Senate debates

Thursday, 15 November 2018


Consideration of Legislation

11:48 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to move a motion to provide for the consideration of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice standing in my name, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to provide that a motion relating to the routine of business for today, may be moved immediately and determined without amendment or debate.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, which is before the chamber today, is a very important reform to our electoral system. It's a reform that seeks to ensure that the electoral system in Australia is not subject to undue foreign interference, because Australia is, of course, one of the few Western democracies in which foreign donors can still influence domestic elections. It's also a bill which seeks to ensure that all political actors are subject to similar disclosure, transparency, reporting requirements and are subject to the same ban on foreign political donations. It's very important for this bill to be dealt with before we leave. The government is concerned, given the slowness with which government legislation has progressed through the Senate this week, albeit some very important reforms have been passed. There was the reform to GST-sharing arrangements, which delivered a better deal for Western Australia in a way that's good for the national economy and good for every other state in that it leaves them better off. And, of course, earlier today the Senate dealt with the My Health Record bill.

However, progress has been slow. There are a whole range of bills that are important and that need to be dealt with. The government doesn't have confidence that this will happen unless we move this particular motion. I hasten to say that this bill was introduced some time ago. It's gone through a very thorough parliamentary inquiry process. It's gone through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in what I would argue was a non-partisan spirit on several occasions. The government has really worked overtime to ensure that the piece of legislation which is in front of the Senate here today has the broadest possible consensus in terms of support in this chamber. Indeed, I would like to thank publicly on the record the shadow special minister of state and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Farrell, for the constructive way in which he and his office have engaged with me and my office in making sure that we reach a sensible balance in relation to the reform proposals in front of us.

Given that there is a consensus—and I believe, a sensible consensus—I think it's important for us to deal with this legislation before we leave the Senate this week so that during the next sitting fortnight this can finally be sent through the House of Representatives in good time for the election which, of course, is due to take place sometime in the first half of next year—more likely towards the latter part of the first half of next year. But, nevertheless, with electoral reforms of this nature there are always a range of practical implementation arrangements and administrative matters that have to be dealt with. The sooner we can provide certainty to organisations like the Australian Electoral Commission and also to all the relevant political stakeholders—political parties, political campaign organisations and associated entities—which will have to comply with the requirements of enhanced transparency and disclosure and also be subject to the ban on foreign political donations, the better. They all deserve certainty.

I would say that, as the government, we very much appreciate the spirit in which the charitable sector and other stakeholders have engaged with the government. We have genuinely sought to listen to legitimate issues that have been raised with us. But, obviously, we've also drawn the line in making sure that the important parts of the reform were maintained in the bill that's in front of the Senate.

One of the issues that was raised early, of course, was in relation to whether or not the charitable sector should be excluded from the scope of this legislation altogether. The reason that couldn't be done is that unless there is a consistent approach in terms of a ban on foreign political donations in relation to anyone who may get involved in political campaigning then, of course, any such ban could easily be circumvented. What we have sought to do in this bill is to get the balance right, so we have narrowed the definition of what 'political expenditure' means to ensure that it is more narrowly targeted. I hasten to add that the definition of political expenditure is, of course, not something that we in this parliament put into the Electoral Act. It is something— (Time expired)

11:53 am

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

I indicate that the opposition supports this motion. I don't believe we can wait another minute to end the foreign donations in our political system. For 120 years of elections, foreigners have been able to participate in the Australian political process. This legislation, if it passes, will end that. Only Australians—and a few New Zealanders—will be able to participate in a practical way in the Australian process.

We've been trying to get this legislation up for two years. Mr President, you'd know that because, for a period of time, you were Special Minister of State and you would have seen, almost two years ago in this place, that I introduced a bill that was going to ban foreign donations. It didn't get the support of the Senate, so my leader, Bill Shorten, took up the cudgels, and he produced a bill in the lower house of the parliament. Again, that bill failed to get through the parliament. We had to wait until the last day of the last week of the parliament last year before the former Prime Minister, Prime Minister Turnbull, introduced his response to the two Labor bills in respect of foreign donations. We saw, correctly, that he was going to ban foreign donations, but he was also going to do a whole lot of other things that were going to curtail the ability of charities, the non-government sector and civil society to participate properly in the political debate.

There were a lot of people throughout that process who thought that it would not be possible for the government and the opposition to sit down sensibly and negotiate about these things, but, as Senator Cormann has kindly acknowledged, we were prepared to do that. We were prepared to do that because we knew the importance of ridding foreign donations from our political system. We had to do it. We had to sit down with the government, and we did that. My staff—young Ben Rillo there, and the rest of his colleagues in my office—have been working tirelessly for the last 12 months to do that. We've had two JSCEM inquiries into this legislation. There have been 12 months of debate and consultation.

I have to say that the charities have been terrific throughout this process. They have been prepared to accept the fundamental proposition that we have to end foreign donations in our political system. You've only got to look, Mr President—I know you're a fan of the American political system—at what's happened in the United States since the last presidential election on the issue of foreign involvement in their political process.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source


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

Okay—alleged foreign interference in their political process. I don't want there to be one skerrick of concern after our next election that we've got anything like the problems that have occurred in the United States. How do we fix that? We ban foreign donations.

I listened to the contributions of Senator Waters and Senator Siewert, and both of them acknowledged that this legislation progresses that issue. They don't like it. I accept that they aren't going to vote for the legislation. But they both acknowledged this was a step forward. You don't always get everything you want in politics—that's the nature of our system—but this is one of the most significant steps forward in the Australian political system as it relates to donations. This is a significant issue of donation reform. We can't wait any longer. We need to get it done today so that in a week's time we can get it through the lower house. Time is running out. We've only got two more weeks of sitting this year. If we don't get it done today, there's a chance we won't get it done, and a whole lot of question marks will then potentially arise over our next election.

11:58 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann is absolutely right when he says this is an important reform. This is a critical reform, and it is so important that we get it right. The big money that is pouring into our parliament from vested interests, from those huge corporations, is a fungating cancer on our democracy. What it needs is radical surgery, not a bandaid, which is what this bill proposes to do. What we need to do is dry up the flow of money that's coming from those huge corporations. They write the policies that are written and debated by both the major parties. Their voices are heard, and the community is shut out. No wonder people have had a gutful of politics when they can't get an appointment to see their local MP but big corporations can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in those cash-for-access forums. We have cash-for-access forums where political parties are paid for senators to do their job. They advertise, 'Come and hear what the minister has to say about this policy,' but if you want to hear what he has to say, you have to pay for it.

Big money is a cancer on our body politic and it needs a radical excision, not a bandaid, which is what this bill is. Here we are with a set of sensible amendments to ensure that this legislation does what the Australian community expect of us and gives them a voice ahead of those big, wealthy, powerful vested interests—those corporations. It's true that some of those corporations come from overseas, but the vast majority are here in Australia doing what they can to boost their bottom line. That is why they donate. Does anyone think that these corporations donate because they want to see democracy flourish and because they are philanthropic entities and want to see Australian parliaments become better places? Of course they don't. They give money because it allows them to write policy. That's why we have the coal industry writing energy policy. That's why we have the Business Council writing our tax policy. That's why we have media companies writing our media laws.

Big donations are a cancer on our democracy, and we should be here debating how we fix it. Senator Waters has a range of amendments that do just that. Ban those membership fees. When big companies attend fundraisers and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars it's not declared as a donation. Ban donations from property developers, from the alcohol industry, from the gambling industry and from the mining industry. We should be doing all of those things. We should be putting in expenditure caps so that political parties can't spend hundreds of millions of dollars, as they have done over the last decade, trying to buy votes. It's long overdue that we take the dirty money out of the Australian political system.

We have other amendments to cap all donations to a maximum of $1,000 per year and to have real-time disclosure so we know when every cent is contributed by a punter or a corporation. We'll know when it's made and where it's made. Most importantly, we'll have that information before an election, not a year afterwards. Because of this dirty deal between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party we are being prevented from having a thorough debate around how we can improve our parliaments, how we can bring in the voice of the community and how we can silence those huge corporations that wield far too much influence over our democracy. Now is the time to do it. We could have a meaningful debate where the critically important amendments proposed by the Greens get the airing they deserve. We won't have that, because this debate will conclude in an untimely manner.

12:03 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

The substantive motion Senator Cormann sought leave to move is sensible and practical. It is true that in the Senate this week we have not made rapid progress with legislation. We have transacted the people's business on only two bills—the GST sharing bill and the My Health Record bill. Now that's not a reflection in any way on colleagues. Sometimes pieces of legislation do take time to transact when there are a range of legitimate contributions that colleagues seek to make. So in seeking to suspend standing orders to move a motion to rearrange our schedule and to make provision for dealing with the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, we're not passing comment on colleagues; we're merely seeking to recognise that we do need to make an adjustment to make sure that we do conclude an important piece of legislation.

Sometimes governments, on these sorts of motions, will talk about the unhelpful approach of the opposition in the course of the week, and we're certainly not doing that on this occasion. The opposition have been helpful and constructive in the course of the week. I do also want to acknowledge the shadow special minister of state, who I know has worked cooperatively, particularly on this piece of legislation with the government. This legislation, obviously, has had the close and appropriate scrutiny of JSCEM. The essence of the legislation we're wanting to deal with is about electoral integrity. We're all keenly aware that next year will be an election year, and I think that, collectively, we want to do what we can to make sure that our electoral processes are the best in the world. I think we can all recognise that we have been very fortunate in Australia to have a robust electoral system—an electoral system where the outcomes aren't questioned; where they are accepted by the community. But that is not a situation that we can take for granted. We do need to continually reform our electoral mechanics and the legislation that underpins that to ensure them so we are not in the situation where we have an electoral system that is open to undue and inappropriate influence. That will reinforce public confidence in our electoral system. If people have confidence in the electoral system, they'll have confidence in the system of government—so it is important legislation that we do need to conclude today.

I should observe that the motion that we're proposing only comes into effect if we haven't concluded the legislation by two o'clock. It might be that we go through the non-controversial legislation quickly and we come back to and can conclude the electoral legislation before two o'clock, but, if not, the motion to suspend standing orders would allow Senator Cormann to move provisions to conclude this legislation by 6.15. It's also important to observe that it is not seeking to remove the general business order of the day, which is Senator Storer's. This motion does make explicit provision for the piece of legislation that he wishes to talk to in general business time to continue to have the opportunity to receive the attention of the chamber. This is a relatively minor change to the proceedings of the day, which a suspension would allow Senator Cormann to move a motion to give effect to.

Mr President, we do have only two sitting weeks after this. There will be a lot of business to transact in those final two sitting weeks. If we can conclude this piece of legislation, that will put us in a better position in those final two sitting weeks, I look forward to working with all colleagues for those final two sitting weeks of this year before Christmas.

12:08 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this motion. I want to talk about the importance of this legislation before the Australian people. What I know and what I've observed from Queensland is that we know that there's a high level of cynicism about politics at the moment, and we know that the primary vote for major parties has been suffering as a result. I think it's important that we take every step possible to ensure that the public have confidence in Australian democracy and the system that governs our elections.

What has been acknowledged by just about everyone who has spoken on this legislation, even those who aren't as supportive of it as others, is that it is a step forward. I think that is really important, because if we are to show the Australian people that we are committed and that we want to ensure that we have free and fair elections, it is important that we move forward and have legislation that the Australian people can be confident of.

Another important aspect is that when electoral legislation is being put forward with bipartisan support it means it can stand the test of time. We know that elections come and go, and there might be changes of government. It's important that when those things happen there are improvements in our electoral system that don't change with the whim of who comes to power or who loses power at a particular election. From that point of view it's important that we acknowledge the work of JSCEM, which a number of people have done. I know some of my colleagues have done work on that and I know how much effort they put into ensuring that they could reach an agreement with the government so that the legislation that we take forward is going to advance democracy in this country. At the heart of that, obviously, is the banning of foreign donations. That has received publicity around the world as something that needs to be dealt with, and this is an important step forward for Australia as well.

In my first speech in this place I mentioned changes in fundraising and disclosure and the electoral system, and it's something that in a previous life I had some involvement with. So I certainly am one who thinks further steps need to be taken, and I acknowledge that the Queensland government has taken some of those significant steps around disclosure—and around real-time disclosure. There are other things that we can look at, but it is also worth noting that this is a step forward and it is something the Australian people will support as well.

One of the things we won't cop is hypocrisy from the Greens on this issue. We know that Senator Di Natale likes to talk about the big parties and big money. We know—and it's been on the public record for a long time now—that the biggest corporate donation in Australian history went to the Greens, from the Wotif founder. We also know that they've had significant money come in from Mr Turpie—a $500,000 donation. When talking about big money and its influence on politics, we know that the Greens have absolutely been the ones who have been on the receiving end. If you want to take a principled stand on this, do what the Labor Party did when we said, months ago, that we would stop accepting foreign donations.

I know as a previous state secretary that in Queensland, even when the federal LNP changed the disclosure threshold to above $1,000, we still declared everything over $1,000, because we took a principled stand on that. But no: the Greens won't take a principled stand on this at all. They do try to take credit, though. Senator Waters tried to take credit for the Queensland legislation, but the Greens had no involvement in that whatsoever; they've been completely insignificant in Queensland when it comes to the world-leading reforms that the Queensland government has brought in. So, we won't cop any hypocrisy from them. We are very pleased to support this legislation, because we know it is a step forward. We know that the Australian people will support this and there will continue to be public confidence in the system. But we also acknowledge that there are people in this chamber who want to take another step forward and that there are further things that can be done.

I completely understand that when changes are made, if they are done at a level where there is bipartisan agreement then they are much more likely to stand the test of time and democracy and support for them within Australia are things that will also grow as a result of that. We're very pleased to support this motion and we look forward to getting this legislation passed, because we know that the implementation of this, from an Australian Electoral Commission point of view, takes time. We know it needs to get through the House of Representatives. So the time that is necessary to get it in place before an election is valuable.

12:13 pm

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

What we have here is a deal by these two big parties to ram through a quite complex piece of legislation that manages to achieve looking like it's doing something about a corrupt democracy while in fact letting 94 per cent of the donations to big parties carry on unregulated. That's what the academics have said: only six per cent of the donations come from foreign sources. And this bill—the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017—doesn't even stop all of those. The whole point of this bill, as we understand it, would be to have stopped the donation received by former senator, Sam Dastyari, from Chinese interests. This bill would not stop that. It is not drafted in a way to actually fix the problem of corporate control of our democracy. Everybody in this place knows exactly that. I don't think the Australian public will buy this either.

If you really want to fix the corporate takeover of our democracy and parliament, you will vote for the amendments that we will move today. You will vote to end donations from the most pernicious industries that are trying to exert influence and buy policy outcomes, such as mining, property developers, tobacco, gambling, banks, big pharma and defence. They have no place buying policy outcomes. Let's just end those corporate donations. Are you going to back it? I doubt it, because they fund your re-election campaigns. If you won't come at that, will you come at a cap on donations of $1,000 per year on everyone? It doesn't matter what industry they're from or whether they're an individual or a union. Will you come at an actual cap on big money in politics? Some people have said, 'You're being selective.' If you want to fix this problem, back that amendment. Let's cap donations at no more than $1,000 each year from anyone, no matter who they represent or whether they're individuals or where they're from. Let's actually get big money out of politics.

It's about time we stood here representing people and the community. You stand here representing your corporate donors that pay for your re-elections. You're more concerned about your own careers, about retaining power and potentially going off to a fancy lobbyist job after you leave this place. What an absolute abrogation of the duty that we have to represent the community and the planet and improve people's lives. Let's actually fix homelessness. Let's actually tackle climate change. Let's actually end the pernicious influence of gambling on so many people's lives. There are so many things that we could actually be addressing in this parliament, but, because of the influence of those corporate donors over the policymaking process and because both the big parties take that dirty money, we are not getting the sorts of decisions that advance people's everyday lives and their interests.

Both the parties have taken $100 million in corporate donations in the last six years. Is it any wonder that we don't have a climate policy, at all? Is it any wonder that we don't have action on the real issues that people are facing, like homelessness and environmental destruction or like people being able to afford to send their kids to school and put food on their table? We have real issues that the community is desperate for us to help them with, and you guys just take the money from big corporates. Vote to fix it today. People deserve their democracy back. They deserve a system that actually works for them. We have that chance. Don't use this to pretend that we've fixed some part of the problem; let's actually fix the problem. What do you want to be here for? You've got the chance to make some real reform. Please take it. I'm going to move an amendment today that says, let's cap donations at $1,000 from everyone and let's get big money out of politics, and I beg you to support it.

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

The time for the debate has expired. The question is that the suspension of standing orders moved by Senator Cormann be agreed to.

12:24 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate. I move:

That a motion relating to the routine of business for today may be moved immediately and determined without amendment or debate.

I also move:

That the question be now put.

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

The question is that the procedural motion moved by Senator Cormann be now put.

The question is that the procedural motion moved by Senator Cormann be agreed to.

12:37 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That today—

(a) if by 2 pm consideration of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 has not concluded, then:

  (i) after ministerial statements the bill be called on immediately until determined,

  (ii) divisions may take place after 4.30 pm for the purposes of the bill only, and

  (iii) the time allotted for all remaining stages be until 6.15 pm;

(b) paragraph (a) of this order shall operate as a limitation of debate under standing order 142; and

(c) after consideration of the bill has concluded, the routine of business shall be consideration of general business order of the day no. 96 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Appointment of Directors) Bill 2018) for not more than 90 minutes and then the Senate shall return to its routine of business.

12:35 pm

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

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Cormann be agreed to.