Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

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

Adoption of Report

10:21 am

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

I move:

That the report from the committee be adopted.

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

I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

        “and the Senate refers the following matter to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters: all aspects of the involvement of third parties in electoral advertising.”

I hope that I can get the support of the Senate for this motion, because it is critical that we have this issue of third-party disclosure and involvement in elections much more transparently covered than is currently the case.

In the course of the debate yesterday, it became clear that this issue is even more important, because the government has conceded and supported the fact that it is now possible to give $90,000 to a political party without having to go through any disclosure or any transparency mechanisms. We have that on the record. You might ask why they would bother to go through a circuitous route of a third party if they can give that amount of money to a political party straight up. I answered that yesterday in relation to negative advertising. Sometimes it is beneficial for one of the parties to use a third group, a front group, to do the negative advertising whilst the political party can go ahead and do the positive advertising for themselves. It is an electoral strategy. We heard the government saying, ‘It won’t happen,’ but we heard Senator Murray saying quite clearly that the tobacco industry is already doing it. It is already making donations and going under the limit by doing it through all the particular states.

You might ask why a political party would be involved in front groups and where the evidence that they have been is. The evidence that they have been is from Tasmania where, as I indicated previously, in 1989 a front group called Concerned Citizens for Tasmania was set up by the then Liberal Premier, Robin Gray, with the sole purpose of deceiving the electorate. Money came in for that front group that was never disclosed, because there are no disclosure laws in Tasmania. You might ask why that would happen now, because that was 15 years ago. I would argue that it might happen because the same people are still involved. As I indicated, Tasmanians for a Better Future was a front group that used a public relations company in order to avoid ever declaring who they were. I have alleged in the Senate—and I believe it to this day—that Gunns Ltd significantly donated to Tasmanians for a Better Future. If they did not, I would be very happy for them to put it on the record that Gunns Ltd and no director or associate of Gunns Ltd donated that money to Tasmanians for a Better Future.

Why would I identify Gunns Ltd? Because Corporate Communications is the public relations company used by Gunns Ltd. Who is on the board of Gunns Ltd? Robin Gray, the former Premier who used Concerned Citizens for Tasmania. Tony Harrison, who was his media person at the time, is now the chief executive of Corporate Communications. Now, 15 years later, one is on the board of Gunns Ltd and one runs the public relations company, so we have exactly the same people involved. I heard the minister say, ‘You can’t stop people using brown paper bags and white shoes.’ No, you cannot. In Tasmania, I do not think there were the white shoes, but there were certainly the brown paper bags when the chairman of the board of Gunns Ltd, Edmund Rouse, met with Robin Gray on the steps of the Launceston post office and handed over a brown paper bag containing $10,000 worth of notes. The Premier did not disclose that until after the royal commission investigation occurred, because it had not occurred to him at the time that it was a donation to the Liberal Party. He then remembered it was and declared it as a donation to the Liberal Party.

David McQueston, who was associated with Examiner-Northern Television and is now on the board of Gunns Ltd, was charged with corporate crime at the time and found guilty, because he managed the secret cash box in an organisation where unmarked notes were kept for the purposes of making donations to people. He was found guilty of corporate crime, and he would not have been able to serve on a board for five years except that he appealed it. The guilty verdict was maintained and the conviction was then not recorded. The result of that was that he could go back to serve on the board of Gunns Ltd and has continued to serve there ever since. I am arguing that the same people who were around and involved at the time of Concerned Citizens for Tasmania—a deliberate deception—are now, in my view, behind Tasmanians for a Better Future, advertising through Corporate Communications and never having to be named, because there is no disclosure in Tasmania. I am asking that the federal disclosure laws be written in such a way as to capture that.

The minister said yesterday that this would be captured under section 305B as it currently stands. My reading of section 305B is that it says $1,500 or more. I assume that will be changed consistent with the $10,000 threshold that has been changed for the rest of the legislation. As I read 305 in connection with new section 314AE(b) and 314AE(c), it says that the situation is as I said it was—that, if a public relations company runs an advertising campaign for a sum of money that is over $10,000, the public relations company will have to furnish an electoral return. That is appropriate, but the point I was making is: do the people who donate or give the money who will enter into a contractual arrangement with that company have to be named? Yesterday the minister said that they did have to be named because of section 305B. If they make a donation or an arrangement that is less than the $10,000 threshold—if I am right in assuming the new threshold applies, otherwise the same point stands with $1,500 or less—and if there are several of them but not one of them is over $10,000, there will be no need for any of those people to furnish an electoral return, so I believe the point I make stands. I know Senator Abetz has been advised by people in the advisers’ box. If that is their advice, it will ultimately be determined by other interpretations than the ones in here.

My understanding is that, if the new threshold of $10,000 applies to section 305, a group of 20 or 30 business people behind a front organisation could put in less than $10,000 each and there would not have to be an electoral return which identified those people. That is why I believe it is absolutely essential that a joint committee looks at the issue of third party involvement in election campaigns and election advertising. It is incredibly complicated. I appreciated Senator Murray’s remarks last night. He did not support my particular amendment in relation to this, because he felt that the issue was more complicated than I had been able to capture in my amendment. But he strongly supported the notion of a committee looking at the involvement of third parties or front groups—the whole issue of third parties—so that it can be looked at in a really comprehensive way.

The United States has tried to grapple with this. Canada has tried to grapple with it. All over the world, people who are interested in having free, fair and transparent elections that cannot be bought are keen to say, ‘If we are going to allow third party involvement in elections then those third parties have to be identifiable, and there has to be transparency.’ I think that most people would see that process as an appropriate way to behave. I do not claim to have it right, and I did not claim that in my amendment last night. It is an attempt to get to this issue. What I would like is a much more considered appraisal of third party involvement in elections, because this is not a hypothetical situation.

It has occurred. In 1989 it led to people going to jail. In the last state election in Tasmania, a certain group of people got away with deception of the Tasmanian community by virtue of not having to say who they were. And let me tell you: if the people of Tasmania knew that the companies behind Tasmanians for a Better Future were the woodchipping companies—the people destroying their forests—it would have been a very different thing. That is why they use nice-sounding names, like Tasmanians for a Better Future or Concerned Citizens of Tasmania. But that is not what they are at all. It is another agenda, and the community deserves to know what that agenda is. So I urge the Senate to support this reference to the appropriate committee—the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

If you read about the way this has troubled legislators in the United States, Canada and the UK, it is a much more difficult and complex problem than is being attested to by the amendments. Contrary to the minister’s assertion that people who give money to be used in a campaign will be named in the course of transparency, I do not believe they will, provided they give less than the threshold amount of $10,000. But I would like some clarity. If it is $1,500, that is fine; let’s keep it at $1,500. I still believe there has got to be a way of having transparency.

If you have 100 people giving $1,500, you get the same outcome in terms of being able to hide the involvement and influence on elections. That is what is being done here. It is about buying influence. And if you influence the outcome of an election, people in the community have a right to know where that influence is coming from and what the policy positions are. That is where there is a difference with organisations such as the Wilderness Society or the Huon Valley Environment Centre. Everybody knows who they are and what they stand for. You can go to their websites, you can look up who their principal people are, you can look up their policies and you know exactly where they are coming from. But when it is a front group which is not registered and does not exist, you cannot do that. Concerned Citizens of Tasmania did not exist, and neither does an organisation called Tasmanians for a Better Future. It was a vehicle only.

I believe that an inquiry needs to look at all the issues around the involvement of third parties in working with political parties: issues to do with negative advertising, with advertising on behalf of those parties by writing and placing advertisements and having other people pay for them. All of those issues need to be comprehensively looked at in an inquiry before a much more considered set of amendments to the Electoral Act can be made which actually allow all of the matters that I have canvassed to be covered. That is why I urge the Senate to support this amendment.

10:34 am

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

I also support the amendment. It would be an inquiry into the insidious process of people secretively being able to put large amounts of money into partisan politics without the public being aware of who they are. That is not the spirit of the Electoral Act. It is not the spirit of the development of that act by everybody who has gone before us in developing electoral law in this country. It is not the spirit of the Australian Constitution.

We are an open and liberal democracy. Senator Abetz has talked about the word ‘liberal’ in the 24 hours during which the government has moved to axe the Senate system as we know it and, through this process, is moving to disenfranchise thousands of Australians and to increase the secrecy of the donation system by a quantum leap. This motion should be supported. All it says is: let us have a look at third party donations by secrecy and make sure that we stop undue influence coming through money being channelled into political parties in secret.

Question put:

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

Original question agreed to.

Report adopted.