.

I would also argue in this case that the government is even trying to solve the wrong problem. They seem to believe there's a whole range of left-wing organisations raising money from the community to campaign against them. I come from a marginal seat, and I can tell them that a lot of the people donating to the climate change advocates and the conservation foundations are actually Liberal voters. If the problem is that a whole stack of Liberal voters are donating to charities that are campaigning against the Liberal Party, then perhaps the Liberal Party should consider their own policies. If their own supporters are putting money into defeating them at the election, perhaps they should look at themselves. Perhaps they are looking at the wrong problem.

Let's go back to the issue that we need more transparency, and have a look at what this bill does. I'll explain why I think it's a rather bad bill, and why it would have incredibly detrimental effects to some organisations in my community that do extraordinary local work in fighting for things the local community cares for. In the field of our democracy there is a group of people that spend money on campaigns and advocacy, and they're called political campaigners. At the moment, individuals or entities that spend at least $500,000 during the year or in any one of the three previous financial years—in other words, are spending a lot of money—or electoral expenditure of two-thirds their annual income must register as a political campaigner. If they do that, they can't accept foreign donations and they have a whole range of information they have to give to the AEC, like total receipts, value of gifts in kind, details of receipts greater than the disclosure threshold et cetera. So there's an incredible amount of red tape that lands, quite rightly, on people that spend more than $500,000 during the year on what might be seen as political campaigning but sometimes is just advocacy for a position or if they spend more than two-thirds of their annual income.

This bill lowers the threshold to $100,000 or one-third of their annual income. My first thing when I'm given a number, because I'm a numbers person, is to actually figure out what the number is. Can I just point out that $100,000 wouldn't pay for many full-page ads in the major papers, so it doesn't actually buy very much. It's also, per electorate, $666.66, so this bill lowers the threshold to any advocacy or charitable organisation that is spending on average more than $666 per electorate. They now become what is known as a political campaigner and are faced with an extraordinary level of red tape—something that I know the government hate, but in this case they seem to be prepared to impose it on a whole group of organisations that are not particularly wealthy and are not necessarily spending very much, because the bill lowers the threshold to $100,000 or one-third of annual income—'or' one-third of annual income. So, according to this bill, as long as what you spend is more than $14,500 and more than a third of your annual income, you are captured by this political campaigners' tag and you face the full reporting requirements including vetting every single person that donates to you, making sure they're not a foreign entity, making sure they can make a donation. It's an incredible amount of red tape on a daily basis to meet the requirements of a political campaigner.

In my electorate there are a number of organisations that I think do an extraordinary job. They don't always agree with me, by the way! Sometimes they campaign against me, but they are people from genuine local organisations that have a passion about something. They come together to make a difference and to persuade people on one point of view or another. One of them, for example, is Save Willow Grove, a campaign run by the North Parramatta Residents Action Group with its wonderful secretary, Suzette Meade. They worked incredibly hard over a number of years to save a heritage property called Willow Grove. They actually lost that argument, but I would be very surprised if through their crowdfunding they didn't spend more than $14,500, which would take them over the lower threshold of disclosure, and they would have spent far more than a third of what they raised. In fact, they probably spent all of it on advocacy. That's a local community organisation of volunteers, a mum with her kid, basically at home, working—when she's not at work—getting the community together to do something that they care about, and they will be potentially quite likely captured by this bill.

I wonder about how many of the others might be too—Parramatta Park, for example. The New South Wales government has been moving ahead with a plan to move several parks in the Sydney Basin into a centrally managed Greater Sydney Parklands and take away the local control. There's a whole group of people who have come together and formed an organisation to fight that. Again, it's extremely unlikely that their fundraising would raise less than $14,500, so they'll be over the disclosure threshold, and they will spend all of it or close to all of it, so they will be captured by the political campaigners bill and they will be required to undergo an extraordinary amount of red tape. Again, these are little local organisations that come together because there's something they care about. That's a good thing.

Our job in this place and our job in our communities is to make our communities stronger. I sometimes say our job is to make ourselves redundant in as many areas as we can, empower people, give them a voice and make it possible for communities to talk to each other to come to shared views, to argue things out in the community to work out what their common view is. That's our job, and a lot of these organisations, which will be severely hampered and many of which will disappear altogether, will be caught by this bad answer to a very real problem. There has to be another way to make sure we have transparency, without loading the full weight of the red tape of large political campaigners on small organisations that either spend relatively small amounts locally or spend, on average, $666 per electorate. That is what $100,000 is: $666.66 per electorate. They will be caught by this bill.

With the Parramatta Female Factory, the campaigners there have ensured that we've actually kept the female factory. A number of times governments of various persuasions have tried to get rid of that extraordinary piece of heritage—the most intact female convict factory and the oldest in Australia. The campaigners have fought for years to keep the factory. Again, with their crowdfunding, the idea that their expenditure would be less than $14,500 or that they would have spent less than a third of their expenditure on making a case in the community that that venue should be kept—that's not going to be the case. It's quite likely they would be captured by this bill, as would, possibly, even Westmead Push for Palliative Care. This is an extraordinary organisation that realised that Westmead doesn't have a palliative care ward. They have campaigned for a considerable time with great effect. Again, this is a really important local organisation fighting for something really important locally and doing the job that we all want them to do: caring about something, getting involved, making a difference, making their case and engaging the community. That is the art of persuasion, which is the absolute definition of what politics is supposed to be. That's what they are doing. They are getting involved in a very real and valuable way, and it's hard to imagine that they also wouldn't suddenly find themselves, under these definitions, as political campaigners, subject to extraordinary levels of red tape: details of debts greater than the disclosure threshold and values of gifts in kind.

Tell local organisations—that works with volunteers, that goes out and campaigns and hands out pamphlets and all the rest of the things, that gets on the phone, that letterboxes, that does all the things that volunteers do—that suddenly they will have to record all the value of the gifts in kind. Their total turnover through their fundraising might be $20,000 and if they spend it all on a local campaign that puts them over the disclosure limit. Surely that's not what this government intended? If it is, then, really, the entire country should vote against them. If they actually want to shut down small local organisations that care about the local park, that care about more trees in a suburb, that care about the number of birds, that care about the heritage in their area, that care about building a new childcare centre, that care about the things that we in this place want our communities to care about and get involved in, surely it's not the government's intention to shut down those organisations or bury them in red tape to the extent that they won't be able to do what we all want them to do, which is to build strong local community networks and put their efforts into building those systems and structures within our community that support good lives in our local community?

I'm going to go back to that $100,000 threshold. If you're not used to campaigning, you might think $100,000 is a lot of money. Again, if it's a national campaign, it's a couple of full-page ads and not much more. If it's spent on the ground, it's $666 per electorate. I can tell the government, I'm not afraid of $666 flowing into my electorate from a national charity. I'm not afraid of that. In fact, I welcome the views in my electorate. I'm in a marginal seat. There are many of them. I don't always agree with the different voices, but what we need to be doing in this place is finding a way to balance the need for strong community voices and people getting involved in things they care about and building relationships and helping to persuade the community members around them and ensuring that our democratic system is transparent. There will be ways to do that through proper consultation over a proper period of time—talking it through with people who do donate, not just the charities that receive donations. Who is donating and why? What is going on out there? What do we need to address to make sure that this is transparent? What technology can be used?

Donation thresholds, truth in advertising, caps on how much can be spent—all of those things would improve our democracy. This will not. It's a very bad answer to a very serious question. I would urge the government to rethink it. I know they won't, because they're not very good with answers. This government are not very good at all. They're certainly not very good at consulting. But this is an incredibly bad answer.

5:30 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak against the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 and in support of what the member for Scullin moved earlier. Let's just be frank about what we've got before us here. In a time when people are calling out for truth in a democracy, and in a time when people are really questioning and challenging how healthy our democracy is, what do we have as an answer from this government? We have a bill that attacks the very people who are challenging them, their ideas and values and what they are doing as a government.

Who does this bill target? It targets the smaller charities. It targets the people who have been active in our democracy previously and who now would be limited in the way in which they can participate. Here are just a few of the organisations—and it's no coincidence when you hear the organisations that this government is targeting in this bill and their motivations behind it. It is organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Bob Brown Foundation, World Wide Fund for Nature and the RSPCA. We know that a senator in the other place is particularly opposed to this organisation, even petitioning for them to drop the 'Royal' in RSPCA because they believed that it did no longer represent the views of the royal family. That is how absurd some of the arguments have been on their side towards organisations on this list. Organisations that would also be disenfranchised by this bill are organisations like St Vincent de Paul and organisations that are involved in a lot of advocacy around food support, welfare and community support. Several unions would also be disadvantaged by this bill, like the United Workers Union, the NUW, the STA and the CEPU. These are the organisations: unions, environmental organisations and not-for-profit welfare charities—the very organisations that are third parties campaigning in our democracy about core values and issues.

This government doesn't like democracy. They're a bit of: 'We're in the club. We're here now. You can't be.' This government is becoming more authoritarian by the day, and that is what is in this bill. They will pretend it is about disclosure. They'll pretend that it's about encouraging more honesty and transparency. But it is not. It is about raising the bar so high for some of our organisations who are so actively involved in our democracy in a good way. I don't always agree with what some of these organisations say. I have the Australian Conservation Foundation protesting at the front of my office on a regular basis, but I don't shoo them away. They have a right to be there. It is a democracy. As long as they are not being violent, as long as they are letting people come in and out of my office and as long as they are doing it in a peaceful way, it is something that we encourage in our Australian democracy.

We are home to some of the most ugly protests right now. Those protests, when they become violent and make threats against people, are not democracy. That is not something that we should be embracing. That is something which this government has, ironically, not been able to condemn. It is a government that just likes to pretend one thing but do another. I find it extraordinary that we're here saying that we want to exclude groups from participating in our democracy. They are registered groups that have a legitimate say, have raised an issue that they campaign on and have a membership that is behind them. We have no doubt about what the Australian Conservation Foundation campaign on. They are there to campaign around the environment. That is what they are passionate about, that is what their membership is passionate about, that is what they bring to us as parliamentarians, and that is their right to do so. In a healthy democracy, we create the space for them to do that, but this bill seeks to set the bar even higher.

This is coming from a government that says it's okay to be a bigot. This is from a government who will say that people have a right to protest and make threats against a premier and have gallows at the front of parliament house. But, if you want to be an organised environmental group or if you want to be a trade union that is raising the matter, they are going to set the bar really high so you can't actually participate in an election process. It is a government that does not live by its rhetoric. It is a government that also, too, will say it's okay for politicians to have blind trusts. And that's the thing that I find quite extraordinary.

Here we are lowering the threshold for organisations who might want to participate in an election process, making it harder for organisations to participate in our democratic process, yet at the same time saying that their own can have blind trusts set up where people can just throw money in; we don't know where it came from and we just have to trust the person that received it. Well, where is the trust for these organisations? Where's the trust for these membership based organisations who are out there campaigning on an issue? In a free democracy, you should not be afraid of them. In a free democracy, where we embrace and encourage people to engage in a safe, peaceful way, we should not be afraid of them.

This is also, too, the government of sports rorts. This is the government who will use whatever language they can to try and disguise, to try and hide, what they are doing. This is a government where we have a prime minister who will say one thing and then try and rewrite history, even though it's quite clear, in the age of technology, that that's not what he said. This is a government who believes that, once you're in the club, if you're here, 'This is our club and no-one else is welcome.' This bill, the political campaigners bill, has been designed to target a certain kind of organisation, to set the bar so incredibly high for them that they choose not to participate in our democracy, because that's essentially what will happen. Organisations like St Vincent de Paul, organisations that do so much community based work—they do the drug and alcohol work in our communities; they do the food hampers in our communities; they help people who have fallen down—will say, 'Okay, I guess that means we just can't raise our concerns about these issues.' That's what has happened year after year, reform after reform with this government.

Another area where this legislation is linked so clearly to the government's entire agenda is the gag clauses they put in funding agreements. Organisations who are very concerned with how people in their care are being treated feel really nervous about speaking out. Employees of these organisations privately disclose how they're very worried about how legislation may affect them, but they are too scared to speak out on the record because they're worried that they might lose their funding agreement. This bill is in that same vein. It's about silencing dissent. It's about silencing people who speak up about issues.

You wouldn't be so upset with the government if they were true to their rhetoric and said to be protesters in Melbourne and said to the antivaxxers and said to the far Right, 'No, you don't actually get to have a say'—if they were consistent, but they're not. The Prime Minister comes in here and stands up and says, 'Everyone has the right to a have say; we live in a free democracy,' but then puts bills like this before us and says, 'This is about ensuring transparency and accountability,' when it's not. It's a government of hypocrisy. It's a government about protecting themselves and protecting their position here in power. They do not want an active democracy. They do not want people speaking up about these issues. When you look at the organisations that this bill will target, the government definitely don't want the Australian Conservation Foundation campaigning in the seat of Higgins, campaigning in the seat of Goldstein. Let's be real about what we're seeing in this bill. This is about stopping organisations that may hand out how-to-votes against them.

In my electorate of Bendigo we have always had a very active democracy. We have people from the far Left and the far Right involved as well as major parties. It's unusual for us, come federal elections, to have fewer than nine candidates. In my first election, it was 13; years after, it was 11 and 12. And there are lots of different groups. Now, granted, when it comes to polling day, I am quite relieved that most of the people in the electorate get behind one of the two major political parties. But you don't go and say to them, 'You can't participate.' It's our democracy; it's what makes us stronger. And of course we have disagreements of views, but, with a lot of the groups that are involved and that participate in these elections, there's material I don't like; there's material which gets reported to the AEC. We don't see a bill before us about truth in advertising. That's what Australians really care about. They really want to see some truth in advertising. We don't see that. We can make complaints about material, we can make complaints about the texts we get, but we don't see any bill that's dealing with that side of the issues we're having with our democracy. What we have instead is a bill that is about protecting themselves. We have a bill that's about silencing legitimate campaigning—people who do it properly, people who are willing and wanting to follow the rules.

The government is trying to be sneaky in the way it has introduced this bill—at the end of the year, right before an election, without having full and proper consultation. It's another demonstration of how this government is really keen to change the rules to suit itself. Whether it be this bill or the bill about voter ID and disenfranchising people in remote communities in Australia, in vulnerable communities, what we see is a government all about protecting their own jobs and protecting themselves. They're not really interested in a healthy democracy, which is why they side with antivaxxers, which is why they side with far Right extremists. They actually don't really want to engage in a proper dialogue and contest of ideas. What they really want to do is just protect themselves. And it's disappointing. When our democracy is under such a microscope and we've had three years to look at it—in fact, quite a while to look at it—what we see from the government, at the very end, in the legislation they've put forward about how they're going to improve the health of our democracy, is not about truth in advertising. It's not a bill that looks at that. It's not about genuine donation reform and disclosure. It's not about an integrity bill that will look at people and blind trusts in this place. What we have is this bill and another bill, a bill which is about disenfranchising people from participating in our democracy. That's a really sad state of affairs. It really demonstrates the selfishness and the individuality of those in this government. It demonstrates that it's really all about the Prime Minister and about the Prime Minister keeping his own job.

How a Prime Minister could stand alongside the protesters in Melbourne after what they did at the front of parliament house is beyond me. And I hope that, when it comes to election day, people in Melbourne remember that we have a Prime Minister who said that it's okay to stand out the front of the Victorian parliament with a gallows, that it's okay to walk down the streets with—

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction) Share this | | Hansard source

Point of order: the member is misleading the House. No such remarks were ever made by the Prime Minister, and it's despicable to suggest so.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

On the point of order: reflecting on a member, as the member just did, is disorderly, unlike his ridiculous point of order.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I call the member.

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Maybe I have just touched on a nerve with the member for Goldstein, because many in his electorate would have objected to what they saw happening in the streets of Melbourne.

We have really high vaccination rates across our country and it's something we should all be embracing. There are some who've chosen not to get vaccinated, and how does that relate to this bill? They will be politically active in this campaign. We are already having discussions in my electorate about how we can keep people safe during the election period. We've not seen any focus whatsoever from this government about how we can ensure people are safe when they're voting, how they won't get harassed if they're voting. We've not had any genuine discussion from this government about how we can improve our election processes. What we've had instead is this bill and another bill, a bill which is all about disenfranchising people from participating. That is what really disappoints me about what we're seeing.

This is at a time when we want people to be encouraged to be positive about our democracy, to know that their vote can make a difference. It is at a time when we want to encourage civil society to participate—organisations like the RSPCA, like St Vincent de Paul, like our unions. We stood side by side with our unions and said: 'Your members are essential workers. Thank you for what you've done. Nobody deserves a serve.' Members of the United Workers Union ran hotel quarantine and put themselves at risk. Because this government didn't do anything about hotel quarantine, the states picked it up. Our security guards and our cleaners—some of our lowest paid workers—kept the virus out of our community; they did everything they could. Now this government is saying that their union needs to meet a new, higher threshold when it comes to political campaigning. If anybody deserves an opportunity to have a voice in this election about how this government has participated, about the kind of government that they want, and an opportunity to organise collectively, it's the workers in those unions, who really stood up and kept Australia safe. It drives me bonkers that we have a Prime Minister who pretends he did the job. He did not. In his absence, these organisations stepped up.

I strongly encourage the government to drop this bill. This is the wrong time to be looking at something like this. What we want is a bill that talks about truth in advertising and truth in political campaigning. What we want is a bill that talks about donations and disclosures—real-time donation disclosures. What we want is a bill which is about genuinely engaging and encouraging people to participate in our democracy. What we want is a bill that ensures people are safe. There is a real threat happening out there right now in our democracy. There are some really huge concerns that are going on, and all we have from this government is game playing.

5:45 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I would like to thank all those in this chamber who have contributed to this debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 truthfully. I also take the opportunity to recognise and thank the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their continued consideration of matters relating to electoral laws and practices.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act is one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Australia and requires continual review to harmonise law and administration with the evolving environment. The bill strengthens Australia's elections by providing for further consistency and funding disclosure requirements for political actors, presenting voters with more transparent information on those who seek to influence their voting decisions. There is a comprehensive need to continue to modernise the way in which democracy is delivered, with an ongoing commitment to reviewing our electoral system. There is potential risk to Australians engaging with the electoral process in an informed and appropriate way. That is the basis of this legislation. I speak to the electors of Goldstein. What they want is elections on the basis of integrity, and I am sure that is true and consistent across the whole of the community. More to the point, they want to be free and able to engage in electoral behaviour without being misled or engaging in conduct which makes it difficult for them to exercise their democratic duty, responsibility and opportunity.

Once again, I thank colleagues for their contributions. I commend this bill to the House.

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time, to which the honourable member for Scullin moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Indi has moved as an amendment to that amendment that all words after 'whilst' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Indi be disagreed to.

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

The question is that the amendment moved by the member for Indi be disagreed to.

5:57 pm

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

SPEAKER (): The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Scullin be disagreed to.

5:59 pm

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

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