Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Donations to Political Parties

7:40 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week's Four Corners program has refocused public debate on the need for foreign donation reform in big politics. But it is not just foreign donations that need reform; it is donations across the board, especially business donations to political parties—and it is not just donations, but also political lobbying reform, that is needed in this country; it is cleaning up big business buying undue influence over our political processes—the decisions we make and the policies we implement. It is big business and big politics getting into bed for their own self-interest, working for their self-interest and not necessarily in the public's interest.

We have seen this with lobbying and donations towards scrapping the clean energy package; ripping up climate action and a price on carbon; keeping dirty coal in business—the list is almost endless. It is well documented that many millions of dollars have been donated to big politics from tobacco companies, energy companies, resource companies, the big banks, the gambling industry, the property industry and the Defence military-industrial complex.

My home state of Tasmania is not immune from this cancer—far from it. The island state's record is shameful when it comes to big business getting into bed with big politics. Look back at the influence timber giant Gunns Ltd has had on state, federal and Labor parties, and you will see that rolling political donations and lobbying largesse over many years form part of a tapestry—a rich, historical context of cronyism—in Tasmania. This has been well documented by the likes of Professor Quentin Beresford in his book The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd.

What was achieved from such largesse? Did Gunns get its money's worth? In hindsight we can say with some certainty that, in the end, they achieved very little, short of catastrophe, from their undue and unchecked political influences: a failed fast-track pulp mill project; significant community and political backlash; loss of a social licence; a failed business model; and, ultimately and finally, bankruptcy. But they were not the only ones who lost out because of this cronyism.

Speaking about catastrophes, it would be hard to find a bigger one, or a bigger political and financial scandal, than the rise and fall of forestry managed investment schemes. I initiated a Senate inquiry into this, and the scale of the disaster that was examined proved staggering. The pain and suffering of its victims were confronting. I felt that only a royal commission could get to the bottom of this and dispense justice—$4 billion of investment money was squandered; the billions of dollars of tax avoided could have funded schools and health care; tens of thousands of mum and dad investors lost their savings, with many still fighting to keep their homes; and rural communities, water catchments and productive land were damaged by unsustainable plantings. Lastly, the Australian-owned and federally-funded tree schemes went into liquidation and were sold to foreign investors for a few cents in the dollar. To put this in perspective, the whole reason the government legislated forestry managed investment schemes in the first place and refused to change course when the alarm bells were being rung was to make Australia self-sufficient in timber products. It is hard to imagine a bigger policy failure.

At the Senate's final hearing in my inquiry, ASIC commissioner Greg Tanzer admitted that these products were never investment grade, nor suitable for retail investors. So why did such a feeding frenzy, which devoured the life savings of so many hardworking Australians, occur? I will tell you why: because many individuals and organisations profited from these schemes—accountants, financial planners, timber barons, forestry companies, promoters, brokers, consultants and, last but not least, some political parties.

I recently met with a Tasmanian constituent, Mr John Hawkins, on his concerns over historic donations to the Liberal Party and the Labor Party and consequent policy decisions that, ultimately, aided and abetted the rise and fall of Gunns and the disaster that was forestry managed investment schemes. He has gone public with his concerns—the questions that he has asked—and has published his FOI documents on the website Tasmanian Times. Next week, I plan to go into these in more detail and what measures the Greens will take to clean up donations and lobbying in this country.