Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 [2009]

Second Reading

11:01 am

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The Greens will support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 [2009]. I listened carefully to Senator Ronaldson’s plea that the legislation not be supported until we get comprehensive legislation into the parliament, but that is not the example that was set by the Howard government over the previous 12 years. In fact, piecemeal legislation which increased the ability of donors to the political system to be hidden and not identifiable was the order of the day. It is a good thing that we now have legislation that is reversing that order.

We look forward to consequent legislation in this parliament, and I hope that will be this year, to clean up the electoral processes in Australia, and that means quite massive and comprehensive changes to electoral laws. The Greens would like to see Australia going in the same direction as Canada, which effectively banned political donations—except those with a limit of $1,000 from individuals, but it banned those from corporations, unions and all the entities that Senator Ronaldson listed—back in the 1990s, following a series of corruption scandals in that country. It is a pretty sad thing that the current conservative government in Canada apparently wants to unwind that electoral system. The quid pro quo for getting rid of the corrupting influence of donations—and they are effectively utilised by the lobbyists who come into this parliament—as a lever is, I have no doubt, public funding. That is always a big matter for governments to take up, but it would improve the electoral system if we had a wholly publicly funded electoral system. It would provide a much less corruptible and much more accountable electoral system for voters.

We are in a world in which wealth is power, and that power is leveraged right around the world to buy democracies. The most insidious thing that democracies face is, effectively, a plutocracy which buys political favour and political leverage through making massive donations to political parties and individuals. It is something that we have to bring to an end. If we really believe in the fundamental principle of democracy being one person, one vote, one value, then we have to ensure that people have an equal say in a democracy. You cannot do that if millions of dollars are being passed into the political system and that ultimately means that those who have the most money have the most power. That defrauds democracy. There is a very big challenge here to stop that process. This planet is in real trouble because of the power of the wealthy elites. They have their sway not only through autocracies, and that means through political systems that have dictatorships or police state regimes, but also through democracies.

It is a massive challenge for us, a century later, to act on the fears of American President Cleveland when he saw the mounting influence that corporations were having on Washington. One has to worry about President Obama, and all the hopes of the world that go with his new presidency, as he faces 80,000 political lobbyists, backed by a huge amount of money and not least by entities like the armaments industry. They pervert and corrupt the political system and the ability of democracies to carry out the highest tenet of the inherent hope of democracy—which is to give some sense of equality and a fair go to all citizens who work and live under a democracy and whose hopes are based on the democratic system.

This legislation lowers to $1,000 the threshold for donations which have to be disclosed. The Howard government lifted it to $10,000 and, through indexation, it is now at over $10,500. As we know, people could donate to each of the state and federal entities and get away with donating more than $100,000 to political parties without it being made public. The new threshold will put an end to that and the Greens support it. The legislation removes the loophole for donation splitting so that donations to political parties have to be put forward as having been made to a single entity and not eight or 10 as I just described. It would make foreign donations unlawful. I do not think there is anybody in this place who wants to oppose that. The bill also introduces new offences to the reporting and disclosure regime and increases the penalties for those offences. It tightens up public disclosure and the framework for lodging returns and disclosing gifts and expenditure by donors, candidates, political parties, associated entities and third parties.

Then there is something you have to put a lot of thought into while we have a system supported by donations, and that is anonymous donations. The Greens supported this amendment by the government, though it does impose quite onerous accounting mechanisms. The smaller parties and Independents standing for electoral office will know that you depend on a lot of donations. If you are going to run a campaign, you have to get money. There is not the great wherewithal of the big parties, with huge corporate and union donations. It depends on raising money from the public and on lots of little gifts coming in. We saw Obama take the path of appealing to the public rather than to the big corporate sector, and his campaign was massively based upon $5, $10, $20 or $100 donations. Here a limit of $50 has been set before the donors must be revealed. The fundraisers—people taking around the bucket, for example, at a public meeting—must take responsibility for ensuring that no-one attempts to donate more than $50 or they risk strong penalties. At fundraising dinners, the organisers must ensure that the amount raised does not exceed a donation of $50 multiplied by the number of people present. If you have 1,000 people, you must make sure that there is not more than $50,000 raised or obviously you are infringing upon the restriction of $50 per person without the donations being specified. That is a rule that will need to go out. You can see the difficulties for people handing around the bucket at public meetings or at some sort of fundraising concert in making sure that nobody puts $100 in the bucket. It is going to be interesting to see how well that is governed.

Then there is the claims based funding framework for public electoral funding. The Greens understand the purpose of the measure and support its intention, which is to address the problem of profiteering, which can occur under the current system. However, the claims based system, and, in particular, the time frame—that is, you can only claim public funding for election expenditure after the writs are issued and during the actual election period—is very restrictive for smaller parties in particular. The big parties can claim the full limit of their public expenditure by simply putting their TV advertising bills in and saying: ‘Pay for this. Out of our own private funding, we will pay for all the administration.’ For the smaller parties and Independents, that is not the case. They do not have massive media advertising campaigns, because they cannot afford them. But they do have comparatively large administrative expenses. They have to have offices, pay for office equipment and employ people during campaigning times. This will prohibit claims being made for parties that set up an office, employ somebody and get in computers and phones before the writs are issued for an election. It is quite obvious that we are going to have an election within the next 18 months—those are the electoral rules in this country—but if a political party moves now to set up an office and get the bones of a campaign going, and all parties know that you need to do that not when the writs are issued but months or years out, the smaller political parties will not be able to claim that expenditure. It does not affect the big parties, because, as I said, they will simply put in their maximum claim with their media advertising receipts, but it will affect the smaller parties.

I move the following second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate calls on the Government to introduce truth in advertising measures in relation to elections so that voters are not deceived”.

I am very keen that we do not permit the current system, whereby people can attack candidates or parties at election time using lies and deception, to continue. There used to be a truth filter. If you wanted to put an ad on TV 10 years ago, that ad had to go to the regulatory authority set up by the private networks and you had to be able to show that it was truthful. I know that, because there were very contentious forestry issues in Tasmania. Every time the Greens put up an ad talking about the destruction of forests that was going to occur if the Labor or Liberal parties were elected—and that is still going on—we would have some objection from the logging industry. We had to be able to show that the claims were true and that the area that was flattened and that the smoke rising from the previous life-filled rainforest was, in fact, dinkum. We could do that.

But that has been removed. There is no longer any arbiter. Senator Fielding’s Family First party ran a series of ads the election before last claiming that Senator Brown—that is me—wanted to give drugs to children. That was an outright lie—it was defamation—and it was played hundreds of times across television networks in this country. Effectively, there was nothing I could do about it. But I have broad shoulders, and I have tackled Senator Fielding on that in private since then. He has made no correction, and the onus is on him to accept or reject that. However, what is wrong is that electors are deceived by such advertising on the way to the ballot box. If a democracy is going to be healthy, it has to ensure that the advertising that informs people about the competing claims is true. The Greens want to see in the more comprehensive legislation coming down the line—and I hope it will be this year, Senator Ronaldson, so that we can look at it and pass it into law before the next election—the Electoral Commission, or a body set up under the aegis of the Electoral Commission, vet contentious advertising to make sure that it is true. Surely that is fundamental if you are going to have a fair dinkum and honest political campaign.

There is a matter at hand that I address in the time left to me: the article in today’s Mercury under the headline ‘Labor smear bid backfires’. This is by Sue Neales, chief reporter. Yesterday in the state parliament, the Attorney-General, the chief law officer of Tasmania, made a series of allegations about a donation to the Greens from some very decent people that I know in New South Wales—Susie Russell and Greg Hall—who have been forest campaigners for decades. They are very committed to the protection of forests and have been successful in helping, for example, the World Heritage rainforest areas of northern New South Wales to be protected. They made donations to the Tasmanian Greens because of the campaign against the Gunns pulp mill, which would, were it to be built, log some 200,000 hectares of Tasmanian forests full of wildlife.

These are good people who are motivated and see that, if they can help protect forests elsewhere, other than in their own neighbourhood, they would do that; but, according to the Attorney-General of Tasmania, their donations to the Greens at the last election left ‘serious and unanswered questions’. This is a $45,000 donation. Amongst the claims were that Ms Russell was an employee of Ian Cohen, the upper house MLC in New South Wales—she had been till 2003 but has not been since then, so that claim was true—and that the address given on the donation disclosure form was for a vacant bush block. It happens to be the home address of these two very fine people in northern New South Wales. Ms Giddings made implications as to whether the names of the real donors had been disguised, and yet they are there on the donation forms.

I have things to say about this. First, yes, let us get rid of private donations—but you cannot expect any political party to survive without them, and under our current system good people will be open in putting forward the money they can get. Apparently this money from Susie Russell and Greg Hall came from an inheritance. Most people would think about spending that money on themselves. They put forward what for individuals is a large amount of money to help save Tasmania’s forests. They put it into the public good out of their own private domain and, as a result, the chief law officer ran a smear campaign through the parliament yesterday, apparently on the basis that if you throw enough mud some will stick. I would have thought much better of the Deputy Premier of Tasmania; I held her in higher regard than this. It was a cowardly thing to do, and it is ultimately counted against the chief law officer of Tasmania. What a sad reflection it is that it turns out that Labor Party operatives had spent some time digging all this up to put falsely before the parliament a claim against two very fine people who should never have been subjected to that sort of false vilification by an Attorney-General in Tasmania—or anywhere else in a democratic system. Yesterday was a pretty sad day for the Tasmanian government and the Tasmanian Labor Party.

By the way, the Tasmanian Greens leader, Nick McKim, was hit with that without warning and did a remarkably fine job of defending these people. I know them; I do not know whether Nick McKim knows them, but I hope one day he gets to meet them. I rang Ms Russell this morning, and she has invited me to come and stay at their place, because they bought a couple of photographs out of an exhibition I had in Hobart over the weekend—let me disclose that right away. I had great pleasure telling her I would love to come and stay at her place. I think they are fantastic people who do not deserve the treatment that Lara Giddings dished out yesterday.

That said, I am glad this legislation is here. It is a big step forward. I hope the opposition will reconsider any potential for opposing it, because it is a step forward. It may be cherry picking, but they are important cherries. I look forward to the more comprehensive legislation. Finally, I pay tribute to Senator John Faulkner. He is driving a review of our electoral laws, which do need fixing up. That is tough. There will be huge debate within all political parties—I have no doubt there will be within his party, as there is within the Greens and as there will be everywhere—about the pros and cons of any move to change the electoral system, but it must be changed. He has the courage and tenacity to make that change. I appreciate that. He is the right person to be doing this, and I wish him great success.


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