Senate debates

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — Superannuation) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008; National Health Amendment (Pharmaceutical and Other Benefits — Cost Recovery) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — General) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Customs) Amendment Bill 2008; a New Tax System (Luxury Car Tax Imposition — Excise) Amendment Bill 2008; Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008; Tax Laws Amendment (2008 Measures No. 3) Bill 2008; Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008

Referral to Committees

9:37 am

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

Today we see the true colours of the coalition. I particularly want to concentrate on the decision of the opposition to block the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008. To delay the bill by more than 12 months reveals, on the one hand, all the opposition’s hypocrisy and willingness to sacrifice the health of our democracy on the alter of partisan politics. On the other hand, the government is committed to a transparent and accountable electoral system. To achieve this, we have introduced the bill that I have mentioned. This bill contains five urgent measures to address critical weaknesses in the act’s current funding and disclosure regime. These new measures include ensuring all donations over $1,000 to political parties and candidates are subject to proper public scrutiny and that donations are reported in a more timely manner.

The bill also bans overseas and anonymous donations and prevents political parties and candidates from making a profit from public funding. These measures are straightforward, they are positive, and they ought to be uncontroversial. But the opposition, under Dr Nelson, want to use their Senate majority to block these necessary and urgent reforms and send them to a committee until, at the earliest, the financial year after next—in other words, to send this bill into legislative limbo. They want one whole year—a minimum 12 months—to pretend to look at this simple bill. This charade clearly shows their contempt for our electoral system and their determination to turn their backs on any effort to clean up the system. It proves that the opposition clearly do not support transparency and accountability of our electoral laws. This proves the opposition do not want the Australian public to know who gives how much money to which party.

The decision to block this bill raises two questions for Dr Nelson. The first is: does Dr Nelson honestly think that less accountability, less transparency, less integrity benefits our democracy? The second is: what do Dr Nelson and the opposition have to hide? Clearly, the answer to the second question is: a lot of money and where it comes from. In marked contrast to Dr Nelson and the coalition, the government believe that reforming our political funding and disclosure regimes to ensure the Australian public knows where political parties and candidates get their money is both critically important and a matter of urgency. We want this bill to commence on 1 July this year. We want to start cleaning up these problems now. We want these measures in place for the 2008-09 financial year. There are strong reasons for acting now. There is no reason for delay on this bill.

The first measure in this bill will reduce the donation disclosure threshold from $10,500 to $1,000. This will mean that every political donation above $1,000 will be exposed to public scrutiny, as should occur in any electoral system with integrity. For 2004-05, when the donation disclosure threshold was $1,500, 1,286 donor returns were lodged with the AEC. For 2005-06, when the previous government raised the disclosure threshold to $10,000, only 317 donor returns were lodged. So just in the space of a year the number of donor returns subjected to public scrutiny dropped by three-quarters. And in 2006-07 the number of donor returns dropped again to 194, less than one-sixth of the number of donations disclosed when the threshold was $1,500 in 2004-05.

With this bill Dr Nelson had a chance to make a clean break with the pathetic record of the Howard government. He had an opportunity on this bill to show some leadership. He had the opportunity to demonstrate that he stood for transparency and accountability rather than obfuscation and secrecy, but Dr Nelson dogged it. By deciding to block this bill, Dr Nelson has shown his true colours. He has revealed that either he is, like Mr Howard before him, a sworn enemy of integrity in our electoral laws or else he is so pathetically weak he is a complete captive of the self-interest of the Liberal Party hacks and operators. One way or another, Dr Nelson and the opposition seem to believe the Australian public has no right to know when someone is attempting to buy political influence. They believe these backroom contributions should remain in the shadows. We in the government could not disagree more strongly. We think these donations should be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. From 1 July this year, all donations of $1,000 or more—an amount most Australians consider substantial—should be made reportable to the Australian Electoral Commission and disclosed publicly, and that would happen if the opposition decided to pass rather than block this bill.

It is worth taking just a moment to look back at the coalition’s record on donation disclosure thresholds. Before the Howard government’s changes to the Electoral Act in 2006, all donations over $1,500 had to be disclosed. As soon as the coalition got the numbers to have control of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, they produced a recommendation supported by those impartial witnesses, Liberal Federal Director Brian Loughnane and Nationals Federal Director Andrew Hall, that the threshold should be raised to $10,000. The ethical gymnastics the coalition majority had to engage in on this were amazing. It was death defying. The JSCEM report states:

... there is a need for transparency to reduce the potential for undue influence and corruption in the political system.

Yes, so far so good. But in the very next sentence they take a sharp right turn and leave the road of logic, saying the committee:

... believes that such transparency would still occur under higher disclosure thresholds.

Yes, that is right. The coalition-controlled JSCEM majority reported that they believed that hiding more donations would have no impact on transparency. They may be kidding themselves but they are not fooling us; they are not fooling the Australian public. It seems that the Liberal and National parties have a different definition of transparency to that of the Australian Labor Party but, more importantly, to that of the Australian public. They think it means hiding more of the cash flowing to political parties. Certainly, as their opposition to this bill shows, they think it is an optional extra for a healthy democracy. Well, the government does not. The government believes that transparency is essential to the health of our democratic system, and we believe also that the Australian public has a right to know who is funding political parties.

The second measure in this bill will remove the loophole whereby people can make donations of just less than the threshold to different branches and divisions of a political party and thereby avoid any disclosure obligations. Clearly, this loophole undermines the purpose of having a donation disclosure threshold in the first place. The government wants to remove this loophole from 1 July this year. The government wants to end this rort. The opposition, in stark contrast, supports these rorts continuing and supports them continuing into the never-never.

The third measure in this critically important bill places new reporting requirements on political parties and others who are involved in the political process. Political parties will be required to report after every six-month period rather than within the current 12-month period. The time frame for submitting these reports will also be reduced from 16 weeks to eight weeks, with the AEC publishing these reports as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter. That change will address the scandalous situation that we have today. Just think of this: as I speak today, almost seven months after the last federal election, we still have no idea who gave what to political parties and candidates before and during that campaign. In fact, under the current system, the Australian public would not find out about these donations until February next year, 15 months after last year’s federal election. If the provisions of this bill that is being deferred or blocked or just abandoned by the Liberals had been in place for last year’s campaign, donations to the major political parties would now be public knowledge. I worry that only a party with something to fear or something to hide would want to block a bill that increases the number of donations that are reported and makes those reports more timely.

The fourth measure in this bill will ban overseas and anonymous donations. The government believes that money from overseas should not be able to purchase influence in Australia’s political system. Foreign donations lie outside the jurisdiction and the investigative powers of the Australian Electoral Commission. We can never be sure who is ultimately behind those donations. In a similar way, allowing political parties and candidates to accept anonymous donations undermines proper regulation of our electoral system. And in the past many political parties have accepted political donations from overseas. Yes, the Labor Party have. So have the Liberal Party. So, I understand, have the Greens and the Democrats. But there seems to be a very important difference here, because the Labor Party want to stop this practice as soon as possible. I certainly hope and believe that the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens will join us to attempt to prevent overseas donations from 1 July this year. But the question for Dr Nelson and the opposition is: why do they not support banning overseas and anonymous donations right here and right now? This is something that other Western democracies did long ago, and I believe all senators would understand that their electoral systems are much better for it.

The fifth and final measure in the bill that the opposition is blocking ties public electoral funding to campaign expenditure. This will mean that political parties and candidates cannot make a profit from election funding. Most Australians would be appalled to think that anyone could stand for election to make a profit rather than make a difference, but that is what the law allows to occur today and the government is determined to put a stop to this practice. We want this bill passed now so that the Gippsland by-election is the last ever opportunity for anyone to abuse the electoral system, treating it purely as a source for profit. By blocking this bill, Dr Nelson and the Liberals stand united with anyone who wants to keep their snout in the trough of public funding.

The opposition pretends to question why the government has introduced this bill when we are also in the process of developing a green paper which looks more comprehensively at electoral reform. The answer is simple—even Dr Nelson and Senator Ronaldson should understand it if they were not being so deliberately obtuse on this—this bill addresses major shortcomings which have been identified in our electoral laws for a very long time. And, given the fact there is such awareness of these problems, it is incumbent upon any government—and I believe the parliament—to fix them. These problems must be fixed. They must be fixed and they must be fixed now. If the opposition supports accountability and transparency, if it believes in having integrity in our electoral laws, then it must allow this bill to be debated and it must vote for this bill. But, on the other hand, if Dr Nelson and the opposition block this bill then what they are doing is saying that they support secrecy, they support keeping hidden the shadowy attempts to purchase political influence.

If the opposition block this bill then they can only do so because they believe it is okay to rort the system and hide donations, that it is absolutely fine to sell out Australian democracy to the highest bidder, that abusing our electoral system to make money is just fine. That is what the opposition are on about. In short, if the opposition block this bill they will stand condemned for acting in self-interest rather than in the national interest, for sabotaging the chances to address critical and urgent shortcomings in our electoral laws, and for thumbing their noses at decency, integrity and transparency in our electoral system. (Time expired)

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