Senate debates

Thursday, 15 November 2018


Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading

9:57 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on behalf of the opposition in respect of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Almost two years ago—in fact, 716 days ago—I introduced, on behalf of the opposition, legislation into the Senate to ban foreign donations from our political system. In doing so, I reiterated Labor's belief that political donations from foreign sources are eroding our political system and that urgent action is required to address this. After our own legislation here in the Senate was not supported by the government, my leader, Bill Shorten, Leader of the Australian Labor Party, sought to progress this urgent reform in the other place, yet again to no avail. Unable to convince the government that they should outlaw foreign donations, Labor took action. Over six months ago, Labor voluntarily committed to refusing any and all foreign donations. We recognise the importance of the issue, and we didn't need legislation to act. We acted not because we had to but because it was the right thing to do. While I hope to see the swift passage of this legislation today, I call upon the Prime Minister to instruct the Liberal Party to stop taking any and all foreign donations: stop now—not one cent more.

I'm of the view that foreign donations are eroding faith in our democracy, are compromising our representatives and must be stopped. We must accept that the world around us is changing. We operate in a different era, a time of government sponsored hacking attacks and assassinations on foreign soil. We go about our business in the era of fake news campaigns and in an environment that has seen clear attempts by foreign powers to influence those in this chamber and the other. We're in an era of social media campaigns that can be launched within minutes, be funded from anywhere and reach millions of voters. Labor recognise that we must do all we can to combat these external threats to Australian democracy and our democratic institutions. Donations that seek to influence our political system are not only a threat to our electoral system but also a threat to the public faith in our democracy. Our democratic integrity rests not only on the fact that we do the right thing but also that we are seen to be doing the right thing. The Australian public are watching the controversies occurring in other established democracies around the world and wondering why our own elected representatives aren't doing more to protect our system and to protect our democracy.

Labor believes that the time for action is now. We believe that we have an opportunity in this place to finally prohibit foreign money from influencing our political system—and it is not an opportunity we intend to ignore. Almost two years after Labor moved to ban foreign donations, the government has finally presented the final version of the ban on foreign donations which is before the Senate today. The opposition will be supporting this legislation with the various and lengthy amendments we have requested, which have subsequently been listed by the government. We will also be moving a second reading amendment to this legislation with our commitment to lower the disclosure threshold for political donations.

There is broad consensus that we need more transparency around the money that supports political activity in our system. Reducing the disclosure threshold to $1,000 is Labor policy and it has been for a long time. We understand the important of greater financial accountability and we are going to act on that. If we form government, this is a policy we would look to implement, and we would do so with proper consultative process. We understand that there would be a range of entities that would want to have a say on how best to implement greater transparency around a lower threshold. We have shown throughout our consultation around the current Electoral Act amendments that we value the input of many different voices, and we would undertake that process in exactly the same vein.

Labor is of the view that the disclosure threshold of $13,800 is too high. Electors have the right to know who is donating to political parties. We must shine the light on who is making political donations and who is seeking to support a political outcome. Labor has been clear on our plan for reform. We took to the last election a proposal designed to, firstly, ban foreign donations; secondly, reduce the disclosure threshold; thirdly, ban donation splitting intended to avoid disclosure; fourthly, ban the receipt of anonymous donations above $50, fifthly, link public funding to campaign expenditure; and, finally, introduce new offences and increased penalties for breaches of the electoral law. Labor is still committed to taking the commitment to transparency further and has already committed to work towards a system of real-time donation disclosure.

Returning to the bill before us today: the government's approach seeks to define and prohibit a class of foreign donors. It seeks to create an offence within the Commonwealth Electoral Act for anyone seeking to influence our elections through donations or gifts from foreign sources and extends that offence to those wilfully receiving them. In Labor's original legislation we sought to define the money itself, reflecting the difficulty in prohibiting foreign donations in a globalised system. Although approached differently through this bill, the intent is the same: to prohibit those seeking to influence Australian voters from using foreign sources of funding—in particular, foreign states or state owned enterprises.

Although the opposition is today supporting this legislation, with those aforementioned amendments, this process has not been an easy one. The first draft of the bill contains some of the largest unnecessary overreach ever encountered in our political system. The government's first attempt, as the Senate would be aware, captured charities, not-for-profits, advocacy groups, churches, community organisations and single issue campaigners in a web of bans, hurdles and regulatory tape. Rather than focus on the substantive issues of foreign money, the government sought to wage a war on civil society and community organisations.

However, the government did achieve something quite remarkable—and that was to unite everybody from GetUp! to the Institute of Public Affairs, and everybody in between, against their legislation. That was no easy feat and it is one we should acknowledge on their behalf. The original legislation caused such significant unrest within civil society that our trusted charities and not-for-profits created the Hands Off Our Charities Alliance to combat these proposed changes. Such was the opposition to the first iteration of the bill that a number of organisations demanded that it be opposed outright, refusing to believe that amendments could be made to satisfy their concerns. As it was my belief, and that of the opposition, that a ban on foreign donations was a necessary and urgent reform, Labor decided to engage with the government constructively and present an opportunity to fix its legislation.

The bill was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, not once but twice—once to review the bill and the second time to review the proposed changes. Both times, the members of JSCEM worked diligently to engage across the parliamentary and various sectors to make recommendations for reform. I would particularly like to acknowledge the Labor members on JSCEM—Mr Andrew Giles; Mr Milton Dick; Senator Ketter, who is sitting behind me; and Senator Brown—for their service on those inquiries. I'll also mention the work that my staff, particularly Ben Rillo, did in respect of the JSCEM committee.

Following the second review by JSCEM, Labor worked continuously with the office of the minister to ensure that remaining community concerns were addressed and the appropriate amendments made. I will speak further on the government amendments in the course of the committee stage, but there are two key commitments that I believe are integral to restoring faith within the civil society sector. The first is a clearer and more concise definition of what is considered to be an electoral matter. This definition, acting as the gateway to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, should not capture legitimate public policy advocacy and should not be reserved for those seeking to influence a voter or the result of an election. The second is a guaranteed review of the practical operation of the legislation by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It's vital that any future government be held to the promise that the operation of this bill will be evaluated by that bipartisan committee and, if necessary, any further changes made.

I'd like to formally acknowledge and thank those members of the organisations and charities which placed their trust in Labor to negotiate amendments and worked constructively with us to review any changes. Today, the integrity of our democracy can be taken a step forward. Today, we can achieve one more step in protecting the very governance of our country and restore some faith in the eyes of the Australian public. I urge all senators to support the bill and the associated government amendments to finally achieve a ban on foreign donations.

I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate:

(a) supports increased transparency throughout our political system,

(b) notes the current threshold for disclosure of political donations is too high, at $10,000 (indexed to inflation); and

(c) believes the threshold for disclosure of political donations should be set at $1,000, not indexed to inflation."

10:07 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017.

This is a very complicated bill and it has certainly had a very chequered history. It purports to restrict the influence of foreign money over our politics. It doesn't actually achieve that very well. It's a small step forward, and we support those provisions, but it leaves massive loopholes which will allow big money to continue to influence our democracy. That is one of our main beefs with this bill: it's pretending to fix a real problem. It doesn't do a very good job and it ignores the influence of massive corporate donations that continue to flow into the coffers of both big parties. If this were a genuine attempt to clean up our democracy and to get that vested influence and interest by corporate interests and big money truly out of politics, then there would be support for the amendments that I will move to ban those corporate donations from listed vested interests, to cap donations to $1,000 for everybody else and to reduce that disclosure threshold.

When we get to moving those amendments I'll be very interested to see whether we have any real commitment to this issue by both of the big parties. I'm not expecting that they'll support those amendments, because this isn't a real attempt to clean up democracy; this is an attempt to look like they're both doing something while they're still taking the money from the big corporates. The Australian people aren't going to be fooled by this. They know that the so-called reason for this bill, the money that former senator Sam Dastyari accepted from Chinese nationals, would not have been stopped if this bill had been in place. This bill does not stop the very thing that it purports to be introduced for. This is a bill that wants to look like it's doing something while, in fact, it is still letting big money run this place. I think Australians will know that and they will be really disappointed that there is a pretence of addressing an issue while, actually, the real influence of money will continue unabated, and both of the big parties will be very happy with that situation. That is our first concern with this bill.

I rely on the advice of Professor Anne Twomey, a noted constitutional law expert who gave evidence into the multiple hearings in the inquiry into this bill. Professor Twomey said:

Foreign nationals can still, under this bill, make enormous and influential donations to political parties, if it is done through a permanent resident or a foreign-owned corporation or a subsidiary that is incorporated in Australia.

There are loopholes so big in this supposed crackdown on foreign donations that it will effectively be business as usual. We accept this is a small step forward but we are incredibly disappointed that the loopholes are so big that this won't actually change the behaviour of the big parties from accepting dirty money from vested interests who want policy outcomes to inflate their own bottom lines. Our democracy has been taken over by corporate interests. Both of the big parties have sold out to their donors. They are not making decisions in the interests of Australians anymore; they are making decisions in the interests of those people who have bought their support and who pay for their re-election campaigns. I think that is an abrogation of our democratic duty, and it is the single biggest issue people raise with me when I am back in my own home state or elsewhere around the country.

People want their democracy back. They are sick of feeling unheard and they are sick of feeling like their opinion doesn't matter anymore and that the decisions made in this place aren't for them, certainly don't help them and often make their lives harder. They can see decisions that make it easier for big polluters. They can see decisions that make it easier for big companies to increase their profit bottom lines. They also see decisions that crack down on people that are already below the poverty line, decisions that make life harder for people, decisions that don't put a roof over the heads of people who are homeless, that don't help women escaping violence to stay safe and keep their children safe, that don't make it easier for people to get a decent education no matter what their bank balance is, that don't put more hospital beds in place. They see those decisions not being made and they see decisions being made that simply make a few rich companies even richer. They know it is because those companies donate to both of these political parties and they know it is because some of the people who sit in these benches will go and work for those very interest groups once they leave parliament. The Australian people know about the cosy relationship between lobbyists, industry and this parliament, and they are fed up. We hear them and we share that view. So that is our first concern with this bill: it's pretending to fix a problem; it doesn't fix that problem and that problem still remains.

The second tranche of this bill deals with a massive increase in red tape on the charity sector. I also accept that this bill has improved. The bill has gone through so many iterations that the charity sector has been thoroughly overwhelmed, and I think it is deliberate. It is hard now to work out precisely what the obligations on those charities will be and it will take more of their scarce resources to work out what those obligations are. I think that is the intent because that will have the effect of silencing them from doing the otherwise very strong advocacy that they are incorporated to do and that they exist to do.

I am concerned that the sheer weight of regulation and its uncertainty will have that chilling effect on charities and not-for-profits doing their important advocacy work. We spoke a lot about this issue in the inquiry hearings into this bill. We do not have clarity on where the distinction lies between permissible advocacy on an issue that charities are formed to deal with, something that relates to their charitable purpose, their whole existence and reason for existence. It is still impossible to tell, and lawyers differ on where the line lies between that legitimate, permitted advocacy and somehow making an implied political comment in the context of an election campaign. It is now hard for not-for-profits to know when they can continue to campaign on an issue—alleviation of poverty, protection of bushland, protection of our oceans. Whatever the issue might be, they don't know if they are allowed to campaign on that in an election context. For example, where one party has a good policy position and another party doesn't, those charities don't know if talking about that is now going to be considered political activity, for which there is this mound of administrative obligations about where their donations are from and when they have to disclose them and what checks they have got to do when all of that regulation and red tape kick in. So, what do you think they'll do? They won't take the risk. They will shut up and they will stop that valuable advocacy work that improves the quality of our democratic debate and advances the public interest.

Charities aren't formed for private interests. The not-for-profit sector is called the not-for-profit sector for a reason. They are not there to advance their own interests or their own profits; they are there to work in the public interest, and their advocacy should be cherished and fostered in a robust democracy. Instead, this bill sneaks in a massive level of regulation that will be very difficult for small not-for-profits and charities to comply with. They are already stretched. They have already faced five years of unfair scrutiny beyond the scrutiny that any other sector is receiving—and I know my colleague Senator Siewert has been tracking this and will speak very passionately about it.

The government has already put incredibly high obligations on the not-for-profit and charitable sector, which they are already complying with. They don't need another level of regulation. They're working in the public interest. They're trying to help people and the planet. Of course they have opinions on government policy, because this government has set to war with the community and the environment, often with the opposition saying absolutely nothing about it or being complicit. There is a strong role for charities and not-for-profits in our democracy, and these laws will make it harder for them to continue that role. Democracy once again will suffer, but I'm sure that's the intent. We'll be moving amendments to try to soften the blow that this will have on the sector. I acknowledge that the blow is smaller than it once was. It was initially a complete outrage; it is now just a massive administrative burden for little gain.

There are also some changes in this bill that relate to election funding. They will change the way that political parties operate and conduct their election campaigns and the way elections are funded. We here at the Greens think that corporate donations should not run our democracy. We support public funding of elections. We don't think that it should be about what favours you can promise your big donor once you're in government in order to get their donation to campaign for your own re-election or election. We don't think it should be about power and money; we think it should be about democracy, and we think those elections should be publicly funded. We'll be moving amendments that say that not only do we want to get rid of the influence of big money from politics but we think there should be election caps on spending. We should take that private money out of the whole process, we should have it publicly funded and we should make sure that people can't massively spam people's televisions, overspend and waste the money that they've been held hostage by their donors to. I'll go through in more detail what our amendments actually do. But we have here a bill that pretends to do something that it doesn't do very well and is actually just a back door to crack down on a sector that's been very inconvenient for the government, because it is criticising their woeful policies.

I want to come to our amendments. I formally move our second reading amendment on sheet 8545:

Leave out all words after "that", insert:

"the bill be withdrawn because the Senate is of the opinion that:

(a) the bill ignores corporate influence over politics and disproportionately targets the not-for-profit sector, which is an attack on public interest advocacy;

(b) the bill is likely to discourage charities from engaging in issue-based advocacy in furtherance of their charitable purposes, because of uncertainty in the definition of 'electoral matter';

(c) there is no public interest benefit to the proposed added layer of regulation for the charitable sector, because the existing regulatory framework for not-for-profit organisations under the Charities Act 2013 is sufficient to prevent charitable organisations from engaging in partisan political activities; and

(d) the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 should be amended to introduce caps on campaign expenditure by political parties, candidates and associated entities, which are indexed to inflation and subject to periodic review."

We think this bill completely ignores the corporate influence over politics and disproportionately targets the not-for-profit sector, which, as I've said, is an attack on public interest advocacy. We think, because of the uncertainty in the definitions of 'electoral matter', 'implied political comment' and 'advocacy', it will have a chilling effect on not-for-profits and charities speaking out. The government know this, and they haven't fixed it. One wonders whether this is simply a deliberate attack in a long line of attacks on the charities sector. We don't think there's any need for another layer of regulation for the sector because the existing frameworks—the ACNC, the Charities Act—are already sufficient to prevent charities from engaging in partisan political activities. That is already prohibited. What this layer of regulation does is simply stifle advocacy.

As I mentioned already, we think that the electoral laws should be amended to introduce caps on expenditure by political parties, candidates and associated entities. That is our second reading amendment. But we also have some detailed amendments once we get to the committee stage. Chief amongst those is ending the influence of vested interests over our politics. We propose to ban donations from the following sectors: property developers, mining, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, banking, big pharma and defence.

People don't give money to political parties just because they've got nothing better to do with their money. They give money because they want policy outcomes that suit them. They give money because they want policies that will allow them to make more money. It is a very cosy relationship. If you look at the fossil fuel donations, for example, that big coal, big gas and big oil have given to both sides of politics over the last few years and then you look at the policy outcomes that this parliament has delivered for that vested interest, it is very hard to conclude anything other than that this is policy for donations. We were going to have a resource superprofits tax. A Prime Minister got rolled and we ended up with a weaker mining tax. That tax, of course, was then abolished anyway.

There have been so many times when the community has come together and demanded a certain policy, a certain regulation, and there has been that expectation, and then industry has rallied and has pressured the people in this building and, hey presto, the parliament's gone to water and nothing's been done. Perhaps it is the threat of the removal of those donations. Perhaps it is the threat that, if you make a fuss on the issue, you won't get the cushy job after you leave parliament: 'Just sit quietly, otherwise we won't give you that handshake once you leave.' It is about time we got rid of those big vested interests and their influence over our democracy. They have no place in decision-making. Decisions should be made for the benefit of the community. There is no reason for big money in politics. So we would like to completely end the donations from those sectors that I have listed.

The other important reform is that we think donations from everybody else should be capped. We're not just saying that there are a few sectors that we disagree with and that we want to silence them; we actually think that big money doesn't belong in politics. So our next amendment says that we want to cap donations from everybody. We don't care who you are or where you're from; we want to cap your donations at $1,000 per year. You can still make that small contribution, but that is not sufficient to buy a policy outcome. You can still exercise your constitutional right to free speech by donating a small amount if you want to back that cause, but we don't think that's an amount that would be sufficient to buy unfair political influence. And we think that should apply across the board to absolutely everyone. I don't expect that we will get support for that amendment either, because these two parties are hooked on the money from their donors. They are put here by them; they stay here because of that money. They are certainly not going to dry up that money source now. But the Australian people actually want that, and they deserve that. I am proud that the Greens will be moving those amendments.

Our amendments also talk about disclosure. We want to reduce the disclosure threshold to $1,000. I believe that Labor have a similar amendment, and I'm pleased to see that. We'll be supporting their amendment; I assume they'll be supporting ours. We're not sure which amendment will come on first, but that reduction of the disclosure threshold is such an important transparency measure. I've said that we think donations should only be $1,000; ergo, the disclosure threshold is the same as the cap, but I don't expect that our cap will get through. What might get through is that reduction of the disclosure threshold, and I hope that this chamber sees fit to accept that transparency as a principle is an important, crucial bedrock of our democracy. I look forward to that amendment being moved and being debated.

What I'm interested in, though, is whether our amendment for real-time disclosure of donations will get any support. We know it's Labor policy; it's been our policy forever. We know Labor have said that's something that they support, but are they going to vote for it? It's very easy to say you believe in something, but you've actually got to come in here and vote for it if your belief is to mean anything. I think the Australian community will be watching very closely just how legit the other parties are being in this place when it comes to that amendment about real-time disclosure.

I want to harken back to the fact that we've had a few by-elections lately, as people will know. Because of the existing disclosure rules, not only will people face the next federal election without knowing who's donating to the parties at that campaign; they won't even know who donated to the political parties in those by-elections. The voters of Wentworth, for example, don't know who funded the parties' campaigns in Wentworth, they're not going to know who's going to fund those candidates' campaigns as they face the next election and they still won't know who funded the last ones. Because of that delay in disclosure, there is a pall over who's really in charge, and the Australian community, of course, draw the worst conclusion. That conclusion is usually right: that it's the donors' interests that are being put ahead of the community's.

Real-time disclosure, folks. Let's actually be open and transparent. Let the people see where you're getting your money from, and then let them decide whether they think that's a good or bad thing and vote accordingly. But don't hide it. Don't try to pretend that it's not happening. Everybody knows what's going on. They can see that the interests that are being put first in this place are not the community's interests, and certainly not the environment's interests; they're the interests of the people who have made donations. They want to know who's donating to those political parties. Real-time disclosure is the least we can do for the Australian public to clean up our democracy.

I want to mention one final issue, that there have been so many drafts of this bill. In one of the earlier drafts thrown upon us—out of nowhere—was this notion that the federal laws might be able to be used to override recent state donation bans. I'm from Queensland, where our state government, under pressure from the Greens in our state election, finally brought in laws—which we support, which are great and we think they're good—to clamp down on donations from property developers. Of course, we think they should go further, and we'll be moving amendments to do that. Certainly our member, Michael Berkman, has done that. But it was a small step forward and we support it.

The federal government—very cross about that, because, of course, they get an awful lot of money from property developers—want to try to find a way to override those laws. So they lobbed in provisions to an earlier draft of this bill that would simply override that Queensland property developer ban. They were very open about that at the time. Senator James McGrath, who was caretaking this bill in the course of the JSCEM hearings, is quoted on record as saying that was the very intent. They have since resiled, a little, from that. I understand they've come under some pressure from the Labor Party to do that—certainly, we've made our position known: we don't think it's right that those state bans be overridden by the federal laws—and I understand the drafting has the opposition benches comfortable. But we have advice that says that the drafting of those amendments will still let people get around that Queensland property developer donation ban. We are not satisfied that the drafting closes that loophole, and we cannot support that provision.

I will be moving amendments that say that those state bans should remain; this parliament should not be seeking to overturn those. I am hopeful that maybe we'll get some reform today or when this bill comes to a vote, but our amendments would significantly strengthen this bill, would help clean up our democracy and could restore the confidence of the Australian people. (Time expired)

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I go to Senator Reynolds, I need to clarify for the Senate, so there's no confusion: you did say that you would be moving second reading amendments. You don't need to. Senator Farrell already moved that earlier, so we don't need to do it twice.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, I foreshadowed our party's own second reading amendments. Thank you.

10:28 am

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak in support of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. I would start by making the observation that, while most Australians would agree that only Australians should have the power to influence the outcome of our national elections, Australia is one of the few Western democracies where foreign money can still be used to influence our own domestic elections.

The introduction of this bill was in response to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters Second interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 federal election: foreign donations. I was very privileged and proud to have chaired that committee and to have authored the report. One of the observations I make up front is that, despite broad consensus within Australia on the principle of banning foreign donations, there has been significant and also, I think, very important public debate as to who and what activities these bans should be applied to.

I think at the heart of this debate lies the fact that election campaigning today is very different from that in the mid-1980s, when the majority of the current provisions were written. There wasn't the internet, there wasn't the avenue of social media and there weren't many of the other things that go along with modern campaigning. The campaign period has, without question, moved well beyond the time in-between the issuing and the return of the election writs. Campaigning is now 24/7, 365 days a year. It goes for three years. Campaigning today is largely issues based. When I started campaigning, it was based on political party philosophies, policy promises and announcements. It is now far more issues based on issues that are longitudinal. Campaign messaging today is communicated via a wide range of mediums by a much wider range of entities, including charities, industry groups and also religious institutions.

I was delighted as chair of JSCEM that when the inquiry was conducted the government adopted the majority of the committee's 15 unanimous recommendations. I'd like to place on record my gratitude and thanks to all the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. We went through what was a very difficult inquiry to come up with those unanimous recommendations. What was at the heart of all our deliberations was the fact that we needed very strong, transparent and very clear electoral laws that were in our sovereign interest. Despite significant public debate—sometimes quite fractious debate—the committee always remained focused on what was in our national interest and what was in the interest of all Australian voters. I think the report reflected that, and the government has adopted the majority of those recommendations.

Before I go any further on the detail of the bill that has flowed from that report, I note that I was sitting here listening to Senator Waters. I have to say that, despite the great respect I have for Senator Waters as a representative of her state, I think everything she said then demonstrates the need for this legislation. It reminded me of the debate and the discussions that we had in the committee and in public on this issue. Senator Waters was very clear on the Greens' position. They agree with the principles, but they just don't want them to apply to them and their own donors. The list of people she wanted banned from exercising a democratic right in this country to influence, get involved and have their say in elections includes industry which supports the coalition—banning industry from being able to donate or having donations capped—but she was completely silent on the donors who directly support the Greens and campaigned on issues for the Greens for three years in the lead-up to an election.

We heard a lot of evidence during the inquiry about Greens' supporters and, quite often, supporters of the Labor Party cause and Labor Party issues. We're not just talking about the unions and GetUp!, which openly and clearly support the Labor Party and frequently the Greens but, of course, never the coalition. What she was completely silent on are the environmental charities that have clearly—not even hidden but in plain sight—campaigned in support of the re-election of those opposite. Again, it is their right to do so, as long as they are not in breach of ACNC guidelines or in breach of the Electoral Act. During the inquiry, peak bodies of multiple charitable and philanthropic organisations admitted that many of those charitable organisations were in breach of the Electoral Act. In fact, they said that hundreds of supporters of the Greens, and occasionally the Labor Party, had been in breach of strict legislative requirements and strict liability requirements of the Electoral Act wilfully and in plain sight for years and years and years. They knew they had two obligations—the ACNC and the Electoral Act—so, guess what? The ACNC guidelines were much looser and enabled them to do a lot more on behalf of political parties in their campaigns. They chose to ignore the Electoral Act. A strict liability law is never acceptable and they should, I think, have been prosecuted for that, but they haven't been. In terms of hypocrisy, if the Greens were serious about applying the principles, they would apply them equally to their own donors and supporters.

What are the facts in this case? Well, according to their own published records, the top 10 environmental charities have had income of over $700 million over the past 10 years. I can tell you now, and I can tell everybody in this chamber and everybody listening, that the majority of that money, I suspect very strongly, does not go into saving koalas, panda bears and whales. It goes into domestic campaigns on issue advocacy that now moves well beyond issue advocacy into campaigning for the election of those opposite and, in particular, the Greens. At every election we now see ads from GetUp!, from the unions and also from environmental groups that are entirely consistent with each other and support Labor and Greens election policies. That is okay, but, again, it has to be transparent, it has to be visible and it has to be subject to the same electoral laws.

How this is relevant to this current debate is that a lot of the money that comes into these organisations is foreign money. It comes into larger charities that have international linkages with large, benevolent foundations. That money comes into this country, it is washed around these environmental groups and then suddenly it pops up in local campaigns against sitting MPs on environmental issues which, guess what, are exactly the same issues that the Greens and the Labor Party are campaigning on in the election. They have made those issues salient and relevant to the elections. It has been sourced, and washed around a bit, from foreign sources.

To the Greens I say, I'm sorry, but there is rank hypocrisy in saying, 'Yes, we want these laws to apply to this group of people who coincidentally all support the coalition and their policies, but we don't want all of our money touched, and we don't want that looked at because they're charities who are advocating for us, not campaigning for us.'

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That's the opposite of what we're proposing. We're prosing a cap on all donations.

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, let's call a spade a spade. This money is going to your re-election. For this side and our supporters who support our policies in the support of business, jobs, growth and all of the things that we stand for, you have to be honest enough to admit that this money is going to your re-election.

Senator Waters interjecting

There was $700 million in environmental groups alone.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Reynolds, can you please take your seat. Senator Waters, you had 20 minutes uninterrupted, and you didn't hold back on your attacks, so I would ask and urge that Senator Reynolds be heard in silence.

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for that courtesy. That is foreign money coming in—in my words and from my observations from the inquiry and all the evidence we had. To put it pretty simply: with the support that is completely not transparent—it is unaccountable under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and it is unaccountable under the ACNC guidance—this money means that, pretty much, all the Labor Party and, particularly, the Greens have to do at the next election is register their candidates as candidates for the election. Between GetUp!, between the unions and between these environmental groups that have no accountability in this election process and system, as all other donors do, you don't have to do anything. They are already out there running your campaign for you. They are already out there running the election messaging for you. You have to do nothing, and not a single cent of that is accountable.

Senator Waters interjecting

Senator Waters, if you don't believe that, you have a look at all of the election campaigning for the recent by-elections that occurred and how much of that expenditure has been made under the Commonwealth Electoral Act returns.

Senator Waters interjecting

It is not. So, therefore, you are benefitting from what the American equivalent of PACs and Super PACs is. Of course you want us and our donors to be exempt from this because you have somebody out there running all of your campaigns for you and funding them with foreign money. Of course you don't want this to happen.

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order: we have listened in silence to a contribution that I would have made plenty of interjections on had I not respected the Senate. I wonder if you, Acting Deputy President Sterle, could ask Senator Waters to provide the same respect.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Scullion. There is no point of order. I have already requested that Senator Reynolds be heard in silence.

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm not surprised that Senator Waters does not like what I have to say, because the truth hurts. There is nothing in what I have said that can be refuted publicly or privately, because it is all on the public record. This legislation is important to make the money that goes not just to those on this side of parliament and the people who support our policies but to all in this chamber and all in that other place. All of it must be subject to the same rules, the same transparency and the same guidelines. This is why I'm very supportive of the JSCEM recommendations that provide greater clarity for charities and also align definitions as closely as possible with the intent and principles of the bill. It is to put all of us and all of those who would seek to support us on the same footing. I think we've got the balance right between ensuring regulatory and compliance burdens are minimised for donors large and small.

One of the most important principles—even the Greens representative was very supportive of these principles that went into this report—is that Australian citizens must have visibility of who is seeking to influence their votes and must also have the confidence that foreigners are not seeking to influence the outcome of their votes. The committee's multipartisan deliberations on this issue, particularly through JSCEM, have been underpinned by some important national principles: national sovereignty, voter transparency and the preservation of democratic freedoms. Again, I think the 15 report recommendations, which are reflected throughout this bill, do reflect the principles of sovereignty, transparency and the preservation of our democratic freedoms and rights.

Committee members and the government also believe that reform to the Commonwealth Electoral Act should be consistent with four principles which have guided and continue to guide JSCEM: transparency, clarity, consistency, and also compliance—transparency via visible timely disclosure; clarity about what is required and by whom; consistency of regulations so that the regulations capture all participants and support an equitable and level playing field; and compliance through enforceable regulations with minimal practical compliance burdens. I commend the government because I believe those four principles are well and truly reflected in this bill.

With these comments I commend the government for their support of a new and easily accessible transparency register, which was a recommendation of the committee. This will provide voters with the ability to readily identify who is seeking to influence their vote. Again, this puts more power and control of their vote with the voters themselves. This register will also assist all third parties, particularly those not compliant with the current legislative requirements—of which, self-confessed, there are many—to better understand and now comply with the regulatory obligations. So I commend the government for their constructive response to the JSCEM recommendations and I strongly and wholeheartedly commend this bill to the Senate. It is the right thing for our country and for the upcoming elections.

10:43 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to make a contribution to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2018. This, I consider, is a missed opportunity to finally introduce adequate transparency and integrity measures into our political system. It's a bill I've been following closely since it was introduced in December last year. In fact, I have been to a number of meetings about it. It's a great shame that the government has missed this opportunity to introduce real, long-lasting reform, because it is clear that we need to clean up our politics and our donations in this country. Australians' faith in our democracy is diminishing, unfortunately. They see donations coming from big business flowing to the Liberal, Labor and National parties and they can see that there are policy outcomes expected for those donations. Massive injections of cash from the fossil fuel industry have meant that Australia's governments for years and years have failed to take long-lasting, meaningful action on climate change, and, quite frankly, we are seeing the impacts right now today and into the future. On the other side, the ALP receives donations from the oil and gas industry and apparently has no interest in making gas companies pay royalties or tax on the millions and millions of dollars they are raking in. And, of course, we see the revolving door between politics and big business, which certainly does not help.

Right from the start, when this bill was introduced last year, it was clear that this legislation was not, in fact, as the government articulated, motivated solely by concerns about the influence of foreign money in this country. It was obvious that there were also other objectives and agendas. If they were seriously concerned about the influence of donations on our democracy in this country, why on earth hasn't the government moved and started in the most obvious place—putting caps on donations to all political parties and limiting expenditure to boot?

To address one of the issues that Senator Reynolds just brought up, having a shot at Senator Waters: we have amendments to cap all donations. Senator Reynolds—I hope she's still listening—we are in fact addressing the issue that you were so inaccurately trying to label the Greens as doing. And also, by the way, you labelled our charities and not-for-profit sector most inappropriately. In our set of amendments, we have a cap of $1,000 on all donations. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the government's support for our amendments and, in particular, Senator Reynolds's support for our amendments. This is about a coalition government determined to stifle civil society—and what better example do we have than the comments Senator Reynolds just made? She failed to differentiate between charities and not-for-profits, who provide so many valuable services to our community, and big business. And what do they want? They want to lobby for their own profits. I noticed that that point wasn't made by the senator. Beyond that, her facts about what the charities and not-for-profit sector does were plainly wrong.

This is about a government that clearly wants to silence those in civil society who work every day to make Australia better and to support some of the most vulnerable members of our community. The government doesn't like us raising issues that are uncomfortable for them. They don't like it when we do it in this place. They certainly don't like it when the broader community pushes back at them about their heartless policies on refugees and around their failure to take action on the policies that really count—such as addressing homelessness and the three million people living in poverty in this country. Those are the things that our charities and not-for-profits are working on.

When we first saw this legislation in December, it was obvious that this was about seriously constraining the work of a wide range of charities and not-for-profits by treating their work as politically partisan—and we just saw a classic example of that in this place. It would have forced some charities to choose between public advocacy and accepting international philanthropy. It would have tied up many charities in bureaucratic knots—even more than they have to do already—forcing them to detail political expenditure and their senior employees' membership of political parties. And it would have required a statutory declaration from any donor who cumulatively gives more than $250 annually, an onerous burden that certainly would have impacted charitable giving in this country. Was that the government's intent? That's certainly what it would have done. I've been in this place long enough to know that the coalition—ever since I first set foot in this chamber—has repeatedly tried to undermine charities and not-for-profits.

Having come straight from the not-for-profit sector into this chamber, from the first time I was in here, I knew what the government was up to; I saw very clearly. Having been on the other side, having worked in the not-for-profit sector for most of my career, I knew what they were up to, as did other people in this chamber. The coalition have been intent on gagging charities and not-for-profits, and have repeatedly tried to stop environmental organisations from doing their work—raising uncomfortable facts and trying to protect and arrest the decline, for example, of our endangered species, of which Australia has the unfortunate record of having the highest rate of mammalian species lost in critical weight ranges in the world. I come from a place in Western Australia which is one of the biodiversity hotspots on this planet—some of the species found there are found nowhere else—and I'll campaign to the last breath in my body to protect those species, as will many in community based organisations.

The community sector provides services to our community that the government fails to provide. They stand up for policy change. They don't just support and provide services to some of the most vulnerable members of our community but they also want to change the policy that leads to people being vulnerable in the first place. I know it's uncomfortable for the government when organisations tell the government they need to increase Newstart because, as it currently stands, it leads to people living in poverty. They don't like feeling that heat. They just want to support and make people's lives a little more comfortable when they're living in poverty; they don't want to hear the uncomfortable fact that people are living in poverty because of their policies. That's the fact.

The government wants all these changes, but the charities are already regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission that comes out of that act. Thankfully, the bill has now been amended to address many of the concerns of charities and other parts of civil society—after a long campaign, I've got to say—but it wasn't easy to achieve these changes through that campaign. Over the course of the last year, in the charities and civil society sector hundreds of hours and countless resources have been spent trying to make the government and the Labor Party see sense. The Hands off our Charities alliance and other charities have engaged in the inquiry process. They've spoken extensively to their members, they've hosted democracy sausage sizzles at Parliament House and they've spoken to as many members of this place as possible. The result is a bill that has, fortunately, been improved. The Greens, too, have worked tirelessly to try and make the government see sense in relation to this bill. I pay tribute to my former colleague Lee Rhiannon and to Senator Larissa Waters, who has taken up that portfolio, for the tireless work they have done on this legislation.

In addition to the concerns outlined by Senator Waters, the Greens still have misgivings about this bill as it relates to the charitable sector. We have seen amendments rushed through at the last minute without the time for proper scrutiny, and we are concerned that we will only realise down the track that charities and civil society do face an increased burden of administration that may stymie their important work. I'm deeply concerned about tying them up in red tape when we've been told that the government's trying to get rid of red tape. We know that this government, as I articulated and as we've just heard in this place this morning, sees civil society as playing partisan politics when, in fact, what civil society is trying to do is ensure that we have policies in this country that provide for a better society. We do not want to see civil society silenced, even though they do tell us uncomfortable facts. This is a democracy and they have the right to speak out. They have the right, in fact, under legislation, to be able to advocate.

We've heard the government's agenda, via Senator Reynolds, of trying to provide an excuse to shut down the work of charities which provide essential and valuable work for our communities. Charities and the not-for-profit sector advocate for better outcomes for our community. Whether it is trying to ensure that we don't suffer from the catastrophic impacts of climate change, whether it's ensuring that an oil spill from an accident from the offshore oil and gas industry doesn't impact irreversibly on our marine environment—in other words, ensuring that some of our most important marine environments are protected—whether it's campaigning to make sure that we have an increase in Newstart so that people aren't living in poverty, or whether it is ensuring that we're investing in research for better medical outcomes, that's all the work of civil society. Some organisations I can think of have raised illnesses that the government didn't think were illnesses and weren't on their agenda, and they are now on their agenda and getting the attention they deserve. Civil society organisations are the leaders in this country. They are the ones that lead change. They are the ones that drive change.

The Greens support our charities and not-for-profit sector. We do not want to see them stifled in red tape and gagged. Previously we have seen charities and the not-for-profit sector having contracts that gag them from speaking out if they take money from government. That is not appropriate for those organisations. It is obvious from the past, from those gag clauses, that it was definitely about providing those services and turning a blind eye to the policies that lead to you having to provide those services in the first place. Well, we won't stand for those changes. We are deeply concerned that, even with the changes that have been made, we may, in fact, see an adverse impact on the sector, and we will continue to monitor this extremely closely. This bill has been improved but it shouldn't have gotten to the point where the sector had to run such a campaign to get the changes to reverse this government's agenda.

10:58 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Democracy is a delicate flower. It needs to be tended. It needs to be nurtured. It is, in fact, one of the crowning glories of our society and the reason that we are, literally, the envy of the world. Our democratic system needs to be protected, nurtured, tended, looked after, and we need to ensure that the regulations and legislation surrounding our democracy are up to date with the times to ensure that we protect it from inappropriate influences. That is why I support this bill.

There are, regrettably, cynical operatives who would seek to occasion damage to our wonderful democracy by undermining it through undesirable practices, and one of those is through foreign donations. Indeed, I have been on the record for many years opposing foreign donations. Indeed, one of my failures as Special Minister of State in a previous manifestation was not being able to convince my party of the need of such a reform. So, today, I am glad that other people have been a lot more successful than I was, all those years ago, when I was Special Minister of State, to be able to get this ban, hopefully, legislated very shortly, because I believe that the integrity of our democracy needs to be protected.

Democracy, as I said, is very fragile. It does rely on the goodwill of the Australian people. It only operates and is capable of operating if people have confidence that the system provides a fair representation of the will of the Australian people. If we have opportunists or, indeed, people with sinister motives seeking to influence the Australian body politic through foreign donations, we have a problem not only because it might undermine the results that come from our voting system but also because people would lose faith in our democratic system. To ensure that the Australian people can retain their faith in our democratic system we need to fine-tune it from time to time to ensure that that integrity is absolutely maintained.

We all know that there was one political party whose parliamentary leader personally negotiated the biggest donation ever in Australian political history. He personally negotiated it, which I think shows a huge lack of integrity. What's more, after the event the donor claimed that he believed that it was a good investment on his part and the beneficiary, the leader of that political party, said that he would be forever grateful. Those sorts of deals in our body politic reflect very badly on it.

I daresay nobody in this chamber needs to ask which political party I'm referring to. Indeed, it was the political party that continually lectures and harangues everybody else about integrity in the political system. You've guessed it. It was the Australian Greens, under the leadership of former senator Bob Brown, who personally negotiated that deal with Graeme Wood—a donation of $1.6 million. That has come to light. At the end of the day at least it was Australian money, but you can foresee with deals such as that that people from overseas might think that with extra money they can influence the Australian politic. Indeed, I submit to this chamber we saw a real live example of a person who, thankfully, is no longer in this place. That person sought to talk about our foreign affairs and issues in relation to the South China Sea in a bid to endear himself and potentially source donations from certain overseas interests. They are the sorts of influences that I believe we should seek to repel from the Australian body politic. They are blots on our political experience in this nation.

I confess that I would like to see some more changes to our electoral system because there are very sinister organisations within the body politic, such as GetUp!, which was initially funded by supporters who were funded by George Soros from overseas. I have given previous speeches in this place outlining the connections with the sinister organisation GetUp!, which makes false claim after false claim after false claim. I will give a few examples. In 2014 GetUp! sought to change its objectives that were lodged with ASIC. It falsely claimed that it was a charity. It put into its objectives that it was a charity—false, false, false.

For four years they continued with that falsehood, until I asked questions of ASIC at estimates as to how this was allowed to be, when GetUp! was not on the register of the ACNC and was not a tax-deductible organisation in relation to donations. What does this sinister organisation do? They simply say that it was an administrative error—an administrative error my foot! You do not deliberately seek to change your objectives by an accident. That requires a deliberate act. They have now, thankfully, altered their objectives, having been exposed for falsely portraying themselves as a charitable organisation.

With GetUp! we also had a situation in which those who believe in transparency—and absolutely demand transparency of any other organisation within the political realm—had the requirement within schedule 1 of their constitution that they would set out the names of all their members. Well, if you go to schedule 1, it is a blank sheet of paper. When I exposed this double standard, also at Senate estimates with ASIC, GetUp! said, 'Oh, it's just an administrative oversight; we're happy to provide the names.' What has happened in recent times? GetUp! have changed their constitution so that they are no longer required to display these unnamed people who secretly deal with GetUp! and pull the strings and manipulate GetUp! Rather than being an administrative error, such as accidentally making themselves a charity and accidentally leaving the names off schedule 1 of their constitution, they deliberately changed their constitution so that they wouldn't have to disclose the names. I wonder why! Might it be that the CFMEU or the Australian Workers' Union might be shown up on that schedule?

When there are organisations such as this within our body politic, I think we need to be alert, and I trust that the government and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue to monitor these types of organisations. Make no mistake: GetUp! is, as I said, sinister. In my own home state of Tasmania, at the last election they flew at least half a dozen operatives into the seat of Bass who went around claiming to be locals, doorknocking all day and making advocacy phone calls of a night, besmirching a great Australian hero, Andrew Nikolic, the member for Bass. Indeed, they went around with a video camera at one stage, following his spouse, his wife, down the street—a simple act of intimidation. These sorts of people do nothing for our parliamentary democracy and our democratic system of government. They then helped the Australian Labor Party with the most dishonest of campaigns: 'Mediscare'. We now know that to be false. But on election day, outside the polling booth in Scottsdale in north-east Tasmania, in the seat of Bass, there was a huge sign saying that the Liberal Party would cut the budget of the local hospital—by more than the total budget of that hospital! It was just a fabricated figure, dishonest in the extreme. But of course the local community, needing their local hospital, were shocked and horrified, and—you cannot blame them—they voted in the mistaken belief that they had to protect their local hospital. It was completely dishonest, a complete manipulation of our political system, which got GetUp! their desired result and saw Andrew Nikolic defeated in the seat of Bass. He is a man that former Prime Minister John Howard, on election night in 2016, named as the first person he regretted had been defeated in that election. He was highly regarded by former Prime Minister John Howard. Yet, these are the sorts of antics that have sadly developed in recent times in our body politic. If we want to protect our body politic, if we want to ensure that the Australian people are able to continue to have faith that the results of elections are a true reflection of the will of the Australian people, I think we need to ensure that those sorts of behaviours are stopped as well. I trust that in future, when the electoral legislation is considered by this place, we do have a look at those sorts of activities, because, if more organisations such as GetUp! continue to pollute the democratic framework of our nation, it will undermine the people's confidence in our system which has served us so extremely well now for over 100 years.

Organisations such as GetUp!, which was originally funded by donations from Mr Bill Shorten's union, the Australian Workers' Union—he did not seek to disclose this to his union membership, but, of course, Mr Shorten has been the beneficiary of GetUp!'s activities for his political ambitions. We have GetUp! allegedly asking its online supporters—alleged members—as to the issues they would want GetUp! to campaign on. When the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters asked them, for the 2016 election, 'What was the result of that survey?' GetUp! wanted to refuse and did not come to the committee to tell them or answer the question. And, of course, what was it? It wasn't a surprise: it was the border protection issue that was of concern to GetUp! members. The issue of health funding and 'Mediscare' was, in fact, down the list. Yet, that is the issue on which GetUp! campaigned, along with—surprise, surprise!—the Australian Labor Party. This was at a time when GetUp! was still claiming full transparency: 'Oh, we accidentally overlooked the names of people on our schedule that we should have disclosed', and, 'Oh, we accidentally said that we were a charity'. No. When you have a look at the conduct of GetUp! from the get-go, right through, you know that they are a blot on our democracy. You know that they do a great disservice in our democratic system by misrepresenting, by manipulation and, indeed, by intimidation.

When we look at our electoral system, can I repeat: it is important that standards of integrity are maintained because otherwise people will lose confidence in the system. The bill that we're discussing, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, deals with one of those important aspects—that is, the banning of foreign donations. I think all Australians would agree that it should only be Australian money that impacts Australian elections and that people should have the capacity to be able to make their money available, for whatever civic-minded purpose, to assist their political party of choice. But if that money starts coming from overseas then one can be rightly concerned that that money might be for the purposes of determining an outcome within our body politic that is within the interests not of the Australian people but of a foreign entity or, indeed, a foreign country. If some of the allegations are correct in relation to influence of some of the bigger players within the political and international scene, be it Russia or China, then I think we are right, as a parliament, to legislate in relation to issues of foreign donations in our body politic.

I listened with some interest to Senator Siewert's contribution. I can understand the concern of some of the charities that was expressed on the original bill which, as a government that listens to the people, we were able to adjust to ensure that there were no unintended consequences. But let's also keep in mind that some of these so-called charities play a very loose and fast political game. I recall that in my home state of Tasmania some time ago a so-called charity was running TV advertisements encouraging people at the election to 'vote to protect the forests'. It was quite a lengthy advertisement on TV. It just happened that, within the same ad break, there were very short, sharp advertisements telling us that only the Greens would protect our forests. Oh—no collusion between the charitable organisation and the Greens political party; just coincidence! What happens is that, if you want to support the Greens political party, you donate to the charity and get a full tax deduction for your donation, knowing that they'll be using that money for a political advertisement, whereas, if you were to donate your money to the Greens for the political advertisement, you would not be getting the same tax deductibility. I think these things need to be looked at as well to ensure that there isn't this sort of manipulation—a wink, wink and a nod to each other. Indeed, whilst we expect that from the ACTU, the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party, I think most people are attuned to the likelihood of that happening. But, when it happens with a charitable organisation that has certain status and, just coincidently, there are trailers in the ad breaks for a political party, I think there is something that also, in the future, may need to be addressed.

Suffice to say that this bill deals with the issue of foreign donations—something that I've been concerned about for some time and something that, whilst I was minister, I was unable to achieve. I'm delighted that brighter and better people have been able to get it through my party and, I trust, the parliament as well. It will be for the benefit of the Australian body politic to have this legislation passed, and I commend it to the Senate.

11:17 am

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, the fix is in. The Liberal government and the Labor opposition have done a deal to change electoral law. Under the smokescreen of preventing foreign donations, evidence about which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters could not find, they have struck a deal to implement changes that amount to a virtual de facto ban on small parties and independents. In conjunction with the changes to the system of Senate voting, the deal will see the disappearance, within a couple of elections, of any party or independent that has not yet consistently won four per cent of the vote or is not backed by a multimillionaire. It will mean the disappearance of parties that 22 out of 100 Australians vote for. I'm talking about parties like the Democratic Labour Party, the Australian Liberty Alliance, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, the Health Australia Party, the Australian Christians, Drug Law Reform Australia, and the Republican Party. The Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens and One Nation will continue to contest federal elections because they regularly win four per cent of the vote, giving them an entitlement to millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Extremely wealthy Australians will be able to buy their way into politics via a minor party, including people like Clive Palmer, and two or three parties that win four per cent of the vote in their home state or have a presence in state parliaments may also continue to contest federal elections, but dozens of parties will disappear—literally dozens.

Seventy-eight out of 100 Australians voted for the Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens or One Nation. Many of these Australians might not care if the parties they didn't vote for disappear from the ballot, but they should, because giving everyone an outlet to express their political opinion is in everyone's interests. Small parties that cannot reach the threshold required to achieve taxpayer funding on a predictable basis will not be able to survive today's change in electoral law, because today's change in electoral law will effectively require all parties to permanently employ lawyers and accountants if they want to be sure they comply with the piles of new red tape and avoid the new heavy penalties. But small parties cannot afford to employ lawyers and accountants any more than your local tennis club can. Once today's change in electoral law sinks in, only the most reckless of our smallest political parties will remain—or those with a very wealthy backer.

Let me outline some of the new red tape and new heavy penalties imposed by today's changes in electoral laws. Parties will need to provide an opportunity for donors donating less than $13,800 to affirm that they are not foreigners and will need to verify that donors donating more than $13,800 are not foreigners. Consider for a moment how your local tennis club would go about verifying that a donor is not a foreigner and you will begin to understand the problems to be faced by small political parties. Parties will need to return donations over $250 if they don't have the details of the donor. But how can you return a donation if you don't have the details of the donor? If you can't return the anonymous donation, you have to forward it to the government. Again, I ask those listening to ponder how your local tennis club would deal with this bizarre red tape—and for what benefit? What possible harm could come from receiving an anonymous donation of $251?

Parties will no longer receive around $2.70 of taxpayer funding per vote whenever they win four per cent of the vote. Instead, if a party wins four per cent of the vote, the party will receive either $2.70 per vote or an amount matching their expenditure at that election—whichever is lower. Perhaps this change would be fine if there were no four per cent hurdle for receiving taxpayer funding, but it is disastrous for small parties that sometimes win more than four per cent of the vote and sometimes don't. Currently when such parties win less than four per cent of the vote they make considerable losses, and when they win more than four per cent of the vote they can recoup those losses by receiving taxpayer funding in excess of their expenditure at that election. It more or less evens out. But, with today's change in electoral law, recouping losses will be impossible. Small parties will continue to incur considerable losses at some elections but won't be able to do more than break even at other elections, even when they receive funding. This will accelerate their departure from the political scene. Now, it is true that small parties shouldn't rely on taxpayer funding to keep afloat—indeed, the Liberal Democrats would prefer that all taxpayer funding was abolished—but it is undemocratic and despotic that major parties can rely on taxpayer funding to keep afloat but small parties cannot.

Today's changes in electoral law will require parties to keep records for five years. This might be easy for the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with their well-established head offices and the continuity of staff, but for small parties that operate out of someone's garage it's a bridge too far. Today's changes in electoral law also quadruple fines on political parties, so a breach of electoral law will be punished with a fine of up to $42,000. This might be small change for the President of the Labor Party or the Liberal Party, but it is more than enough to deter potential volunteers from getting involving in running a small party.

If the threat of massive fines doesn't scare volunteers away then the publication of their names surely will. Today's changes in electoral law require the names of these volunteers who manage parties to be published. The presidents of the Labor Party and the Liberal Party won't mind their names being published, because their involvement is already public knowledge, but many everyday citizens who have non-political jobs and lives outside politics will balk at the idea that their political involvement will be advertised.

What's unforgivable about the piling of red tape and heavy penalties on small parties is that it is of no benefit. Foreign donations, which are a negligible part of party finances, will continue through indirect means. Incidents like the Sam Dastyari saga will still occur, because today's changes to electoral law don't affect donations received for personal gain. And parties will continue to withhold the details of donations over the disclosure threshold of $13,800, because the loophole of subsection 314AC(2) is conspicuously untouched by today's changes.

The fix is in. Today's changes to electoral law, stitched up by Labor and the Liberals, will corrupt our political system. Today's changes, together with the changed voting system, will see our Senate ballot voting papers eventually showing the Liberals or Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens, possibly One Nation and not much else. No matter who wins government, the Greens or One Nation are very likely to hold the balance of power unless another Clive Palmer throws millions of dollars into a new campaign and breaks through, none of which is good for democracy and none of which either the Liberals or Labor should encourage or welcome. And 22 out of 100 voters will be disenfranchised, so political angst in this country will rise further, possibly to dangerous levels.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I stand here to oppose today's changes to electoral law in the strongest possible terms.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Leyonhjelm. I do appreciate your offer to relieve me in the chair whilst I deliver my speech on the second reading. I thank the Senate for their indulgence.

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Following a magnificent speech, I call Senator Bernardi to make another magnificent speech!

11:28 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm afraid I may disappoint you, Mr Acting Deputy President! I do rise to make a contribution to what I think is a very important debate and a very important change to our electoral laws. Notwithstanding Senator Leyonhjelm's contribution and concerns about some of the impacts that this is going to have on a minor party, as someone who is involved in a minor party I do ultimately welcome the bulk of these changes. It is going to make things more difficult and these are not perfect changes by any stretch, but they are a big step in the right direction. Electoral donation reform in this country is important. I don't think we should have foreign donors. I do believe that only individuals should be able to contribute to political parties. I think disclosure should be in real time, and, indeed, we will be moving an amendment in the committee stage to encourage parties to disclose on their websites those donations in excess of the threshold within 14 days and to notify the Electoral Commission.

In this respect, we put our money where our mouth is on behalf of the Australian conservatives. We are the only party, to my knowledge, that has in the two consecutive years we've existed lodged our disclosure return with the Australian Electoral Commission and published those figures on our website within weeks of being requested to do so. I think—and I'll stand corrected—that in this financial year we lodged our return within a week of the financial year closing. It is not difficult. It entails keeping accurate records during the course of a financial year. It means being diligent and applying rigorous accounting practices, as you would expect in any business, and particularly one that is entrusted with public money.

If you think we're just tinkering around the edges, in donations to the Australian Conservatives, there were circa 30,000 individual contributions in that 12-month period. The sums were in the region of $2.4 million. It's run with a minor staff, so you don't have to have a massive organisation in order to be able to acquit yourself in these circumstances appropriately. Having said that, there are challenges for smaller parties, and finance is one of them. There are huge advantages accrued to the big parties, not only in terms of public funding. They can predict the public funding that they expect to receive, and they can effectively borrow against that and spend accordingly in campaigns, which gives them a modicum of guaranteed success. That's because it's an inescapable law that marketing does attract votes. That is a concern if we are freezing out minor parties from making contributions or making it too difficult to contribute to the political process in a manner that I think many, many Australians would like to see. Senator Leyonhjelm said 22 out of 100 people voted outside of the major parties, and I suspect that will continue. We need to give them choice; we need to give them diversity of voices. Some of them will be successful and some will not, but that is the democratic process.

I come back to some other practical concerns. In the second reading debate, Senator Farrell mentioned that he wanted the disclosure threshold moved to $1,000, and we still have to vote on that. I support that amendment on the basis that it is Labor policy. But there's nothing, really, to be ashamed of. If someone wants to give an amount of money to a political organisation, having their name published is part and parcel, I think, of integrity and openness.

I share Senator Abetz's concerns about some of the—I will use the term 'quasi-political outfits', which are the campaign units and the political parties that do not nominate candidates but basically endorse other parties' candidates and work on their behalf and are not captured currently by the disclosure regime. Senator Abetz mentioned GetUp!, and I'm sure there are many environmental groups that are in that space and a range of other organisations as well. If people really want to get involved in the political discussions and political debate, I don't think we've got anything to fear. We've got to actually stop the manner in which soft dollars are getting into politics and influence. If you want to have an organisation that doesn't have to disclose funding or wants to pursue altruistic objectives, then I don't think they should be political-campaign organisations. Let them be training organisations, let them be charities, if that's what they want to do, and let them get involved in whatever sphere of community life they want to. But, if you want to get involved in politics and you want to advocate in that space in a public manner and try to influence elections or directly support candidates or political parties, I think you need to be captured by the process.

In the interest of giving Senator Griff a bit of time before we move onto other business, I recognise, and I want to put on the record, that this regime is not perfect at all. It is a step in the right direction. I don't doubt at all that it is self-serving for the major parties. I come back to the fact that we all know—or it's available on the AEC website and it's available on the Australian Conservatives website—how much money we received in the last financial year and who our donors in excess of the threshold were, and that's gone through all our divisions around the country. I regret that it will be after the next election that we will know who has tipped the money into the Liberal, Labor and Greens parties, because no-one has decided that they should be disclosing and be as clear and as up-front as my fledgling organisation have been. It is, quite frankly, a direct challenge to them that rapid disclosure is important. That is why, in the committee stage, I will be moving that donations in excess of the threshold should be published on the party's website and disclosed to the Electoral Commission within 14 days of receipt.

I commend the bill, and I hope it does get amended. I only wish that Senator Farrell had moved his amendment in the committee stage so we would know Labor are serious about reform rather than just looking after their own shameless interest.

11:35 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill is well and truly overdue. Frankly, it is only seeing the light of day due to public outrage over a system that encourages cash for favours, a system that has been creatively worked by the major parties over many years and a system that, with the passing of this legislation, will be tighter and have gone a good way towards passing the pub test.

As others in this chamber have already raised, the glaring omission in this bill is timely disclosure of donations, gifts and loans. Donors and financiers have influence; many demand influence. Currently it could take up to 18 months for returns to be made publicly available, but there is a need for the public to know who the influencers are in a more timely way, certainly during an election period. The fact that neither major party has moved to rectify this glaring omission shows the importance to them of keeping their big donors, and hence their big influencers, well and truly out of the picture until one of them has won the election and benefits from the spoils of office. Labor's $1,000 threshold amendment would have got through had they followed through with it, rather than wimping out and putting it up as a second reading amendment. Without doubt, it would have had an effect on limiting some influence—but not all influence. In the end, you and the Liberal Party want to play on the same team in the lead-up to the next election, the same team that accepts money for a degree of influence.

Centre Alliance is serious about giving the public more transparent disclosure of donations. At the very least, there must be a mechanism where the public can determine on a monthly basis the gifts and loans made to political parties and candidates, with the identity of donors and financiers over the threshold also being disclosed. Apart from real-time disclosure, which is our preferred option—and one that I expect will take place eventually and once the Electoral Commission has the capacity for it—monthly disclosure will go a long way to limit undue influence by putting it under the spotlight and allowing the public to have more confidence in the political system. I foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment to that effect that requires political entities and political campaigners to disclose the total value of all gifts on a monthly basis and to disclose the value of gifts and the name and address of the gift giver when that gift, or cumulative gifts, from that gift giver exceeds the threshold. The same, importantly, has to apply to loans. Financiers without doubt have influence, so it is important that their association with a candidate, party or campaigner is captured and made publicly available within 30 days as well.

There are many well-thought-out and valuable clauses in this bill. Political campaigners will now have to be registered and disclose their donations. Election expenditure will be reimbursed in a more equitable manner. Foreign donors will only be able to give up to $1,000—thought that is $1,000 at a time, I note, not in total. The bill is not perfect but it is a great start. But please let us ensure all parties and candidates are up-front and transparent with the public. By being up-front and transparent, undue influence is weakened. Support our amendment for 30-day disclosure and work towards real-time disclosure in the near future. This, and the changes proposed in this bill, will go a long way to restoring public confidence in the political system.

11:39 am

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

By all means, changes need to be made to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Let's let the public know what electoral funding is. When an election is held, any party or candidate that receives over four per cent of the vote can apply for electoral funding. Federally, you do not have to disclose how much you've spent on your campaign. It is paid for by public funding, which is the taxpayer. At present, for the next election, the funding will be $2.75 per vote on the No. 1 vote. So whoever gets your No. 1 vote will get $2.75 if they get over four per cent of the vote. This was introduced in 1983 under the Hawke government. At that time there was reimbursement of 60c per vote in the House of Representatives and 30c per vote in the Senate of the amount the candidate or party spent on their election campaign—up to a certain amount.

By all means, electoral funding has helped political parties. But my understanding was that it was introduced to actually stop donations coming in. There was no bribery and you weren't corrupted by organisations, so politicians could make decisions that were not based on who gave them donations. Over the years, we've seen huge amounts of money come from organisations to the major political parties. Smaller parties like One Nation rely on membership fees or small donations from people that help us because they believe in our policies. So I can assure you that no big organisations donate to One Nation. It has been through hard work—having fish and chips at meetings or sausage sizzles. We find the big organisations donate to the major political parties. GetUp! and the unions back Labor and fund their campaigns. A lot of people don't know that the unions don't pay tax. Unions are tax-free organisations, so they're not taxed. They donate millions of dollars to the Labor Party to get their mates elected in this place. Then you have GetUp! as well, an organisation that is supposed to be a charity. They fund Labor as well. Really, they should be taxed and we should watch where their donations go. This measure is really going to rein people in. I also think that overseas money should not have an influence on our political scene, so I believe that foreign donations should be totally stopped. I do agree with that.

I notice that Senator Waters spoke about donations from the big organisations, but they say the donations they get are for the hip pocket for their businesses and the money they are going to make. In a lot of cases, the legislation that is made is not about what goes in their hip pocket; it's about saving jobs as well. This is where they say it's coming from the mining organisations. Let me go back to Adani. They will be indirectly employing about 10,000 people in the set-up of that mine and, on an ongoing basis, the mine will employ approximately 1,460 people. Queensland relies on mining for a lot of its budget. About $55 billion a year comes into the coffers of the Queensland state government through mining, so the royalties from mining are very important to Queensland. Mining is also very important because coking coal is used to make the best steel in the world, so we do need mining if we are going to have good-quality steel.

But it's okay for the Greens to receive their donations. Their donations are basically going to shut down mining—jobs gone; they want to shut down fishing—more jobs gone; and they want to shut down farming. So they're quite happy to take their donations to shut down these organisations. It's all right for them to get their electoral funding, but it's not all right for the other side. Let's be fair about this. I quite agree that, with donations that come into political parties, it's like you've got your cake and you want to eat it as well—you have political donations and then electoral funding.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hanson, it being 11.45, you will be in continuation when the debate resumes.