Thursday, 15 November 2018
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading
As I said earlier, when speaking on this Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, it's good that something is going to be done about foreign donations into political parties, but does it go far enough and is it really going to stop it? Foreign donations could actually go through Australian subsidiary companies here in Australia. Is that going to be picked up? I do have a concern about that. The Greens raised the point of the $1,000 donation limit for disclosure, and the Labor Party also think about disclosure. I can speak from experience, because I'm the only one in this place—apart from Senator Leyonhjelm, who has the Liberal Democrats, and Senator Bernardi, who has the Australian Conservatives—who actually knows about running a political party. No-one here on the benches of the Labor or the Liberal-National Party would have any idea. To understand the Electoral Act—they wouldn't have a clue what they were talking about.
You know about collecting your public funding over the years. Let me start here: 2007. The Australian Labor Party's public funding—this is taxpayer funded dollars—was $22 million. The Liberal Party had $18 million and the Australian Greens had $4 million. Then we can go to 2010. Again, the Australian Labor Party got nearly $21 million, the Liberal Party got nearly $21 million and the Greens got $7 million. In 2013 the Liberal Party got almost $24 million, the Labor Party got almost $21 million and the Australian Greens got $5½ million. And in the last election, 2015-16, the Liberal Party got $24 million, the Labor Party got $23 million and the Australian Greens got nearly $7 million. This is all about the electoral funding—the whole bill is.
The bill states that you are to put in the receipts to get the funding back. In Queensland, that's how the election is run. In Queensland and in Western Australia you actually have to put in the receipts to receive the funding back. That's what should happen. Or, possibly—another case in point is that the donations a political party gets should be taken off the amount of electoral funding that it's entitled to get back through the taxpayer. So you can't have your cake and eat it too. You shouldn't be getting these donations from big corporations and the unions.
There are hardworking Australians who pay their dollars to the unions—$14 or up to $20 a week that they're paying. They're struggling to pay their bills—their electricity bills, keeping food on the table for the kids and all the other expenses—but, no, they pay their union fees. Those go, in turn, to get these union bosses elected to the parliament here. Then they turn around; they're not worried about Australian jobs, because they're signing international free trade agreements that are giving away jobs overseas—like the 5,000 jobs under the China free trade agreement and the TPP-11 that's just been signed. Also, we can look at the Indonesian free trade agreement and what is under the South Korean free trade agreement.
This is Labor representing those hardworking Australians out there. You take their money to run your campaigns so you can have your jobs in here.
I don't see you standing up and fighting for the Australian jobs. What have you done for apprenticeship schemes? Nothing! You've actually done nothing for apprenticeships in this country at all. Then, Senator Cameron had the audacity to get up and have a go at me as if it were absolutely nothing that I fought for 1,600 apprenticeship schemes in Australia, because—do you know what, Mr Acting Deputy President McGrath?—it was out in the bush. It was to try and help those ones—
I've done a lot more in the last 2½ years than Labor has ever done to get jobs for the youth in this country. In the last 2½ years that I've been here I've done a lot more than what the Labor Party have done.
The fact is that it's a start, and I'm pushing for more. You scoff at the fact that it's a $60 million cost to the taxpayer under my apprenticeship scheme. But the fact is that I would rather see that paid than have them paid Newstart allowance or a benefit to sit around doing absolutely nothing. At the end of the day, we're going to have our own skilled tradesmen and women in this country and not open up the floodgates that you've allowed with people coming to this country.
On this electoral allowance: what I'm saying is, let's be fair to the taxpayer. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you're going to get your political donations then that comes off the top figure of the electoral funding. You can't have both. I'll find it in my notes here—it was actually the New South Wales Electoral Commission that did away with electoral donations from unions to political parties. Once I find it, I'll go back to it.
Even under this bill, what we're talking about are receipts. There should be receipts. People should put in their receipts to prove it to the Australian people, and there should be a cap on donations. If you're going to have donations then there should be a cap of $13,800 from everyone. I think $1,000 is too low, because it's extremely hard to keep a note of that, to report all that.
The Labor Party and the others in this chamber, and the Greens, have raised the fact that you can't debate me on my policies. So you throw out, 'Racist party'. Just yesterday it came from Senator Cameron. You throw out 'racist'. You have no basis for it whatsoever. I challenge anyone to put up anything racist that I've said. Criticism of policies about the direction of this country is not racism. You can't debate me on my policies; you've got to throw words around. Debate me on my policies. Don't get in the gutter, although that's what you're so used to—getting into the gutter, gutter politics—and people are fed up with it. There should be a cap on donations up to $13½ thousand from individuals, corporations, unions, GetUp!, anyone. There should be a $13½ thousand limit. Let's limit it to that and see what happens then. You might get out and really do the hard campaigning instead of getting your money from hardworking Australians, as the Labor Party do, or big corporations, where the other side of this chamber, the government side of this chamber, get their money from.
There have been stories put around, but I just want to tell you, in talking about electoral funding: I was out of this party for 13 years, from 2002 until the very end of 2015, but I came back in to lead the political party known as Pauline Hanson's One Nation. So, I was not the leader of the party for any political elections that the party stood in during that time. Can I also say that, at the time, after the 1998 state elections in Queensland and also the federal elections, I was a threat to major political parties, and, therefore, a case was made against me to charge me. That charge saw me in the criminal court. But people should know that it was a charge of: were there actually 500 members of the political party when we registered in Queensland in 1998? The fact is that the charges brought against me said, 'No, they weren't people of the political party but people of the support movement.' Therefore, I was taken to the criminal court over this.
I should never have been charged in the first place, because, under the Electoral Act, it stated that an entity of a political party had the right to register a political party, as was found in my final appeal, the third appeal. But what's interesting about all this is that the Electoral Act said there should be a fine or six months imprisonment, but the Labor Party in Queensland, under Peter Beattie, only months before my court case, changed the act to make it seven years, retrospectively. So, when my sentence was handed down, it gave the judge the authority to give me a sentence of up to seven years. On the three charges, I was given three years on each charge to be served concurrently with a non-parole period.
This was political. It was the Liberal Party, under Tony Abbott, who set up the slush fund, and it was the Labor Party that actually saw it through in the courts. Because of that, the electoral funding that we received from the 1998 state election was $502,000. That electoral funding was put into a lawyer's trust account. That money then went to pay back our candidates, because we paid back 75 per cent of our candidates' personal campaign costs, and the rest of the money was paid to run the campaign. I had to pay that money back, because I was the party agent, although I did not receive any of it. I ended up getting money only through the generous donations of the Australian people, so I was able to pay that. Otherwise, I was going to have to sell my home, which I worked hard for and had paid for. My sentence was overturned. That money has never been repaid to the party, and I have advocated that I would be giving it back to the people who donated that money to me. I received no compensation for my wrongful imprisonment, which was 11 weeks in maximum security.
So, for the Labor Party to go on about electoral funding and accuse me—I have fought for 18 years to get myself back into this place, to stand up and represent the Australian people. If you are fair dinkum about this—the amendment I'm putting up is that no electoral funding be paid to any political party candidate or independent; no-one at all—if you are fair dinkum about worrying about the people out there, those millions and millions of dollars at every election, as I've just read out, costing the Australian taxpayers around $60 million in public funding, could then go back to hospitals and schools, which you go on so much about, or infrastructure that is much needed in this country, and looking after the nursing homes and looking after the farmers during times of drought, or looking after people with depression, where suicides are happening in this country. If you are really serious about it, stop putting your hand out and taking the electoral funding every time an election's held, because the people are fed up with it. It's take, take, take. That's what people see from this house all the time—that you're not prepared to be up-front and honest with the Australian people.
And you accuse me of it. Well, the people have had a gutful of it, and so have I. If you've got anything to say, then back it up with some facts. Because I stood and I abided by the rules, the laws, and I was entitled to electoral funding like anyone else, that's no reason to continue to drag this up. The people aren't satisfied with it. I did those 11 weeks—and I'm not going to go on about that, because I don't feel sorry for myself, but the people have a right to know what was done to me by the Liberal Party and also by the Labor Party in Queensland, because you wanted to get rid of me, and you still want to get rid of me. All this here about electoral funding is about that: it's about trying to get rid of the minor parties and those independents who wish to stand and to have true democracy in this country. That's what it's about, because you're both joined in this—joined at the hip in this legislation—because you can see the damage we are doing to your vote. That's what this is all about. Forget about the foreign investors, because they can go behind the scenes; they can do it through the Australian subsidiaries. They'll find ways to do it, as they have done. Be up-front with the people, and if you're really honest about this then make your donations to $13,500 or back my amendment that says: no more electoral funding for political parties, independents—anyone. Give the money back to the people, where it belongs.
Before turning to the substance of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the tortuous path to get here. The government's initial legislation was entirely inappropriate. It left charities and not-for-profits terrified that they would be stripped of their ability to participate in public debate. It has taken a year of fighting, both inside and outside this place, to drag the government to a position that is acceptable. I've been meeting with members of Hands Off Our Charities throughout this time. This organisation deserves our thanks. The organisations involved and their work on this issue showcase exactly what the community sector has to offer: a genuine commitment to ensuring that Australia has a vibrant and free public debate about the issues that matter.
I've spoken in this chamber a number of times this year about the importance of advocacy by the community sector. It's a belief that the government doesn't seem to share. Throughout its life, this government has shown hostility to civil society. The government's first draft of this bill was simply the latest in a series of aggressions towards the sector that included the abortive push to deny environmental groups legal standing and the outrageous gag clauses that prevent charities that deliver government social services from speaking out on policy issues. The government seems to think the only role for charities should be to provide services that the government can't be bothered to provide itself, and this is a mistake.
The community sector brings a depth of knowledge and understanding to public debate, and advocacy is a core part of its mission. Take Foodbank, for example: when they're not having their funding cut by the government for no apparent reason—like this week—their core mission is to provide food relief to vulnerable Australians and their families. Solving hunger in the long term, however, requires much more than putting meals on the table; it means addressing the fundamental drivers of poverty. So Foodbank have a separate research and advocacy strategy to shine a light on hunger and its causes. Hands Off Our Charities put it quite well in the communique they issued earlier this year: 'The people of Australia, and our country's civil society, need to be free to air their views, however uncomfortable for governments or political parties. And this best guarantees that our laws and policies truly support the Australian community.'
Democracy doesn't start in this place. It starts with free, well-informed debate in our media and around our kitchen tables. And those debates need honest voices that are genuinely interested in the public interest. That's why it's important that there be proper rules governing foreign donations. The community sector not only needs to have the ability to speak it needs to have the ability to be heard. We've seen from overseas what can happen when genuine public debate gets crowded out by loud voices funded by foreign interests. Restrictions on foreign donations do not just protect the integrity of our electoral system; at best, they also strengthen the conversations we have about the issues that matter. That is why Labor is happy to support the bill today, subject to important amendments that reflect the concessions we have fought for.
Thanks to the work that the Labor team has done with the sector, charities will have new clarity around their rights and obligations when engaging in political advocacy. We have ensured that only when an organisation spends money to influence a vote will it need to comply with the Electoral Commission's rules. And unless they're spending over $500,000 a year on electioneering—and currently no charity does that—charities and not-for-profits will still be able to use overseas donations to do their everyday work. We've also protected the rights of donors who support charities in their vital work. Civil society plays a unique and important role in public debate and Labor is proud to support it.
I rise today to speak in particular on the government amendments to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Australia is one of the few Western democracies in which foreign donors can still influence domestic elections. The government's bill before us today will ensure that our electoral system, most importantly, protects our national sovereignty—and Australians should expect no less of a modern and vibrant democracy such as ours. Reform is necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and Australia's sovereignty by ensuring that only those with a meaningful connection to Australia are able to influence Australian politics—in particular, Australian elections—through political donations. Importantly, the bill before us will assure Australians that all political campaigning that targets Australian voters is paid for by Australians first and foremost, be it election advertising, campaign phone calls or how-to-vote recommendations. Foreign governments, foreign billionaires and foreign companies should never have a legitimate role in funding these activities to influence Australian politics.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 will improve the consistency of the regulatory treatment of all political actors. This includes political actors who have emerged in the Australian political landscape who neither endorse candidates from their own ranks, nor seek to form government themselves, yet actively seek to influence the outcomes of elections through their campaigning activities. While this is a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society and of political and civic engagement, it is vitally important that these actors are subject to the public accountability of more traditional actors such as registered political parties or, indeed, candidates.
This bill introduces a registration regime for all third-party campaigners who spend amounts on federal election campaigning above a particular disclosure threshold, and that threshold is $13,800 a year. Groups that spend at this level are already required to report annually to the Australian Electoral Commission on that expenditure. A registration regime will improve the transparency for voters and enable voters who receive material attempting to influence their vote to look up on a register the entity that has sent the material or that has provided that material. Registration will also assist the AEC's compliance and education activities by identifying the political actors and providing a contact person for AEC communications. Registration of third-party campaigners reflects current practices in other jurisdictions, in places like the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Similar to Australia, these are vibrant, robust and mature modern democracies.
In the 2015-16 financial year, which included the last election, you will recall third-party campaign groups spent almost $40 million—an extraordinary amount—on election advertising, polling and campaigning. These are third-party campaign groups; these are not political parties themselves. It is clear that elections are no longer just fought between political parties and candidates. For that reason, it is appropriate that all participants who choose to expend significant amounts of political expenditure are subject to the same transparency as those political parties and candidates that are fighting it out on the ground.
In recognition of the prominent role that a smaller subset of third-party campaign groups plays in public debate and their growing influence in elections, organisations that spend over half a million dollars in any financial year will have disclosure obligations imposed upon them in line with those imposed on political parties. These highly political organisations that choose to campaign at this level cannot use foreign donations for any purpose. By contrast, because many third-party campaigners such as charities spend far less on campaigning and also carry out non-election activities, they will not be prevented from receiving foreign gifts. Instead, third parties will be prevented from using foreign money for their electoral expenditure.
The bill does not restrict federal election campaigning—not in the least. It merely requires that Australian money be used for this category of expenditure. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has undertaken over the last couple of years very significant work on the topic of foreign political donations and this bill over the course of the 45th Parliament. JSCEM tabled two advisory reports on the bill. The first was delivered in April 2018 and made 15 separate recommendations. The government has responded positively to those recommendations by sharing draft amendments with the committee to give effect to those recommendations. The government invited the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to provide its views on those draft amendments before they were circulated in the Senate. The joint standing committee made 12 further recommendations in relation to the draft amendments, and they included supporting the passage of the bill, subject to their final suggestions. The government has agreed to all of those final recommendations, and government amendments were circulated to senators at the end of October, reflecting endorsement of the last of the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
The final amendments simplify red tape and make the penalties more proportionate to the size of any breaches incurred while also ensuring that the measures that reduce the regulatory burden do not compromise the bill's ability to protect Australia's national sovereignty. Importantly, these amendments clarify that spending solely on issue advocacy is not treated as electoral expenditure when that spending is not aimed at influencing voting in a federal election. The government's amendments also go further than the committee's recommendation in one important regard. In evidence submitted to the committee inquiry, representatives from the not-for-profit sector indicated that there has been widespread and inadvertent noncompliance with the longstanding disclosure obligations in their sector, so the government's amendments guarantee statutory forgiveness for historical noncompliance with third-party disclosure obligations.
The amendments also clarify the overlap of state and Commonwealth disclosure regimes, which is an issue that has arisen in recent state based litigation. The amendments ensure that, on the one hand, state or territory laws do not regulate donations for federal campaigns while, on the other hand, they give assurance that Commonwealth laws do not apply to money that is directed towards non-federal campaigns, so this includes state, territory and local government elections.
Subsequent to the previous inquiries of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the government has engaged further in constructive dialogue with the opposition and with stakeholders in the charitable sector. A final suggestion raised in these discussions was for a post-implementation review in two years time. The government has confirmed its support for that proposal. There will be another federal election under the belt by that stage, so the timing is appropriate. That will be achieved by way of a Senate motion that will be moved after the bill has been passed by the parliament.
The reforms in this bill are very important and necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and Australia's sovereignty. They will ensure that only those with a meaningful connection to Australia are able to fund Australian political activity. They will ensure that the Commonwealth electoral funding and disclosure regime keeps pace with international developments to prevent foreign interference. These reforms also provide transparency for Australian voters ahead of the next election.
There has been considerable support for this legislation, particularly from the not-for-profit sector. With your indulgence, Mr Acting Deputy President, I will enlighten the chamber on some of the support for this bill and the government's amendments. Universities Australia said:
Universities Australia welcomes the proposed amendments to the Bill, and believes they effectively resolve the concerns that the university sector had with the original Bill.
… … …
Universities Australia strongly supports the amendments proffered by the Government to resolve the university sector's concerns with the original Bill. Additionally, we believe the amendments will provide greater clarity to the disclosure requirements in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which will be warmly welcomed by universities and other organisations in the research sector.
Universities Australia urges the Parliament to adopt the proposed amendments to the Bill prior to its passage. We believe that the amendments represent a sound response to the Committee's advisory report on the Bill …
Very encouraging words indeed. Philanthropy Australia said:
We welcome the manner in which the Australian Government has responded to the recommendations of the previous JSCEM Inquiry into the Bill.
… … …
We also recognise the work of the members of JSCEM and their clear commitment to ensuring that any Bill which is passed is fit-for-purpose …
That was in their submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry in September. Professor Tony Cunningham AO from the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes said:
… there will be no impact on our members—
that's the members of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes—
and the health promotion work they undertake. Furthermore, the greater clarity given to the academic exemption also provides an additional reassurance that the work of medical researchers would not fall under the remit of this legislation.
Professor Cunningham goes on to say that the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes:
… encourage the committee and the Parliament to support these amendments being made to the Bill.
Mr Hugh de Kretser of the Human Rights Law Centre said:
This proposed law adopts a far more sensible approach to regulating election communications while ensuring charities and other community groups are free to speak up about their work.
… … …
We welcome the major improvements to this bill and thank MPs across the parties for their constructive engagement on this issue.
Mr Joseph McCarthy of the University of Melbourne said:
Given the narrowed scope of the new defined term 'electoral matters', universities will not be subjected to onerous political campaigner reporting requirements. Importantly, philanthropic donations will not be captured, thus enabling the university to continue to receive these vital funds to advance its academic activities. … … …
… the University welcomes and supports the proposed changes to the Bill, and thanks the Australian Government for addressing the concerns raised by the sector.
Krystian Seibert from the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology said:
The proposed amendments are sensible and well targeted and have therefore been welcomed by various stakeholders across the not-for-profit sector.
The government should be commended for listening to the widespread and serious concerns raised about the bill from a diverse range of stakeholders, and for responding so comprehensively to both these concerns and the various recommendations made by the JSCEM when it first examined the bill earlier this year.
… … …
It’s reasonable to expect that where charities do undertake electioneering activities, they should meet some basic transparency requirements regarding how much they spend on these activities and whether they received any larger donations to fund this spending. And charities are already required to do that anyway under the existing law.
… … …
… it’s a hard argument to make that charities should receive a special exemption.
The Australian Major Performing Arts Group said that they welcomed the proposed amendments to remove the term 'political purpose'. It effectively addressed their major concern. The Australian Performing Arts Group welcomed the proposed amendments to the exemptions and they welcomed the narrowing of entities required to register. They also said that they appreciated the bipartisan approach to developing what they believe are effective amendments.
Ms Jill Reichstein from the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network said they congratulated the government for listening and responding, resulting in a significantly improved bill. They said, 'The narrower definition provides greater clarity for philanthropic funders, thereby enabling donors to support important advocacy activities undertaken by the charitable sector, with less concern that their funding could trigger electoral laws.' The Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network also said that they were pleased that the bill continued to encourage international donors to fund Australian environmental issues.
A joint submission to the JSCEM from the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation, the Reichstein Foundation, the Ian Potter Foundation, the Australian Communities Foundation, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, the Myer Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund collectively said:
We welcome the way in which the Australian Government has responded to the recommendations of the previous JSCEM Inquiry into the Bill.
They also said that the proposed amendments which were the subject of the inquiry were therefore very welcome and addressed many of the concerns raised about this bill.
Mr Gideon Rozner from the Institute of Public Affairs said:
The IPA therefore welcomes these amendments, insofar as they achieve the government's objective without casting a net that is unduly and unreasonably wide.
… … …
… the government's amendments represent a substantial improvement on the bill in its original form.
Finally, Research Australia's Ms Nadia Levin said that Research Australia 'called for the bill to be amended to avoid these unintended consequences, and are gratified to see that this outcome has been achieved with the latest amendments'. The Health and Medical Research Centre is regularly invited to respond to reviews by government departments and is pleased to see that these activities do not fall within the new definition of electoral matters.
To summarise them, the proposed amendments essentially ensure three things. Firstly, they ensure that key political actors who spend significant amounts of money on electoral expenditure are subject to appropriate disclosure obligations, with obligations commensurate to their level of electoral expenditure. Secondly, the amendments clarify that spending solely on issue advocacy is not treated as electoral expenditure when that spending is not aimed at influencing voting in a federal election. This has been clearly the main concern for the charities and other organisations that have lobbied the JSCEM and also the government on laws where those groups do not specifically also seek to influence voting in elections. Thirdly, the proposed amendments importantly override state laws to the extent that they would prevent donations or compel reporting of donations that were made for Commonwealth electoral purposes or were made available for Commonwealth purposes, not pledged or reserved for use in state and territory jurisdictions.
So the reforms in this bill clearly are vitally important and necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and, of course, Australia's sovereignty. They do that by ensuring that only those with a truly meaningful connection to Australia are able to fund Australian political activity. This bill and its amendments will ensure that the Commonwealth's electoral funding and disclosure regime keep pace with the international developments that will prevent foreign interference. The reforms also provide transparency for Australian voters ahead of the next federal election.
I rise to contribute to the consideration of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill today, to make a few points about the importance of the law keeping pace with a very much changing international global environment in political communications and political influence. We have to recognise the fact that as times change the law has to change. It was not too many years ago, when I first started to get involved in politics, that people who were out campaigning in Australia were 99 per cent funded by people putting their hands in their pockets and by Australian businesses contributing to political campaigns that influence their daily lives. But now you're seeing an increasingly globalised world, where the money trails are complex. They are very long and they are very obscure indeed.
Integrity in our political systems, in our electoral systems, is absolutely critical to the good functioning of government and civil society in this country. I think it is clear, from the discussions over the last couple of years and from the work done by JSCEM, that Australia's regulatory approach has not kept pace with international developments nor with some domestic developments. Internationally, there is an increasing incidence of foreign attempts to influence elections around the world. There are some high-profile cases involving government-to-government hacking of systems and so on, but there is a lot more prosaic funnelling of money through various institutions, various environmental groups, various social organisations, various channels that are, as I said earlier, very hard to track. It is very hard to extract the level of influence they are having within our system.
This is a concern not only in the real sense but also in the perception sense, because perceptions in politics are very important. We need to make sure we have a strong system of integrity and fairness, but we also need people to have confidence in that system of integrity and fairness—that it is actually working and that the accountability and the transparency of all those involved in political finance is utmost in our minds. Again, going back to the global nature, both of money flows and of political influence, we need to always keep that in mind when we are thinking about changes to our electoral legislation.
It's also important that we provide consistency in regulation so that, where large sums of money are involved, we seek to reduce foreign influence on Australian political actors by restricting the ability of that foreign money to finance domestic election campaigns. This is vitally important. One thing that has slightly puzzled me is some of the reactions to the initial tranche of legislation that the government put forward in this respect. Obviously, there was a very good JSCEM process—the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—which looked thoroughly into this bill, but, on the original tranche of legislation, there was another committee called the Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations. I was on that committee at that time, and I asked the head of GetUp!, Mr Oosting, a pretty simple question, I thought. I asked: 'I know it's fully legal, but does a body like GetUp! accept foreign donations?' Mr Oosting's response was: 'Over time, we've received a very small number of foreign donations—roughly 0.5 per cent of our total income has come from forces overseas. That has included environmental foundations who have supported our work and one of our sister organisations, which is a global body called Avaaz. The maximum it's ever been is about 1.4 per cent of our income. I believe that was three years ago.'
That was at a time when GetUp! was launching a vociferous campaign against the government's approach to restricting foreign donations, and it does beg the question: if GetUp!'s income from foreign donations is so small, why was there a vociferous campaign launched against this government? It does make one think that perhaps it's because GetUp! is opposed to anything this side of politics does, as opposed to the contents of the actual laws themselves. I won't dare impugn the words Mr Oosting said. I take them at face value and assume that their source of funding wasn't coming from overseas. But, given that, why else attack the government so strongly over this legislation?
As I said, there was a very good process through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters looking at that original tranche of that legislation. As is good process in this place, that committee, looking at things from a number of different perspectives, came up with a set of recommendations, and the government took notice of those recommendations and has amended the legislation to take into account some of those recommendations in a constructive way. The government has always been on the record as being appreciative of the constructive approach and the goodwill demonstrated by all sides in that Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The government absolutely welcomes the cross-party support in the committee's report, which proposed that a foreign-political-donations ban should apply to all relevant electoral expenditure. The government has been back to the joint standing committee twice to ensure the bill aligns with the JSCEM's intentions in its recommendations.
So, again, we've seen with this bill a willingness to listen to voices on the other side, to alter the position, to make sure that we are getting these laws correct. This is a very contested space where we have to get the balance right to make sure we are not going to damage civil society. But, at the same time, we are going to cut off those potentially dangerous layers of money from outside actors seeking to influence the results of Australian elections. It is something that has happened everywhere else around the world. My understanding is that we are one of very few Western democracies that does not specifically ban foreign donations from playing a role in domestic election campaigns. So, in a sense, we are catching up, but it is still important to take those steps and make sure that we close the door.
So what does this bill actually do? It bans foreign donations from financing Australian politics. It does this by prohibiting the giving, and the knowing receipt of, all gifts from foreign donors where the donor intends the gift to be used for electoral expenditure. It penalises donors who make prohibited gifts or false or misleading statements to recipients. It requires donors to affirm to political campaigners, political parties and candidates that they are not foreign for gifts between $1,000 and the disclosure threshold—for instance, that may be a checkbox on a donation form—and it requires political campaigners, political parties, candidates and third parties to verify that donors are not foreign for gifts above the disclosure threshold, which is $13,800 this financial year, and that of course will go up over time.
A menu of alternative forms of proof is listed to help recipients check a donor's status. Recipients may use a listed approved form or undertake other reasonable steps to ascertain that a donor is not foreign. Anti-avoidance rules are included to, for example, adjust the movement of foreign funds between organisations. As part of the anti-avoidance rules the Electoral Commissioner can require an organisation that is part of an avoidance scheme to stop a scheme or not participate in it.
There is a transparency register as part of this bill. Again, that has perhaps caused some confusion. I think it is important to understand that the integrity of Australia's political process can be safeguarded through this increased accountability and transparency but, without the transparency part, there is no accountability. The registration and, more importantly, the publication of data on the transparency register in real time build on the authorisation reforms already introduced by this government by providing further transparency. This greater transparency will provide voters with unprecedented access to information about the political actors shaping political debate. It will also facilitate a more modern enforcement approach to the electoral funding and disclosure regime. By identifying those who comply with the reporting requirements early, the AEC can focus on education and assistance for regulated entities before deadlines have passed so the law is not broken.
Why aren't third parties required to register? In its advisory report, the JSCEM recommended that obligation should be commensurate with the level of expenditure. The government has actioned this recommendation while ensuring third parties are subject to a lesser regulatory burden than political campaigners, those organisations that spend significant amounts on elections. So who must register? The significant political campaigners and associated entities will need to register with the AEC. Following the submission of an annual return, third parties will be automatically added to the transparency register by the Australian Electoral Commission.
There has been significant consultation on this bill. Obviously the JSCEM process itself has been a very important part of that, bringing the major parties in this place together and giving all those who are interested the chance to look at this bill and contribute to its formulation and contribute to the amendments that I have discussed.
The bill was developed in response to growing concerns about foreign donations and the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters' second interim report on its inquiry into the 2016 election. The committee then invited submissions from interested parties. In fact, the JSCEM received over 200 submissions. So you can see that this was an area that elicited great interest, particularly from organisations, community groups and people involved directly or on the periphery of the political process. The committee held nine public hearings in all capital cities except Darwin. Submitters and witnesses to the inquiry included academic citizens, interest groups and, of course, political parties. We do have a legitimate interest in making sure the system is correct and the system works. There was widespread consensus among those submissions that foreign donations should be banned for the reasons I talked about earlier. In view of the extensive consultation undertaken by the committee and its initial report and the high level of public engagement with the committee, the government, in effect, used the committee as a channel for the public consultation and revisions to the draft bill, and that is further demonstrated by the fact that the government went back to the joint standing committee on two occasions for further input into the legislation. Of course, the other party that was significantly consulted during this process was the Australian Electoral Commission, which has to oversee the implementation of this legislation. Obviously, the Attorney-General also played a significant role in the drafting of this legislation.
In the relatively short time I have available to me I want to run through the amendments from the initial bill that came out of the JSCEM process and were reflected back to JSCEM for their endorsement. Firstly, the proposed amendments do three things. They ensure key political actors who spend significant amounts of money on electoral expenditure are subject to appropriate disclosure obligations, with those obligations being commensurate with their level of electoral expenditure. Obviously, we don't want the same level of disclosure from a very small, very local community organisation as we expect from the large national players.
Secondly, the amendments clarify that spending solely on the issue advocacy is not treated as electoral expenditure when that spending is not aimed at influencing voting in a federal election. This has been one of the main concerns of charities and other organisations that spend a lot of effort lobbying on particular laws but do not necessarily go on to seek to influence votes at elections. Obviously, it's a very important part of civil society that groups feel that they can freely contribute to the development of legislation, the development of government policy, without being impacted by these changes.
Thirdly, they override state laws to the extent that they would prevent donations or compel the reporting of donations that were made for Commonwealth electoral purposes or are available for Commonwealth purposes—that is, not pledged or reserved for use in a state or a territory jurisdiction. You have a situation—particularly on that last point, I think it is important to say—where there is some inconsistency between state and federal laws. These amendments make sure that federal laws apply to federal elections and that state laws apply to state elections. It's very important that we keep that distinction, we don't confuse the two levels of government and we don't make it more difficult for people to be able to participate in our democracy at the two respective levels of government.
The government's amendments specifically address recommendations from JSCEM following its first inquiry into the bill. As I stated earlier, most of the recommendations address concerns raised by the charitable and not-for-profit sector. The amendments address these concerns by establishing a single transparency register on which key political actors are required to report their federal electoral expenditure and large gifts that are used to fund election campaigning. The amendments also ensure that pure issue advocacy is not treated the same as campaigning activity. It replaces the original definitions of 'political matters' and 'political expenditure' and replaces those with new terms, 'electoral matter' and 'electoral expenditure'. So, in that way, we are only seeking to capture the activity that is directly aimed at influencing how people vote in federal elections. We are not seeking to in any way restrict people from advocating for a particular position in regard to, for example, a government's policy position or a particular piece of legislation that is going to be before the parliament.
The draft amendments also seek to provide appropriate exemptions to recognising that 'electoral matter' does not include news reports, material created for a dominant artistic or academic purpose, private communications or private lobbying of Commonwealth officials, parliamentarians or political parties. We don't want to stop the flow of communication to politicians or parliamentarians; however, we want to make sure that people feel free to be able to communicate. Obviously free and open communication is one of the central tenants of our society. There are changes to the monetary threshold for rules that regulate gifts and expenditure above which more stringent requirements apply. When an organisation spends a significant amount of money on elections, it will be categorised as a political campaigner and will not be able to receive any gifts from foreigners for any purpose. This treatment applies where electoral expenditure exceeds $500,000. There are significantly more recommendations from the JSCEM report which I'm not going to have time to go through, but I do commend the bill.
There are not that many times that we have the opportunity to rethink the principles that motivate us in this place to do all that we can to engage the Australian people in the democratic process. Those principles, though, are worth revisiting. We need to be focused always on the importance of maximising the opportunity for all Australians to be active participants in the democratic process, well-informed, and able to assess the information available to them because it is transparent. We need to encourage honest participation, the genuine explanation of policy and discourage the tendency to have, in an election campaign, the misrepresentation or unfair manipulation of data that we see from time to time.
It's also really important to the integrity of our democratic process that we have an effective and efficient regulator, a competent and capable Australian Electoral Commission, one that is sufficient in expertise and flexible enough to deal with the unusual challenges that the election environment can present. It needs to be able to deploy resources to the often unexpected circumstances that can arise in a campaign. The unusual or unexpected arrival of a large number of people at a country polling booth, for instance, can present difficulties, just as those circumstances where a ballot is very close can present difficulties too. And it's quite a challenge to provide sufficient support and opportunity for that body to be able to always tackle that difficult task.
This bill is also about ensuring that our electoral system is one of integrity, one that protects our national sovereignty. It is really important to ensure that only those people who have a meaningful connection to the Australian people, the Australian parliament and Australia's interests are able to have a serious influence on Australian politics.