House debates

Wednesday, 16 February 2022


Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022, Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:00 am

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before the House this morning are three bills: the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022. It's fair to say that one involves technical amendments, one operational and one fundamental, and I will deal with them in that way.

Firstly, I'll deal with the technical. The technical relates to ensuring that electoral material which is disseminated by all of us—and, indeed, many not in this place but wishing to come to this place—needs authorisation. That authorisation ought to carry not the technical name—namely, the entity last included on an AEC return—but effectively the common name. It is intended to convey exactly that. People want to know, and I think it's appropriate that people do know that electoral material has been authorised by entities, and, in that regard, people might well know of the common name for a political party.

If I can just digress on that, the member last night in his amendment suggested that we be allowed to use—and I understand that this met with favour in the Senate—acronyms. I personally am concerned about that. Whilst everyone in this place, deeply engaged in politics, might know what UAP Queensland means, there are a lot of people out there who might not. It's not a big stretch to ask for the name rather than the acronym to be included. It might, indeed, shock people in this place to know that many of my friends don't know what ALP or LIB stand for. So perhaps some consideration might be given to that. But, like I say, that is a deeply technical bill, and it's one I support but not one which I think requires deep consideration or debate in this place.

The second of the bills is what I would describe as an operational amendment. COVID has changed almost everything we do, from the fact that I have a disposable mask in my pocket to put on once I finish this debate to holiday plans to when children go to school. It's fair to say that we're exhausted and that we've faced a lot of changes as a result of the pandemic, and that is true of the forthcoming federal election. There is a prospect that at the date of the next federal election there will be a large cohort of Australians—large in an electoral sense, perhaps not in a notional sense—who will be prohibited from visiting a polling booth because they are dealing with a COVID diagnosis and are therefore forced to isolate. No-one, and I mean no-one, in this place wants to disenfranchise those people from casting their vote, and I remind Australians—and this is something I'll have a little bit more to say on shortly—that three of the last five elections in this place have been incredibly tight. If you cast your mind back to 2010, 2016 and 2019, they were incredibly tight. They were equally tight in terms of the number of votes required to change the outcome on the floor of this place. And so it is understandable that the government is taking measures—measures that have bipartisan support, I'm pleased to say—to ensure those individuals can cast their vote at election time. How could it be that they couldn't? If you were to undertake a PCR or a rapid antigen test within 72 hours of election day after the time for nominating a postal vote before the election and obviously without the ability to cast a declaration vote in any other way then you would be disenfranchised. And so, sensibly, unique amendments have been cast to ensure that authority can be provided to the Special Minister of State to facilitate phone voting for those individuals. I'm pleased to see that this measure is sunsetting at the end of this calendar year. I'm pleased for no other reason than that it's a show of optimism that we'll be past the pandemic by the end of this calendar year. I've got to say that 2022 has felt like 2021 wearing a wig! But let's hope that this is the only federal election that we need these extraordinary powers for.

I have dealt with the technical, not wanting to detain the House very long on that, and mentioned the operational. I should say this issue has given cause for concern in relation to the upcoming South Australian state election which is occurring next month. I do note that the member for Isaacs made some comments about that last evening. I will make the point that the South Australian Electoral Commissioner has put in place a mechanism to ensure all South Australians are enfranchised at that election.

Noting that, and hoping that this will be the only federal election where this power is ever required and having dealt with the technical and the operational, I will go to the fundamental. The fundamental in relation to this string of bills is the need to ensure that our electoral laws are sufficiently robust to prevent any form of foreign interference. Foreign interference in election outcomes I don't think is a new or novel concept, but it seems to be on the rise. It's a fundamental truism that the outcome of elections with respect to this place should be determined by the Australian citizenry and the Australian citizenry only. I don't think anyone in this place, or anywhere else in this nation, would disagree with that assertion. So we need to make sure our laws are robust enough to ensure that we don't end up in a situation where we effectively risk the very real prospect of serious international actors with serious resources influencing the outcome of federal elections.

Why is this debate and this legislation particularly timely? It would be important at any time, but it is particularly important given the information provided by the director-general of ASIO on 9 February of this year regarding his annual threat assessment in which he revealed that a person linked to a foreign government recently attempted to fund political candidates in an unspecified Australian election. This is where I want to draw the attention of those in this place and anyone who might be listening to the fact that, as I mentioned previously, three of the last five elections in this place were determined on a wafer-thin margin. I think it's fair to say that we can call the 2010 election a dead heat. The 2016 election came down to a handful of votes in the seat of Capricornia, ultimately. And, of course, we sit in a parliament now where the margin—as evidenced by the events of last week—is wafer thin.

None of that is a problem, except for the fact that it presents a particularly delicious opportunity to those foreign actors who might wish to change the course of Australian political history. Why do I say that? Well, I say that because three of the last five elections have been determinative. If a foreign actor with significant resources—and long may it be that political campaigns in this country are run on relatively modest budgets. Indeed, I understand that at the last federal election the seat of Longman, the last coalition seat to be declared, ran on a budget that represents something about the size of my monthly household expenditure—a wafer thin amount of money. So it's a deliciously attractive proposition for a third party, particularly a foreign government, to seek to influence outcomes. Quite frankly, that is very achievable, unless we have these kinds of protections.

I want to make sure that Australians determine the outcome of these elections. I want there to be the highest level of confidence in the Australian citizenry in the outcome of elections. I remember waking up in 2007 on the day after the election, and those opposite might not be surprised to realise that I woke up incredibly tired because I'd spent the day on a polling booth. I woke up incredibly disappointed, but I wasn't angry, and nor was there any thought that that election was anything other than fair and the outcome one that I had to, albeit over time, come to accept. I don't want, and I done think anyone else in this place wants, the kind of uncertainty, innuendo and other considerations that were offered up after the last US presidential election. We don't want that to become a feature of Australian politics, and, accordingly, this bill is an important safeguard.

The last thing that I want to say is about something that has garnered a little bit of attention in the media today, and that has been the subject of a couple of interactions in question time over the course of this week. It is important that the people of Australia understand that they will determine the outcome of the election in 2022—not foreign government or actors or otherwise. The one thing that I want to point out is this, and I want to be really clear so as not to offend the standing orders and to be clear about what I want to say. At no point in what I'm saying am I suggesting that those opposite or the Leader of the Opposition have garnered this support. I'm not making that assertion. I would never make that assertion, and I don't think that it would be fair to. But one thing that I am desperately concerned about, as we have seen reported overnight, is that some foreign governments have made the decision about who they would prefer to see govern this country. That's a matter for them. I note that it is attracting significant media attention.

But there is one thing that I will say to the Australian citizenry—the people, I remind the House, who will determine the outcome of the 2022 election. I make this plea to them: make your own decision about who is to govern your country following the next federal election. Don't be influenced by the attitude of foreign governments. You take an Australia-first, citizenry-first approach to this election. Don't be swayed by what might be coming out of foreign capitals and foreign leaders elsewhere—and I make that assertion very clear in what I'm saying about who is motivating those outcomes. I don't believe what we're hearing from one foreign government in particular is being courted by those opposite at all. I think it's an unfair criticism to suggest that. But it is clear that that foreign government would very much like to see that outcome, and I don't want that view to infect decisions that are made by the Australian citizenry in the lead-up to the 2022 election. Australians must decide the outcome and make-up of this House and no-one else.

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

Before I call the member for Perth, I remind the House that it has been agreed that a general debate be allowed covering this bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022, and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022. The question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

11:15 am

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Western Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Democracy is a fundamental Australian value. Indeed, it is a value that we make our newest citizens sign up to when they take their citizenship pledge, and, because Australia's democracy is so strong, we do sometimes take it for granted. But every single federal election we are reminded just how lucky we are to live in Australia and how lucky we are to have the institutions which lead and run our democratic processes, from those that run the processes we have here in the parliament through to the Australian Electoral Commission and their thousands of staff who help us have free and fair elections.

Like many in this place, I've been involved in democratic elections for a long time. And, I worry, like many do, about what COVID is doing to our democracy. I have memories of joining my parents at polling booths when I was a primary school student, handing out how-to-votes, being bored out of my brain hanging around at Picton Primary School for hours and hours. But, as I got older, I started to enjoy those experiences more and more. It does make me realise that the election we're about to face, not just for policy and other reasons but because of the particular circumstances of a global pandemic, will be an election like no other.

The schools and how they interact—schools at the moment across the country are telling parents and community members not to come onto school grounds. We have elections where we actually have thousands of people come onto school grounds, admittedly on a Saturday, but it really is a challenge for all of the school communities. I know it's a challenge for the school communities in my electorate.

We're going to see more and more early voting, which I have experienced where, if the early voting location is poorly chosen, can be a real pain for the small businesses that are located next to them. That's before you pile on the challenge of a global pandemic and the potential for infected voters to be attending those voting locations. I worry that voters will be scared of seeing these long, socially distanced lines thinking: 'Oh my God, how many people in that queue! How long am I going to have to wait to vote?'

We know that there are the challenges that we've seen around having more postal votes and the logistic challenges that presents. We are all changing the way we communicate with our electors. We've done that over the last two years, but we're going to change that again in the context of an election—fewer town halls, more outdoor gatherings. I wouldn't have known two years ago what a COVID-safe phone bank was, but now I am very good at them.

There'll be challenges for the Australian Electoral Commission in both keeping their staff safe but also, as we've seen across this country, of getting enough workers to run that election. We have a very high standard of the quality of service that people expect. I note that one of the recommendations in the amendment moved by the shadow Attorney-General is about making sure that we have enough resources for the Electoral Commission to do all of the things that they need to do to run the sorts of elections that we are used to having and ensuring that everyone can have a say in those elections. I'll talk more about that in a moment.

I've worked in elections trying to elect good Labor people across this country, from Brisbane to Melbourne. I've helped out in a campaign in Frankston and here in the Australian Capital Territory in a territory election, and I've done a fair few in Western Australia as well. But the most remarkable election experience I've ever had was in 2014, when I went to Afghanistan, to Kabul, to be an election observer for the counting of their presidential election. That was an election like no other. The fights over individual ballot papers and the markings on those ballot papers make us look too polite, in terms of the conversations we have with our scrutineers on election day. I was lucky to join my friends—back then my friends were known as Luke Gosling and Josh Wilson, who are now known as the member for Solomon and the member for Fremantle—on that delegation, spending three-and-a-bit weeks trying to make sure we helped a country in their transition to democracy. As we look at, in this legislation, how we strengthen our democracy, it's quite heartbreaking to think that there have been democracies that have fallen over the last few years. What has happened in Afghanistan, not just to their democracy but to the country and the people of Afghanistan, is particularly heartbreaking for me and many others in this place. That's why, wherever we can, be it through our aid program or through our leadership in the international community of making sure we have strong, fair, democratic and open elections, we should do everything we can to strengthen democracy—not just here but everywhere.

One of the challenges we have—it's been in the media this week—is the challenge of making sure we comply with the various laws that are passed in this place to make sure we have open elections. I have been a party secretary responsible for filing the forms with the Electoral Commission to make sure all appropriate matters are disclosed, as the Australian people expect, and to ensure all candidates comply and to make sure we train volunteers in how they can comply with the relevant electoral laws. Whatever side of politics it is—government, crossbench, wherever—it is disappointing when someone does not comply with those rules. I think the expectation of the Australian public is that a swift apology and full disclosure are delivered.

When I think about the challenges of elections and people putting in all the paperwork and everything, one of the things that scares me most about elections—it's thankfully no longer a challenge I have; I had it when I was a party secretary—and the thing that used to terrify me more than anything was lodging candidate nominations. What if a form was wrong? What if you forgot one? What if there wasn't the right number of dollars on the cheque attached for the candidate deposits? I think that's something that has made people nervous for many decades in terms of making sure people fulfil their obligations. This week in this place we paid tribute to another Western Australian party secretary, Michael Beahan, who then went on to an incredibly distinguished career in the other place, in the Senate. He was a proud Western Australian and a fabulous secretary of the Western Australian branch of the great Australian Labor Party.

I turn to the amendment that has been moved by the shadow Attorney-General. I think this speaks to some of the other challenges that need to be addressed in making sure we have that robust democracy. We have seen one particular concern raised by those opposite about foreign interference—a concern I share. There should be no foreign interference in Australian elections. Australian elections should be run by Australian rules, run for Australians and decided by Australians. But there are other things we can do to strengthen our democracy, as the amendment notes. We could lower the disclosure threshold, no longer taking $14,500 before a single cent is disclosed. Instead, bring the threshold down to $1,000 and disclose every donation over that $1,000 threshold. Further, let's start talking about real-time disclosure. We in this place, when we have to fulfil our obligations with members' interests, have 28 days. Political parties sometimes have up to almost 18 months. We should fix this. We should get to a point where there is proper disclosure in reasonable time that the public would expect.

The amendment also recommends that we should provide more resources to the Australian Electoral Commission to increase enrolment and turnout. We know we still have a problem in Australia where there are by-elections with poor turnout. We know COVID presents some particular challenges about people feeling comfortable about engaging with their democracy. And we know, in my state of Western Australia, we still have, in 2022, a completely unacceptable rate of Indigenous enrolment. Only 69 per cent of First Nations people in Western Australia are understood to be on the electoral roll. That's completely unacceptable. And the only reason that that is the case is that there are not enough resources put into helping people not just get on the roll but stay on the roll. And we also can't avoid the fact that the vast bulk of those people who are not on the roll in Western Australia are concentrated in one particular electorate, Durack, which covers the north of Western Australia. I would call on the minister, himself a Western Australian, himself a former party director in Western Australia, to take further serious action on this. Unless we have every Australian voting, able to vote, and fulfilling their obligations to be enrolled and participate in our elections, they are not truly representative of the full spectrum of the Australian people. We can find the resources in this place to fix it, and we should. That's one of the reasons I commend and support the amendment.

We also need to make sure that people have confidence in their democracy, that they're not being fed all this misinformation and disinformation. There's a lot more that can be done there. Just as there is a lot more that can be done to make sure that when people go to vote, particularly where they're voting for the re-election of members of the government, they can have confidence that those members of the government have been under the oversight of a powerful and independent national anticorruption commission.

Turning to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, I welcome that this is a ban for foreign campaigners. It closes a loophole so that foreign entities cannot incur expenses for the purpose of federal elections in Australia. As other speakers have said, Australian elections are for Australians. In 2018 the parliament banned foreign governments, citizens and entities from making donations to candidates in federal elections. This was an important measure and had broad support. But we all need to remain vigilant about other ways that foreign entities might seek to inappropriately influence our democracy.

Those amendments did not take into account circumstances where a foreign entity could incur electoral expenditure and communicate electoral matter. This meant that a foreign government or corporation could campaign for a candidate, or on an issue, in a federal election. We can all think of examples. Greensill has deep connections with the conservative side of politics both in the UK and here in Australia. It could be Trump enterprises. For all Clive Palmer's faults, at least most of his companies are based here in Australia. We also need to make sure that we have penalties for those who seek to avoid or circumvent these laws. That's why it's good that this legislation has penalties and anti-avoidance measures to close further loopholes. Further, electoral material should be authorised by people here in Australia—and this bill closes that loophole.

Over the years, there have been attempts by foreign actors to undermine our democracy, and all sides of the parliament have been targeted. With all sides of the parliament having been targeted, it's important that all sides of the parliament are vigilant. Labor is committed to ensuring that the parliament and our democracy are protected from foreign interference. While the Prime Minister only ever acts on this if it's in his electoral interests, Labor is committed to legislating in the national interest. That's why we welcome that this bill increases the penalty for publishing misleading material in relation to the casting of a vote and gives the Australian Federal Police further powers.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 makes minor but important amendments to ensure that material is authorised. It's important that material that is placed on digital platforms is properly authorised, and that must comply too. It allows parties to use a shortened version of their name. When we're talking about the names of political parties and what they have done, we can't avoid the fact that the biggest change to a political party name since the last election was the change that Clive Palmer made to the registration of his party. It used to be Clive Palmer's United Australia Party, an entirely owned entity of the Clive Palmer machine. Clive Palmer still owns and runs the whole show and pulls every single string, but he knew that he needed to take his name off the political party, so he changed it to simply the United Australia Party. But then he couldn't help showing that this is still his machine—still something that he drives every day to help the re-election of the Morrison government. In doing so, he's come out and announced that he's going to spend the most money ever in an Australian election: $100 million. We know that, just as he announced after the last election, that is money that he spends because he wants to keep people like his friend the Minister for Defence in government. This huge spending has practically no scrutiny, and the government doesn't want to scrutinise it. If you ask, 'Why don't they want real-time disclosures and why don't they want to bring the disclosure threshold down to 1,000?' I'd say the answer is simply two words: Clive Palmer.

11:30 am

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

I rise to speak in support of the second reading of the three bills that we're debating together this morning: the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022.

I'd like to start by commending Assistant Minister Morton for the work that he's done not only on these three matters but on a whole raft of electoral reform over the last few months. I've spoken on a number of these bills. I'm very proud to serve on the electoral matters committee, and some of the matters that have come before us to be legislated have come from that committee. Others have been born out of the necessities of dealing with potential disruptions of future elections because of COVID et cetera. I think the assistant minister has done an excellent job in identifying a number of loopholes, like the ones I'm about to touch on in this debate, that we might have sought to address some time ago if there had been higher awareness of those issues. I commend the assistant minister for his diligence there.

I'd also like to commend the Australian Electoral Commission. Whenever we've debated changes to the electoral act and I've spoken on them, I've always taken the opportunity to commend them and their professionalism—Commissioner Rogers and his entire team. Again, we have them in regularly to give evidence to the electoral matters committee. I think they do a fantastic job. I've listened to some of the other contributions to this debate, and it's very pleasing to hear the unity of commendation for the integrity of elections that we conduct in this country. Sometimes we don't like the results, but that's never been because there are questions about the AEC's professionalism and integrity and the due diligence with which they conduct our elections. I think that in every election that's ever been held in this country, even though we sometimes do and sometimes don't like the results, no-one has ever suggested that the actual conduct of the election—the counting of the votes and the returning of the results—was anything but to the highest standards. That reflects very well on the AEC, and I know that they're regarded very highly internationally as well. So, as we always seek to reform our electoral laws, we're very lucky to know that, whatever changes we make, they're going to be implemented effectively, efficiently and with exceptional impartiality by our Electoral Commission. We're very lucky to not have any concerns about that.

There are three bills that we're debating together, and they're all examples of why it's important to continuously update our electoral laws and always look for opportunities to ensure that, as technology changes and moves forward, as different tactics may or may not be used in election campaigns, we're always learning about ways to keep robust defences and protections in place for our democracy so that the Australian people decide who their government is and no-one other than the Australian people can influence that. When we are out there on the battlefield that democracy is, it's important that we argue forcefully and have these debates about where we want to take the future of our country, and it's healthy that we scrutinise each other, but it's also important that there are some fundamental rules in place so that we're always having fair fights. Even though sometimes we might not like what the other side has to say about a policy that we've got, it's fair enough and it's part of free speech that they can make criticisms based on their judgement of what we're doing, and we get to do the same in return. That's fair, but we don't want anything unfair and we don't want any unfair influence.

There are three elements that all speakers have mentioned, so I'll just again do the same and perhaps deal with them in three contributions. The first is spectacularly obvious and sensible, and I note that everyone has spoken in favour of it: simplifying the authorisation requirements that we have for political materials and political advertisements. My whole life—and, I'm sure, for most of the time since Federation—we've had these requirements that, when you've got something to say in an election campaign, you've got to take responsibility for it.

Where there is a billboard, a slogan, an advertisement or a pamphlet that's being handed out—or, in more recent times, television and radio commercials and now, of course, social media, the digital world et cetera, as well as phone calls and text messages—there's a requirement that, if someone's saying something in our democracy and seeking to influence the outcome of an election, they have to identify that they have authored the message and they have to take responsibility for it. That's so that, if, for example, there were something that breached the electoral act, was defamatory or breached other laws in any way, shape or form, there would be a person held responsible for that. With political parties, that tends to be our campaign directors. The Independents are a bit more opaque, and we've had to look more closely at them in recent times to make sure they comply with the same rules that we do, as political parties. Nonetheless, if something is put out to influence an election—to spruik for a candidate, attack another candidate et cetera—that needs to be authorised. You have to know that, if someone has said the wrong thing in an advertisement, they can be found and held to account for that, most often by the Electoral Commission but sometimes, potentially, through the courts.

What we're doing here is making that much more straightforward in a modern world where it's very easy to use the internet to find out information about an authorised piece of material. Clearly, as other speakers have said, we're just simplifying what the written and spoken words need to be. At the moment, I'm a member of 'the Liberal Party of Australia (SA Division)'. If I put something out and authorise it as 'the Liberal Party', I think it's completely reasonable that people know where to find me, even though I didn't put the full name of the legal entity in place. So, if I authorise something as 'James Stevens for the Liberal Party, Adelaide', I don't think in the modern world people would struggle to find and track down who James Stevens was and hold me to account for something that I'd put out, seeking to influence an election. In some ways, it might even make it easier because, of course, legal names can often be confusing and can potentially misdirect people from the true source of the messaging. When our names are on the ballot paper, you already have the short and simple descriptor. When I'm on the ballot, there's my name and then it just says 'Liberal Party'. It doesn't have the full legal name of the party. You can have that shortened version. We're simply allowing that to be the case for authorisations as well. I think it's common sense, and I think everyone has spoken in support of it, so I commend that initiative to the House.

The second measure, of course, is something that's temporary and will sunset in December this year. I'm referring to the measures to expand the access to telephone voting to address the risk of people not being able to cast their ballot at the upcoming federal election because they may find themselves in a situation we couldn't have envisaged the last time we went to the polls. With the challenges related to coronavirus, someone might be in a position where they were intent on voting on election day and, adjacent to election day, either they test positive to COVID or they meet the definition of a close contact of a COVID case. That puts them in a conflicted position. As much as we require them to attend and vote on polling day, if they haven't already prepolled or lodged a postal ballot, equally, the state or territory health advice may be such that, were they to proceed to carry out their requirement and right to vote, they would be in breach of a health directive. Without getting into constitutional questions about which of the two would prevail, I think this provides a very straightforward solution for people's confusion if they find themselves in that circumstance. We know that postal votes are delayed: if you happen to be within a couple of days of an election, it would be impossible to apply for and receive it in time to adequately fill it out and return it under all of the various time lines that are required for a postal vote to be valid. So, for a variety of reasons, it makes sense to give people access to telephone voting. It's a system that's already used for the vision impaired and for people in some other categories— I know if you're in Antarctica, it's a way that you can vote—and now this will be expanded to a larger cohort of people. And, as I say, the suggestion is very clearly that this will have a sunset provision. It's not something we want to have permanently in our system, but it's something that we need to have, to manage the risk of people being disenfranchised on election day because they have either tested positive or met the definition of a close contact of someone with COVID and have a restricted ability to attend a polling booth to vote, as they otherwise would have. I think that's very straightforward, too.

The third element, of course, is a loophole that I'm sure we all would have happily addressed at the first opportunity. It's now been identified and we're, sensibly, dealing with it now—that is, the ability for foreign entities and foreign natural people to have any form of ability to engage in and influence our elections. We've already made some changes over the years and, in fact, late last year, to ensure that all categories—not just political parties but people who are running as Independents et cetera; the definition has expanded to confirm that it covered them—are prohibited from receiving political donations from a foreign entity or a foreign citizen in our elections. That's forbidden, quite rightly, too. We always want to make sure that our elections are only influenced by Australians.

I'm a staunch supporter and defender of the right of people to provide financial contributions to the political process. It's an important part of people's right to free speech and their right to support an outcome of ideas and an approach to running this country that they support. You can do that by volunteering and stuffing things in letterboxes, knocking on doors, making phone calls or handing out how-to-vote cards on election day, and you can, equally, do it by providing financial support to do the same sort of electioneering. That can happen through financial investment as much as human resource investment. But it's vitally important that that remains exclusively the domain and purview of Australians. We never want any risk of interference from foreign sources—wherever that might come from—engaging in and seeking to influence the outcome of Australia's democratic processes, because we know that anyone from outside this country who is wanting to influence the government of this country doesn't have Australia's best interests at heart. They have their own best interests at heart.

I'm not interested in interfering in the democratic processes, or non-democratic processes, depending on the nation, or in how they choose their leaders or how they determine their future. And it's equally vitally important that we don't allow that to occur in this country. Already, of course, we have the prohibition on donations to political candidates, political parties et cetera. But there is, evidently, a loophole that would allow some direct influence from foreign sources, particularly through issues-based campaigns where, at the moment, it is not technically illegal or a breach of the Commonwealth Electoral Act for someone to, potentially, engage with their own money directly in advertising or in distributing messaging or other forms of communications material to seek to influence—particularly through some of the sort of grey areas of our democratic processes—the outcomes of elections. And we could speculate about all the different forms that could potentially take. I won't digress into that now, because I think the simple point is that, no matter what the example is, we don't want it in this country.

We weren't aware that the capacity for that to occur existed within our electoral laws, necessarily, in the past, but, now that we are, we're taking the opportunity to rectify that, or provide an enhanced set of protections, so that any avenue whatsoever for foreign interference in elections, in perpetuity into the future, will be very clearly a breach of the electoral act—a crime in this nation—and that serves to protect our democracy from that influence. Just in finishing, it's a reminder of how vital it is that, in every term of parliament, we look to opportunities to keep improving the robustness of our democracy.

I may or may not have the honour to serve in this chamber in the next term of parliament. In the last few sitting weeks of this parliament, this may be the last suite of electoral amendments that pass through this parliament. But, whomever is serving in the next parliament, it is vital that they're always reviewing and looking at the most recent election, as the electoral matters committee does after every election, and looking at new technologies and new avenues to influence and seek to communicate political messaging and persuasive political material. We know that technology and other things are always going to continue to provide new risk points for that, and we've got to make sure we're always just as robust in responding. I think we've done that this term with a whole range of measures that have been legislated through this parliament. I know we're doing everything we can to ensure that the coming election will be just as robust, if not the most robust we've ever had. It's this sort of reform that makes sure that everyone in this chamber is here legitimately and is legitimately representing the people of Australia and making decisions in our best interests. I commend the bill to the House.

11:46 am

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to enter the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 and related bills and also to strongly support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Isaacs, which I will come to a little later in my remarks. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters coming up to six years, I believe the work of that committee is critical to ensuring that we see free and fair elections in this country. As a staunch supporter of democracy and someone who has always argued for the right of every person to have their vote counted, no matter what their background, where they're from or what their belief is, I think the reforms that we are dealing with today have been developed in a constructive and bipartisan manner.

I thank the committee for its work but also the minister and shadow minister. From our side of the chamber, that's Senator Don Farrell. I thank his office and his team for ensuring that, at all times, the federal opposition has been working in a bipartisan and constructive way, which is critical to ensuring the integrity of the work of the Australian Electoral Commission. I thank the commissioner and his leadership team but also the frontline workers of the Australian Electoral Commission, who have diligently been going about their work to ensure that the next general election in Australia is held with the fairest and clearest intentions. The work that they do to ensure that our elections in this country are free and fair cannot be underestimated. I thank them for their impartiality and their independence but also for their hard work. I thank all the AEC staff, particularly those who have been doing the work in preparation for an election which will be different, like no other, perhaps a once-in-a-generation election under the spectre of COVID and dealing with the fallout of COVID, for their hard work and, in anticipation, for the work that I know they will do in a matter of months.

These measures make a number of changes to our electoral laws to ensure the effective functioning of our democracy. In summary, we are introducing an electoral expenditure ban for foreign campaigners, increasing penalties for publishing material that is misleading, simplifying authorisations for electoral material and ensuring COVID-19 affected communities are given the opportunity to vote. We have had some dry runs in my home state of Queensland with two elections being conducted—the state election of 2020 and the council elections in 2020. We've also had a number of by-elections. Most recently were the elections on the weekend in the state of New South Wales.

The first of these measures serves to close a loophole, ensuring that foreign entities cannot incur electoral expenditure for the purposes of federal elections and referenda. This follows the 2018 reform, which I was proud to see spearheaded by the opposition, that banned foreign governments, citizens and entities from making donations to candidates in federal elections. This is an important shield to ensure that our democratic system is not interfered with by foreign actors. However, those amendments did not account for circumstances where a foreign entity could incur electoral expenses and make political communications. In effect, in the short term, this left our democracy open to foreign actors campaigning on behalf of a candidate or an issue during an election period. This is an election loophole that clearly needs to be closed. That is exactly what this bill will do. Foreign entities will be prevented from incurring electoral expenditure of $1,000 or engaging in fundraising for this purpose. There will be penalties for noncompliance and avoidance, similar to those that apply to a ban on foreign donations.

Additionally, this bill bans foreign actors from authorising electoral material. What does this mean? This means that the Australian elections can only be influenced by communications from people or entities associated with our nation. We know that Australia has been subject to international attempts to undermine democracy—I think that's a fairly open statement—with foreign actors targeting all sides of politics to advance their personal agenda. I want to make it clear: everyone in this chamber and myself are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Australian democratic system is shielded from foreign interference. This is a commitment that transcends personal political motivations and highlights how seriously we all must take Australia's national interest and security.

There has obviously been some debate that this is the dying days of this term and that we're seeing a government using a whole range of, I guess, dry-run messaging. We saw it last week, and we've seen it this week in question time. I want to be very clear: not only does politicising Australia's national security pose very real risk, in my opinion, it just wreaks of desperation. While we're seeing the term 'national security' bandied around by a government pretty much accepted to be running out of steam, trying to convince the Australian public to enter in its second decade of office, I don't think the Australian people need that sort of debate, and I don't think it is warranted in any way, shape or form. The Prime Minister seems to be talking about national security and the interference of foreign actors, which seems to be about the Prime Minister's political interest. I want to be clear: my colleagues and I, led by the Leader of the Opposition, are committed to making sure that we see legislation in the national interest. That is why we're supporting this bill—to ensure the continued integrity of our democratic institution.

In addition to the foreign influences provision, the bill also increases the penalty for publishing material that is misleading and relating to the casting of a vote, taking from six months to three years. This will give the AFP increased power to investigate these offences as account takeover warrants and data disruption warrants can only be sought by the AFP for crimes with a penalty for at least three years. An increased penalty for this electoral offence will prevent this sort of undermining of the electoral system that we've seen perhaps most recently in the United States. Increasing the penalty for the existing offence of publishing misleading material in relation to the casting of votes will greatly assist the AFP in investigating any breaches of this provision, particularly in the upcoming election.

As I outlined, the bill amends the law relating to the authorisation of electoral matter. Electoral matter or materials intended to influence how someone votes in the election must be properly authorised. This bill introduces measures that will allow a party to use a shortened version of their registered name. This means that names of state branches will not need to be included, and extraneous words may be omitted. Additionally, if the name includes the words 'Australia' or 'of Australia' at the end of the name, those words will be able to be omitted from the authorisation line.

I'm happy to see Labor successfully moved an amendment in the Senate to allow a party to use their registered abbreviation. In our case, on this side of the chamber, ALP. The changes in the bill will simplify and shorten the authorisation line to assist where the authorisation line is spoken in video messages and electronic or television commercials. This will allow more broadcast time to be taken up with the message rather than the authorisation line. As someone who, over the years, regularly authorised television ads, I can attest that you need more time to get your message across when it comes to political advertising. Voters will easily be able to identify the authorising identity of the electoral matter, and that's the critical key here.

The bill extends existing provisions for secure telephone voting to allow those who have been impacted by COVID-19 to cast their vote over the phone. This is critical, as I said, in dealing with the COVID pandemic and ensuring that all Australians have their say. This measure will be strictly limited to those who are COVID-positive or who are identified as close contacts and forced to quarantine. I think the member for Barker illustrated the point of someone receiving a positive test who has missed the deadline for postal voting but is unable to get to a prepoll location or to get there on election day. Telephone votes will be available to voters only if the Electoral Commissioner reasonably determines that such a measure is necessary or conducive for the conduct of the election. This determination will be made by the commissioner via a legislative instrument, and, before making the determination, the commissioner will need to notify both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Voting via telephone will only be available after 6 pm on the Wednesday before the election. So that window, where Australians may be showing symptoms and are unable to get to a polling booth, will still, in my opinion, enable them to have every opportunity at their fingertips to have their say.

I want to spend my remaining remarks on the second reading amendment. Whilst we aren't declining to give the bill a second reading, we want to make a number of points about how our electoral system can be further strengthened. The government and members of the Liberal and National parties, particularly in Queensland, have some aversion to ever wanting to lower the current threshold of $14,500 to a fixed $1,000. I'm really pleased that the Queensland government, the Palaszczuk Labor government, in my home state, has led reforms to ensure that we have some of the most transparent donation laws in the nation. I don't know why any person in this chamber would argue that $14,500 is a low enough threshold. It is nonsense to say that we shouldn't lower the threshold to $1,000 so that political donations are simply transparent for all to see.

It's the same with requiring real-time disclosure of political donations. I'm sure the member for Mackellar, in his speech, will talk about the recent coverage of large donations being cut up into different avenues. Having real-time disclosure of donations will ensure that that doesn't happen again. I'm looking forward to members of the government finally joining the broader community, who support democratic and free and fair elections and open and transparent donation laws, to make sure we lower that threshold to $1,000 and have real-time donations.

I also think having more resources allocated to the Australian Electoral Commission will not only ensure greater transparency but also help more Australians to have their say. We've seen the shocking set of circumstances in the Northern Territory, where staffing numbers have been reduced. Obviously that has an impact on remote polling booths around the Northern Territory, ensuring that fewer Australians are having their say. You have to look at the pattern here. It was only last year that we saw the outrageous proposal put forward by the government that we have voter ID laws put in. No evidence on this was ever given to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. If there was evidence provided, if there were detailed examples of multiple voting, if there were clear-cut cases of this—but there has never been any evidence of this in the reviews of the 2016 and 2019 elections, the two elections through which I've served on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In my opinion, that was just the government—the Liberal and National parties—changing the rules, or trying to change the rules, to help themselves. When you're in desperate circumstances, with the polls and community sentiment against you, the old trick is, Trump-like, to change the rules and make it harder for people to vote. I've said this in the chamber before. That tactic, or that trick, by the government was nothing more and nothing less than voter suppression, making it as hard as possible to get people to vote.

Voting isn't an obligation; it's a privilege. There are members of the Australian community who treasure and cherish the opportunity to vote. Obviously, ensuring that every Australian has their say in a fair, transparent and open way is what I'm committed to as a federal member of parliament and what I know every member of the opposition is committed to. So, when those proposals are put forward by the government, we will fight for democracy. We will fight tooth and nail to ensure that we have free and fair elections where every vote is counted. That's what today's suite of bills will also ensure, and that's why I'm pleased to be supporting the package put before us, but I yet again call on the government to make sure that they do more to improve our democracy in this country.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment be disagreed to, and I call the member for Mackellar.

12:01 pm

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Deputy Speaker Freelander, and can I inform you that it is always one of my favourite times in a parliamentary sitting week when I get to give a speech while you are in the chair. It is something that I truly look forward to. I am going to relish every single moment of this speech. I was going to give a five-minute speech but, now I've realised that you're in the chair, I think I may give a much, much longer speech. And I see the member for Cooper. This is a double joy for me today. It's like when you put your hand in a box of chocolates and you pull out one of those cherries covered in chocolate and it's got a bit of liqueur in there. They were always my favourite as a child. So, Deputy Speaker, the combination of you and the member for Cooper is like a cherry coated in chocolate with liqueur.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Mackellar. That is terrific to know. Our great pleasure would to be to see you in the next parliament on the other side.

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Now, Deputy Speaker, that doesn't sound very impartial from the chair. In any case I refuse to have you goad me into lowering you down in my rankings of deputy speakers.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Discretion does not allow me to actually name the ranking, but I assure you, Deputy Speaker, you are very, very high on that ranking.

It is my great pleasure to speak about the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022. The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 makes minor and, may I say, technical amendments to the notifying requirements for the authorisation of electoral communications. These amendments to the electoral act will ensure voters are presented with the current name of registered political parties and disclosure entities in authorisations for electoral communications. Currently, political parties and other disclosure entities are required to use their name as included on their most recent AEC financial return, which has the potential to mismatch the entity's actual name where it has recently changed. The reforms ensure registered that political parties authorise their communications in line with how their name appears on the ballot paper and that other disclosure entities appear as they are referred to on the AEC'S Transparency Register. 'Transparency' is a very important word, and we're going to talk a lot about transparency today.

The bill also provides some limited flexibility for registered political parties in how they present their current names in authorisation. This streamlines these requirements and avoids unnecessary duplication without distracting from clear communication with voters. For example, political parties who have the word 'Incorporated' in their registered name would be able to omit this word. Similarly, the bill enables registered political parties which are a branch or division of a federal party to omit the words specifically referring to the branch or division. This avoids unnecessary duplication, noting that authorisations specify an entity's location as part of their notifying particulars. The reforms also allow the flexibility for these parties to use their registered abbreviations for authorisations to provide consistent alignment with the electoral act. These reforms also apply to the Broadcasting Services Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act.

I have to digress slightly here to mention one of my favourite authorisations of all times. When I first joined the Liberal Party, John Howard was running for re-election in 1998. Tony Nutt, a great servant of the Liberal Party, had become the state director in New South Wales, so all electoral advertising had to be authorised by 'Tony Nutt of the Liberal Party, New South Wales'. Of course, Tony's name is actually Anthony Nutt, so, instead of materials being authorised by 'T Nutt, Liberal Party, New South Wales', it became: 'Vote for John Howard, authorised by A Nutt, Liberal Party, New South Wales'. Maybe we should make provisions in this law to prevent circumstances like that embarrassing prime ministers or opposition leaders who are seeking election to the highest office in the land.

The second piece of legislation I'd like to speak to is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022. This bill builds upon the government's reforms last year to provide the Australian Electoral Commission with the necessary legislative tools to deliver a COVID-safe election. The bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to allow the option, where necessary, to provide a contingency arrangement for electors in mandatory isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 during the final 72 hours before polling to participate in the upcoming federal election. It can allow regulations to be made to expand the Australian Electoral Commission's secure telephone voting service to persons in mandatory isolation due to COVID-19. Access to this service would be limited to persons in Australia subject to a public health order that prevents their attendance at a polling place for one of the following reasons: they have tested positive for COVID-19 using a test approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration; they are a close household contact of such an individual; or they have been otherwise directed to self-isolate or quarantine under a public health order, due to the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

Telephone voting is currently used for voters who are blind or have low vision and for voters in Antarctica. Current regulations implement this through a secure two-stage telephone system to preserve the secrecy of the ballot. Secure telephone voting for coronavirus affected individuals can only be offered after a person is no longer eligible to apply for a postal vote—that is, from 6.01 pm on Wednesday three days before the polling day until the close of polls. The Electoral Commissioner would be required to issue an instrument advising that he is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the extension of this service is necessary for the due conduct of the election. He would be required to notify the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition before doing so and to publicly inform of integrity measures that will apply to safeguard the conduct of the poll using the telephone method of participation. The regulations will have the option to specify the circumstances and the order of admission for votes cast using this method. These provisions will automatically be repealed on 31 December 2022.

The third piece of legislation that we are dealing with here is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022. The bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the referendum act to combat foreign influence in Australian elections and strengthen the integrity of Australia's electoral communication framework. In relation to foreign electoral communication expenditure, now more than ever, it is critical that we have the appropriate laws in place to stop foreign actors from being able to infiltrate our electoral system. Our national security agencies are warning us of threats to our democracy by malicious foreign actors. Yesterday, the ASIO director-general revealed that they had disrupted a foreign interference plot in the lead-up to an election in Australia, adding: 'We are seeing attempts at foreign interference at all levels of government in all states and territories.'

This bill will prohibit foreign individuals and entities from authorising or directly funding election campaigns. This is implemented by introducing a ban on foreign campaigners from authorising election advertisements. This amendment will support the integrity of Australian electoral processes by ensuring that only those with a legitimate connection to Australia are able to authorise electoral communications. The amendments prohibiting foreign campaigners use the existing definition of 'foreign donor', making these amendments simple to apply. Further, the bill will prohibit foreign campaigners from incurring electoral expenditure of a thousand dollars or more in a financial year or fundraising for that purpose. Together, the amendments ban foreign donors from circumventing existing restrictions within the electoral act by seeking to influence and conduct electoral campaigns.

This builds on past reforms that established prohibitions on the receipt of foreign donations. In 2018, the Morrison government introduced a ban on foreign donations to political parties in passing Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill. Last year, the government tightened these laws to further extend the ban on candidates, MP, senators and associated entities through the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Annual Disclosure Equality) Bill 2021, which is already having an impact, as we've seen this week. Due to these reforms, the Australian Electoral Commission was able to undertake an audit of certain electoral funding by certain candidates at the previous election. The intrepid Rob Harris of the The Sydney Morning Herald and The Agediscovered that some of these candidates, notwithstanding the fact that they said that they were in favour of reducing carbon emissions, were taking donations from coalminers or coal investors.

And, indeed, they were, Member for Bradfield. I was surprised. I would go further: I would say that I was shocked and horrified at this revelation. But it gets even worse, member for Bradfield.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind the member for Mackellar to be relevant.

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm being incredibly relevant to disclosure, honesty and transparency in the electoral system. I know that you, Deputy Speaker, are equally concerned about these things. I know that you—you of all people, Deputy Speaker, and the member of Cooper, too—would not stand for anyone in your party taking a donation from Eddie Obeid.

I know that neither of those members of the opposition would ever imagine that they would say one thing and then do another. It would never occur to a member of the Labor Party to do that. And I know, for sure, that if the tobacco lobby came knocking on your door, Deputy Speaker, and offering you a $100,000 cheque, you would turn them away—politely I have no doubt.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wouldn't be polite about it!

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Not only would you not accept the $100,000 cheque; but, if you were to accept the $100,000 cheque—and I cannot imagine a scenario under the sun where that would be the case, Mr Deputy Speaker—

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's good; I'm glad.

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I could then not imagine a scenario where you would say to your electoral returning officer: 'It would be embarrassing, given my previous comments and my policy stance and the things that I believe in, that my largest donor is someone from the tobacco industry lobby. Could you please hide this by spreading it out over eight people, so that I don't have to disclose it.' I know that very few people in this House would ever dream of seeking—

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Member for Mackellar, could you please get back to the legislation before us. We're not asking for a running commentary on electoral donations.

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Deputy Speaker, I am speaking directly to foreign donations and donations generally made in the electoral act. Deputy Speaker, I know why you are trying to get me to limit my comments. I know that you know how embarrassing this is for a member of this parliament. I notice that that particular member of parliament was down to speak on this bill. I assumed that was either sarcasm or irony. But they've exercised judgement—which they haven't exercised to this point in accepting a $100,000 donation and then seeking to hide it—by deciding not to speak on this bill.

I say to you, Deputy Speaker, that you would not accept a $100,000 cheque from the tobacco industry, and you would not then try to hide that by spreading it over eight separate people, so that it was under the disclosure limit. I can't understand why anyone thinks this is okay. Of course, this went unreported by the ABC. It went unreported by The Guardian. It took a crack team of investigative journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald, which—and I say this in dark humour—has now been described as a pro-government paper. How a paper that publishes very prominent and good journalists like Jackie Maley and, until recently, Elizabeth Farrelly, who joined the Labor Party, could be described as pro Liberal strikes me as curious. But apparently the problem we have here is not actually a problem; we just have a PR problem.

Now, I note that Simon Holmes a Court is speaking at the National Press Club in five minutes. I wonder if those intrepid journalists, who I know get frightened by people who've inherited a lot of money, will stand up at the microphone and ask the tough questions, like: if you tried to hide a $100,000 donation from a director of a coal company, how can we trust that you haven't tried to hide other donations? When it comes to it, we realise, of course, that the member responsible for this, the Climate 200 candidate, is using exactly the same person who is being used by Simon Holmes a Court to run his fundraising entity. Oh dear. Oh dear, indeed.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member's time has expired.

I've seldom heard a more irrelevant speech.

12:16 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

LIL () (): These are important amendments to several bills—the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 and Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022—and I support them. I've dedicated most of my career to the foreign policy and national security of Australia to keep Australians safe and secure, to ensure stability and security in our region. That should be the job of our government, because beyond partisanship is a collective commitment to Australia's national interest, and this must include protecting our democracy from negative and harmful foreign influencers.

We all know how important our democracy is. Australians know and deeply feel the importance of our democracy and the history of our democracy. We're proud of it. We're proud that this country is a place where we really had one of the first genuinely liberal democracies in the modern world—and it's a longstanding democracy. Our democratic institutions and practices are known and hailed for robustness, for adaptability, for functionality and for resilience.

Many of the amendments in these bills, such as the access for COVID affected voters or the amendments around electoral matters and materials, might seem minor in the grander scheme of things, but they all add up and they ensure that Australia, which has led the world in many respects when it comes to a public conversation about protecting our democratic institutions from subversion and interference, is also doing the work that this parliament needs to do, the bits and pieces, to keep building and ensuring the robustness of our democracy. It's these little matters, these little one percenters if you like, which add up to give us that total picture. They allow us not only to strengthen our institution but also to protect them, to make them more resilient from those outside negative influences when they seek to harm our democracy, our principles, our institutions and when they attack our values at their core. So I support the amendments for these bills for that reason.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 closes a loophole to ensure that foreign entities cannot incur electoral expenditure for the purposes of federal elections and referenda. In 2018, this parliament banned foreign governments, citizens and entities from making donations to candidates in federal elections. This was an important measure to protect our democracy from foreign interference. I remind the House that it was actually the Labor Party who led this reform. I remind the House, particularly those on the other side who love to hear the sound of their own voices as the great protectors of democracy, it was those on the other side—the Liberal and National parties—who wanted to keep taking foreign donations for as long as possible. That's a fact, and, no matter how much blustering and huffing and puffing they do, they can never change that fact.

The amendments, however, did not take into account the circumstance where a foreign entity could incur electoral expenditure and communicate electoral matter. This meant that a foreign government or corporation could campaign for a candidate or on an issue in a federal election. So I'm pleased that this bill, these amendments, will finally close that loophole, and it will prevent a foreign entity from incurring electoral expenditure greater than $1,000 or for fundraising for that purpose. There'll be penalties and anti-avoidance provisions which will apply, similar to the existing provisions in relation to the ban on foreign donations.

In addition to banning foreign entities from incurring electoral expenditure, these amendments in this particular bill also ban them from authorising electoral material. These provisions ensure that only people or entities with a link to Australia can participate in our elections, even if their name is 'A. Nutt'.

Over the years there have been many attempts by foreign actors to undermine our democracy, and all sides of parliament, all political parties, have been targeted. On this side we are committed to ensuring that the parliament and our democracy is protected from foreign interference. That has shone through in our track record in this place, as I mentioned earlier, with the lead that we took on the reform that was necessary and we're now finally seeing.

We've got a prime minister who only ever acts if it is in his electoral interests—everything is seen through the prism of political survival. But I can say this categorically: Labor is committed to legislating in this place in the national interest. We demonstrated that back a couple of years ago. We're demonstrating it again today. That's why we support these bills, to ensure the continued integrity of our democratic institutions.

In addition to the foreign influences provisions, there are obviously other amendments that increase the penalty for publishing material that is misleading in relation to the casting of a vote. By increasing the penalty for the existing offence of misleading or deceiving someone in relation to the casting of a vote from six months to three years, it will give the AFP increased power to investigate these offences as well. That is because account takeover warrants and data disruption warrants can only be sought by the AFP for crimes with a penalty of at least three years imprisonment, so strengthening the penalty for this electoral offence will help prevent the sort of undermining of the electoral system that we've seen all too often across other Liberal democracies and we've seen in the United States and some parts of Europe. Increasing the penalty for the existing offence of publishing misleading material in relation to the casting of a vote will greatly assist the AFP in investigating any breaches of this provision in the upcoming election.

All of us in this place are cognisant of our responsibility to stand up for our democracy, for the democratic institutions and the democratic values and the principles that make us who we really are. I understand, and I've noted the importance of these amendments in these bills even though they might seem functional or minor in some respects. They are not. I think everyone in this place should agree that these little building blocks are the things that give resilience to our democratic institutions and protect them from interference.

There are some failings in our democracies. We know the famous quote I think Winston Churchill once said, 'Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.' We know it's not perfect. But, when we see the failings, we should not be sweeping them under the carpet. We should not be hiding from them. We should immediately seek to make reforms that will strengthen our democracy. They've got to be stamped out. And now, more so than ever, in the period that we live in with such geostrategic uncertainty, with such volatility globally, so many authoritarian state based actors are seeking to disrupt and influence negatively many democracies around the world, including nascent or new democracies. We've seen this happen at its worst where the military dictatorships take over that democracy. A nascent democracy like Myanmar is a perfect example.

What we are seeing with respect to Ukraine and the pressure being placed on it by the authoritarian regime in Russia has us at a moment in history where there is a contest between democracies, liberal democracies—we sometimes take for granted those things that we value. We value the rule of law. We value freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience. We value equality before the law. We value independence of the judiciary and the parliament and the executive. We value all of those fundamental principles of democracy. We are now in a global contest against state actors—particularly state actors, but some non-state actors—who would seek to disrupt, to deny, to diminish us and to diminish those values, and to destroy what we have built up over many, many centuries.

It is a real battle; it is a real war. It's not just fought on battle grounds with weapons or hardware or military weapons; it's fought on the internet, it's fought in cyberspace—in the cyber world, in space—and it's fought in the hearts and minds of billions of people. I know that sounds a bit grandiose, given we're talking about some rather minor amendments, but these are important because this is where it starts—plugging some of the failings in our own institutions, in our own systems. This is what we do, and what we should do. We must be cognisant of how important it is because all of it is interconnected and all of it will have consequences for the future of our democracy and other democracies around the world. If we can't get our own house in order, then it becomes so much more difficult to be able to fight to stand up for other fledgling democracies around the world who are struggling as we speak.

On that basis, obviously, and the fact that these amendments are very important, I support the amendments in these bills. Thank you.

12:27 pm

Photo of Melissa McIntoshMelissa McIntosh (Lindsay, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I might not be as entertaining as my colleague the member for Mackellar, but I do promise to be shorter in my speech!

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sure you'll be more entertaining!

Photo of Melissa McIntoshMelissa McIntosh (Lindsay, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is our job here, as parliamentarians, to stand up for and work hard for the democracy that many Australians in some ways take for granted as they go about their daily lives. This is so that they can vote in elections and be confident that there is no interference, particularly from foreign actors. That's why I'm rising to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 and the cognate bills being discussed in the House today—bills that strengthen the integrity of our electoral process to prevent these foreign actors, to prevent deceptive conduct and to provide clear authorisations.

The foreign influences and offences bill is an important bill. It ensures that Australia's electoral communication framework is not only protected, but strengthened to combat foreign actors from being able to infiltrate our electoral system and to ensure that those who attempt to mislead voters are held to account. The Morrison government is committed to ensuring that foreign donations are prevented, particularly in a time where we've seen heightened activity of foreign interference. Just this week, the ASIO Director-General unveiled a plot to disrupt an election in Australia, so now, more than ever, we need to make sure that our electoral systems are safeguarded from any threats.

The foreign influences and offences bill builds on the government's commitment to prohibiting foreign donations through a foreign donations prohibition framework. The government has already introduced legislation, and the more recent electoral legislation amendment introduced a number of restrictions on foreign donations.

Schedule 1 of the bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act to prohibit foreign campaigners from authorising electoral communications. It also prohibits foreign campaigners from fundraising. These measures not only ensure that only those with a legitimate connection to Australia can authorise communications but also close existing loopholes in our electoral system. By restraining foreign campaigners from fundraising, it ensures that foreign donors are not circumventing the current restrictions by conducting and funding electoral campaigning directly.

In addition to ensuring that our electoral system is clear and transparent, the bill is also aimed at strengthening the offences of misleading or deceiving electors in relation to the casting of a vote. Electoral misleading and deceptive conduct is a serious offence, and currently our laws do not reflect the scale and severity of this offence. In a 21st-century digital and telecommunication environment, where voter disinformation is a serious and real issue, providing a means to ensure that misleading and deceptive information is prevented from being circulated is of the utmost importance. By introducing this bill, the Morrison government is accordingly holding to account for the significance of their actions those who wish to disrupt elections through misleading communications. The bill displays our government's continued commitment to preserving electoral integrity in Australia by combating the rise of foreign interference and ensuring that those who try to mislead or deceive voters are in fact held to account.

I turn to the second bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022. This ensures appropriate disclosure of authorisations to make sure registered political parties authorise their communications in accordance with how their names appear on the ballot paper and that other disclosure entities appear as they are referred to on the AEC's Transparency Register. Under the current electoral act, political parties and other entities use their name based on their most recent AEC financial returns, and this has the potential to mismatch the entity's actual name and recent changes to the location of the entity. These changes minimise any potential voter confusion as to who is authorising electoral communications. This is important so voters are clearly aware of who is providing electoral information, further supporting our strong stance on electoral integrity and clarity.

In addition, the bill removes unnecessary duplication by allowing political parties to omit specific branches or divisions of their party, as authorisations already specify an entity's location as part of the authorisation itself. For example, state divisions of the Liberal Party might include in brackets 'New South Wales Division'. However, I know that, when I authorise my content, I still put my address for my materials as High Street, Penrith, signing off with 'New South Wales'. This legislation will also provide alignment with other acts of parliament, including the Broadcasting Services Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. Overall, this bill ensures greater accuracy in the disclosure of electoral communications by putting them in line with how they will appear on the ballot paper and other disclosure entities.

In summary, these two bills that I've spoken about specifically today ensure that our elections are protected and safeguarded. Elections, as we know, are the hallmark of a democracy. The quality of our system is defined by how we ensure that voters are allowed to make an informed choice free of interference, particularly foreign interference, and misleading or deceptive consent, and that any material received is transparent so that, when voters go to the ballot box, they can make an objective decision as to who they want to sit in this House and the other place.

12:33 pm

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise this afternoon to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022. Before I do, I note that during this debate the member for Perth, specifically when talking about the importance of fair and free elections, made a gratuitous attack on the United Australia Party, which I would like, of course, to respond to. At this next election, it will not just be the two old major parties contesting it. This will be one of the first elections in Australia's history where there will be a real third choice. Australians at this next election will have a real third choice, not just the two major parties, and this is even despite how the system is rigged against the smaller and minor parties. In our entire electoral system, which we've been talking about and debating this morning, the cards are stacked against new and minor parties.

Let's just take a couple of examples. The incumbent members of a major party, the Labor or Liberal party, when they go out to campaign at this next election campaign, of course, are on full freight—they are being paid a wage by the taxpayer and will have their staff paid for by the taxpayer. If they go to a railway station in the morning, the transport—the car that they have—will be paid for by the taxpayer. But the new party, someone that's trying to break into politics, doesn't have any of those advantages. They must fund everything out of their pocket. Their volunteers must be genuine volunteers—not the paid volunteers that we as elected members of parliament have. New parties don't have access to these community grants schemes, which are little more—as we all know—than local pork-barrelling before an election. We know the media covers our election campaigns as a presidential race, giving millions of dollars of free advertising to the old parties. And that is how it has been in past election after past election after past election. But at this election there is truly a third choice. These will be fair elections; we know there are no Dominion voting machines in Australia. So I would encourage every Australian to get onto the rolls and make your voice count. Don't listen to the nonsense. Make your voice count at this next election: a big change can be made.

With that, at this coming election, it's very disappointing to hear that the AEC has gone down a road of superstition, ignorance and sheer stupidity by mandating vaccine mandates for those that will work on election day. Let's be very clear: you are free to turn up and vote at this next election whether you've been injected with one, two, three, or now maybe even four shots of the COVID vaccines. But if you want to work as an AEC official in the election booth on election day, you will have had to submit to being so-called fully vaccinated. Now, it is not yet clear whether that that will mean two injections or whether it will mean three injections that you have had to undergo.

Dr Robert Malone has described such mandates as 'pointless and idiotic'. Professor McCullough has called for all these mandates to end. And yet here we have the Australian Electoral Commission going down the track of mandating injections. And there is simply no cause for this. Free and fair elections should allow any Australian to put their name forward to work for the AEC on election day. For the data is clear. In the latest data from the UK, the COVID-19 vaccine surveillance report for week 6, 10 February, we go to table 13 and it clearly shows that those in the 30 to 39 age bracket who have been injected three times have a 140 per cent greater chance of being COVID-positive. The 40- to 49-year-olds have a 172 per cent greater chance of testing positive for COVID if they've been triple vaccinated, and those in the 50 to 59 age group have a 127 per cent greater probability. That is what the data shows. So the AEC is, clearly, missing the boat. The AEC is, clearly, adopting the policies of superstition, ignorance and stupidity, and its vaccine mandates for employees at this next election should be called off and should be suspended.

One of the great concerns that I have about having fair and free elections is not just the voting system but the influence that our large foreign social media tech giants—Facebook, Twitter, Google and TikTok—have on the Australian political landscape. The other day, the member for Dawson moved a very wise private member's bill seeking to stop these foreign tech giants from censoring and removing political posts that are not illegal. It should be the principle in this country that, if you can say something on a soapbox in the town square on a political issue, and that is lawful speech, it should be unlawful for a foreign tech giant to censor and delete that speech. Doing so is foreign interference in the Australian electoral system. Our democracy is being threatened by the censorship policies of these tech giants. I commend the good work of the member for Dawson. That's why I have moved a third reading amendment to this bill, expanding on the good work from the member for Dawson, to ensure that there are greater protections in our democracy from foreign interference from these large tech giants.

We also need to draw a line between what is foreign interference and what is a genuine free debate and criticism from other nations. We should rightly be free to call out human rights abuses in other countries where they occur. Likewise, other countries should be free to call out abuses of human rights that occur in our country. Those of us who witnessed it were able to see through the censored media the scenes of Victorian police officers opening fire with rubber bullets, shooting into the backs of fleeing demonstrators in the shadow at the Shrine of Remembrance. Acts like that deserve to be condemned. That is not foreign interference in Australian election campaigns. Likewise, when we see abuses of human rights in other countries, Australia has the right to call them out.

We have a very special relationship with Canada. Australian and Canadian troops served together in the Boer War, World War I and Korea, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, to fight against tyranny and for freedom. It was Australian troops, working side by side with Canadian troops, that brought about what the Germans called their darkest day during World War I. It was the Australian and Canadian troops that turned the tide on World War I, fighting for freedom. Today, all Australians look at what is happening in Canada and at what Prime Minister Trudeau is doing to the Canadian people and the truckers in Ottawa. We should call that out as an abuse of human rights—loudly and clearly. This is the shame of what is happening to our great Canadian brothers.

An issue that greatly concerns me about the interference of these foreign tech giants is that in this parliament we have parliamentary privilege, and we should be free to stand up here and debate whatever issue comes to us without fear of censorship, without fear of impeachment, and without fear of being de-platformed or struck off by these large foreign tech giants. But that is not happening. I declare a vested interest in this because it has happened to me. But this is not about me. This is about this parliament going forward to enable whoever comes into this parliament in the years and decades ahead to stand at the dispatch box or rise in their place and speak with their conscience without having to worry that their speech will be questioned, impeached or de-platformed by someone from a foreign country, a large tech giant. But that is exactly what is happening today. Speeches that I have made in this parliament, the proceedings of the Australian parliament, are being censored and removed from YouTube’s platform. That should shock every single Australian.

Freedom of speech in this place goes back to the Bill of Rights in 1688. Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 provides:

That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.

For centuries, that has been the principle. And the way that came about, the historical reason for that act in 1688, goes back to the reign of King Charles I. In 1629, three members of the UK parliament—Eliot, Holles and Valentine—were thrown into the Tower of London for making speeches concerning complaints about allegedly illegal taxation. The monarch of the day imprisoned them in the Tower of London. Sir John Eliot died there in 1632 and the two other members of parliament were detained in the Tower of London for 11 years. In 1668, Eliot's conviction was reversed by the House of Lords. It was regarded as illegal and against the freedom and privilege of parliament. This was followed by the Bill of Rights of 1688, which simply says that the proceedings of parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament.

Yet today we have large foreign tech giants questioning the proceedings of this parliament and if it doesn't comply with their so-called community standards—not the community standards of the community but the community standards and interests of these large tech giants—they will impeach that speech, they will take it off their platform, they will threaten the member of parliament that if he makes another speech such as that he'll be struck off their platform altogether. Allowing this to happen gives the tech giants of today—the Facebooks, Googles, YouTubes, and TikToks—greater power to censor parliament than the King of England had in the late 1600s. We need to take action against this, and that is what the amendment that I'll be moving in the third reading will address.

Our elections are important. The integrity of our elections are important. They are continually are under threat. We need to be ever vigilant on foreign actors who are trying to undermine Australia's democracy and Australia's election campaign. I support these bills. They make further enhancements to our democracy. However, I will be moving an amendment in the third reading stage.

12:48 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

The government is committed to improving the robustness and integrity of Australia's electoral processes. Now, more than ever, we must have the appropriate laws in place to stop foreign infiltration into our electoral system, the heart of our Australian democracy. The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 would prohibit foreign campaigners from authorising electoral matter and prohibit foreign persons and entities from either fundraising or directly incurring $1,000 or more of electoral expenditure in a financial year. The bill also increases the maximum penalty for the offence of misleading or deceiving an elector in relation to the casting of their vote, reflecting the seriousness of this offence.

Next, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 demonstrates the government's commitment to reducing voter confusion, unnecessary red tape and regulation across government. These amendments will provide clarity to voters by making the information provided in authorisations more useful and clear. The bill also adds some additional flexibility for registered political parties as to how they present their names in notifying particulars. This streamlines these requirements without detracting from communication with voters and avoids unnecessary duplication.

Finally, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022 provides a contingency arrangement to respond to the potential impact of COVID-19 on the upcoming federal election by allowing the Australian Electoral Commission's existing secure telephone voting service to be extended as necessary to persons required to self-isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19. The COVID enfranchisement bill proactively responds to the COVID-19 risk environment in advance of the 2022 federal election. The government firmly believes Australians should participate in federal elections utilising in-person or postal voting where these services are available, although this bill provides an additional means when those options are not available due to COVID-19 isolation requirements during the final 72 hours before polling day. The COVID enfranchisement bill builds upon the powers granted to the Electoral Commissioner under the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Contingency Measures) Act 2021 and the measures the Australian Electoral Commission is already taking to deliver a COVID-safe election during 2022. I commend these bills to the House.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, 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 Isaacs 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 amendment be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.