Monday, 19 June 2006
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
The Democrats oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
This item in the bill refers to prisoner voting. In motivating our opposition to item 14, I want to make a number of remarks. I am well aware of the difference of opinion on these matters, but I want to put as clearly as I can the principle and policy position which has consistently guided the Australian Democrats and others who support the right of prisoners to vote. We oppose the government’s intention to repeal the existing voting rights of prisoners on civil and human rights grounds and on basic principles of justice. We are informed by our reading of and our support for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, by jurisprudence in other parts of the world and by our view as to how the process of judicial punishment should operate.
As I outlined in my speech on the second reading, we Democrats are of the opinion that the removal of prisoner voting rights is an extrajudicial penalty and, over and above that, is an abuse of an inalienable birthright which belongs to every citizen—and that is the fundamental right to vote. We regard terms of imprisonment as having a couple of main planks to them. The first plank is of course that of punishment for a crime which is considered serious enough to deprive a person of their liberty. The second purpose of imprisonment is to encourage rehabilitation. Unfortunately, far too little money and effort is often spent on that particular aspect, but nevertheless it is universally recognised as the second aspect. The third aspect, which in polite circles people tend to conceal a little, is the aspect of vengeance. It is society taking judicial vengeance on someone for hurting or harming one of their members.
Taking liberty away from a person is a major punishment, but we have not said in this country that if you are imprisoned you become a noncitizen or an alien. We leave with prisoners their rights of citizenship in all respects. Obviously, they are not going to be chosen for jury duty, but there is nothing to stop someone who has been a prisoner from defending the country or carrying out any other act of citizenship. I must say that the one virtue of the government’s proposal is that it does not intend to remove the right to vote from persons who have served terms of imprisonment. In that respect at least they do not follow the barbaric practices of the Americans.
During the debate on the second reading we had some discussion about the question of rehabilitation and the question of the human rights of prisoners. I, with a varied and somewhat interesting background, sometimes think of prisoners in that famous framework of, ‘There but for the grace of God go you and I.’ It is a bit difficult to automatically assume that everyone in prison is an evil rogue worthy of the very worst treatment. Whilst evil does find its expression in prisoners, many prisoners, including some I have met after imprisonment, are simply people who made bad mistakes. I will say in passing that I wish our governments poured more serious resources into early intervention strategies which prevented the sorts of circumstances which lead people into crime and into socially harmful behaviour. Then I think our prison population would decline significantly instead of increasing, as it is at present.
I think the government proposal accurately reflects its conservative nature rather than a liberal inheritance. I have long thought that the liberal name should not apply to the Liberal Party because, generally speaking, the individuals that I meet are conservatives and not liberals. This provision of the government not only removes a fundamental right recognised under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but also is inconsistent with recognition by influential courts overseas that prisoners should retain the right to vote. Even on constitutional grounds there is also an argument against prisoner disenfranchisement. Constitutionally the requirement is that the government be elected by the people. The only problem with that argument is that I cannot see prisoners banding together to argue that case before the High Court.
Quite apart from these arguments on human rights grounds, there is also a technical complication. There is no uniformity amongst the states or between the states and the Commonwealth as to what constitutes an offence punishable by imprisonment, and so complications will arise. I have heard the former Special Minister of State, the minister in charge of this particular debate, argue that rapists and murderers should not get a vote. Even if you were to accept that argument, not everyone in prison is a rapist or a murderer. For instance, in Western Australia fine defaulters lose their licence rather than go to prison; however, in other states they can go to prison for not paying a fine. Why should somebody who does not pay a fine lose their right to vote? A journalist may refuse to disclose their source and be imprisoned for it. Why should a journalist who refuses to disclose their source, which in my view is an act of honour in their profession, have to go to jail? We could have a situation where a person who defaults on a fine in WA is not jailed and retains the right to vote while a citizen in another jurisdiction is jailed for the same offence and loses the right to vote. That is inequitable and unacceptable. As you will see from our next amendment, which I will talk to later, we believe that if you want the right to vote to be a question attached to imprisonment then that removal should be a judicial penalty. It should be made by a judge and it should not be imposed as a general provision in law.
I am indebted to the Justice Action Group, which have been campaigning on this issue of prisoner voting. I have read many extracts from some of the cases they quote in their pamphlet. They quote a few things that I know to be so. For instance, they have indicated that Commonwealth nations like Canada and South Africa have removed these sorts of discriminatory laws. There is a quote, which I remember, in their pamphlet from Chief Justice McLachlin of the Canadian Supreme Court in the case of Sauve v Canada on 10 December 2002:
Denying penitentiary inmates the right to vote is more likely to send messages that undermine respect for the law and democracy than messages that enhance those values ...
They also quote the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the vote:
Prisoners lose their liberty, not their place in the human race nor their position in the society.
That is from Hirst v the United Kingdom No. 2, 6 October 2005. They also say in their pamphlet:
There is no evidence that disenfranchising prisoners deters crime or assists in rehabilitation.
It is more likely to increase alienation and disengagement from mainstream society and any sense of civic responsibility.
This would disenfranchise 25,353 voters of which more than half are expected to serve sentences of less than two years; ie who are likely to be released within a political term.
It is a double disenfranchisement for the 5,656 Indigenous people in jail who lost their ATSIC vote last year.
The pamphlet also says:
Removing prisoners’ political voice means politicians can now officially ignore prisons and prisoners. They have sentenced them to civic death.
Whilst I do not believe that the government is just going to ignore prisons and prisoners—I do not think that should be a consequence of this—this is in a sense a sentencing to civic death, as dramatic as that sounds, despite the fact the minister said—and you did amuse me, as you sometimes do, Minister—he had never had someone in a criminal case plead with him to preserve their vote. I suspect that prisoners value their vote as much as the ordinary Australian does. Of course, I have no way of knowing that and I suspect that you do not either. So, there we are. With those remarks, I oppose this provision.
I wanted to make a contribution to this second reading debate because the legislation raises a couple of really interesting issues, particularly when you examine the issue of prisoner disenfranchisement which is part of it. Hirst is a notable English case that is relevant to this and I think it makes the position clear. There are three cases that I want to talk about. The first is Hirst v the United Kingdom (No. 2) of March 2004. One of the issues raised there is that the UK had a similar position to what is being proposed here. Although it was different in kind, it was effectively a blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners in the voting process.
That case was concerned with the interpretation of article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, granted, does not apply here, because of course we do not have a similar protocol. But it is unusual for this government not to take cognisance of international arrangements and protocols that apply. I am curious as to why the government is ignoring this position that seems to have been accepted more broadly than just in the United Kingdom, and I will go to that shortly. Article 3 states:
The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.
The UK had asserted two aims in the legislation. The first was to prevent crime and punish offenders and the second was to enhance civil responsibility and respect for the rule of law by depriving those who had seriously breached the basic rules of society of the right to have a say in the way such rules are made for the duration of their sentence. That seems to be in accordance with what this bill might be trying to achieve. This point was also borne out in Sauve v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), which I am sure your officers, Minister, would also be familiar with, along with the case I just mentioned. But with regard to the second of those objects, the court followed the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Canada, as I just mentioned. They said:
To deny prisoners the right to vote is to lose an important means of teaching them democratic values and social responsibility.
It is interesting that you have not taken due cognisance of the cases that I have mentioned. Surprisingly, you have not followed the dicta in those; you have chosen instead to follow a separate course. As to the object of punishment and deterrence, the court again favoured the Sauve judgment insofar as it found no evidence in support of the proposition that disenfranchisement deterred crime and it found that a blanket removal of the vote from prisoners per se disclosed no rational link between the punishment and the offender.
This is an interesting proposition. If the matter is relevant to the removal of the right, it might be a legitimate purpose or aim or object. But where there is no rational link then you really have to question whether the blanket removal is rational or legitimate. The course you are adopting stands in stark contrast to those two cases, the UK direction and the Canadian direction as well, which is surprising. I am happy for the coalition to substantiate their position. There could be the unique circumstances where you remove the right of a person who has offended the roll, and you remove their right to vote because they have not exercised their right to vote. It is an offence. Therefore it is not considered a double punishment; it might be that the punishment fits the crime in the sense that you are punishing them for not voting by removing their right to vote.
I am taking it quite seriously. This is your proposal and I am curious as to how you are going to deal with it. If it is linked to punishment and deterrence, how do you justify the latter position? I am sure you will be able to reflect on it and provide an answer to the Senate for those reasons. As is said in the Current issues brief, ‘such punishment is for imprisonment rather than for the commission of an offence’.
The other case I am sure you are familiar with is the Grand Chamber judgment of Hirst v the United Kingdom. It is really instructive because of the general principles enunciated there. What I want to understand is how you say this legislation fits in with those general principles if you are really upholding democracy in a broad sense and if you say it is an improved position. The judgment states:
The Court stressed that the rights guaranteed under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 were crucial to establishing and maintaining the foundations of an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law and also that the right to vote was a right and not a privilege.
Granted, under the Constitution it is not a right; perhaps it is an implied right, although it has not been tested recently. They went on to say in that judgment:
However, any limitations on the right to vote had to be imposed in pursuit of a legitimate aim and be proportionate.
I would like to hear from the coalition how the blanket removal of the right of prisoners to vote was both a legitimate aim and proportionate. There are circumstances, granted, in which you might be able to justify that removal. But what I am keen to understand from the coalition is how, in this instance of the blanket removal, it was both a legitimate aim and proportionate.
Of course, ‘the integrity and effectiveness of an electoral procedure aimed at identifying the will of the people through universal suffrage’ is very important. It is extraordinarily important to ensure that you do in fact achieve that. To destroy rights, to take away rights, is a severe measure; there is no argument about that. It should not be undertaken lightly. The principle of proportionality requires ‘a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned’. So this is the other question that I pose to you. I am sure that in your reply you are going to be able to explain how your measure, given that it is a disfranchisement, has a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct. It would be helpful to understand both the legitimate aim that you intend to use and the proportionality. In other words, is it proportional to the offence?
As I said in the earlier example, you can have a situation where, for a minor offence, a person loses the right to vote. They may end up in prison for two or three months for an unfortunate driving incident or something like that. That might fall during an election period and, as a consequence, they lose the right to vote. You might have a situation where someone has committed a more serious offence and is imprisoned for 2½ years but no election falls within that period, so they do not lose the right. I would not mind you explaining how you say that in those circumstances the measure is proportionate to the offence. You have one person who, because of the electoral cycle, unfortunately finds themself in prison for two months and loses their right to vote. You might have an argument with regard to the person who is imprisoned for 2½ years, but if that does not fall within the period of an election they do not lose their right to vote. They then come out and exercise that right accordingly.
If you say that the only reason for the losing of the right is the detention then how is that proportionate? How is it a legitimate aim directed at the type of offence? I am not making the case. I would like you to answer it so that it is clear how you can say that it is both legitimate and proportionate to the offence. It would be very helpful to understand that. What they said in relation to the UK provision was that it remained a ‘blunt instrument’. The judgment said:
It stripped of their Convention right to vote a significant category of people and it did so in a way which was indiscriminate.
What I want to find out from you is how you can say that it is not an indiscriminate use of disfranchisement, of removal of the right to vote. How do you argue that it is both a legitimate aim and proportionate if it is a blunt instrument? I thought it was helpful to at least lay out the argument so that you could work through some of these matters before us. The UK judgment went on to say:
Such a general, automatic and indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important Convention right had to be seen as falling outside any acceptable margin of appreciation, however wide that margin might be ...
They argue that there is a margin of appreciation. You can have legislation that removes the right. It seems clear that they found that a blanket right could potentially fall outside any acceptable margin of appreciation. I want the coalition to answer and perhaps provide a cogent argument as to—
I much prefer ‘the coalition’. I want to know how they can say that this amendment is not an automatic, indiscriminate restriction and that it falls within an acceptable margin of appreciation. That would be helpful to understand the debate. I am seeking an answer to that from the coalition. What I have covered more broadly are the aims and objectives, and the issues concerning the case law that surrounds this. I need an explanation of the justification from this government—
If it gives me an answer, I am happy to use ‘government’. That would be helpful. As I have indicated, the 1978 Nagel report also talked about article 3. I did want to use that, but I am not going have time now. I might have time to use that shortly. More broadly, if you look at the development, the government are now perhaps placed in the UK position. Quite rightly, you do not have article 3 of the protocol to consider, but you do have article 25 of the ICCPR. It would be helpful to understand how you would not offend article 25 of the ICCPR, given the matters that I have just addressed more broadly, and why it would not be found to be a breach of article 25 of the ICCPR. I have highlighted a couple of cases where not only could it be an inconsistent application but also the legitimate objective is unclear and whether it is proportionate to the outcome. The simple answer may be that you have just followed the US and copied. Choose your answer.
I will respond to the contributions of senators, first of all to Senator Murray, who moved the amendment. When people are sentenced to a period of imprisonment their liberty is taken away from them, and every state has a different regime operating. You can quite properly assert that they do not stop being citizens whilst they are in prison. That is quite right. People that are not allowed to vote because of being under the age of 18 and those that are seen as having a mental illness or deficiency do not lose their right to be citizens either, but they do not have a right to vote. In the prison system your right to visit and talk to your family as much and as often as you want is taken away from you. In fairness, what do you think is more important: that you have proper family relationships or the right to vote?
Let us have a look at some of these issues. The number of telephone calls you are allowed to make as a prisoner—limited. The number of letters that you can write, the clothing that you wear, things that you would normally expect—all restricted. Do judges say, ‘In sentencing this person to imprisonment, I will allow them nevertheless to wear a red, garish tie like Senator George Campbell was wearing today,’ or something like that? These extra things that you and I would expect to be our normal right are taken away from us.
I fully agree with you that as a society we do need to be forgiving and also accepting of rehabilitation. That is why I would not go down the path of some states in the United States—to take Senator Ludwig’s suggestion—where, if you have served any period of imprisonment, you lose your right to vote forever. I do not subscribe to that view at all. But during the period in which you are in jail I think that society has a right to expect that your removal from society will also remove you from casting a vote.
I have been asked about article 25 of the UN convention. I do not have the exact wording in my mind, but it is basically that you cannot have an arbitrary or unreasonable abolition of the vote for certain people. If this parliament so determines then, with great respect to the United Nations, I would not consider that to be arbitrary or unreasonable if that is what the democratic parliament has determined through the democratic process. Tasmania used to have this provision—and I think that it just changed it very recently—but nobody ever asserted under the state Labor government that that was somehow a breach. We have state governments—I think, Western Australia and New South Wales—that say that if you serve a period of imprisonment of one year or more you lose the vote.
I think that Senator Murray’s stance is a principled one, but one that I disagree with. I am not sure where the Labor Party are coming from on this. If they are saying that disallowing somebody the right to vote whilst they are in jail is arbitrary, I would have thought that putting it at 12 months or three years is also an arbitrary situation. For the benefit of Senator Murray, who took delight in quoting Justice Action, I understand that that is an organisation that disagrees with the concept of imprisonment, full stop.
Yes. So, with great respect, they have a very different view from the way we believe we should deal with offenders against a society’s rules. Senator Murray also made the point that he believed that chances are there are some people in jails who should not be there. I happen to agree with him. That is found on appeal on the odd occasion. Or there might be laws with which you and I might disagree—and, might I add, the vast majority of the laws are state laws. But I think the argument there is: let us change those specific laws rather than use that as an argument to undermine the principle that this government is putting to us.
Senator Ludwig told us about the Canadian case and the UK case. These are all very interesting but, with great respect, I am not sure how relevant they are. In Canada I think they have the bill of rights to which they then make reference. That is their own law and they have to have reference to it. With the United Kingdom, they signed up to some protocol with the European Union, I think, and as a result under the rule of law they have to abide by the interpretation of those rules and those laws. I happen to think that sometimes signing up to these international agreements or bills of rights can have unforeseen consequences, and clearly the United Kingdom government was of that view in trying to argue the case that they did, albeit unsuccessfully.
Senator Ludwig makes the point—and it is fair—that if you get a two-month period of imprisonment that falls during an election period you are denied the vote on that occasion, whereas you could get a two-year penalty that does not. Yes, that is right. But if your son was getting married during that time or if there was a funeral—you might get special leave to attend a funeral—or a friend’s graduation, or whatever: the period of time that you are in jail will have all sorts of varying impacts.
This is not an indiscriminate piece of legislation. We are saying that if, under the rule of law, the judiciary in this country has determined that you should be removed from society for a period of time, then we as a government say that during that period of time, judicially determined, you should be denied the vote, and of course as soon as that penalty is served you should get the right to vote again. I fully support that. In relation to penalties, they do vary. I think that illegal fishing fines, for example, are sometimes a lot heftier than those for an unprovoked assault. What is the rationale for that? You have got to ask the state parliaments about that. But, all that aside, I commend the legislation as drafted.
Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm
The opposition will be supporting the Democrats’ opposition to schedule 1, item 14, of the bill, because if it succeeds then the provisions of the bill will be altered to the effect that it will protect the status quo. However, we will not be supporting Democrat amendment (2), because it goes further than the current circumstances. We have a situation here where the government is proposing to disenfranchise prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or more. There are 9,861 prisoners in that category. The additional measures that the government is seeking under this bill effectively disenfranchise all prisoners, some 19,000 people. As I read it, because people are enrolled in the electorates in which they lived prior to their imprisonment it would not necessarily have a great impact on any particular electorate. So in practical terms I cannot see that it has any particular measures associated with it. I do not think the government has explained its case, and I ask the minister: does this provision affect those who are on remand—
or those who are actually serving? So it does not affect those on remand but only those currently serving. Has there been any advice sought on whether or not this measure is constitutional?
Yes. Section 30 of the Constitution deals with qualification of electors:
Until the Parliament otherwise provides, the qualification of electors of members of the House of Representatives shall be in each State that which is prescribed by the law of the State as the qualification of electors of the more numerous House of Parliament of the State; but in the choosing of members each elector shall vote only once.
The important thing there is ‘until the parliament otherwise provides’, and I think it was in about 1902 that we had the first Commonwealth electoral act where the parliament ‘otherwise provided’.
In terms of the position that Senator Ludwig was putting to you—and I emphasise that Senator Ludwig was advancing a series of questions; they were not necessarily positions he was arguing on behalf of the Labor Party—has there been any consideration of whether or not this provision will breach our international treaty obligations?
I thought I had answered that prior to the dinner break. Senator Ludwig provided two examples to us: one was a Canadian one, based on their bill of rights, and the other was a UK situation based on a protocol in relation to the European Union that I accept I am not fully acquainted with. The answer in relation to both of those was that if countries have a bill of rights or a constitution, or have signed up to certain documents, then—if you believe in the rule of law, as I happen to do—they have to abide by them. In Australia we do not have a bill of rights such as the one which is now interpreted in this interesting way by the Supreme Court of Canada, or a protocol such as exists in the European Union. I might add that the United Kingdom government fought against the interpretation put on that protocol by the equivalent of the European court.
In relation to any international treaties we might be signatory to—that is article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While I do not have the exact wording in my mind, the wording is to the effect that you should not arbitrarily or unreasonably withhold the vote from anybody. I would have thought if this parliament has duly considered a provision for legislation and legislated accordingly then it is not for others around the world to suggest whether our legislation is reasonable or unreasonable or arbitrary, given that we do of course have restrictions on people’s franchise in relation to the age of 18 and in relation to their mental capacities.
The question was about whether or not the government had sought legal advice. You have indicated that you have sought legal advice on the question of constitutionality—in relation to the Australian Constitution. I am asking: have you sought legal advice in regard to our treaty obligations? You have referred specifically to article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I will ask again: has the government sought legal advice on whether or not this provision is compliant with that aspect of that covenant?
I am reminded that the test is reasonableness not arbitrariness, and the government believes that it is reasonable to remove the right to vote from people who are serving a sentence of full-time imprisonment as a result of the disregard they have shown for the laws of the parliament or parliaments of Australia. That is the government’s position. Whether specific legal advice has been sought on that or not, I do not know, other than to say that I think it is more than reasonable for this parliament to make such a determination, and the fact that it has been subject to debate and consideration in this place would indicate that it is not something that is done arbitrarily but something that is done on a reasonable basis.
The Labor Party want to take some shelter in a halfway house position: if you serve a period of imprisonment of more than 12 months or 3½ years or whatever, then somehow it is reasonable, but for anything below that it is unreasonable. There is also the argument that the states have it for 12 months. Why is it reasonable to deny the vote to somebody who gets sentenced to jail for 365 days, but if they get sentenced to only 364 days they get the vote? Why should that extra one day visit upon the prisoner the loss of their vote? That is the difficulty that the Labor Party have, and that is why I made the point before the dinner adjournment that at least the Democrats have a principled point of view—one that I disagree with—that all prisoners ought to get the vote. That is fine; we happen to disagree on that. But, when the Labor Party start trying to delineate between those sentenced to 364 days, who are deserving of a vote, and those sentenced to 365 days, who are not, they should explain to this place what the difference is of that one day of imprisonment and why it justifies the loss of one’s vote. I think our position is a lot more reasonable.
‘Reasonable’ and ‘arbitrary’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The point that the minister makes here is essentially that it is the opinion of the government that this is both reasonable and not arbitrary. What we are seeing here—and it is a matter that I think we will see again on a number of occasions this evening—is that ultimately what will count are the numbers in this chamber. That is the basis on which the government regards it as both reasonable and not arbitrary—no other. It is the numbers in this chamber.
We will discuss a number of matters tonight where we will see that it has not been the policy of this chamber, of this parliament, on many of these questions. But what we are seeing in this particular matter is the first of a series of questions that will come before us tonight whereby the government will seek to impose its agenda with regard to the electoral laws of this country.
The minister makes great play of the international situation. He says that he does not particularly like being identified with the United States position on this matter. I understand that. In much of what we are seeing tonight, he will have to take a different view because he will be able to see the introduction of a United States style electoral system here. We know that, in the United States, 48 of the states deny the right to vote for any serving prisoner, 33 states disqualify those who are on parole and eight states deny the vote to not only those in prison but those who have been convicted. European countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain have no restrictions on people’s right to vote based on whether they are prisoners or otherwise, whereas a number of eastern European countries clearly have quite significant restrictions on those matters, and, as the minister has indicated, they may well be subject to change themselves, given recent decisions of the courts in Europe.
However, the matter before us now is whether or not it is fair and reasonable to disenfranchise people who are in jail serving a sentence of this duration. We take the view that it is not. We will support the Democrats’ opposition to schedule 1, item 14, but we will not be supporting Democrat amendment (2), because, essentially, we do not want to go to the next stage. We think the current position is an appropriate compromise and middle course on this matter.
Very briefly, for the sake of completeness, I can refer to the full wording of article 25, which I now have in front of me. I was talking about arbitrariness and reasonableness. In fact, the test is ‘and without unreasonable restrictions’. Therefore the article quite appropriately contemplates that there will be restrictions on the franchise and therefore the only argument is what is reasonable in all the circumstances. The test for reasonableness is that ‘unreasonable’ means that no reasonable person could consider it reasonable.
Senator Carr asked about what has changed, other than the numbers in the Senate. The last time we debated this issue, I recall that the government’s view was that every prisoner should be denied the vote. The legislation at the time was for, I think, five years—and Senator Murray confirms that—and, in a spirit of compromise, the government and opposition agreed to the 3½-year mark that we are at now. There is no magic in these figures. I commend the Labor Party for having changed its position and accepting 3½ years as being a compromise. But we as a government were always of the view that nobody who is serving a full-time period of incarceration should get the vote. And let me just make it clear to Senator Carr that for people on remand, in home detention and things like that it would be different. We have held that view, and our view has not changed because of the election result. We believe that, that having been our view for such a long period of time, when the people give us a mandate we are entitled to implement those policies that we went to the election with.
That schedule 1, item 14, stand as printed.
(2) Schedule 1, item 15, page 7 (lines 16 to 22), omit subsection 93(8AA), substitute:
(8AA) A person who is serving a sentence of imprisonment for an offence against the law of the Commonwealth or of a State or Territory is entitled to vote at any State election or House of Representatives election, unless:
(a) the person is of unsound mind; or
(b) the person has been convicted of treason; or
(c) the person has had his or her right to vote removed by the decision of a judge as part of a sentence.
I do not intend to speak at length on this, because the substantial debate has been had. However, this is a materially different amendment that we are putting before the chamber, and it deserves to have a vote. For those who are waiting in eager anticipation, I will not be calling a division on this one, so you will not have to worry about that.
This amendment reflects our strong opinion that the vote should only be taken away from adult citizen Australians if they are of unsound mind, if they have been convicted of a crime against the state—namely, a crime against citizenship, such as treason—or if the judge concerned has taken the view that the particular crime that they are adjudicating on is such as to warrant a removal of the right to vote in addition to the loss of liberty. If you are determined that some crimes should in fact attract the additional judicial penalty of loss of vote, it is our view that that should be left up to a judge. It should not be for this chamber to disenfranchise prisoners en masse.
I note that Labor have already said that their view is that they want to leave the law as is. I hope that that does not mean that they are closed to the principles I enunciate. This amendment is predicated on the fact that removing the right to vote from a prisoner should be a legitimate and proportionate punishment attached to the particular offence the prisoner is in jail for.
The Democrats move this amendment in the name of upholding basic human, democratic and civil rights. We move it on constitutional grounds, because we believe it accords with Australia’s Constitution that prisoners should have the right to have a vote and because we believe it is part of Australia’s obligations under the international covenant on social and political liberties. We move it to uphold our proud history of leading the world in enfranchisement. Minister, I understand your arguments counter to that, such as the fact that the question of reasonableness and so on resides in the various statutes, so I understand that it is an arguable concept. Nevertheless, it is one we hold.
The Greens support Senator Murray’s amendments. We do not believe that it is the role of politicians to be interfering in the universal right of people to vote—including prisoners, with the complications that come with that. That said, I have a question about clause 8 of schedule 1. I will leave it to you, Chair, as to whether I can ask that now or after this matter has been dealt with.
It must be a different section that you are talking about, Senator Brown. We will do that when we get to it. I am advised, Senator Brown, that you can debate that when we move on to the next question, which will be whether the bill should stand as printed. When we get to that stage, which will be after this amendment, you can discuss that.
I want to ask the minister about what is meant on page 6. We are dealing here with schedule 1, part 8. This is for the purposes of who gets the electoral roll. It says:
... a prescribed person or organisation that verifies, or contributes to the verification of, the identity of persons for the purposes of the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988 ...
I can understand that. If I were sitting in opposition and watching the government introduce its policies, I suppose I would be upset as well, Senator Faulkner. Let us talk about the question.
You keep advising Mr Latham. I think you were very good at that. I am not sure I want to take your advice, though. Senator Brown, in relation to the Financial Transaction Reports Act, this parliament in fact put a requirement on financial institutions to provide reports and obtain verification. It was considered appropriate by this place that the electoral roll be made available for those institutions so they could abide by the requirement that this parliament had imposed on them. Those financial institutions no longer do that work. They have outsourced it to a third party. After consideration, it was agreed that they should have that access.
To take you through the history of it: there was a unanimous recommendation of the 2001 election report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that suggested that there should be a limitation on who has access to the electoral roll for commercial reasons. That was something that I, as Special Minister for State at the time, thought was appropriate. It went through this place with virtually no discussion. One of the unforeseen consequences was that these financial institutions on whom we had put this duty were substantially disadvantaged. As a result, we are seeking to get rid of that unintended consequence so that the financial institutions can continue with their obligations under the Financial Transaction Reports Act.
Would the minister please indicate which financial institutions and which third parties now get access to the electoral rolls and what limitation on the use of those electoral rolls or dissemination of information from those electoral rolls is placed upon those organisations?
It is part of the anti-money-laundering provisions. Somewhere in my mind I have a figure of $10,000. We do not seem to have an expert on the Financial Transaction Reports Act in the advisers box at the moment, but what I can indicate is that it applies to all financial institutions that have a duty to report certain financial transactions, with a view to us as a society clamping down on money laundering. That was the purpose of the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988. It was working well with the use of electoral roll until we made those amendments after the 2001 report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It had unforeseen consequences. As a result, we are seeking to address the unforeseen consequences of those amendments.
I ask again which sorts of financial institutions the minister is referring to. I take it from the senator’s reply that the financial institutions had access to the electoral rolls for use, that was taken away in 2001 and this is to effectively restore that access. I did ask who the third parties are that the minister referred to. Could you tell us who they are and give an example?
Banks, building societies, credit unions and those sorts of financial institutions. The capacity of the institutions themselves to have access to the electoral roll was in fact maintained, but what nobody was aware of or cognisant of at the time was that that had in fact been outsourced to one company that is not a financial institution.
The name of that company is Baycorp. That is the company that provides that service to financial institutions around Australia. It is cheaper for the institution and therefore cheaper for those who deposit funds et cetera to have this outsourcing situation. It was not intended that we would make it more difficult to fight money laundering with the amendment that was carried some time ago. Therefore, we want to ensure that the fight against money laundering can continue unhindered. That is what they are restricted to with this amendment. The other restrictions on the use of the electoral roll remain.
I think the minister’s memory is accurate. I think it is a $10,000 threshold for reporting dodgy transactions under that act. Turning to schedule 1, item 36, which we seek to oppose, the item concerned would insert a new section 99B—I am taking this from the explanatory memorandum—into the Commonwealth Electoral Act which provides that, if a person has been notified by the immigration department that they are eligible for Australian citizenship and will become Australian citizens between issue of the writs and polling day, they are entitled to apply to the AEC for provisional enrolment before 8 pm on the day of the close of rolls—that is, the third working day after the issue of the writ.
That sounds like a generous concession. In fact, it is a concession in terms of what the government proposes. But, in terms of the existing law, it in fact reduces the period that new Australian citizens can register from seven days to three days following the calling of the writs. For that reason we think it is consistent, since we do oppose the changes to the closure of rolls, to oppose this particular provision.
The opposition will not be supporting the Democrat opposition to this item, on the basis that, while we are very concerned about the whole question of the early closure of the rolls, the particular aspect that the Democrats are dealing with here on my reading of it is very narrow. It is to deal with the question of the application of provisional voting for migrants seeking Australian citizenship whereas the more appropriate response to these matters is to actually knock out the entire section which goes to the issue of the closure of the rolls. That is what we do in our opposition to schedule 1, items 20, 24, 28, 29, 45, 51, 52 and 104 to 108, and similarly with the next question on a related matter. I would propose that at that point we will discuss in some detail the question of the early closure of the rolls. But I do think that this particular aspect that the Democrats are pursuing is far too narrow an approach on this matter. We do not have a particular problem with providing new citizens with the opportunity to enrol provisionally.
Just to clarify it, my understanding is that Senator Murray’s narrow provision is not covered by provisions to come down the line by Labor. I would be encouraged to relax about it if that were the case. What Senator Murray has outlined is a new provision under section 36 which means that people who are applying for citizenship have four days less in which to do so and therefore some of them will be cut out of having the opportunity to vote when an election is called. If that is not covered by a Labor amendment, I am motivated to strongly support the Democrat opposition to this item before us.
This provision for intending Australian citizens who have their applications under way has not previously existed. We are therefore making it easier for those who are going through the citizenship ceremony during the period of the election campaign to get on the roll in anticipation of that citizenship ceremony taking place. So we are in fact extending the franchise for new Australians in a manner that has not occurred before. Just for the record, I think that indicates that some of the criticisms about the government’s motives et cetera might be somewhat misplaced. We will be opposing Senator Murray’s proposal.
I would always be happy to withdraw an amendment if I were wrong; so I want to establish if I am wrong. My reading of the present law is that a person who is eligible for Australian citizenship and will become an Australian citizen in the seven days between the issue of the writs and polling day could enrol to vote. So there is a category of citizens presently who, if they become Australian citizens between the issue of the writs and the seven-day closure, could get onto the roll; whereas the new provision would say that that could only happen within three days. However, Minister, you are talking about a second category of persons who, under present law, if they became a citizen between the seventh day and let us say the 33rd day could still get on the roll because it was known that they would be a citizen in that time. Is that what you are saying to us? I have the two categories in mind, and I was considering the first category. Are you saying that there is a second category, who presently cannot get on the roll because they are between the seventh and, say, the 33rd day, who can now get on the roll? Is that accurate?
Yes. I will keep a very close eye on Mr Moyes in relation to this to make sure that I am absolutely accurate on this for you, Senator Murray, because it is an important issue. At the moment, if you are becoming an Australian citizen, you can enrol only if you actually are an Australian citizen. Therefore, as the law stands, in that seven-day period after the writs are issued, you can become enrolled up until the end point of the seven days if you have become an Australian citizen. After that, if you have become an Australian citizen, you are denied the vote and you cannot vote. What we are saying in our amendment is that, in the three-day grace period that we are allowing for to change your details on the electoral roll after the writs are issued, where other citizens can seek to change their address et cetera, prospective citizens can provisionally enrol on the basis that they will become an Australian citizen right up to and including election day. So I think we are in fact increasing and expanding the potential franchise, especially for new Australians. I hope that explanation is sufficient to have Senator Murray withdraw his amendment.
So we have a situation where a cohort of persons are having their present enrolment capacity reduced from seven days to three days but a second cohort within the same ambit of new citizens will in fact have an entitlement to which they did not formerly have. If that is the correct summation, I will continue to oppose item 36 of schedule 1, but I will not be overly sad if it is not voted for. We will not call a division on it.
I will quickly seek to dissuade Senator Murray from that course of action. Whilst there are only the three days as opposed to the seven days, there is no doubt in my mind that a lot more people will, as a result, be able to vote from the brand new Australian category—if I can call it that—having become citizens between the issue of the writs and election day, including election day itself. In the past, if you had not become an Australian citizen within those seven days after the writs were issued and you became an Australian citizen on the eighth day after the writs were issued, you were denied the vote. We are saying that you will get the vote from the eighth day right through to whenever the election day may be.
Anybody who would have been entitled to enrol within those seven days will have the capacity to provisionally enrol or enrol, if they become an Australian citizen, within those first three days. So there is no doubt that the franchise will in fact be increased for our new Australians.
Minister, a moment ago you used the term ‘a lot more people’. Those are your words. Are you able to tell the committee: how many is ‘a lot more’? Of course, when you say that there is an extension of the franchise, what I do know is that there is a massive limitation of the franchise for ordinary Australian citizens, particularly for those who have just attained the age of 18 years, who will be precluded from enrolling and for whom there is no period of grace. For other ordinary Australian citizens who wish to alter their electoral enrolments—in other words, they are enrolled in the wrong electorate—the period to be able to do that is reduced from seven days to three days. We know that those are two massive limitations on the franchise. And, because of figures that have been provided in evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, we know precisely how many people in those categories would have been affected in the 2004 election. As the minister would appreciate, we know those figures for not only the 2004 election but for electoral events prior to the 2004 election.
Minister, given that there is the very defined group of not new enrolees but, in fact, new Australian citizens—that seems to be the best way of describing them for the purposes of the debate that we are having before the committee at the moment—and given that you have indicated that there will be some extension of the franchise for that number of new Australian citizens, could you provide the committee with an indication of precisely how many citizens would have been included in 2004 as a result of these changes? Or—and I understand that the precise figures might not be available because, of course, the provisions of the act were different at that time—could you provide the estimations of the Australian Electoral Commission? You used the term ‘a lot of people’. I would just like to know either a precise indication or a clear and best estimate of what ‘a lot of people’ actually means.
I am delighted that Senator Faulkner hangs onto my every word and seeks to find out exactly what is meant. If I used terms such as ‘a lot of people’, ‘many more’ or a term to that effect, what I was pointing out was that at the moment you can only get a vote as a new Australian if you are given Australian citizenship during the seven-day period, whereas what we are suggesting is that you ought to be able to get the vote if you provisionally enrol in anticipation of that, right up to and including election day.
So, in very rough terms for ease of calculation, I would anticipate that we have the same number of residents becoming Australian citizens on a weekly basis. There are citizenship ceremonies all over the country at different occasions, and therefore one week’s worth in comparison to what might be four or five weeks worth may well mean that four or five times as many people could fit into the category of ‘a lot of people’ or ‘a lot more’. So what you have is potentially, in rough terms, four or five times as many people if they provisionally enrol. When and if they avail themselves of that, of course, remains to be seen, but it is something that, in my mind, will clearly extend the franchise for the new Australians and allow them to vote on the first possible occasion, as long as they become an Australian citizen between the issue of the writ and election day.
Minister, I am afraid that you have not yet been able to provide an answer to my question. I understand what you are saying to the committee in terms of how you are defining the new class of electors. I think that all the members of the committee understand the definitional issue. It has been clarified somewhat in this debate, which has been raging now for a good half-hour on this particular matter. So I think we understand the definitional issue. What I am asking is whether you can put some flesh on the bones. How many electors are we talking about when you proudly stand up, beat your breast and say that the franchise is being extended?
That is what you have done. You have stood here and said, ‘This is a move in the right direction.’ You are actually saying that the government, as a result of this particular provision, is extending the franchise. That is what you have said, and you have claimed credit for it.
The committee is trying to establish whether you are right or wrong on that point, but what I can tell you and what I do know in relation to the other provisions regarding the closure of the rolls that you are putting forward in this bill is that, on the figures available from the AEC for the 2004 election, 78,908 new enrolees and 78,494 re-enrolments occurred in the period available. With the changes that are being made in this legislation, virtually none of those people will be enrolled. We also know that over a quarter of a million others changed their enrolment details in the seven days that were available. So when you get up here before this committee, puff yourself up and say, as I said, ‘We’re extending the franchise,’ the truth is the franchise is being massively limited for new enrolees and re-enrolees, and the franchise is also being limited, and unfortunately manipulated, in relation to those persons who want to change their enrolment details.
The truth of the matter is—and every senator in this chamber and every parliamentarian in this parliament knows it—that most people are not as obsessed as we all are about the electoral process. Of course the calling of an election triggers a person’s interest in the voting process. It triggers the need for them to make sure that their enrolment is accurate, that they are enrolled for the right address or that they are on the roll if they are an 18-year-old or if their enrolment has lapsed for some reason. As I have said before, these people are not rorters or manipulators. They are just ordinary Australians who want to cast a vote.
We know the franchise is massively affected for literally tens of thousands of people in that category. If you are saying the franchise is being extending in one very small and very defined area, put your money where your mouth is and tell us how many people are being affected by this new provision. I know the answer: it is comparatively a handful. If what you are saying to the committee is right—and I hope it is—it is a handful of people. The facts are that the franchise is being deliberately limited by this legislation in relation to new enrolees and re-enrolees. They will get no chance at all of getting on the roll—and of course over a quarter of a million people who want to make sure their enrolment is up to date and accurate are not going to have the opportunity to do that, and they will be voting in the wrong electorate. So do not come into this committee and talk to us about any extension of the franchise. This bill represents the most significant limitation of the franchise in this country since Federation. That is what it represents: a massive limitation of the franchise. It is absolutely undemocratic at its core.
I am happy to. Secondly, I want to take up the minister’s comments of a moment ago where he tried to justify his proposition that the government is advancing the rights of provisional new citizens by talking about averages of citizenship numbers from week to week or month to month. Frankly, the proposition is clearly one which has been determined but which they are now trying to find an argument in support of. There isn’t one!
I would assume that, as a senator, the minister in this debate would have attended a few citizenship ceremonies. I have certainly attended many. What I know from the area where I live in Sydney and other areas is that citizenship ceremonies are usually held every couple of months. Certainly in the Sutherland shire area—the electorates of Cook and Hughes—a large citizenship ceremony is held on Australia Day. It is one of the largest throughputs of new citizens in the country on that day. The Sutherland Shire Council holds another ceremony, on average, every three months. The problem with the minister’s response was that he asserted that the possibility that so many new citizens who have already had their citizenship granted will lose their entitlement to get onto the roll under the government’s proposals because they have not enrolled before the day that the writs are issued will be balanced by the extension of the franchise to people who are going receive citizenship after the seventh day through to election day.
It will be the third day under the new legislation, but under the current provisions of the act it would be the seventh day. The minister has tried to say that there is a large number—he called it ‘a lot more’—of prospective new citizens who would get their citizenship between day three or day seven and the day of the election, and they will be able to get themselves on the roll in advance and that might balance out or equate to the number that may have got their citizenship in the last 12 months or so but have not got around to putting themselves on the roll.
Frankly, that is just an absolute nonsense. As I said, if you know anything about the way in which citizenship ceremonies occur around this country, you know that they are not held every week. The operation of this provision that the minister is lauding as somehow an extension of the franchise is entirely dependent upon whether the election campaign period coincides with the citizenship ceremonies. It could well be, for instance, that in the area where I live there may be no citizenship ceremonies programmed during the 33 days of the election campaign. So in that situation nobody is going to be able to avail themselves of this supposed extension of the franchise.
However, as Senator Faulkner has pointed out, and as Senator Carol Brown and I pointed out in the minority report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, thousands of people are going to lose the opportunity that they currently have to put themselves on the roll. That includes all those people who may have gained their citizenship in the period preceding the calling of the election but who have not got around to putting themselves on the roll. It seems that the government’s approach on this is that if you did not get around to doing it, it is tough luck, bad luck—you should have been a lot more enthusiastic, you should have been on the ball, you should have got yourself down to the electoral office and put yourself on the roll to make sure that on the day the election is called you are on the roll. And that applies to new citizens. That is an argument they can advance; I just wish they would have the honesty to get up and say that that is their position, that this is a case of double jeopardy—if you did not get around to putting yourself on the roll before the day the election is called then you have lost the opportunity once the election is called.
The fact of the matter is that there are many people, particularly people who are turning 18, who will be affected by this. As I said the other day in my speech in the debate on the second reading, when federal elections are held towards the latter part of the year, often young Australians turning 18 are in the middle of studying for their HSC or even doing their exams. Their minds might be preoccupied with what is an incredibly important thing for them and they might not have got around to putting themselves on the roll. There might be citizens who have been granted citizenship within the couple of months prior to the day the election writs are issued and who have not got down to the electoral office to put themselves on the roll. The current provisions in the act at least give them seven days to do that. These proposals from the government, these changes to the act, remove those opportunities completely.
You cannot come into this parliament and wax lyrical, pat yourself on the back, pump yourself up and beat your chest and say, ‘As a government we are going to take away the rights of these thousands of people who currently have them but we are going to find a small cohort of potential new citizens who, if they are lucky enough to have a citizenship ceremony programmed during the election campaign period, will be able to get themselves on the roll.’ This is just sheer and utter hypocrisy. It is sheer and utter banditry when it comes to the rights of those people who have an opportunity to put themselves on the roll. You do not promote democracy, respect for the electoral process and respect for the government by telling people their seven-day period of grace is going to be removed and then turn around and run some fictitious argument about a very small category of people and say, ‘Look how good we are; we are extending the franchise.’
I would like to know from the minister: what evidence was put before either the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters or the Senate committee that went to this particular issue of these potential new citizens saying that the act should be amended to give them an opportunity to get onto the roll? I am not suggesting that it would not be an extension if you maintained the current provisions. But there was no evidence brought forward by anybody complaining about that. There was no evidence or complaint made about the current provisions but there was plenty of evidence put forward complaining about the other part of this equation, which affects huge numbers of Australians, new citizens and people who will get the opportunity to enrol for the first time. At the end of the day, this proposition the minister is advancing is a complete and utter furphy.
I rise to support the remarks of the last couple of speakers, particularly those in relation to the government’s proposition about extending the franchise. In her recent paper, ‘Damaging democracy? Early closure of the electoral rolls’, Marian Sawer from the ANU makes it quite clear that closing the roll when an election is announced will disenfranchise about 80,000 new voters and impact particularly on young people. And, as Senator Faulkner said a little while ago, the reduction in time for voters on the roll to change their address details will create difficulties for some 200,000 people. She also says:
In 2001 83 000 first-time voters enrolled in the week between the issuing of the writs and the closing of the roll.
That is 83,000. Sawer goes on to say:
Many put off enrolling until an election is announced. Other comparable democracies are trying to increase the electoral participation of young people, with Canada—
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. I do not want to curtail discussion on this but we are in fact discussing Senator Murray’s amendment. The opposition have an amendment that covers all the matters that Senator Faulkner, Senator Forshaw and now Senator Milne are canvassing. I do not care how often we hear the same thing, but for the sake of the orderliness of the debate I suggest that we contain our remarks at this stage to Senator Murray’s amendment because there will be an opposition amendment going to these other matters.
Thank you, Mr Temporary Chairman. Whilst I appreciate what Senator Abetz is saying, the point here is that he was the one claiming to extend the franchise in relation to this matter. I am pointing out that he is wrong about that and explaining why. If necessary, we will repeat it again and perhaps later in the night he will change his mind.
What I was saying is that Canada allows young people to enrol on the day they turn up to vote. New Zealand gives them until the day before the election. In New Zealand they can now ask for their enrolment form through a free text message, which is very popular with young people. Australia is intending to close its electoral roll for new voters far earlier than comparable democracies and at least 33 days before an election. What is happening here is the attempt to prevent at least 83,000 young people from getting on the roll. I am aware that Senator Abetz has previously denied that there is any malevolence in this. He says: ‘Well, the writs are issued in Tasmania and New South Wales straight away and no-one has ever claimed that there is a democratic deficit in those states.’ But in fact, as Professor Sawer points out, in Tasmania the Electoral Act requires there to be at least five days between the proclamation dissolving parliament and the issuing of the writs. So it is disingenuous for the minister to suggest that somehow what he is doing is a similar practice.
I make the point quite clearly that, whilst the minister may be claiming to extend the franchise, in fact we are seeing the early closing of the roll and the absence of fixed terms making sure that a large number of young people—no doubt more than 80,000, come next year’s federal election—will be prevented from voting. Of course it is no coincidence that a large number of those young people tend to vote for progressive parties. One cannot help but think there is another agenda running here in terms of the reason for closing the rolls. This is an antidemocratic measure. And to try to suggest that the provisions in relation to citizenship are somehow extending the rolls, well, we will see—the proof will be in the pudding after next year.
I hope we do see the proof in the pudding, because that suggests that the bill will stand as printed. Whilst I admire the attempts of Senators Faulkner and Forshaw to muddy the waters and change the debate, the simple fact is that my intervention in this debate was in direct response to the amendment of the Australian Democrats, which, as I was seeking to explain, would take away the franchise. We would not be running this argument at all but for the suggestion of the amendment of the Australian Democrats. It will be very interesting to see if the Labor Party support the Democrats’ amendment—
And of course Senator Carr has quite rightly already expressed the Labor Party’s view on this, with carriage of the bill, so one wonders why the two Fs—Forshaw and Faulkner—had to involve themselves in the debate other than to muddy the waters. Senator Forshaw, the logic is pretty clear. If you become entitled to vote during the election period, then there is already a provision to enable you to enrol provisionally. Of course that is for 17-year-olds. They can enrol because they might become eligible to vote right up until election day. What we are doing is providing a similar provision for the benefit of those who will become Australian citizens during that period, so they are able to get themselves on the roll.
‘How many are there?’ is an interjection that I will take and which, of course, nobody knows the answer to. How many people will vote at the next election? Nobody knows the answer to that. How many young people, how many old people? We do not know. All we can do is try to establish the basic principles under which the Commonwealth Electoral Act will apply. That is what we have done. Trying to put a figure on it would be a guess. But, in general terms, there is no doubt in my mind that more people will become entitled to vote as a result of this particular provision. I think Senator Murray seeking to have it removed is not going to assist our new citizen community. In relation to citizenship ceremonies, which Senator Forshaw says he attends regularly, so do I.
And who is there? The Australian Electoral Commission. They do a fantastic job. Part and parcel of our policy is to get people to actually apply under the provisions of the electoral law which Labor put in—that is, you have to get yourself onto the roll within a certain period. Twenty-one days after becoming eligible you should get yourself onto the roll or, if there are changes, to make those changes known. What we intend to do—and we have already been doing it—is to increase the advertising amongst young people, with Rock Enrol et cetera, to get them enrolled.
This is the unfortunate thing: completely ill-informed, we have this affected cackle from those opposite, not knowing what the Australian Electoral Commission actually does to encourage people to get on to the electoral roll.
I understand that in my absence I have been called ‘one of the two Fs’—fair enough—by the A over there. Senator Abetz asked why I intervened in the debate. I intervened in the debate, even though the opposition is supporting the government on this provision, as you rightly say, to point out the utter and stupendous hypocrisy of your statements about the extension of the franchise, which I think stand utterly repudiated by the facts. There is no extension or expansion of the franchise here at all. You are claiming great credit for, in very small measure, in a very limited area, partially giving back what you are taking away through other provisions of the bill. It is as simple as that.
You are the Minister representing the Special Minister of State on this legislation—but in fact it was Senator Abetz who was the minister responsible for this legislation originally—that represents the most massive limitation of the franchise in Australian electoral history. The vote is being ripped off people left, right and centre. New enrollees, young people particularly, are going to be stopped from enrolling, stopped from participating in the democratic process and stopped from casting a vote in the next elections. It is true also of those people who are re-enrolling and in the case of many people who want to change their electoral enrolment to the right electorate—the electorate in which they reside at the time of an election being held. In other words, very responsible people who want to do the right thing by the electoral process and who want to vote in the right electorate—where they live—are going to be blocked from doing that. This is a massive limitation of the franchise, so I am explaining, Chair, why I intervened in the debate. I intervened in the debate for a little bit of a reality check on this minister, who is massively misleading this committee and massively misleading the Senate.
Can I just clarify something here? I thought schedule 1 item 36 in actual fact had very little to do with the opposition’s schedule 1 items 20, 24, 28, 39 to 45, 51 and 52, which are later on. I think that this is a new inserted provision, which Family First will be supporting because it is separate. The issue of closing the rolls after three days rather than after seven is actually to be dealt with further on in the committee process. Can someone clarify that for me to make sure that we are not talking about two separate issues?
I do. Senator Fielding was not here when the debate was under way. For clarification for the senator—and the minister can correct me if he feels it is wrong—the government’s proposed amendment effectively deals with two separate sets of people who are about to become citizens of Australia. For one set of people who got their citizenship within the seven days after the issue of the writs, their period for registration to vote in the election is shortened. They lose enfranchisement. It goes down from seven days to three days. A second set of people who were formerly going to be unable to vote, because they became citizens after the seventh day but before the day of the election, will now be entitled to enrol to vote if their citizenship ceremony occurs after the third day and before the election day. So it is two separate sets of people. Mr Chairman, I urge that we take the vote and move on on this one.
The Democrats oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
(5) Schedule 1, item 54, page 16 (lines 24 and 25), TO BE OPPOSED.
These particular items in the bill act to increase the nomination deposits for the House of Representatives and for the Senate. The increase for the House of Representatives is $350 to $500, which is a substantial jump, and for the Senate per candidate from $700 to $1,000.
We oppose this on the grounds that there is no evidence that the current amounts are inappropriate. I wandered down and had a look at the 2004 election report. I could not find at a quick glance nor do I recall the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommending this increase. It is an increase that the government have devised, as far as I am aware. We consider that there is no evidence that the current amounts are inappropriate. There is no evidence that they are too low. The purpose of the nomination deposit is primarily to deter frivolous candidates. Similarly, there is no evidence that they are so high as to deter serious candidates. Again, there is always a danger, because the cumulative cost for political parties of nomination fees can represent a barrier to entry, and it is a basic principle of our electoral democracy that we do not have high barriers of entry to political contests. While these increases may not be such a problem for the more moneyed major parties, there is a problem of principle here and the actual quantum does in my view pose a problem for the smaller parties or groups of independents wishing to field contestants in a number of electorates.
As with much of this bill, we think that this proposal is counter to good democratic practice. We think that nomination deposits should be at a level that does not deter people from standing as an election candidate, and contesting elections should not be confined to those who can best afford to do so. If the government is minded, as I think it is arguing with respect to the disclosure threshold, that you have to take account of inflation over time, then I would suggest that is the appropriate mechanism to put into the law rather than a leap which seems to me very substantial in quantum and in aggregate I think will act in a contrary fashion to encouraging the fullest participation possible.
I support the remarks by Senator Murray. I cannot see any justification for increasing the amount to this extent. Yes, it is a basic principle of democracy to give access to people to stand as candidates. I would like to ask the government since there is no reference to this being an issue anywhere in relation to election reports: on what basis have they increased the amount? On what basis have they increased it to the level that they have? Where is there any evidence that the current levels have encouraged any kind of frivolous activity in relation to accessing the capacity to run as a candidate in an election? Where is the evidence for any of this? Is this just not simply something that the government has decided to do without rhyme or reason except that the government wishes, again, to use a capacity to finance access to the election to restrict the number of small parties that might wish to contest an election? I am interested to know what the evidence is, where the government has got this idea from, where it got the level from and what the justification is for it.
The opposition will be opposing these amendments. We will be supporting the changes that the government is proposing. We take the view that the increase in the amounts from $700 to $1,000 is marginal and that if candidates are serious about standing for office these will not be a serious deterrent to standing for public office.
The government’s position is that they do not support the amendments proposed by Senator Murray. The government considers the levels proposed in the bill to be the appropriate amounts for nomination deposits as the existing deposit amounts have not been increased since 1998. The proposed amounts have maintained their position as a percentage of average weekly earnings compared to the position of the current amounts when they were introduced in 1998. When the amounts were last increased in 1998 the number of candidates at the subsequent federal election in 1998 rose significantly, so I am not sure that these necessarily are a disincentive.
As I understand it, all governments have a nomination deposit. The deposit is designed to try to ensure that you do not get frivolous nominations. That seems to be the public policy reason behind it. There is no exact science in this. I accept that these figures are drawn up on the balance of what you think might be acceptable in all the circumstances. The important thing is that a candidate’s nomination deposit will continue to be returned if the candidate obtains at least four per cent of the formal first preference votes cast at the election. I think that a deposit for a senator going up from $700 to $1,000 is reasonable. I understand for the New South Wales upper house the nomination fee is $500 and it is $250 for the lower house. I do not know what it is in other states, but as this is the federal parliament one would assume potentially that there ought to be some higher threshold. But the important safety valve for minor parties and anybody believing that they are not a frivolous candidate is that if they obtain four per cent or more of the formal vote they are entitled to have their deposit refunded.
That schedule 1, items 53 and 54, stand as printed.
Before I move on to oppose item 79 of schedule 1, I would like to remark upon what we have just voted for. If a parliamentary party stood 150 lower house candidates, that would cost them $75,000 in nomination deposits—that is, $500 times 150. If they stood three candidates in every Senate sector through eight territories and states at $1,000 a pop, that is $24,000. So, adding those two together, if you completely covered the field as a minor party, it would cost you $99,000. If you were a minor party that got, say, 1.9 per cent—and people have been elected with that—you would lose that $99,000. Some families could never, ever afford that, unless they were really rich families or well-paid senators. People need to be reminded of the aggregate sum of what affects them when they are dealing with things like nomination deposits and so on.
I will now move on. The Democrats oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
This concerns the disclosure threshold. I have listened with care to the minister and many others justifying a $10,000 threshold. Without verballing the minister, I summarise his arguments to be: firstly, it is a reasonable amount; secondly, if you compare it to the original disclosure amount, if that had been indexed it would certainly have been far greater than the present $1,500—I think the minister mentioned that it would be at least $5,000 on current indexation; and, thirdly, the $10,000 equates, roughly speaking, with the figure in a number of countries around the world that have disclosure thresholds. All those are arguments to be put in favour of increasing the disclosure threshold.
We have a different view. Our view is that the way in which democracies have moved is to be more rigorous over disclosure and that you cannot look at the disclosure regimes of other countries without looking at them in their total context. For instance, the disclosure regime of the United Kingdom, which was commented on favourably by the minister with respect to the threshold, is extremely rigorous in other respects. Recently I was able to read all about how much the Prime Minister’s wife had spent on hairdos when she accompanied the Prime Minister during the campaign and how much Charles Kennedy had spent on make-up, which strikes me as amusing. Of course, he was a Liberal Democrat, so I suppose it goes hand in hand! They have a far stronger disclosure regime in other areas, and you need to balance it out.
The problem with our disclosure regime is that it is weak. The disclosures that are available—
Yes, they are deliberately weak. I acknowledge, through the Temporary Chairman, the strength of argument and principle that I have respected in Senator Faulkner. But, Senator Faulkner, I assume that you have not been able to persuade your party, because your party itself has not moved to put into policy full disclosure with respect to trusts, clubs, foundations, overseas donations, fundraisers and everywhere else where we do need far better disclosure.
I take the interjection and I will repeat it. Senator Faulkner said, ‘To be fair, there would not be disclosure rules and regulations in the Electoral Act if it were not for the Labor Party,’ and I acknowledge that. My party is grateful for the initiatives and the efforts that the Labor Party put into a better funding and disclosure regime as far back as 1984. My criticism is not of what you did in the past but of what still remains to be done. I urge you to turn your eye to that.
But, coming back to this particular area: we see in our environment an increasingly moneyed electoral situation. Frankly, it acts as a major barrier to entry to small and minor parties and Independents. Unless you have rich interest groups or rich benefactors, you are going to struggle somewhat. The moneyed environment in which politics now operates in Australia is characterised by extremely high-cost campaigns and the increasingly well-benefacted, if I can use that phrase, nature of incumbency. In that case, you would have to ask why I would be concerned or worried about raising the disclosure level. My worry and concern about raising the disclosure level is that, the more political parties and politicians become dependent on money for electoral success, the greater the danger of undue influence and undue access being bought. Therefore our support for $1,500 remaining as the generous sum—we think it is a generous sum—set for the current threshold is based on the precautionary principle that, below that figure, we cannot really see someone being corrupted in the exercise of their duties, or a political party being influenced in the exercise of its duties. But, once you start to reach significant figures, you have to worry about it.
The government might say that $10,000 is not that significant, but there are clear cases in local council inquiries by the various corruption commissions where amounts of that type have been found to be improper and to have created a perception, and sometimes an actuality, of graft or corruption. The Labor Party claimed, in its submission to the inquiry into the 2004 federal election, that the current amount of $1,500 provides ‘a fair balance between optimum disclosure and practicability.’ I agree. Professor George Williams also argued that a major increase could not be justified. He stated:
The change would have a harmful effect on our democracy. Reform should instead be aimed at the more effective and more frequent disclosure of political donations.
Given the regulation loopholes that already exist with political finance disclosure laws, the boost from $1,500 to $10,000 can only intensify this problem. It could, essentially, allow secret donations of $9,999 to be made.
Generally speaking, to avoid doubt, people will put a cheque down for $9,999, which would definitely not be disclosed and therefore would be secret. Had this law been in place for the electoral period of 2004-05, it is claimed that a very high percentage of donations would therefore have been secret. The government argues in contradiction to that that a very high percentage of donations will still be disclosed. I think—and the minister will be able to verify this—the government says that around 75 per cent of total receipts will still be disclosed.
The Democrats think—and, I must say, it is a theme being picked up by the media—that more secrecy and hidden influence is not what ordinary Australians want. We think that already the perception, if not the reality in some cases, is that only those of wealth—corporate or entity wealth or individual wealth—are able to get major access and major input into our political system. We say: don’t let’s aggravate further that perception; let us put our efforts into more transparency. Raising the threshold is contrary to good principles of transparency and full disclosure.
In closing my remarks, I must say that I would be less concerned about this jump to $10,000 if the multiple donations problem did not exist—that is, the ability of individuals, as in the example I have just given, to donate $9,999 secretly not just to one but to nine divisions of a party, if a party has nine divisions. That means $90,000 worth of secret donations in a year, and that is an extremely concerning issue. When I discussed this matter formally with the Labor Party at the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters hearing on this matter, I had the impression from the national secretary that they were as concerned as I was about this issue. I have tried to address the issue of multiple donations in a later amendment of mine. I hope that when we come to it I will find, at least, the opposition able to support it.
Senator Murray’s proposition is one which the opposition will be strongly supporting. Senator Murray is proposing to essentially strike out a provision, a proposal we would strongly support. This is a highly controversial question that has arisen as a result of the Liberal Party’s long-held and absolute obsession with ensuring that it can get its big money mates to hand over millions and millions of dollars without being held publicly accountable for it. This is a proposition that is advanced on the most spurious of grounds—that is, that we are somehow or other expected to believe that this is all about the consumer price index. It has nothing to do with the consumer price index; although, I might add, the provisions of the particular section will see that an automatic increase in the sleaze factor will be there ad infinitum, should this legislation stand.
What we are looking at here is a proposition which would see the capacity for people to move money around rise from $1,500 per donation to, effectively, $80,000 per donation. This is not a matter that has anything to do with inflationary impact. It is about ensuring that the Liberal Party has access to very large sums of money. If you look at the so-called inflationary side of this, you see that if inflation were to be applied properly then the amount for which a candidate is required to put a post-election return in—which was set in 1984 at $200—would rise to $439. For post-election returns for groups of candidates, the amount would rise from $1,000 to $2,100. Measures that were introduced throughout the 1990s would similarly have very small increases—$400 or $500 at the outside—if it were purely an inflationary matter.
What we are talking about here is the capacity for large sums of money to enter into the political system and not be recorded, so that you cannot identify where the money is coming from. We know that under the present, somewhat inadequate, arrangements there are people around who are prepared to contribute very large sums of money. Lord Michael Ashcroft wrote a cheque for $1 million. We know that there is a capacity for very large sums of money to move into the political system. But what this will do is enable that level of investment to increase dramatically.
The Parliamentary Library has provided us with some advice on the effect of this measure. We see that with the current disclosure threshold of $1,500, of the current returns of $117 million, 81.9 per cent of the total donations is required to be declared. But under this provision the percentage of the total amount of money required to be declared would drop down to 70 per cent. That is on the current arrangements. If you see any change in behaviour as a result of these measures—which the government has said it intends to create; that is, it wants to see more people contribute these sorts of sums of money, and to do so in secret—then you would possibly see a situation arise where a little over 50 per cent of moneys would have to be declared. They are the consequences of these changes. What does that mean in real terms? What it means is that individuals with $80,000 will be able to buy votes in this parliament. That is a direct consequence of these sorts of provisions.
Those sorts of provisions have been rejected time and time again by this chamber and by this parliament. The Liberal Party has had this policy for the better part of 20 years and has failed to get it up. What has changed? Control of this chamber. That is the only thing that has changed in this whole debate. The provisions that are being proposed here are essentially not new. Senator Faulkner has probably argued this case for far longer than I have. But I recall that these questions have come up while I have sat here and listened over the last 13 years. They came up when the Liberal Party was in opposition and sought to do this. They have come up while the Liberal Party has been in government. But these proposals have failed, because they are fundamentally undemocratic.
These proposals are about ensuring the secrecy and the unaccountability of donors. Big money politics can buy votes, and this is a method by which that process can be made legal. That is why it should be strongly opposed. As far as we are concerned, this is one of those measures which highlights what this government is seeking to do with these electoral changes. It is not about improving transparency and it is not about ensuring that people know more about how their political system operates.
The Australian Electoral Commission has suggested that there needs to be a stiffening of requirements when it comes to the question of anonymous donors. But what do we see here? Exactly the opposite. Minister, I ask you straight up: why have you ignored the Australian Electoral Commission’s advice on this matter? What is the argument contrary to the view that says that the Liberal Party is in the pay of those large corporations that want to donate directly and buy votes through the Australian political system? If you can come forward and provide an $80,000 donation on the quiet and have no-one know that you have done it, what sort of influence can that bring? I think the answers to those questions are pretty straightforward. I look forward to the minister explaining his position on this, because so far there has been no explanation whatsoever provided as to why the government is seeking to do this—other than that it is an established Liberal Party policy which they are claiming is about inflation. It has nothing to do with inflation, other than the inflation of the Liberal Party vote. That is the inflation that they are interested in. They are interested in how they can keep it up.
It has also been claimed that this is a device by which we can ensure that more people contribute to the political system. We know a great deal about the sorts of people that this government wants to see contribute to the political system. As I read their proposals, if we saw an additional $10 million come into the political system, then the percentage of total receipts for which details would not have to be given would reduce to something closer to 50 per cent. There would be a reduction in the level of public disclosure. That is the direct consequence of this. That is the argument that is being put to you, Minister. I am looking forward to you putting a view to us as to why it is that you think that it is so important that this legislation should be allowed to proceed when it has have failed so many times before in this chamber.
That is the rule. That is the particular provision that we are looking at here: it is the capacity to get a majority in this chamber. In the American Senate, which has 100 senators, 40 senators are people who have wealth in excess of $1 million—40 per cent of the American Senate. One thing that has always struck me as one of the great things about the Australian political system is that you can get elected without having a lot of money. What you are going to see under these arrangements is a big change in the way in which our electoral system functions. That is the consequence of these arrangements. Large sums of money will flow into the system, and no-one will be accountable for it. That will attract a different type of candidate. People will need to spend a lot more money to get elected here. A different sort of candidate will emerge as a result of that. We will see the Americanisation of the political system in this country. That is something that we should deeply regret.
The government think it is a smart move to pull. They think this is an easy way to secure their longevity. In fact, it may well prove that in the short term they are able to attract more money and it may well hurt the opposition parties in this country. It may well hurt the Labor Party. I have no doubt we will hear a lot about unions in a few moments. I can say to you that, of all the money that was put into the Labor Party at the last election by unions, which was about $1 million, one individual—one British lord—put in the equivalent amount. Under these arrangements what you are going to see is extraordinary sums of money coming into the system, and it will be unaccountable and in secret. It will be the dirty money that comes with demands for political favours to be exercised.
There will be no-one around to be able to say, ‘Why did you do that?’ because we will not see any connection between the donations that are actually given to the political parties, their public declarations and the subsequent actions that governments take. You have to bear that in mind when we are talking about these matters. We are talking about the capacity to buy political favour. I have yet to hear from the government any defence that suggests they are going to be able to protect themselves—and that is an important part of this; it is not only to protect the parliament but also to protect themselves—from the capacity of unscrupulous individuals to actually buy political influence as a result of being able to make secret donations.
I have mentioned $80,000, but I can see circumstances where perhaps that is underestimating the impact. There could be a situation, as I think Senator Ludwig pointed out this evening, where you might get a couple of people in a family contributing individually. You would see multiples of $80,000 added through. It may well be considerably more than that. An extra $10 million, which the parliamentary research note draws our attention to, is not an unrealistic figure to expect. Under those circumstances we are likely to see a dramatic fall in the level of accountability that will flow from this.
I am deeply disturbed by this proposal. For many reasons I think that tonight we will see the continuation of an argument. It will not end here, whatever the vote is tonight. This is the sort of thing that rots at the heart of a political system because it allows for dirty, big money politics to actually infect the political system. The key to it is being able to say to people, ‘This is where we got our money from and these are the circumstances under which we got it.’ If you go to a system where a political party has access to this sort of money—undeclared, anonymous money—then the political favours that flow from that I think can lead to very serious consequences for the probity of the political system.
There is a lot at stake here on this vote. This is not just a question of short-term political advantage for the Liberal Party and inflating the Liberal Party vote at the next election. This may well have quite serious consequences for the general political system and the probity of the Australian electoral system. One of the things that we could genuinely hold our heads up on until now is that Australian politics is largely pretty clean. I say that the secret of it is the fact that people are required to declare where they get their money from. That is what is being put at risk here with these arrangements. That is what troubles me about these propositions.
The government think that, because it is Liberal Party policy, we should just accept it with no explanation. We should just cop it sweet. They have tried in the past and failed, and now they have the numbers they expect us to go quietly on it. Minister, you are wrong about that. People will not go quietly on this. This will be a matter that is fought right throughout the length and breadth of this country.
You should get used to it because this is a matter that will haunt you for quite a considerable time. This is a terrible mistake. It is not actually in your long-term interest to do this. That will not deter you, but the fact is that it will lead to corruption in the Australian political system. It will undermine the integrity of our electoral system. It will undermine the probity of the way in which governments do business in this country. It will have a profound consequence for the future of politics in this country, Minister. I am looking forward to your explanation as to why it is that such a move is necessary, other than the fact that you have said you have believed in this for a long time. You have wanted to get your snout into this trough for a long time. Now you have the opportunity to do it.
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. I do not want Senator Carr to misrepresent me in this place. What I actually said was, ‘You are a disgrace.’ I did not say the word ‘sleaze’ and I do not want it to be reported on the Hansard that I did.
Mr Temporary Chairman, I have been called much worse. We were told today that using the phrase that the National Party are ‘a bunch of doormats’ was unparliamentary. So I think some of the things that have been said tonight—
What I am concerned about is this: the government think that what I am suggesting is a disgrace. That is nothing on what is coming as a result of their actions in allowing the Australian political system to be corroded and corrupted by these sorts of devices. In the past you were satisfied with trying to lift it from $1,500 to $3,000, Senator Abetz. This time you have gone for the jackpot. You have moved it up to $10,000, which I say in reality is $80,000 because of the way in which our political system actually works. In reality it may be much higher than that figure. (Time expired)
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. Senator Brown is so anxious to ensure that people abide by parliamentary standards. He knows that the Prime Minister should be referred to by his proper title—and Senator Brown should do so. I would have thought that if ‘disgrace’ were an improper term then ‘corruption’ might be also.
On the point of order: I agree with part of Senator Abetz’s point of order. I would never describe Prime Minister Howard as ‘Honest John’—never. So I agree with that. But I do think the term ‘corruption clause’ is perfectly reasonable in this circumstance and not unparliamentary. So I think perhaps the first part of Senator Abetz’s point of order is warranted. I would never describe the Prime Minister as ‘Honest John’. It just does not fit the bill. I think ‘corruption clause’ is in order.
Order, Senator Brown! I think I should rule on the point of order. If you are referring to the Prime Minister, you must use his proper title. If you are suggesting that the Prime Minister is corrupt, that is not parliamentary and I would ask you to withdraw.
I would refer to the Prime Minister by his correct title but, when it comes to the term ‘corruption clause’, I would not withdraw it, because I believe this clause will engender corruption. It is a dastardly piece of legislation to bring into this parliament. We have a Prime Minister who has inveigled business to be philanthropists. The effect of this will be an enormous, covert, hidden, secret, unaccountable, opaque—not transparent—passage of money from his big business mates, in particular, to his political party in the future without public accountability. It is a very serious matter.
I agree with Senator Carr that, in the main, we have had a credible electoral system. But this legislation plunges our electoral system into the depths of all sorts of potential sleaze—as Senator Faulkner would put it. These are terrible words to be using, but this is terrible legislation. We know about the large amounts of money that already flow under our current system from big corporations, in particular, and wealthy individuals to the political parties. We should be removing that, because it is done to gain favour. It is illogical—in fact, it is of questionable legality—for a corporation to be passing money across to any political party unless they can show that there is going to be a gain for their shareholders. Certainly under corporate ethics, in which boards are charged with getting a maximum return and to always act in the interests of the shareholders, it would be quite wrong to be giving political parties money unless there were a gain to be seen to be coming out of that. Of course, you would be daft to think otherwise.
Oh, he is worried now about the anonymity of a koala suit person collecting money in the street as against what is going to happen here. My colleague Senator Milne will show some of the potential expansion of hidden donations that will come out of this. I do not know, but I think Senator Abetz may be able to enlighten us on the process, because there is a lot more to be discovered and at least challenged in the course of this debate.
But what are we to do with an electoral system where there is the encouragement of large amounts of money and multiple amounts of money going to political parties and not being accountable? And here we go from $1,500 to $10,000. I would point out to Senator Murray, who has been making such a positive contribution to the defence against this terrible legislation today and tonight, that the wording that is now used in the legislation is such that you have to account for gifts et cetera which are valued at more than $10,000. So, under this law, you can give $10,000 and not have to account for it, but if you give $10,000.05 you have to. That is because the old system, which said that amounts of less than $1,500 required you not to give $1,500 or you had to account for it, was a bit awkward.
It has been thought out so as to be able to smoothly say to people: ‘Give us $10,000. Write the cheque now and nobody will know about it ever.’ It used to be much more awkward. It used to be, ‘Give us any figure short of $1,500 but don’t make it $1,500 or you will be on the record.’ They have overcome that through this wording which says, ‘Give us $10,000 and you are right.’
That is right. What do you do with secretive organisations that are able to manipulate their members and followers into making donations to political parties without having to account for it? What do you do with organisations like the Exclusive Brethren, which I am told have their members—
Senator Abetz may be able to enlighten us more on this—give money, as members, to advertise for the Prime Minister, as they did in Bennelong, with big, colourful ads, attributed not to the Exclusive Brethren but to Mr S Hales or to the address of a school, which happens to turn out to be an Exclusive Brethren school. There was the same sort of advertising for the Liberal Party in Parramatta, in Adelaide and in Tasmania. Thousands upon thousands of brochures went out in Tasmania against the Greens under the guise of being somebody’s production—just a person, just a line—but it turns out that they came from the membership of the Exclusive Brethren sect, which is not registered as a political party. According to them, the Prime Minister, John Howard, is the right Prime Minister, the best Prime Minister that this country has ever had, which means that the other political parties are wrong. They will work to ensure, even though their members cannot vote—strangely enough—that this political party stays in office. I say that if the Exclusive Brethren want to do that, fine, but put it on the public record, be honest about it and allow everybody to know where it is coming from and what the philosophy of those behind it is, but we do not get that.
What this legislation will mean is that an extraordinarily well-cashed-up organisation like the Exclusive Brethren, where millions of dollars pass hands each year, will potentially be able to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising for the conservative parties against the Labor Party and/or the Greens and/or any other party in the spectrum, and nobody will know about it. You will just see the ads appearing, you will just see the brochures going out, and nobody will know what the arrangement is and who the people behind that are. That is defrauding democracy. When that happens, democracy is being degraded.
The senator opposite, Senator Bernardi, mentioned the Wilderness Society a while ago. Okay—let us make it more accountable, not less accountable. This is where we should be going with this legislation tonight: we should be following Canada. After a series of corruption scandals, they abolished corporate donations and moved on to effectively abolish private donations, replacing them with public funding. They did that with a great deal of skill and acumen because they wanted to get rid of the cheating, unfairness and skulduggery creeping into Canadian politics. Here is our opportunity to do that, but, instead, the Howard government is moving rapidly in the opposite direction: in the direction of the United States, as I think Senator Carr was pointing out. To corrupt the wonderful political system in this wonderful country of ours is a terrible direction to be going in. This legislation will corrupt it. It is designed to get much larger amounts of money out of people to help this government. That is what it is about: helping the coalition parties. Nobody else is here advocating it.
If you think you have ever seen legislation like this before the parliament, without it having been weighed up and very carefully considered by the back room of the Prime Minister’s office, with the Prime Minister being fully alert to and aware of the weighted odds going in favour of the government and nobody else, then you need to think again. That is just what is happening here. Many of the amendments that this legislation makes—like cutting out young people, as we have been talking about, cutting out prisoners and making it more difficult for new immigrants— (Time expired)