Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006

In Committee

Consideration resumed.

8:03 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Milne was in continuation but, with her permission, I would like to intercede because there was a matter in the earlier debate when the minister inadvertently misled the Senate and I thought I would give him the opportunity to correct it before it went too long—and I have a paper for him. Are you happy with that, Senator Milne?

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to refer back to the minister informing the Senate that with respect to my earlier amendment, which has been voted on, which asked that annual returns which are illegible should not be accepted, he said it was not a matter capable of being resolved at law—and I knew it was. As the chair knows and as many members of the Senate know, in my portfolios and in my parliamentary work I deal with a great number of acts and regulations and other matters. So I went away and discovered a few examples of the word ‘legible’ being found in Commonwealth acts and regulations both under the previous Labor administration’s laws and under this government’s laws, including some of those for which the minister has had responsibility. I will name those acts I have found without going into the text because that would take up too much time.

‘Legible’ is used as a requirement in the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1991; the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which is before us now; the Corporations Act 2001; the Referendum Machinery Provisions Act 1984; the Cheques Act 1986; the Navigation Act 1912; and the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976. Those are seven acts I have just picked out. On selected Commonwealth regulations, there is Senator Abetz’s and the government’s own favourite Workplace Relations Regulations 2006, which require among other things that records must be in a ‘legible form’ in the English language and be printed in ‘legible typescript’. There is also the Therapeutic Goods Regulations 1990, the Australian Postal Corporation Regulations 1996, the Bankruptcy Regulations 1996, the Commonwealth Inscribed Stock Regulations, the Interstate Road Transport Regulations 1986, the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) (Occupational Health and Safety) Regulations 1993 and the Trademarks Regulations 1995.

The reason I bring this to the attention of the chamber is not because I think the minister would have advertently misled the Senate by claiming that ‘legible’ was not capable of legislative and judicial interpretation, because the government’s very own acts have put that into place, but because I thought it should be corrected. The amendment I moved was not moved for political partisan purposes; it was moved as a technical minor amendment designed to improve the way in which people who use the returns could avail themselves of the fact that those returns had been made. I was a little distressed that the shadow minister easily agreed with the minister’s approach.

Having made my point that my amendment was a very valid one which can be put into law on the basis of precedent and is capable of judicial interpretation, I am not so naive as to think the government will change its mind and support my amendment, so I am not going to ask for a recommitment. But I think that when someone like me who has been dealing with the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for 10 years says that there is a problem, generally speaking it is a genuine attempt to address a real issue and I felt it was dismissed somewhat lightly.

8:08 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend Senator Murray for bringing that matter back to the chamber. The Greens supported him in that amendment and we hope the government will reconsider regardless of whether it is recommitted. Before question time today I was speaking to the amendment I have moved with regard to electoral advertisements by third parties. I want to explain to the people of Australia why this is essential and why the government’s changes do not address this issue. I am going to refer to a situation that arose in the Tasmanian election early in 2006. Whilst there are no disclosure laws in Tasmania, so anything goes, exactly the same thing could occur in the federal election in the next year and the same will apply. I would like the minister to respond.

What occurred in the Tasmanian state election was that a mystery TV advertising campaign supporting the return of a stable majority government hit the airways. The two prime time television commercials were followed by press releases, radio campaigns and all sorts of varying manifestations of the same ad, which featured a Tasmanian blue-collar worker and a happy young family relishing their prosperous lifestyle and secure jobs in Tasmania. The end message of the powerful political ads called on Tasmanians to vote for a stable majority government. The ads said: ‘We want the security of knowing that Tasmania will stay this way and it will not return to the bad old days of the mid-90s.’

Clearly, it was not coming from the Liberal Party because in the mid-90s there was a Liberal minority government. A secretive group calling itself Tasmanians for a Better Future funded the commercials. The ads did not disclose who or what organisations were behind the group, or who was paying for the lavish campaign for a majority government. The only authorisation on the end of the ads, as required under the Electoral Act for political advertising during an election, was Tony Harrison, head of Hobart advertising agency Corporate Communications, which made the ads. Mr Harrison, whose business works for some of Tasmania’s largest companies and government organisations including the TT-Line, TasPorts, PowerCo Tasmania, Gunns and Hobart Airport, said that the provider of the funds was confidential. He said that finance had come from ‘a group of concerned Tasmanian businesses and community people’ with the charter to promote the benefits of a stable majority government but not one party. The TV ads, as I said, were joined by press, radio, billboards et cetera.

The Lennon government in Tasmania were adamant that there was no government money in the secretive majority campaign. The Premier of the day said that they did not have any money in it although they were the only ones who could realistically form a majority government. The Liberal Party, foolishly, of course, came out and said that they supported the message of the ads, that is, majority government, even though they could not win one. It beggars belief that they could be that foolish, but they were.

The only hints of possible sources of funding were in the commercials themselves. One featured Forestry Tasmania’s Tahune air walk in the Huon and another a sunlit winery restaurant with a Tamar Ridge wineglass in the foreground. Forestry Tasmania denied it had provided any funding and so did the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Federal Hotels, Timber Communities Tasmania and Forestry Tasmania. They all denied having any money in it, but timber giant Gunns, which owns Tamar Ridge Winery, was asked if it had helped fund the commercial and it refused to respond. The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairman, Michael Kent, said he understood that quite a number of small- and medium-sized businesses across the state supported the campaign. He said, ‘They want to see things continue in the vein of the past three or four good years.’

So here we have a group, Tasmanians for a Better Future. They are not registered, we do not know who they are and they have no name or address—nothing. We have people saying they represent 20 or 30 businesspeople who have a certain view, and the ads are authorised by a public relations company, Tony Harrison’s Corporate Communications. Of course, it does not escape my attention that Tony Harrison worked for Robin Gray, the Liberal Premier of Tasmania through the 1990s, as his press secretary. As I indicated when I spoke on this in the debate on the second reading, Concerned Citizens for Tasmania was the bogus group that former Premier Robin Gray set up after the 1989 election. Tony Harrison now says that this group behind the ads is made up of ‘concerned Tasmanians’.

The code of conduct of the Public Relations Institute of Australia requires members to reveal who has funded any PR campaign. Tony Harrison, on behalf of Corporate Communications, utterly refused to do so. And the PR institute just stood by and allowed him to get away with it, which makes a complete mockery of any kind of code of conduct for the public relations industry and confirms what people in the general community think of them.

Here we have a situation which is not addressed by the government’s bill. The government’s bill says that, first of all, a third party that engages in an election campaign has to declare what they are doing if the amount of the expenditure incurred is more than $10,000. In this case it certainly was more than $10,000, so under the Commonwealth’s new legislation you would have a return put in by Corporate Communications, a public relations company, saying that it expended however much. You would have no way of checking, but let us say that it expended a quarter of a million dollars on a public relations campaign. The government’s legislation says that, in that case, if any one of the donors, any one of the 20 or 30 businesspeople, had put in more than $10,000 then they would have had to name them, but if they had not then they would not. The result is that a group of unknown, unnamed shadowy figures can emerge from somewhere and call themselves anything, such as Tasmanians for a Better Future—and, interestingly, that is a similar slogan to the one that the government ran with—and get away with it. They will never be named and will never be known. You will just have the public relations industry declaring its expenditure.

That is the issue. That is why I have moved this amendment. It says that if a third party wants to be involved in an election campaign, first of all it has to register. It has to register so that it provides compulsory identification of that third party, including the identification of all persons in the case of corporations, including directors and other officers of that corporation. Secondly, there has to be compulsory disclosure by a third party of any contributions made to it by any person or corporation. This is how it would catch the 20 or 30 businesspeople who tried this in Tasmania—successfully, I might say. Nobody in Tasmania to this day knows who influenced the outcome of the election by paying Corporate Communications in cash. If Senator Abetz knows then I would really appreciate him telling Tasmanians what we all suspect—that Gunns had a considerable amount of money involved in the campaign. If he knows something to the contrary then he should say so. This amendment requires that anyone who donates more than $1,500 to the PR company or the third company has to be captured in this.

Thirdly, I am making it a requirement that, when they register, the third party must disclose their relationship with a registered political party or independent candidate. As Senator Abetz has claimed on many occasions, there are people working on behalf of other entities. I say that, in that case, they should register their relationship. Another example of that is Dean Cocker, of 13 Elphin Road, Launceston, who put full-page advertisements in the Examiner. As we now know, he is the managing director of JAC Group, yet this ad was put in under his name and address. Under the government’s proposed laws, all that would happen would be that he would have to put in a return if he spent $10,000 or more. The fact is that a full-page ad in Tasmania does not cost $10,000. You can take out an ad up to the value of $10,000 and never have to declare it. What is more, earlier Senator Abetz said, in response to a question that I asked, that if somebody provided the money to someone to then donate or in this case to advertise, they would have to say so. I do not believe that this captures that. If JAC Group provided Dean Cocker, of 13 Elphin Road, Launceston, with the money to place this ad, that is not captured.

Also, I believe that, looking at this ad, it was most likely written and placed by one of the major parties and more likely than not came straight out of the government’s media office or campaign team office. We know from the last federal election that the Liberal Party wrote and placed ads on behalf of other people. Other people put ads in the paper with their names and authorising addresses on them, but we know that the Liberal Party wrote the ads and placed the ads. Somebody else paid for them and authorised them. That is not captured by the third-party amendments.

I would also like to know from Senator Abetz how the government’s proposals are going to be policed. How will the Electoral Commission know who in the community—which third party or which individual—has spent more than $10,000 and therefore has to put in a return? Are they going to look at an opinion poll that someone conducted? How are they going to find out what you paid to have that done? How are they going to know? Are they going to track down advertising agencies? Are they going to have to have police powers? If they go to a printer is the printer required to say that Dean Cocker spent a certain amount? Is a newspaper going to tell you how much this ad incurred and so on? The legislation talks about an annual return relating to political expenditure and says that if a person who is not a political party or candidate spends more than $10,000 they have to put in a return. How is the Electoral Commission going to identify those people or know who should be putting in a return? There is no possible way of knowing that.

I urge the government to recognise that the only way to do this is to require anybody who wants to advertise in an election campaign to register so that you know who they are and who they represent et cetera. Then they should declare what their relationship is with any candidate or political party in the election. For example, are they going to use the same ad agencies? Is the party going to provide the ads for them? Are they going to place the ads for them? Do they have any kind of relationship with people in the campaign?

If this third party has donations from a fourth party given to it then who they are must be able to be seen. Otherwise, you have the situation of Tasmanians for a Better Future, where, to this day, Tasmanians do not know who paid for $200,000 worth—probably more—of advertising that influenced the outcome of the state election. If you do not rein this in now it will mean that there will be a blank cheque for public relations agencies going into the federal election, with the full blessing of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, which will be saying: ‘Forget about our code of conduct. It doesn’t operate. It doesn’t matter. We’re completely self-regulated. We’ll just do as we like and you just go right ahead.’

Next year we will have a plethora of public relations agencies behind which any number of people can hide, providing they do not make an individual donation of more than $10,000 to that public relations agency towards a collective campaign. This is a situation where a chamber of commerce can get half a dozen individuals or a rich family to put in. The point is disclosure. We are not going to know who influences the outcome of elections. If we do not know who is actually paying for these advertisements—who these third parties represent—then after the election we are not going to be able to see the relationship between what they put in and what policy outcomes they get out. That is why I think that is the only way you can control this: if you have registered third parties, they are forced to say what their relationship is to any political party and you can track donations to them of less than $10,000, because in a state like Tasmania $10,000 buys you a lot of advertising and there is no disclosure whatsoever.

8:23 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

As members of the chamber know, I have some considerable experience of the world, having lived on three continents. If I were to think of the issue which exercises the minds of people involved in the democratic process, on any continent in the world, it is that elections should be free and fair. From the riots and the sheer turmoil that accompany the worst examples of elections that are not free and fair, to the countries that have the quietest and most orderly democratic elections, amongst which Australia is numbered, the freeness and fairness of elections is an issue. It is not good enough for us to think that the issue raised by the Australian Greens does not warrant proper attention in Australia.

I think of Senator McCain in the United States who is of such stature that he could be a credible challenger for the very top job in that country. He built much of his campaign platform on the issue of electoral reform and more free and fair elections. One of the key things that he and many American legislators, academics, commentators, media and the community at large have focused on is the issue of improper or corrupt activity by third parties in elections. The issue is not whether third parties should have the opportunity to express an opinion. That is not an issue at all. In our country in the last year there was a businessman—I think he was a Western Australian businessman—who got right up the nose of the government, amongst others, by running a series of expensive television advertisements about East Timor and the negotiations on the oil matters there. But it was very clear who he was, what his program was and where his money came from. It was up front. Whether you agree or disagree with his point of view, it was part of the—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Was it clear?

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

It was clear to me; maybe it was not clear to you. If the minister’s point is that it was not clear enough, then let us have a law that makes it clear enough. That is the point made by the Australian Greens senator. Perhaps the minister is actually agreeing in those circumstances.

My view is that third parties who can be identified, whose program and objectives are known and understood and whose source of money is known and understood have every right to participate in Australia’s great democracy. But as soon as someone is hidden, as soon as it smells of a conspiracy, as soon as it looks as if it is contrived or an improper way to influence an election we have to be on our guard. Even if the minister—when he answers for the government with respect to the issue and the amendment raised by the Greens—is going to end up disagreeing with the amendment, I think he would be unwise to believe that there is not a problem. There is a problem.

As an example, there is another aspect of the bill in which at last a government in this country is addressing a problem that there has always been—that is, the issue of one party passing itself off as another in an election. The Democrats have been victims of that a number of times in our 30-year history. We could have squealed and moaned all we liked but we were a minor party, we were not the government of the day. Until the government of the day was hurt, nothing was going to be done about it. Well, the government of the day have done something about it and we support them doing something about it. Maybe it could have been done in a better or different way, but we support them doing something about it because it is wrong that someone should be able to pass themselves off as something they are not, with the idea of making an election unfair and making a candidate unable to contest a free and fair election and so perhaps losing their seat, their deposit or something else.

I am disturbed when a serious and genuine national political party expresses a concern about a problem with respect to the way in which elections are conducted. I am concerned if the minister who has responsibility for electoral matters does not take it seriously and sneers at it or is aggressive about it. I am not suggesting that the minister at the table is sneering at it or is aggressive about it, but some people, because they disagree with the Australian Greens, are inclined to think that if the Greens put up an issue concerning the way in which they are treated in an election that concern should be dismissed out of hand. I have had some very fierce contests with the Australian Greens in my 10 years here. I once remember Senator Margetts on her knees red-faced screaming at me from her bench. That is part of the hurly-burly of this place—do not misunderstand me.

I am concerned for free and fair elections in Australia. I am concerned that one of these days the Liberal Party or the Labor Party or my own Democrats Party might find itself subject to the sorts of things that the Greens are complaining of here. We need to ensure that third parties who engage in our political process do so under an open, transparent and properly reported system. I personally am not satisfied that we have that, and it is an issue which deserves a serious response from both the parliament and the minister.

8:31 pm

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

I likewise am concerned about the ability of people who do not declare where they are coming from to enter into election campaigns as things stand. Unless this legislation is amended, it will give them a freer hand. I spoke earlier today about the Exclusive Brethren and I draw the committee’s attention to an advertisement which appeared in the Eastern Courier in Adelaide on 6 October 2004. That was during the last federal election campaign. It is in a gay pink colour and it says: ‘John Howard provides strong leadership for Australia. Keep Australia in safe hands.’ Under that, it has a list of issues, including national security, allied relations, inflation and home interest rates. It compares the Liberals favourably with the failed policies of the Labor Party in each case. There is no mention of the Greens here. It is very clearly an advertisement for the government in a key seat of South Australia.

This advertisement was authorised by D Burgess of 363 Swansea Road, Lilydale, Victoria 3140. That led an academic from South Australia, Mr Trainer, to ask who had placed the ad, because he was clearly under the impression that it was a Liberal Party ad. Why wouldn’t you have that impression, as there is a picture of the smiling Prime Minister in the advertisement. He was surprised to find after quite a long and exhaustive investigation that in fact the authoriser of that ad is a member of the Exclusive Brethren. After some confusion at the newspaper, the Liberal Party denied that they had produced that advertisement.

My reckoning is that that advertisement alone is worth more than $1,500. I would be interested to know from the Electoral Commission whether D Burgess of 363 Swansea Road, Lilydale filed a return and put on public record with the Electoral Commission this spending—which was part of a wider Exclusive Brethren input to the election campaign—on advertising against the Labor Party and in favour of the government in Adelaide during the last federal election campaign.

At the same time, a brochure appeared in Tasmania. It was headlined, ‘Beware,’ with a picture of forest behind it. On the back, it says, ‘What policies are you really’—with ‘really’ underlined—‘supporting?’ Then it had a list of the environmental policies of the Howard government headed, ‘Fact: the Howard government is committed to our environment.’ It says: ‘The government spent $1.1 billion in 2004. That is almost triple what the previous government allocated and $400 million more than estimates expenditure in 2003-04.’ It also says that the government spent ‘$300 million for the National Heritage Trust and $463.6 million for climate change programs’, et cetera. It says, ‘This is responsible and balanced, contrary to the Greens’ policies.’ This brochure alleged that the Greens’ policies would ‘ruin Australia’.

The interesting thing about this is that it was authorised by M William Mackenzie of 11 Baden Powell Place, North Rocks, New South Wales, 2151. People who are aware of North Rocks would be aware that it is near Parramatta. It was printed by Woolston Printing, 111 Elisabeth Street, Launceston, Tasmania, 7250. This brochure was letter-boxed widely in Tasmania. I cannot think that there is any way that it would have cost under $1,500. It has come from—on my understanding, and I will be very happy to retract this if there is evidence to the contrary—a printing firm owned by an Exclusive Brethren member and was authorised from faraway Sydney by another member of the Exclusive Brethren who, by the way, did not reside at that address.

On the other side, under the heading ‘The Green delusion’—a heading which was to be used a few months later in a very similar pamphlet produced in New Zealand by Exclusive Brethren businesspeople against the Labour Party and the Greens—it points out that there are a whole lot of things wrong with the Greens’ policies. Among those was an increase in company tax from 30 per cent to 49 per cent. The problem with that is that the Greens have no such policy. We did have a policy for a 33 per cent company tax, but that is a long way short of 49 per cent.

The old policy of 49 per cent, which I think all parties in this parliament have held at some time, has been abandoned by the Greens, as it has by the other parties, but the Liberal Party in Victoria, along with Business Council of Australia, continued to assert that the Greens had a 49 per cent tax policy. I disavowed that to those groups. In fact, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, which followed up that wrong tax policy attributed to the Greens, was good enough to print a retraction the next day, effectively, and to set the record straight. The newspaper wanted to make sure that it was not misinforming readers. That did not stop the Exclusive Brethren’s William Mackenzie, of an unknown address—but certainly not of 11 Baden Powell Road, North Rocks—from continuing to lie to the electorate of Tasmania by putting out this brochure with that information in it.

It is interesting that, along the way, there has been a more generalised attack on the Greens as having failed communist and socialist ideologies. Let me say here at the outset that, if one thing has made me formulate my thinking in the world, it is the horror of Stalin and Mao and what they did to their own people. Here we have an organisation which is secretive, which bans its members from voting and which has a head who can dictate assent to people’s relationships, to where they live, to how they work and to how they move, daring to make such an accusation about the Greens. I think every elector has a right to know who was behind this brochure, but they did not find that out. I hope the electoral office is successful in discovering that, but it will be a difficult job because a real effort has been made here to not let people know that the Exclusive Brethren, who do not allow their members to vote, have got so entangled in promoting the Howard government against other political groups in the community.

More directly, in Mr Howard’s own electorate, there was a colour advertisement saying, ‘Keep Bennelong in safe hands; keep Australia in safe hands’—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

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

naturally Senator Abetz would say that—‘and keep Howard in Bennelong.’ Then it lists what John Howard promises and delivers, including improved water resources. The Prime Minister has supernatural powers there, I guess. It goes on to say: ‘Australia has never had it better. Don’t risk a wrecked economy.’ It extols a bit more the virtue of John Howard after 30 years in parliament and then says: ‘Labor in Bennelong, no experience. And, of course, the Greens in Bennelong, ditto. Who is the liar in Bennelong? Not John Howard. We are happy, John.’ This attack on Labor and the Greens in Sydney is authorised by one S Hales at what is called the MET School, which, from the address, we know to be an Exclusive Brethren school. Stephen Hales is the brother of the Elect Vessel, Mr Bruce Hales, who heads up the Exclusive Brethren around the world. They are not short of cash. A lot of their members contribute a lot of money to this sect. I wonder how many of them know where that money, on the face of it, has gone, unless Mr Hales himself put the money in—and, of course, there is no evidence for or against that. I would be very happy to hear from him and to inform the Senate of that. Certainly a lot more than $1½ thousand went into this advertisement in Bennelong. The question arises: where is the record of that? Where is the return, under Australian law, attributing the Exclusive Brethren or, indeed, the member Stephen Hales as the funder of that advertisement?

The point here is that our current electoral laws seem either to have loopholes or to have been broken by the Exclusive Brethren. It is a matter still under investigation. At the Tasmanian election this year, which Senator Milne was talking about, a brochure with my picture on it appeared—and I cannot blame anybody wanting to win votes from doing that!—and underneath the picture it said, ‘What do they stand for?’ and on the back it said, ‘Do you know the Greens policies?’ It then said, ‘Authorised by T Christian of 5 Gofton Street, Scottsdale,’ and above that it said, ‘This has been funded by a group of concerned Tasmanian families.’

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

‘Concerned’ again.

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

There is that word ‘concerned’ again. It turns out that T Christian is Mr Trevor Christian, who lives in Scottsdale but has a pig farm outside Scottsdale. I understand that some decades ago an edict came down from the Elect Vessel that farmers who were in the Exclusive Brethren sect should no longer live on their farms; they should live in town and commute to their farms. I do not know what the scriptural basis for that was, but that is a matter for those who took that edict. Mr Christian, however, lives in Scottsdale and farms just outside the town. This brochure  said, ‘The Greens, amongst other things, want to introduce the regulated use of cannabis.’ The policy is to introduce the regulated use of cannabis for medical purposes, to help those people who are dying of cancer where they do not have an alternative. But this brochure deliberately lied to the electors. It breached the ninth commandment, thou shalt not bear false witness, and lied to people on their way to the ballot box—not to the Exclusive Brethren, because they are not allowed to go to the ballot box, but to the voters of Tasmania in general. I will move an amendment, which we will get to shortly, which will help to at least start to address that problem of deliberated and premeditated deception of people about others who are running for parliament.

We need much greater scrutiny of people who would break the trust that a democracy must depend upon if voters are to be properly informed and to go to the ballot box knowing that they have been able to assess the alternatives and make a fair dinkum choice—something being denied by those series of advertisements that I have just quoted from. We should be tightening up on such things, not leaving more leverage for even greater frauding of people’s rights to be properly informed and to know who is behind advertisements at election time.

8:45 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Just to follow up from my colleague on the advertisement ‘Keep Howard in Bennelong’, authorised by S Hales of the Meadowbank Education Trust, are we now going to have a situation where private schools put in electoral returns? Is that what should be expected? Interestingly, it is a private school that gets Commonwealth government funding. So we have the Commonwealth government providing funding to the school, the school then advertises ‘Keep Howard in Bennelong’, and the school continues to get its funding. It is a nicely circuitous route. But the issue here is: will the electoral office now go and ask that school to put in an electoral return? This is the point I got to before. How is the electoral office going to spend its time scouring every newspaper and every advertisement or whatever, asking those people how much they paid and getting them to prove that they paid less than $10,000? It is just not going to happen. So who is going to police this legislation? By increasing the threshold to $10,000 it is certainly going to be able to allow a whole lot of this to occur without people actually having to put in an electoral return.

What it does facilitate is one party contesting the election through a third party that is not contesting the election. It was not even voting in this case. This could apply to either the case I mentioned—Tasmanians for a Better Future or the Exclusive Brethren—where a political party that would benefit from negative advertising against its opposition can have a relationship with a group of people which sees the political party contesting the election writing and placing advertisements, but leaving the third party to authorise and put the addresses on them so the party in question does not incur the dirt of being associated with a negative advertising campaign. It is a clever strategy that is going on, and I cannot see how the government’s proposed changes to the electoral act in any way catch those groups or expose them through disclosure. This is trying to make it easy for people who want to influence elections as a third party not standing for the election, and it is trying to achieve secrecy and anonymity for those people.

The other third party organisations that are involved in election campaigns and that advertise to say who they are, what they stand for and why they are there in the campaign are the ones who will be furnishing the returns. Then there will be a whole lot of others who are just not captured. I can tell you, Mr Temporary Chair Barnett, and you would be aware of this yourself, that if Gunns had authorised the advertisements and had admitted to funding Tasmanians for a Better Future, then it would not have had nearly the same impact in Tasmania as an anonymous group pretending to be a group of small business people. If Gunns did not have any money in the advertisements, why did it refuse to confirm or deny it? Why was it allowed to get away with no response? Gunns will continue to get away with no response, as will all of these other people, because under your legislation there is no way of proving how people are actively involved in the campaign.

There is also the issue of the relationship between a third party and a registered political party. Again, that comes down to this important issue of someone backing one political party and doing a deal with another political party to engage in advertising. By that I am referring to Peter Harris and his companies in South Australia meeting with the Prime Minister on behalf of the Assemblies of God and Family First, and organising a deal whereby they would engage in an advertising campaign to attack the Greens. It was a very expensive TV advertising campaign, and they would get Liberal Party preferences. That was the meeting that occurred, and that is what ensued in the campaign. Yet the community has no way of tracking how all that occurred, except that it appeared on the day that the preferences were announced and it was swallowed up in a whole lot of the media. But tracing the amount of money after the election is impossible.

So first of all I would like—through you, Mr Temporary Chair—to ask the minister how, under his proposed laws, a group like Tasmanians for a Better Future, which does not exist, is going to be captured at all under the legislation. I would also like to ask him whether, under the current electoral law, it is lawful to prohibit a person from voting. Also, have the Exclusive Brethren and other churches got exemptions from the electoral act so that they do not have to vote, and it is lawful to prohibit a person from voting if in fact they are not specifically exempted under the law?

8:51 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate is facing a clear filibuster here by the Australian Greens. There is an old saying in politics that if you win you do not gloat; if you lose you do not moan. In Tasmania, when the Labor Party lost, as it deserved to, instead of casting around looking for little religious groups as scapegoats, it looked at itself. That is why the Tasmanian Labor Party is now back in government.

As a Liberal Party, it took us a little bit longer. We looked at ourselves; that is why our vote increased at the last state election in Tasmania. However, the humiliation of the Greens, when their vote goes down, as it did in the last Senate election, is that they continually brag as to how they will win a Senate seat outright and then scrape in on preferences. In the Tasmanian context, they bragged how they would win six seats; they were lucky to get four.

They are desperately casting around for scapegoats. Can I just say this: when a political party and a leader of a political party start scapegoating a religious minority for their own political purposes, the alarm bells of history should be ringing loud and clear, because we in this country allow lawful religious minorities to exist which we may well disagree with on quite substantial issues. The Exclusive Brethren have been mentioned time and time again by embittered, nasty Greens who are not willing to look at their own policies as being the architect of their downfall. It was not the Exclusive Brethren. It was a number of individuals, as I understand it, that placed advertisements. The Greens are the architects of their downfall, and what we have heard are vindictive, bitter diatribes from the two Tasmanian Greens senators.

First of all, let me deal with the issue of the address of a Mr S Hales, whoever he may be; I am willing to accept that he may well be an Exclusive Brethren member. Why did he give the address of whatever school it was? I do not know what was in his thinking, but I do know what is in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Section 328(5) says:

address of a person means an address, including a full street address and suburb or locality, at which the person can usually be contacted during the day.

If Mr S Hales, being aware of that legislation, says: ‘I leave home at eight o’clock in the morning. Chances are I do not get home until after 5.30 of a night. The address at which I can usually be located during the day is my place of employment,’ and therefore that is the place of employment given on the authorisation of his political advertisement. There is nothing wrong or untoward with that. In fact, it is abiding by the provision of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

But, of course, the Greens do not know that. In their bitterness, in their manic pursuit of a small religious sect, they do not even bother to do the most basic of research. Whether or not Mr Hales has put in a return I do not know. I understand that he and a few other people—not only people that are Exclusive Brethren members—who put in political advertisements are often not aware of the return requirements and the Electoral Commission then looks them up and, in the normal course of events, asks them to put in a return.

We are then asked: is it lawful for this group, the Exclusive Brethren, to tell their people not to vote? I indicate that section 245(14) indicates that being a part of a person’s ‘religious duty to abstain from voting constitutes a valid and sufficient reason for the failure of the elector to vote’. That was in the Commonwealth Electoral Act way before Prime Minister Howard became Prime Minister and was doing all these ‘secret deals’ with the Exclusive Brethren. And do you know what? In 2004, how many people do you think relied on that provision in the Commonwealth Electoral Act? Would you say it represented about 10,000? I do not know what figure represents the Exclusive Brethren adult numbers in Australia, but was it 20,000 or 30,000? The Greens do not know. I can tell them: it was in excess of 62,000 of our fellow Australians. It is not only the Exclusive Brethren that hold that religious view. Of course, if the Australian Greens were consistent, they would be saying, ‘What about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups in the community that have that same religious view?’ But, no—Jehovah’s Witnesses are good in not voting because they do not dare to attack the Greens.

The sin of a few Exclusive Brethren members has been to expose the Greens’ policies and to invite people to look up the Greens’ website. That was the real shocker for most of the people—the invitation to look at the Greens website. I can tell you, if someone were to fund advertisements saying, ‘Look up the Liberal Party website,’ I would be saying: ‘Good on you. Thank you very much. You are a mate of mine.’ I would have thought the Greens would have been delighted that people were being encouraged to look at their website. This conspiracy about the Exclusive Brethren just does not exist. Over 62,000 of our fellow Australians have given that reason to the Australian Electoral Commission for not voting; and I doubt there are 62,000 of this secret group, the Exclusive Brethren. Senator Bob Brown seems to know a lot about this group that is allegedly so very secretive.

Allow me to move on to other matters raised by the Australian Greens. The name D Burgess was mentioned; I do not know fully in what regard, other than he or she placed an advertisement. That is being looked at by the Australian Electoral Commission. In relation to the Tasmanian election, can I tell you that that is not covered by the Commonwealth Electoral Act, as you should well know. If the Tasmanian parliament is of the view, then fine—let them deal with it.

However, in relation to the assertion that the Exclusive Brethren or individual members of the Exclusive Brethren community lied to the electorate in relation to advertisements, that is the old hoary chestnut. We remember those advertisements that the Greens and the Wilderness Society ran saying that certain sections of the Franklin River would be inundated, though clearly they would not be inundated. Those ads were clearly misleading and deceptive. We also know, when we hear the Greens saying that old-growth forests in Tasmania are not protected—when over one million hectares are protected—that that is nonsense. It is unsustainable by all the objective evidence.

We can go backwards and forwards. We can talk about Tasmanians for a Better Future, or whatever they are called, as a secretive group, and the timber community now being a secretive group. The business sector is a secretive group. What about the Wilderness Society? What about Doctors for Forests? What about the Huon Valley Environment Centre? Interestingly enough, Senator Milne’s advertisement would require compulsory identification of a third party, including the identification of all persons. As a result, if the Wilderness Society were to become involved in an advertisement, every single donor and every single member of the Wilderness Society would need to be exposed publicly. I happen to believe in certain laws of privacy and consideration of that, and I think most of our fellow Australians would agree.

In relation to the public relations firm that Senator Milne spoke so long about—and I hope it was cathartic for her—can I comment on how the law applies to federal elections. At a federal election if a public relations company received funds to conduct a campaign from a person or entity that is not a political party, a candidate or an associated entity, the public relations firm would have a disclosure obligation under section 305. The PR firm would be required to disclose all gifts, donations or payments for services received at any time that were used by the PR firm for the campaign. The disclosure would have to reveal the amount of money in the gift and provide the names and details of the persons or entities that had made the gift. This is called a third-party disclosure—that is, not from a political party, candidate or associated entity. In other words, if the circumstances described by Senator Milne occur during a federal election, the PR firm would have to disclose who had paid for the campaign. The bill repeals 305 and replaces it with 314AEC, as it happens, which will require the same sort of disclosure, except on an annual basis. In other words, the information that Senator Milne wants will be disclosed more frequently. Rather than giving political tirades, could I invite honourable senators to in fact look at the provisions of the existing legislation, get their heads around it and ask specific questions.

9:03 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to quickly move on, because it is obvious that the government is not going to take this issue of third parties seriously. I heard the minister say that section 305 is to be repealed and replaced with his new clauses. Speaking of getting your head around it, according to my reading of this, the PR company would have to furnish a return but it would only have to name those people who contracted to it or gave amounts to it of more than $10,000. I would like clarity relating to that, because my understanding is that, if 20 or 30 businessmen provide less than $10,000 each to the PR company, the PR company will have to furnish a return but will not have to identify the people who make that donation to it.

You say you are repealing section 305—and I might add that 305 was your defence yesterday in relation to a proposition I put with regard to a board of directors. I make the point again that no company is going to suggest that it increase the fees for a board of directors so that they could make an ongoing donation. It is going to be something that just occurs. Senator Abetz, by his own admission, is saying that a number of individuals gave money and therefore it was not a third entity—in this case, a religious group. That is the point in question. You cannot identify who the third party is by virtue of clauses 314AEB and 314AEC, and that is my point precisely. I am fully aware that Tasmanians for a Better Future are not captured, because there is no Tasmanian law, but under federal law for the next federal election, if you are repealing 305 as you say you are and substituting it with these two clauses, tell me: if those individual businesspeople do not give more than $10,000 to the public relations company, is the public relations company required to name them?

9:05 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

I would have thought the most basic lesson of legislative interpretation might tell you that if you repeal section 305 it does not necessarily repeal section 305B. The section I referred to yesterday was section 305B, which is completely different—a separate section—to section 305. This is so typical of the Greens. It sounds alike, so we use it, muddy the waters and pretend as though it is the same. Section 305B remains, as the senator ought to well know—and, if she does not, can I suggest she absent herself from the chamber, acquaint herself with the legislation and come back when she is better informed.

9:06 pm

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

I wonder if the minister could inform the committee what investigations remain incomplete in the wake of the 2004 election? If he cannot do it now, could he commit to bringing that information to the Senate as soon as possible? I would add that Senator Abetz did not answer with any enlightenment any of the matters that were raised. The Greens have never had a problem with people not voting on a matter of conscience. It is more than passing strange that an individual or a group might not allow the vote but should spend thousands of dollars in trying to influence other people how to vote. Maybe Senator Abetz could explain that.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister.

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

Yes, he is the minister, Mr Temporary Chairman.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Not the minister for the Exclusive Brethren, Senator Brown, just in case you have any doubt about that.

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

Aren’t you? It is also important to note that the point that Senator Milne was making was that the Tasmanian electoral laws are far less than these which are now being wound back by the government, and the process here is to make the limited safeguards for truth, honesty and transparency under the federal election laws less so—to move to a worse set of laws which allow deception and misleading of voters to flourish, like we see in Tasmania. We do not want that.

9:08 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Brown should also know, the Australian Electoral Commission is a statutory authority. When it undertakes investigations, I would hope everybody—other than the Greens—would be of the mind that the minister should not be involved in those investigations and should not know what stage they are at other than whether one is under way and then when one is completed. That is the proper role of an independent statutory authority. I would not even seek to ask the Australian Electoral Commission what stage a particular ongoing investigation was at. The independent Australian Electoral Commission will determine those matters in due course.

In relation to whether it is passing strange for a group to believe that you should not vote but you can get involved in political advertising, that is not for me to determine. The great thing in a free and democratic society is that we can be as kooky as we like. There are even environmental parties that oppose renewable recyclable biodegradable resource management, namely tree plantations. It is absolutely passing strange, but it is not for the Minister for the Environment and Heritage to pass comment on that in a legal situation—but, sure, we can have a political debate about it.

The thing about the Australian Greens is that, if you agree with them or do not oppose them, you are okay. The Greens would even seek to have—and Senator Brown has put up a press release on this—every Exclusive Brethren business publicly registered and wearing a star. It really is a very sad reflection that that is the view of a political party. But why a certain religious group believes in a certain thing is not for the minister to answer. I am not the minister for religion. The great thing in this country is that we have freedom of religion. No matter how silly, good, bad or indifferent, we allow them as long as they are within the rule of law.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bernardi interjecting

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

As my good friend Senator Cory Bernardi has just interjected, let us celebrate diversity just for once, Senator Brown.

9:11 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Because we are operating on an amendment that is not on the running sheet, I just want to confirm that we dealing with sheet 4972. Is that correct?

The Temporary Chairman:


Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it is time to put our position with respect to this particular amendment. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that the Democrats do think the issue of third-party involvement in electoral contests is problematic in Australia, as it is in other countries. I also drew attention to the fact that the Americans, amongst others—for example, the British—have paid a great deal of attention in recent times to trying to ensure that free and fair elections are guaranteed and that all contestants, including third parties, are properly disclosed and it is all above board. Therefore I have sympathy with the issue at large being addressed, as opposed to the narrow issue of a particular religious group. There are many groups who have been involved in third party activities, and they vary. Some of them are well above board and some of them are below what is known as the Plimsoll line. So I would be concerned about that.

I think it is an extremely complex area to design, having had a look at some of the overseas provisions and laws, and I am concerned that a single amendment of this kind is unlikely to be able to address the complexity of the issue concerned. So I foreshadow that I would be supportive of the later third reading amendment of the Greens to refer the matter to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for a proper inquiry and reporting. I am supportive of the general concerns, but I do not want to get embroiled in the specifics of the particular case that has been the subject of much of this debate. Because I take that view, the Democrats will not be supporting this particular Greens amendment. We are concerned about the issue of third parties. We will be supporting the later third reading amendment to refer the matter to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Milne’s) be agreed to.

9:23 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:

(1)    Schedule 1, items 20, 24, 28, 39 to 45, 51, 52, 104 to 108, TO BE OPPOSED.

(2)    Schedule 1, items 17 to 19, 21 to 23, 25 to 27, 29 to 35, 100 and 101, TO BE OPPOSED.

(3)    Schedule 1, items 47 to 49, 71, 72, 90, 91, 112, 113, 131 and 132, TO BE OPPOSED.

I will speak to all of those, although I seek to have them voted on separately.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The votes will be run quite separately as the questions will need to be put separately, Senator Carr.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

The first area we go to is the question of reducing the enrolment period before the closure of the roll to three days. This proposal is necessary to maintain the status quo. The opposition’s concerns with this legislation go to the fact that, in essence, this is a device by which the government is seeking to restrict the franchise. We say that the bill is aimed at restricting the capacity of Australians to participate in the political system and, as a consequence, it will have the effect of undermining the legitimacy of the electoral system.

We argue that the net effect of the changes that restrict access to the roll, by reducing the period of time in which people can re-enrol, may well have the effect of disadvantaging some 430,000 people. Four hundred and thirty thousand Australians may lose their capacity to vote as a result of the actions of this government. Our concern is that, essentially, those are the people who need government the most: the homeless; people who are poor; people who are moving constantly, particularly renters; people who are migrants; people who live in distressed economic circumstances; people who tend to be least engaged in the political system. As a consequence of this government’s actions, their participation in the political system will be restricted.

We also maintain that they are people who are most likely to vote Labor. That is the core of the government’s concern about this matter: they believe that this is an opportunity to improve their electoral fortunes by disenfranchising the people who actually need the services of this parliament the most. That is why I say that this is a genuinely disgraceful action by this government. This is a device by which the Liberal Party will seek to take advantage in order to advance their political position.

The government try to tell us that this is all about electoral fraud. We have seen no evidence to support that case. We have seen isolated incidents across the length and breadth of this country. Those isolated incidents are one in a million in terms of the proportion of people who actually vote. It is a one in a million circumstance. Every time a million votes are cast in this country, the government will say that this is an example whereby someone has sought to vote improperly. It is a gross distortion and a most fatuous argument to present to try to cover up their gross embarrassment at their attempt to attack the most disadvantaged people in the country.

I know that there are circumstances of electoral fraud. I acknowledge that there have been isolated examples on a couple of occasions. I recall the allegations made against the member for Longman, Mal Brough, who said that he was aware that a member of his own staff had falsely enrolled. There was a situation where his colleague, Mr Christopher Pyne, the duchess of Sturt, simply declared that Mr Brough was entirely innocent, even before the police and the AEC had completed their investigations. That occasion was widely criticised in the media and elsewhere.

I know of members on the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters who refused to allow Liberal MP Jackie Kelly to appear before the committee when matters had been raised about electoral fraud in the Penrith local government election. So I know that there are isolated cases involving the Liberal Party. I am aware that the government does not care about those particular allegations. It tries to cite evidence to support its draconian actions against the most powerless people in our society in its attempts to disenfranchise up to 430,000 Australians and it uses opportunities that suit its political purpose.

The second area we go to is the question of proof of identity for enrolment. We have a situation where this provision will seek to force a further barrier in the road of people seeking to exercise their valid vote. Of course, if you do not have a drivers licence, for instance, there will be opportunities to provide some other form of identity. The fact that there is a requirement for proof of identity for enrolment will make it more difficult for people to enrol or to update their enrolment. In effect, it increases the number of people who are unable to vote. It is further evidence that the government’s actions are actually aimed at disenfranchising people. Between 10 and 20 per cent of adults do not have a drivers licence. That is one example. The presumption of the government is that everybody drives, but between 10 and 20 per cent of Australians do not have a drivers licence, so they will have to find some other form of prescribed identification.

It is most likely to affect once again the same groups of people—young Australians, Australians from a non-English-speaking background, Indigenous Australians, the homeless. These are the people this government does not like. These are the people that need the services of this parliament the most and these are the people that should be encouraged to participate. Yet what we are seeing from this government is an action aimed at discouraging them from participating in our political system. We strongly oppose these actions. The government is seeking to discriminate against the poor and against people who are thrown out of our political systems. The real reason this government is seeking to put up these changes is that it is seeking to take advantage of the circumstances being created by this new legislative provision.

The AEC says that this is totally unnecessary. The AEC has pointed this out over time, year in and year out. I know that considerable pressure is being placed on the AEC not to express its views on these questions. The government says that it needs to do this because there is so much pressure on the AEC to fulfil its function. Instead of providing the AEC with adequate resources, the government says that it will fix the problems by discouraging people from voting. So we take the view that once again the government really is about undermining the credibility and authority of the universality of the Australian ballot.

The third area that we go to is the question of proof of identity with regard to provisional voting. This amendment may cause serious disadvantage to 100,000 Australians. The 100,000 Australians who, on the figures I have seen, lodged a provisional vote will need to supply additional identification at the time of lodging an application or by the Friday following a polling day. If this happens we will actually see quite a substantial increase in the workload for the AEC, an additional workload on top of that occasioned by other provisions regarding the proof of identity contained in the bill. Labor opposes these provisions. The amendments I am moving tonight provide the Senate with an opportunity to reject these aspects of the bill, to point out that these actions are again aimed at discouraging people and potentially disenfranchising citizens from participating in the electoral system.

These measures seek only to impede and infringe the rights of law-abiding citizens that should be encouraged and given every possible opportunity to cast a legitimate vote and to participate in the decisions that go to making up of a government in this country. Instead of picking up the best elements of the American political system, this government is picking up the worst elements of the American political system and seeking to Americanise the election arrangement in this country. I am afraid the consequences for this country are quite serious should these measures be carried by this chamber.

9:33 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I mentioned the matter of the closure of the rolls during the second reading debate and I want to come back to it because between the time that I spoke and now I have been able to check with the Parliamentary Library and obtain some relevant information that would be helpful for the debate. When you look at the issue of the early closure of the rolls, there is considerable disenfranchisement of voters. This is an extraordinary position for this government to adopt. If you look at any time since the 1993 election, on the figures supplied to me by the Parliamentary Library and the AEC there have been 1,907,587 Australians who would have enrolled during the seven-day grace period. That is the order of numbers that you are seeking to strike off the roll, to not give an opportunity to vote in an election—it is an extraordinary number—and what you are going to do into the future is exactly that.

The government may be interested in the number of people in government-held marginal seats in the last federal election in 2004 who enrolled between the calling of the election and the close of rolls. Save for a couple of exceptions, these figures would be approximate and of course they relate to 2004 so you could look at them in that light. But they show that 2,454 local residents of the Prime Minister’s seat of Bennelong would have missed out on a vote. About 2,647 residents of Eden-Monaro would have had their rights stripped in the Special Minister of State’s own electorate if an election were held tomorrow. The member for Greenway seems happy to discard 2,471 local residents from her electorate, treating their right to vote like an orange peel—just discarding it. The member for Page has ripped away voting rights of at least 2,798 people who enrolled during the grace period last time. In McMillan the sitting member has turned his back on 2,184 local residents from places like Baw Baw to Tidal River, from Pakenham to Moe. The Western Australian seats of Hasluck and Stirling have particularly large numbers of locals who enrolled during the campaign: 3,681 and 4,588 respectively. In Bonner the local member has effectively voted to kick 2,045 bayside residents off the roll, something that would not have happened under the strong local representation of Con Sciacca.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz interjecting

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You might laugh, but these are people in your marginal electorates that you are taking off the roll. In Bundaberg and Gladstone the member for Hinkler has abandoned fully 3,112 local residents and I know that Labor’s local candidate, Mr Gary Parr, will be working hard with the local community to overcome this disadvantage. In my local electorate of Moreton the member is too busy living a high lifestyle to care for locals. These changes are particularly savage on the strong local Chinese-speaking community in suburbs like Sunnybank and MacGregor in my local electorate. A jetset lifestyle is something that the member for Makin knows very well. She has chosen to abandon her electorate and in particular the 3,108 who enrolled in the grace period. Meanwhile her fellow South Australian the Liberal member for Kingston has managed to snub 3,498 local residents.

Turning to Tasmania, the new Liberal Party members for Bass and Braddon have shown contempt for the same local people who voted them in by kicking more than 2,000 off the electoral roll in each seat. Finally, in the Northern Territory the member for Solomon appears to have taken up cudgels against the substantial number of members of the Defence Force who would have enrolled during the grace period. In a population as highly mobile as that of Darwin, it is truly bizarre that the local member would back a bill that takes about 3,271 local residents off the roll.

I will seek leave to table the document for the benefit of the government and senators in this debate. These figures from the AEC show that, if the Howard government gets its way, about 423,993 Australians will lose their right to vote at the next election based on the 2004 figures. An analysis from the library shows that this bill disproportionately affects those between the ages 18 and 40. So much for the wacky theory of South Park conservatives—if that theory were true why wouldn’t the government invest a large amount of time and effort in disenfranchising generations X and Y? As the government knows, this bill is a disgrace. It is sponsored by a government that is increasingly becoming so drunk with power they are acting more like American Republicans than Australians. I seek leave to table this document.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is leave granted?

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Have we seen it?

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to show it to you before you grant leave. It is the table of the total enrolment transactions for the 2004 federal elections. If there is no objection, could you undertake to table it?

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

I will look at it.

9:39 pm

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

I will make a short contribution to the debate on this very important issue of the early closure of the rolls. I associate myself with the remarks that have been made by Senator Carr, who is leading this debate for the Labor Party, and Senator Ludwig. They have both spoken very eloquently about what I believe is a most important issue. There is a major issue about the closure of the rolls and how that relates to the time of the issue of the writs. There is something even more important than the time between the issue of the writs and the closure of the rolls. What is absolutely crucial is when the election is called and when the rolls are closed. In other words, the key time period is between the date of the announcement of the election and when the rolls are closed. Under the government’s proposals this is concertinaed literally into less than 24 hours. The election is announced, the writs are issued and the rolls are closed, effectively all at the same time. In my brief contribution before this committee, I point out that this is unprecedented in Australian politics except for the one instance I addressed in my speech in the second reading debate on this bill.

I would like to take the committee back through some 60-odd years of Australian political history to show how significant this change is. The time between when an election is announced and the date of the closure of the rolls—the days from announcement to roll closure—is the key issue because people take the opportunity after an election has been announced to go and enrol. Young people do it, people who need to re-enrol do it and of course those people who need to change their electoral enrolment do it. You have heard the figures; they are very substantial figures. In each category there are at least tens of thousands and in some categories there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who will be affected.

What this is about is quite simple—it is about stopping people voting. It is about limiting the franchise, and that is why this committee should not take this decision lightly. This is a provision in relation to closure of the rolls. There has been no provision in electoral law since the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia 105 years ago that is going to have more impact on limitation of the franchise than what is being proposed by the government in this legislation. Let me go back through some of the history of that key time between the date of the election announcement and the date of the closure of the rolls. Here is the history.

The 1940 election was announced on 20 August and the date of the roll closure was 30 August—10 days. The next election was announced on 24 June 1943 and the rolls closed on 16 July 1943, so there were 22 days between the election announcement and closure of the rolls. In 1946 the election was announced on 30 July and the date of the closure of the rolls was 21 August—22 days. In 1949 the election was announced on 26 October and the date of the roll closure was 31 October—five days. The 1951 election was announced on 16 March and the date the rolls closed was 28 March—12 days. The 1954 election was announced on 6 April and the rolls closed on 23 April—17 days. The 1958 election was announced on 20 August and rolls closed on 22 October—63 days from announcement to roll closure.

The 1961 election was announced on 12 September; the rolls closed on 3 November—52 days. The 1963 election was announced on 15 October; the date of the roll closure was 1 November—17 days from announcement to roll closure. The 1966 election was announced on 12 October; the rolls closed on 31 October—19 days from announcement to roll closure. The 1969 election was announced on 20 August; the rolls closed on 29 September—40 days. The 1972 election was announced on 10 October; the rolls closed on 2 November—23 days. The 1974 election was announced on 10 April; the rolls closed on 20 April—10 days.

The 1975 election was an extraordinary one and there are some changes to the statistics here. There were two roll closures. The election was announced. In fact, the government was sacked and the election was forced by the Governor-General on 11 November 1975. The rolls closed in the ACT, the Northern Territory and all states except Western Australia and South Australia on 17 November, which was six days, but in Western Australia and South Australia the rolls closed on 21 November, which was 10 days. The 1977 election was announced on 27 October; the rolls closed on 10 November—14 days.

The 1980 election was announced on 11 September; the rolls closed on 19 September—eight days. 1983 was the exception to the rule—and I will come back to that. The election was announced on 3 February 1983 by Mr Fraser and the rolls closed on 4 February—one day. There was pandemonium at the polling booths. The 1984 election was announced on 8 October; the rolls closed on 2 November—25 days. The 1987 election was announced on 27 May; the rolls closed on 12 June—16 days.

The 1990 election was announced on 16 February; the rolls closed on 26 February—10 days. The 1993 election was announced on 7 February; the rolls closed on 15 February—eight days. The 1996 election was called on 27 January; the rolls closed on 5 February—nine days. The 1998 election was called on 30 August; the rolls closed on 7 September—eight days. The 2001 election was called on 5 October; the rolls closed on 15 October—10 days from announcement to roll closure. Finally, the 2004 election was called on 29 August; the rolls closed on 7 September—nine days.

With one exception—1983—there has always been time between the announcement of an election and the closure of the rolls, which is the key thing to maximise the franchise, to allow people to participate in the election process in this country. It is a fundamental responsibility and right of each and every citizen of this country. Each and every Australian has a right to be involved, a right to vote. It should not be a privilege that is afforded to some people by this contemptible government. It should be a right for every eligible Australian. Those people have to be given an opportunity.

What is the exception in that pattern that I have gone through, from the 1940 election to the 2004 election—elections over a period of 64 years? The one exception is 1983, when the former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, wanted to get into a fix to try to catch the Labor Party with its pants down. Of course, he ought to know—he got caught with his pants down. We all know what happened in that election. One day was given. It was a trick, a fix, a rort and a stunt, but it did not work. It backfired, as those of you who were involved in politics at the time will remember. I certainly was; I was a Labor Party official in those days, and proud of it. Many people in the chamber today were involved in politics then, working on polling booths and being very active in political campaigns for all different parties. That is their absolute right and entitlement. They would know what a fiasco there was at the polling booths. There were queues everywhere. There were people trying to get declaration and provisional votes. It was a shemozzle from early in the morning until after the polls closed at night. There were queues. It was a complete fiasco because people did not have an opportunity to get their enrolment right.

Most Australians are well motivated. They are not contemptible and despicable, like this government; they are actually very well-motivated people. They want to do the right thing. They want to be involved in the democratic process. They want to have an opportunity to cast a vote. They care about it. They care about who the government of their country is. They take it seriously. They want to be involved. Why should they not be involved? It is not a matter of who they are going to vote for or who they do vote for. Whether they vote for the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the Greens, the Democrats, The Nationals or the Callithumpians, it is their right to vote for whomever they want. That is their democratic right.

All the Labor Party is saying, supported by minor parties in this chamber, is: ‘Give people a chance.’ Here is a fundamental example of the principle of a fair go. Give people a fair go, an opportunity to cast a vote for the candidate or political party of their choice in an election. I happen to believe that each and every one of us in parliament has a very grave responsibility to try to ensure that that occurs. Of course we have to defend the integrity of our electoral system. Of course we have to ensure that our electoral system is independent. Of course we have to ensure that an electoral system that hitherto has been believed to be as good as any, if not better than any other in the world, is protected and defended.

The fundamental principle is a right to cast a vote, to be involved and to participate. Everyone has an equal vote and an equal say in the future of their country. That is what the Labor Party stands for and it is what this parliament ought to stand for, but it is being undermined, diminished and ignored by this contemptible government, which is riding roughshod over the democratic rights of Australian citizens. This is despicable. It is the most disgusting provision that this government has ever brought forward into this parliament and it ought to be rolled right out the door.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Forshaw, I ask Minister Abetz: is leave granted for the tabling of the document presented by Senator Ludwig?

Leave granted.

9:54 pm

Photo of Michael ForshawMichael Forshaw (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to add a few comments to this discussion. I want to continue in the same vein as the previous speaker, Senator Faulkner. I want to appeal to the good nature of the minister and the government and appeal to them to show a little bit of heart, compassion and understanding.

The minister at the table, Senator Abetz, as I understand it, is legally qualified and would therefore appreciate the legal concept—it is effectively a principle, I would suggest—of a ‘period of grace’. That is where you allow a person a period of time after the expiry of an instrument to comply with a legal requirement. I can think of numerous examples that exist in our society and our law. I am sure that Senator Abetz would be aware of them.

One example comes to mind is the filing of a tax return. There are requirements for taxpayers to file their returns by certain dates; nevertheless, we all know that many Australians do not get their tax return in on time and they file it late. But they are extended a period of grace in order for that to happen. They do not get charged or hauled off to court, nor do they have a penalty imposed automatically. Indeed, substantial periods of grace are granted to people in those situations. But they know that each year on 30 June they will be required to file a tax return. So it is uppermost in their minds each year; nevertheless, many Australians are afforded a period of grace. It also occurs in areas of social security entitlements. I could go on and on with examples, but time does not permit me tonight.

The reason I raise this is that it is at the heart of this issue about the closure of the rolls. What is important here is ensuring the accuracy of the electoral roll by ensuring that all persons who are on or are eligible to be on the roll will regularise their enrolment details, so that you have the most accurate roll possible on election day. Under the government’s proposal, by removing that period of seven days after the calling of the writs you are inevitably going to end up with an electoral roll that is less accurate than it has been in the past. As Senator Faulkner just pointed out, that was the problem in 1983.

The government’s proposal does exactly the opposite of what it says it will do. It does not improve the integrity of the roll at all; it actually will reduce the integrity and accuracy of the electoral roll as it will be on election day. The government’s only response to that is: ‘Well, we are going to run a big advertising campaign and all sorts of other activities.’ But, frankly, you can send people as many letters as you like, show as many ads on TV as you like and do as many doorknocking campaigns as you like, but until you get towards the election period it is not going to be all that effective. Those of us who are deeply involved in politics know how difficult it can be to campaign on a direct basis in periods when there is no imminent election.

As we have discussed, the arguments about potential fraud are the biggest furphy that I have ever heard in this chamber in the years that I have been here. I have heard some big ones, but that is the classic. As I said the other night in my speech on the second reading, here we have a government that has been elected four times—four times they have won elections since 1996. On three of those occasions, they had a substantial majority. They won in 1998 with a minority of the votes but a majority of the seats. And here they are trying to tell us that there is potential for huge fraud to be perpetrated in an election campaign. Is the government serious? They are arguing against their own history.

Are they trying to tell us that every election that they have won since 1996 has been tampered with through fraudulent electoral roll enrolments? Is that what they are saying—that they are sitting on the government benches as a result of a massive fraud perpetrated on the Australian public? That is essentially what they are saying by putting this proposition up and running those ridiculous and spurious arguments before the Senate committee and the joint committee. ‘We have to do this,’ the government say. ‘We have to remove the seven-day period of grace because there is potential for massive fraud.’ Their own election on four occasions puts the lie to that argument. They should hang their heads in shame for having the temerity and the stupidity to advance such an outrageous and ridiculous proposition.

I also want to point to the double standards that occur here in respect of the use of a period of grace. This government is a classic when it comes to double standards. Let us look at the issue of entitlements that ministers and members of parliament receive and the requirements that apply to them. Firstly, let us look at the register of pecuniary interests. All members and senators are obliged to report on changes that occur to their pecuniary interests or potential conflicts of interest. There is a defined period of time in which to do that. It was 28 days. It is now proposed to give members of parliament an extra seven days in which to comply with the requirement to notify changes to their interests. That has been approved unanimously by the Senate Standing Committee of Senators’ Interests. Government members wanted an extra seven days; they wanted to increase it from 28 days to 35 days. In fact, some of them wanted more; some of them wanted an extra six months. They wanted to have that much time to notify changes to their share register.

It is okay to look after your personal pecuniary interests and give yourselves as much time as possible to comply with the requirements in here, but it is not okay for some voter out there who wants to get on the roll or to correct their enrolment details to have seven days to do it after an election is called. What utter hypocrisy. To give yourselves that extra time is a double standard of the most gross order.

The same thing goes with the government’s responses to committee reports or questions on notice. There are time limits set under the standing orders of this parliament. Governments have to respond to committee reports within six months. That is pretty good—you get six months to respond to a report. There are reports of the committee that I chair that we still have not had a response from the government to, and they go back 12 or 18 months. You cannot ever comply with that requirement. You treat that one with contempt. Senators get up in this chamber and ask when those responses are coming from the government and we are ignored. You treat your responsibility to the parliament to comply with the requirement to respond to a report within six months with the utmost contempt. You take as damn long as you like—it does not matter what the time limit it is.

What about questions on notice? How many of us have had the experience of estimates committees, where you are waiting for weeks or months to get answers to questions on notice—despite the time limits that are set by the Senate committees? Maybe that is going to go by the wayside along with all the other changes to committees that you are going to make. You ignore those requirements and those time limits. You take as long as you like; you give yourselves as much a period of grace as you like.

This is either stupid or plain sheer bastardry. What is it? Are you saying to the people of Australia that if you do not enrol or correct your enrolment details before the writs are called then you have committed some strict liability offence and are going to lose your right to vote? That is what you are saying. But you are going to give yourselves every single opportunity that you can to ignore some of the basic rules that apply in this place. When your ministers or other members of the government breach those requirements, such as when they have failed to notify changes to their register—and we have had some notable example recently—what happens? Nothing. They are not penalised. They do not lose any rights.

But voters of Australia are going to lose the right that they get every three years: to participate in the election of their government. You are going to take that away from them. Frankly, as Senator Faulkner said, this is the most despicable and outrageous thing that I have seen for a long time. All I can do is plead with you and ask Senator Abetz to consider the concept of a period of grace, which exists right through the law and right through our society and especially in this place. I ask you to think again and withdraw this proposition.

10:06 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I am down here and up there on Fox Sports England is playing Sri Lanka. I am not sure where I would rather be, but I think I would rather be here.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I make a suggestion?

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I know where the government would like me to be. On balance, I would rather be here, because this is a very important issue that needs to be aired and discussed in full. I have appreciated the contributions that have come so far, and I look forward to the minister’s response. It might seem remarkable that something has not been said, but one of the things that has not been said about this closure of the rolls issue is that we are dealing with a very different frame of mind when it comes to many members of the Liberal Party—and I say ‘members of the Liberal Party’ deliberately, rather than ‘members of the National Party’—because many of them are supporters of voluntary voting.

If you look at the average percentage vote around the world on voluntary voting, it is far lower than our compulsory vote delivers. Therefore, you have a lot of people who really do not mind too much if a couple of million of Australians do not vote, because that is what voluntary voting would result in. It would result in a couple of million of Australians not voting. When we on the non-government side complain so loudly about the likely disenfranchisement of several hundred thousand people, in their scale of things that does not mean that much.

That comes to the second point. People like me and my party who support the compulsory vote do not regard it so much as a right, although it is very much a right, but as a duty. We think it is a fundamental duty. When you impose a duty upon a person as an aspect of citizenship, you have to be as fair and apply as much due process as possible. And that brings us to the third point. Because we do not have fixed terms, it is very unfair, profoundly unfair, to say to Australians who might be more concerned about watching a cricket match or how the kids are doing at school, or all the various things that are going on in their lives, than about updating their enrolment to record the fact that they have moved address: ‘You have a duty to vote and we expect you to vote. There is no fixed term, so you do not know the date of the election; it’s at the Prime Minister’s discretion. Anyway, we’re going to make it a little tougher for you.’ Those things make this move of the government oppressive.

The problem that I see with the government’s proposals is that, having sat on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for 10 years, having gone through all the hearings and having had this portfolio all this time, I still to this day have seen no evidence or grounds to justify the proposal to close the rolls early. I am well aware of the fact that other countries in other parts of the world close them a lot later in the electoral campaign period, and the history of Australia is that it closed them a lot later. The idea that it will address the possibility of electoral fraud and improve the accuracy of the roll will I think be shown, after the event, to be a complete furphy, and the idea that that has been proven in advance of this is just untrue.

In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission itself expressed no concern whatsoever about opportunities for electoral fraud in the last minute rush to enrol. I have been around the Electoral Commission for some time. I admire its people. It is a pretty professional outfit. It is not a perfect outfit, but it is a pretty professional outfit. If it thought there was electoral fraud, it would tell us. The AEC also considered this proposal critically. It stated the expected outcome would be:

... in direct conflict with the stated policy intention of the Government to improve the accuracy of the rolls. Further, it will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the franchise, an outcome which the AEC cannot support.

The AEC did not support this proposal when it was put to it.

Furthermore, an earlier and comprehensive review of the roll by the Australian National Audit Office in 2002 concluded:

... overall, the Australian electoral roll is one of high integrity, and that it can be relied on ...

The subsequent report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which examined that ANAO report, did not contradict that opinion. So why change something that does not appear to need fixing and why find fault where little exists? There are three possibilities. The first is that the government is blind to the consequences; the second is that it actually believes its case; and the third is that it thinks its case will result in an advantage to it.

As Senator Faulkner outlined, over 60 years of convention will end with the proposed early closure of the electoral rolls, and it will particularly affect young first-time voters. I might have some sympathy for the idea of tougher enrolment requirements, with more identification, for new enrollees, because I assume that, if you are going to get onto the roll when you should not be on the roll, you have to watch out at that stage. I have very little time for the idea that people who are already on the roll and are simply changing address, or anything else, should be subject to more restrictions or impediments to it happening easily. The Australian Electoral Commission will tell you that they constantly have to be at and at people to update their details. It is not something that Australians pay much attention to, if at all, until they come round to deciding who to vote for in the election.

I note that the government has offered a further three days over and above that which it originally proposed for people to change their details, which is a gesture towards good sense. But I am quite persuaded that the result of this proposal will be to disenfranchise tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of otherwise qualified Australian citizens.

I pointed out the case concerning this in my speech in the second reading debate, but I will close my remarks with the figures. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, during the seven-day period before the rolls closed for the 2004 federal election, 78,000 people enrolled for the first time and 345,000 people updated their details; and after the seven days there were still 150,000 people who attempted to enrol. So we are dealing there, in round figures, with nearly 600,000 people. That is what is affected by these changes. I do not think it is a chance worth taking. I think it is a reckless proposal by the government. I hope that they, and not we, will live to regret it.

10:15 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

The government opposes these amendments. We have been told that these are the most despicable amendments ever introduced into this chamber. Well, that is exactly what we were told about the GST, Work Choices, security and the ASIO bill. We were told that there is no proof of electoral fraud. Well, can I respectfully suggest that you talk to Mike Kaiser, Karen Ehrmann or, indeed, the former federal member for McMillan: somebody who got himself into this parliament having gotten himself onto the electoral roll before he became an Australian citizen. Here we have example after example of electoral roll rorting by the Labor Party, yet they gave these speeches this evening living in absolute denial of that which they have engaged in and perpetrated. Indeed, we were told that this is to protect the powerless; the powerless like Mike Kaiser, the former member of the Queensland parliament who had to be drummed out of the parliament for roll rorting! But, of course, what did they do? They parachuted him straight in to be chief of staff for the New South Wales Premier.

Some of the figures that have been quoted this evening are of interest. The total number of roll transactions during the seven-day close of roll period for the 2004 election was about 420,000. This was made up of the following classes: about 138,500 were intra-area transfers, no-change enrolments or address renumbering. There were about 126,000 changes of address and about 157,000 new enrolments and re-enrolments. The 138,518 intra-area transfers, no-change enrolments and address renumbering would not have been affected as they are able to vote regardless. Those opposite know that, but they deliberately inflate the figure by the sum of more than 138,000 people to try to make a point. Under the bill, those who are enrolled but are changing address details will still have three days from the issue of the writ to update their details—something deliberately and mischievously ignored by Senator Ludwig in his contribution. So the 126,799 electors who changed their addresses would not have been adversely impacted by these changes. And so it goes on.

In relation to provisional voting, those opposite know that 27,000 provisional votes were accepted at the last federal election. They were accepted and then, after the election, trying to follow up 27,000 provisional voters, the Australian Electoral Commission could not satisfy itself that they should be put on the roll. And they in fact were not put on the roll.

Photo of Ron BoswellRon Boswell (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

So did they vote?

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, they did vote, Senator Boswell. They were 27,000 votes taken into the count, pursuant to the current provisional voting provisions, that the Electoral Commission after the election was unable to put onto the electoral roll. You do not have to be mathematician to work out that, with some of our seats only being won by about 100 votes, that sort of activity can change an electoral result. The Australian Electoral Commission carried out a full habitation review of the federal electoral division of Isaacs in order to sample the accuracy of the roll. The review found that some 89 per cent of electors were enrolled at the correct address. In other words, over 10 per cent were not. Now, there are problems with the electoral roll. There is no sense living in denial of that, and this is what the government seeks to address.

To have all this sort of hyperbole, and Senator Faulkner frothing at the mouth using the word despicable a hundred times at about 200 decibels, does not really assist the debate. He uses some of the facts like a drunk uses a lamppost—not for illumination but for support. Can I suggest that what he ought to be doing is looking at some of these figures, disaggregating them and being a bit more serious about this debate. I am aware that there are time constraints; I think that we as a government have kept our contributions to a minimum. I think the arguments have been well rehearsed, both in the public arena and in the second reading debates. I will not keep on. I could have made a much longer contribution on these matters, but can I simply say that the government is motivated by the fact that there has been identifiable fraud—a federal member of this parliament having gotten himself onto the electoral roll before he became an Australian citizen. We have had a lady go to jail in Queensland for electoral fraud. We have had example after example, and in a democracy it is vital not only that you have as extensive a participation as possible but also that there be confidence by the people that there is integrity in the electoral roll. That is what is motivating this government—to ensure that the integrity of the roll is maintained.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that items (20), (24), (28), (39) to (45), (51), (52) and (104) to (108) stand as printed.

Question put:

That schedule 1 items 17 to 19, 21 to 23, 25 to 27, 29 to 35, 100 and 101 stand as printed.

Question put:

That schedule 1 items 47 to 49, 71, 72, 90, 91, 112, 113, 131 and 132 stand as printed.

10:37 pm

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

I move Australian Greens amendment (1) on page 4981:

(1)    Schedule 1, page 26 (after line 8), after item 87, insert:

87A  Subsection 329(1)

Repeal the subsection, substitute:

        (1)    A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act:

             (a)    print, publish or distribute, or cause, permit or authorise to be printed, published or distributed, any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote; or

             (b)    deliberately or wilfully mislead or deceive an elector.

This amendment effectively says that a person shall not during an election campaign deliberately or wilfully mislead or deceive an elector. It is a very simple but important amendment. It simply says that we should prohibit people from deliberately or wilfully misleading voters through election campaign material.

It is a very narrow prohibition. It does not say ‘mislead or deceive an elector’; it says ‘deliberately or wilfully mislead or deceive an elector’. Anybody who is associated with the law knows how difficult those things are to press. I would be interested to hear any argument as to why we should permit the deliberate or wilful misleading of electors on their way to the ballot box, and I recommend this amendment to the committee.

Question negatived.

Before we  make a decision there—

The Temporary Chairman:

Senator Brown, the motion has been put. Do you have a point of order?

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

Yes. I ask if senators would mind if I asked a further question about this. I may need to seek leave.

The Temporary Chairman:

You will need to seek leave, Senator Brown.

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

I do seek leave.

Leave not granted.

I would like it to be noted that Labor denied me leave to put another question. What an unreal—

The Temporary Chairman:

Senator Brown, you are out of order unless you are taking a point of order. What is your point of order?

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

I have made the point.

The Temporary Chairman:

It was not a point of order.

10:39 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask for it to be recorded that the Democrats supported that Green amendment.

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

Senator Bob Brown interjecting

The Temporary Chairman:

The amendment was put and was lost, Senator Brown. Senator Murray has the call.

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

I want it recorded that all the Greens supported that amendment and that there was no other—

The Temporary Chairman:

Senator Brown, that is not a point of order. What is your point of order?

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

It is my right to ask that that be recorded.

The Temporary Chairman:

Yes, of course.

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

Yes, but it was not—

The Temporary Chairman:

You cannot speak to it, Senator Brown.

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

It was supported by the Democrats but by nobody else in this place. What an extraordinary thing.

The Temporary Chairman:

Order! Senator Murray has the call.

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Democrats oppose items 1 to 26 schedule 2 in the following terms:

(9)   Schedule 2, items 1 to 26, page 38 (line 5) to page 41 (line 20), TO BE OPPOSED.

I must apologise for my own amendment. It is faithfully repeated on the running sheet and headed ‘Control of multiple donations’, but this amendment actually relates to the thresholds. If you look at the bill, you will see that note on the amendment does not affect what I intend to do. This proposal is an attempt to be consistent with a view we have taken elsewhere, so I do not need to further motivate it.

The Temporary Chairman:

The question is that items 1 to 26 stand as printed.

Question agreed to.

10:42 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I move Australian Democrats amendment (10) on sheet 4879:

(10) Schedule 2, item 12, page 40 (after line 8), at the end of subsection 306(2), add:

  (2AA)    For the purposes of this section, the amount or value which exceeds $10,000 is taken to be the total amount of all gifts made by a person for the benefit of a party as a whole whether to National, State or Territory branches of that party.

As opposed to the last item, which I waved through on the voices, I do want to speak to this amendment. The amendment refers to subsection 306(2) and reads:

For the purposes of this section, the amount or value which exceeds $10,000 is taken to be the total amount of all gifts made by a person for the benefit of a party as a whole whether to National, State or Territory branches of that party.

I have understood the government’s clear argument that it wants the disclosure level lifted to $10,000 but that everything above $10,000 should be disclosed. The problem is that the way in which the act is constructed at present—I suspect an unforeseen or unintended consequence from its original construction—is that it is possible to make multiple donations in one year in which you must make your annual return, which could amount to a far greater amount undisclosed than the threshold.

The Australian Democrats seek to amend the regulatory gap that allows the disclosure threshold to be applied separately to each division of a registered political party. In other words, we seek to give effect to the control of multiple donations. Where a political party has national, state and territory branches—and I think all the four participants in this debate, the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens, are in that situation—it has the cumulative benefit of nine thresholds; that is, donors can write separate cheques of an amount just under the threshold.

Effectively, the current threshold of $1,500 allows donors to make nine donations if a party has nine divisions in Australia, and that will total $13,491 without disclosure. With the proposed increase to $10,000—and I note the point that Senator Brown reminded me of yesterday; that is, that it now means more than $10,000—it will mean that nine multiple donations would then allow a total of $90,000 to be donated without disclosure. That is just unacceptable under any circumstance.

I note that it was reported in the Age newspaper last week that the tobacco giant Philip Morris had adopted this method of donating in the past four years. I am not able to verify the validity of that report, but I do note that it was a report. If the new $10,000 threshold for disclosures were applied, it is calculated that that they could have made up to $200,000 in political donations over the four years, which could have been made in secret. This Democrat amendment will make it an offence to make multiple donations over and above the disclosure level. We think the public has a right to know where the money comes from and, more importantly, why it is coming. We think that the public expects there to be disclosure of significant and material donations.

10:45 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this amendment moved by Senator Murray because we need to know what the clear intent of the government is. If the disclosure limit is $10,000 then $10,000 it is, not $90,000. If the government votes against this or indicates that it will not support this amendment then essentially the level of disclosure in Australia becomes $90,000.

I think the example Senator Murray gave was very interesting—that is, political parties taking money from cigarette companies whilst at the same time saying that they are concerned about community health and health funding. They are taking money from cigarette companies but without those companies having to be disclosed. As I said earlier, I suspect the same thing will apply when it comes to any number of uranium mining companies or any other companies as we come into the next election.

I agree with Senator Murray. I think that if the purpose of the disclosure legislation is that the community can be informed about who is giving money to political parties then this is a deliberate loophole. If the government permits multiple donations of $10,000 then the disclosure is not $10,000. That is dishonest and it is misleading the Australian community. I would strongly support this proposal. If the disclosure level at which people have to say that they have given money to a political party is $10,000 as has been agreed, in spite of the opposition of the Democrats and the Greens, the fact of the matter is that we need to have a situation where it is $10,000, otherwise change it to $90,000 and be honest about it.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Murray’s) be agreed to.

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

Mr Chairman, I rise on a point of order. On the vote taken on the last Australian Greens amendment, I believe that Temporary Chairman Barnett did not make a determination on the call of the voices. Two of my colleagues were watching that. In fact, he called for the ayes and called for the noes, but there was not a determination because I got to my feet to ask another question. I ask you to check the record and, if that was the case, to resubmit the vote and the call and give a proper determination.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brown, I was not in the chamber and I was not watching it on the television at that stage. I will consult the record. In the chamber, I hear voices calling, but not necessarily from their proper places, indicating that there was a proper call. I will check it out for you.

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

Just on that point of order, it is a quite urgent matter and very important.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Specifically for my benefit, was that Australian Greens amendment (1) on sheet—

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

On deliberately misleading advertising.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

On sheet 4981?

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

That is correct.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I just wanted to get it straight so that it can be looked up correctly.

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

Thank you.

10:56 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

The Democrats oppose schedule 2 in the following terms:

(11)  Schedule 2, item 27, page 41 (line 21) to page 43 (line 6), TO BE OPPOSED.

The Democrats oppose the proposed indexation of thresholds, which is in the bill. The Democrats are supporters of indexation in many cases, including, I might say, the indexation of the tax-free threshold, which the coalition oppose. But, since we oppose the threshold itself, it would be odd for us to support the indexation, so we therefore oppose this provision.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that schedule 2, item 27, stand as printed.

Question agreed to.

10:57 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I move Democrat amendment (12) on sheet 4879:

(12)  Schedule 2, page 43 (after line 6), after item 27, insert:

27A Subsection 314AG(3)

Repeal the subsection, substitute:

        (3)    In addition to the requirements of this section, the regulations must require categories within a return which separately identify and classify:

             (a)    total amounts received; and

             (b)    individual gifts received which exceed the threshold amount; and

             (c)    a total aggregate figure of gifts received which are below the threshold amount; and

             (d)    total public funding received.

This amendment seeks to improve the disclosure which is already provided for in the regulations. I should indicate that we regard this as an important integrity and clarity amendment because it allows for the existing return, which is provided for in existing law, to be better expressed in regulations and to be more clear in the understanding of the returns as presented. This is a fairly minor change, but we think it is a very useful and a fairly important advance on the way in which returns are presented. I hope the government will consider this favourably.

Question negatived.

Mr Temporary Chairman, my apologies. I did not hear all the voices. Did Labor say no on that one?

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

We are supporting your amendment.

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

The Democrats oppose schedule 4 in the following terms:

(13)  Schedule 4, item 4, page 52 (lines 13 and 14), TO BE OPPOSED.

This amendment opposes the increase of the tax deductable threshold. We regard the present threshold as sufficient. Until such time as a principle is applied to all not-for-profit entities on the same basis and with better justification than the government has advanced, we believe that this policy is not warranted.

10:59 pm

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

The Greens support this.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that schedule 4, item 4, stand as printed.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am just watching the clock and think it is—

The Temporary Chairman:

Senator Fielding, we have options.

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Family First Party opposes schedule 4 in the following terms:

(1)    Schedule 4, page 48 (line 2) to page 55 (line 5), TO BE OPPOSED.

The Temporary Chairman:

Do you wish to speak to this?

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am just conscious of the time. It is 11 o’clock.

The Temporary Chairman:

If you do not wish to speak on that, we can put the question.

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak on it.

Progress reported.