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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 24/09/2014 - Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

GENNER, Mr Joshua, Campaigns Adviser, GetUp! Australia

MCLEAN, Mr Samuel, National Director, GetUp! Australia

Committee met at 09:57 .

CHAIR ( Mr Tony Smith ): I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2013 election. The inquiry was referred by the Special Minister of State on 5 December last year to look at all aspects of the last federal election.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings in the respective houses. Thanks for coming along today to our public hearing. Would you like to make an opening statement? We have your submission.

Mr McLean : I would love to make an opening statement, thank you. Thank you, Chair and members, for having us. This is my third federal election before JSCEM, so it is good to be back. We have put in our submission, which you may have before you, but there are a few opening comments from us. We believe there are three foundations to a free and fair democracy: (1) that as many people can vote and participate as possible; (2) that people get what they actually vote for; and (3) that those representatives represent us as voters, not their donors, not their mates, not their union and not themselves.

These foundations are very important, because it is on those that Australians are able to build their lives. When these foundations crack, people obviously fall through. This is having very real consequences right now in the stories that we hear from GetUp! members: farmers who are losing their land to mining approvals that were overseen by Eddie Obeid—people who feel like their material interests, the land they have grown up on, have been sold out and that their voice is not equal to the vested interests that they are up against. When it comes to the freedom, fairness and integrity of our democracy, we believe our federal leaders should be at the front of the charge. Sadly, at their hands our nation is lagging behind state leaders, we believe. Take the issue of giving people the vote. The New South Wales government now allows for same-day enrolment; if somebody has just celebrated their 18th birthday, they can come along to a polling booth on election day and enrol to vote and have their say, and that allowed tens of thousands of people to have their say at the last New South Wales state election. Meanwhile our federal leaders in government appear to have absolutely nothing to say on the issue at the moment, let alone the conviction to act.

Then there is the corrupting influence of money on politics. I think the federal parliament is lagging behind some of the states. The former Queensland government introduced reforms that helped protect that state against the influence of big money and special interests and that skeleton in the cupboard up there of corruption. They capped donations to prevent rich individuals and large corporations from buying influence with politicians. They made the flow of money to politicians and their parties much more transparent so the public and the media could better do to their crucial work in keeping politicians and our parliament honest. While the current Queensland government has abandoned those changes, the state has shown more leadership and political integrity, I believe, than our federal parliament has.

Leaders in New South Wales have also capped donations to protect against undue influence and corruption in the New South Wales government. Now, to their credit, they have set up an independent panel of experts to consider further reforms on election funding, including the option of full public funding. Without such checks and balances on where money can flow and how much can flow, the scales of freedom and fairness in our democracy inevitably skew towards the wealthy and powerful few. In this area of donations and funding reform, yet again our federal government is lagging behind and has said nothing reformist publicly on the issue. On this one also, the opposition seems silent at the moment.

Then there is the issue of keeping checks on wrongdoing and corruption, and it is obvious to all Australians at the moment—especially those of us who live in New South Wales—that fear of the law and fear of punishment at the ballot box just are not enough to prevent all wrongdoing and corruption. We know that an independent watchdog is crucial to upholding the integrity of our democratic system. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has shown the importance of having such a watchdog. Day after day and month after month and year after year, our newspapers have been filled with revelations of wrongdoings coming from ICAC: 10 government MPs have stood aside, ministers in the previous government have been deemed corrupt and each revelation is a brutal blow to the already battered and bruised body politic. So too, each provides hope that revelations might lead to reforms that can open a new chapter in integrity in New South Wales.

Clearly the implications of the New South Wales ICAC do not stop at the border. Our federal Assistant Treasurer stood down from a position and members of the previous government in opposition are still mired in legal prosecution from the last parliament. But, yet again on this front, our federal parliament is lagging behind and appears to have nothing to say, let alone the courage and conviction to act. On this issue too the opposition appears silent. It is time for a national ICAC so that we too can have the confidence that what has slowly been unravelled and uncovered in New South Wales could also be done at the federal level.

When it comes to the freedom and fairness of our democracy I think this government and this Prime Minister need to decide if he is a lagger or leader—

CHAIR: Sam, I never cut anyone off but I am just going to ask you to pause.

Mr McLean : That is the end.

CHAIR: I was wondering whether we were approaching the finishing line. You have put in a long submission and everything you have said is pretty much additional to that. You have covered a lot of topics in the submission. We never criticise people for making speeches, but I think it is a better use of the committee's time if we now get to the submission. As you can see, there are a lot of people here that want to ask questions. We have permanent members of the committee and we have some participating members of the committee as well, so we have an order of things. I will not take much time because I want to leave time for some others, but I did want to draw you to two issues in your submission. One was some of the work we have done on Senate voting; I will get you to give us your views on that. The other, which you have touched on in there, is on electronic voting. It is something we are asking most witnesses about simply because the Special Minister of State listed it in the reference to this inquiry when he set it up. If I could get your views on those things, we will then share around some of the questioning. If there is time at the end I might come back to a couple of things.

Mr McLean : Thank you for the opportunity to come out. Our submission goes to both of those issues but the people in this room have managed to come together and, I understand, find some common ground on Senate voting reforms. That inspires confidence and hope but we have also seen previous iterations of this committee make recommendations that are not taken up by the leaders of their parties. We certainly hope that the committee's recommendations are taken seriously. There will be significant public interest in and support for those changes. Our submissions to this effect are thoughts for consideration; there are multiple ways you could approach the issue of group voting tickets or changing membership requirements for smaller parties. We will leave it at the submission.

CHAIR: And on electronic voting?

Mr Genner : Broadly speaking, it is certainly something we think the committee is taking the right approach to, which is to consider the pros and cons and recommend a trial of some sort—which you guys seem to be heading towards.

CHAIR: But you do not have a strong view on the subject? It is probably summarised by the heading in your submission, 'Limited Trials'.

Mr Genner : It is something that clearly makes sense to us, as it does to everybody around this table, from what I gather. The right approach is the one you guys seem to be heading towards, which is recommending that it be tested and trialled, and implemented if that proves successful.

CHAIR: Thanks for that. I am going to try to be brutally efficient. We will go to Gary.

Mr GRAY: Sam and Josh, thank you for your written submission and also for your oral evidence given with a lot of precision and passion, and a lot of thought. I have two areas of questions and a point to make; I will make the point first.

We should not get ahead of ourselves on consideration by the JSCEM of electronic voting. We will consider the electronic voting proposition. It is complex and detailed, and the next election is 24 months away. We need to be cognisant of the genuinely pragmatic side of properly executing any changes to the culture and practice of voting in Australia—notwithstanding, Mr Chair, a desire to properly consider electronic voting.

I am interested in your observations on changes to the Senate voting system and I want to tease out why you support change. Within the framework of the recommendations that were made unanimously in the report that was tabled at the end of April, which of those recommendations do you particularly support and why?

Mr Genner : First of all, in regard to electronic voting, due consideration is correct. In terms of the many stampeding elephants of reform we wish this committee would recommend, it is, compared with some of the other things we would like to see happen, an ant. A measured approach is the right one.

In terms of Senate reform it is something that, having seen the committee give it due thought and a great deal of attention—and indeed, its own specific report—we were fairly happy to leave the bulk of the thinking done and not turn over leaves you guys had already turned over and made your own conclusions about. It is fair to say that we have left the minutiae of the policy to you guys.

Broadly speaking, we support reform first because, as Sam mentions, it is so rare in this place that the parties can come together and recommend genuine, groundbreaking, large-scale reform, and it would be truly sad if this one was not acted upon. So we want to see something come of the remarkable unity that has been shown around this table. Second, to address what is probably more the substance of your question, I think it is fair to say that having a situation where people have to number 100 boxes if they want to decide their own preferences in the Senate has become a somewhat absurd situation. I think that it in effect forces people to manufacture preferences. Once you get to preferences 85 and 86, can a voter really be expected to be informed enough to tell the difference between the Reformist Party of New South Wales and the New South Wales Reform Party?

Mr GRAY: I accept that and thank you for saying it, but an equally valid critique would be that the changes that have been unanimously agreed constrain the rights of individuals to construct whichever political party they might choose and to run candidates in whatever manner they might choose.

Mr Genner : By 'in whatever manner' do you mean the allocation of preferences?

Mr GRAY: In both the allocation of preferences—because we changed that system—and in how political parties themselves exist. The recommendations are profound in their implications and also detailed. I am looking more at how you think the rubber hits the road. Although the recommendation is unanimous of our committee and one that I personally support and think is long overdue, it would be interesting to me to hear your consideration of the detail of that change in its profound nature and why it is something that GetUp! would find comforting and a qualitative improvement to our electoral system.

Mr Genner : If you would like us to go away and have a good think about it, we would be more than happy to take that on notice and come back to you with some thoughts.

Mr GRAY: Thanks.

Senator CANAVAN: I want to ask questions about donations. Are donations to GetUp! tax deductible?

Mr McLean : They are not.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. I have just seen on your website a comment that they are not tax deductible. You say:

This is an important measure to ensure that GetUp's campaign advocacy work remain independent of government funds.

Do you stand behind that statement?

Mr McLean : Yes.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. I want to ask about an article that appeared in The Australian in May. You are probably aware of it. There were reports that Mr Graeme Wood was going to make a donation of $262,000 to GetUp! It was apparently reported in your board papers, but that donation did not occur. Instead it was allegedly given to Friends of the Earth, who then commissioned work, apparently on your behalf. Did you receive any funds from Graeme Wood ahead of the last election campaign?

Mr McLean : No.

Senator CANAVAN: Did you see any work that Friends of the Earth commissioned—any polling work by Essential Media Communications?

Mr McLean : Yes we did.

Senator CANAVAN: My understanding is that Friends of the Earth do receive tax deductible gift status.

Mr McLean : That is also my understanding.

Senator CANAVAN: There was a quote here from a Mr Walker from Friends of the Earth in the article in The Australian in May. He said: 'GetUp got a copy of the report and used it in their planning and we used it too. Essential Media invoiced us and we paid them. The stars aligned. There was a donor who wanted money spent a certain way, and so we negotiated with Essential Media, who issued invoices, and the money received from GetUp was used to pay those bills. In my mind we haven't done anything untoward.' Did you give any money to Friends of the Earth?

Mr McLean : No we did not.

Senator CANAVAN: So that quote is incorrect?

Mr McLean : I have not seen that quote, but we did not.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. You did not give any money to Friends of the Earth. As you are aware then, Friends of the Earth did receive tax deductible gift status. They did work that you subsequently saw. Did you ask Friends of the Earth to do any of that work for you?

Mr McLean : We discussed doing it together, yes.

Senator CANAVAN: So, in effect, tax deductible funds have been used to fund your political campaigning work in this regard?

Mr McLean : No, I would not agree with that.

Senator CANAVAN: Would you have done that polling work anyway? Would you have wanted to do that polling work anyway ahead of last year's election?

Mr McLean : We work with Friends of the Earth on a number of issues, and we have done so for a long time. Outside of election cycles and throughout the election period, we collaborate with them on campaigns where our members have common interest. Often, among environmental groups and campaigners, we want to do research into how Australians think and feel about the environment and how that relates to other issues. So it is pretty common practice for us to conduct opinion polling and then to share it among groups who will benefit from it and who are interested in it. I think that is healthy and beneficial to all the groups involved, in that they can better represent the public. I do not think there is anything to be—

Senator CANAVAN: Do you not believe it is inconsistent with the—as we discussed earlier—policies on your website that say you believe that funds you receive should not be tax deductible because, in your words, you should remain independent of government funds? In effect here, you have not remained independent of government funds.

Mr McLean : Donations directly to GetUp! are not tax deductible. But that does not mean that we should not collaborate with organisations who themselves are.

Senator McGRATH: You have received the benefit, haven't you? You directly received the benefit by the sharing of the research. It is a direct benefit.

Mr McLean : In no way is it different to us receiving the benefit from—

Senator McGRATH: How?

Mr McLean : In no way is it different to us receiving benefit from the public reports that are released by such organisations.

Senator McGRATH: I am putting it to you that you directly received a benefit by having access to the polling and research, which is in contradiction of the tax deductible status. You are getting a benefit there. I cannot see how you can say you are not getting a benefit.

Mr McLean : We benefit from the work that many tax deductible entities do. We benefit from the reports and thinking and advice that think tanks of many different stripes do. We benefit from the public reports of the WWF, the ACF and any number of groups that are tax deductible—our allies and friends in health organisations, and so forth. There is nothing untoward about benefiting from the work of tax deductible organisations. We all do. The public benefits from it.

Senator CANAVAN: Sorry, Mr McLean, I am going to put it very simply: did you use the research conducted by Essential Media Communications in your political campaigning ahead of the last year's election?

Mr Genner : Senator, if the Liberal Party—

Senator CANAVAN: No, sorry. I asked a direct question.

Mr Genner : And I will give you a direct answer, Senator. If the Liberal Party put out polling that said the environment was a big issue for seats in New South Wales, we would use that information.

Senator CANAVAN: Sure.

Mr Genner : If a person on the street gave me a hot tip that something was going to be good news at the next election and I believed him, we would use that information.

Senator CANAVAN: I asked: did you use it? You certainly did not coordinate with the Liberal Party on polling ahead of the last year's election. You did with Essential Media Communications and Friends of the Earth, as you have said.

Mr McLean : Yes, we—

Senator CANAVAN: Did you use that polling in your political campaign?

Mr McLean : Yes, we took notice of their polling.

Senator CANAVAN: Are you aware of the requirements of the Income Tax Assessment Act for deductible gift recipients for environmental organisations?

Mr McLean : I have to say I am not au fait with the details, but please—

Senator CANAVAN: Under section 30-265(1) of that, the principal purpose of the environmental organisation must be to do research to protect the natural environment or to directly take action to direct the natural environment. Did you assure yourself that your coordination with Friends of the Earth was meeting the requirements under that act before you coordinated with them?

Mr McLean : I really think that would be their consideration.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. You have obviously taken an interest in the use and transparency of funds, as you said on your website. But do you not avail yourself of the requirements under the Income Tax Assessment Act for use in this space?

Mr McLean : Friends of the Earth are absolutely deserving of tax deductible status. They have a long history of doing excellent work, to do exactly what you have just said: doing research and direct action to protect the environment. That is consistent with the polling that they did and the research they have done. I congratulate them on it. Good on them.

Senator CANAVAN: Turning to the broader issues you raise in your submission about the transparency of funding and the comments you made earlier—which I support. As you would be aware, there are restrictions on what political parties can take in terms of the tax deductibility of donations. To improve the transparency of funding—and, as you said earlier, to deal with corruption of money in politics—do you think we need reform here in these areas to ensure that those groups, those political action committees, that exist now in our political landscape do not receive tax-deductible funds? Do you see need for reform there?

Mr McLean : What do you mean by political action committees?

Senator CANAVAN: Well, a quasi PAC, which is what you guys basically are here in this country. You are running political campaigns outside a formal political process—which is no problem at all—but we have certain laws in this country about ensuring that tax-deductible funds are not given to political campaigns. Do you see a need for reform in these areas, given the experience of what has happened here?

Mr McLean : Frankly, no. I think that the kinds of reforms that you are intimating are the kinds of reforms that were used by the former Howard government to try to silence the voices of non-profit organisations and direct service organisations across the country. The threat of removal of tax-deductible status to organisations that do incredibly good work in the public good has long been used to try to silence those organisations—legal services, environment groups—from properly representing in the public sphere the people they represent. The threat of removing their tax deductibility is not because you have a concern about the probity of those funds but because you have a concern about the content of what they are saying, I would suggest.

Senator CANAVAN: I do note though that you state on the public record that you were not aware of the requirements of the Income Tax Assessment Act for these particular environmental organisations, but ahead of the last election you coordinated them to come back to—

Mr McLean : I would not say that I was not aware; I said I do not have them in front of me.

Senator CANAVAN: We might have to look at the record. Were you aware of those requirements in the Income Tax Assessment Act for environmental organisations listed as tax-deductible gift recipients?

Mr Genner : We should probably take that on notice and double-check that we are absolutely certain, rather than saying we think. I would say with some confidence that certainly GetUp! was across them, but I would rather double-check that. Could I just make one point. As you will have read in our submission, we are advocating a donations cap—that is, that $1,000 be the limit which people can give to a political party, people or organisations, to stop people trying to buy influence, to stop undue access to politicians and the myriad scandals that come after that with people in your party in New South Wales and elsewhere, and other parties as well, of course. It is fair to say that we would gladly be a part of any such caps on donations to political activity and absolutely think the wider political—

Senator CANAVAN: You would recognise on that point that if we go down that path, we are going to get the situation that happens in America, where money will go to organisations such as yourself. You would consider yourself interested in this regard?

Mr Genner : A good system of donations and expenditure caps should look at including third parties and particularly advocacy third parties such as ourselves. I would have absolutely no problem with such a system being introduced in Australia. I would strongly encourage it. The reality is that donations to GetUp! will not be affected at all by such a cap. There were 427,000 donations to GetUp! in the last year alone. The average donation was $17. I think that is evidence of the number of Australians who are willing to put their hands in their pockets and chip into causes and political parties they believe in, and the amount of participation and donations that could be accessed by political parties as well. So we would love to see a national system of donations caps. I think it would be appropriate for any such laws to consider the role of third parties such as ourselves and we would be very happy to comply with such caps, if they were introduced.

Senator FAULKNER: I suppose these questions lead me to ask you: do you think it would be a fair impression to have that GetUp presents to this committee a range of proposals for reform and change to the electoral system—which, I have to acknowledge, I broadly support—but, on the other hand, there might be a concern in relation to how regulation and legislative provisions might apply to your own organisation? What is your view about the sorts of constraints that should apply to organisations like yours? Do you think it is proper for this committee and the parliament to ensure that groups like GetUp—let us use the terminology which is now popular, courtesy of our American friends, 'political action groups'—have serious constraints and regulation applied to them? That is an 'in principle' question, if you like.

Mr McLean : Thank you for the questions. I think that in such laws, it seems to me that there is usually a primary target of the regulation and then secondary targets. The primary target is those elected members of parliament, who are elected by the people, are paid by the people and report to the people. The primary target of any expenditure caps or donation laws is to ensure that the public has confidence in those people.

There is a concern, as Senator Canavan raised, that if those laws are introduced without appropriate caps and regulations being applied to third-party campaigning groups such as ourselves, money might flow as a proxy to other groups. Parties might be able to set up, or have set up on their behalf, political action committees or groups that can campaign on their behalf. So we need to look at the secondary target of those laws, which is third-party groups.

If such a system were to be introduced in Australia—and we would strongly support it—I think that you would have to simply look at mirroring the regulations on the primary target for secondary targets, such as GetUp. That might look like appropriate donation caps being applied also to third-party groups, like ourselves, if the primary purpose of that group is election campaigning or influencing the result of elections. I think it would be important to find a way of distinguishing between groups who aim to influence elections and have a political advocacy presence, and groups who simply represent a constituency or aim to do advocacy outside of influencing elections.

Senator FAULKNER: Do you accept the principle that if GetUp is involved in the political process, the electoral laws should apply to GetUp?

Mr McLean : Yes, I believe they should.

Senator FAULKNER: Accepting that principle, let us go to the question of the extent to which you are engaged in the political processes in local, state or federal elections in this country. Do you have any formal association with any political party?

Mr McLean : We do not.

Senator FAULKNER: Would you describe yourself as having any informal association with any Australian political party beyond, if you like, effectively lobbying for a political position?

Mr McLean : No, we do not.

Senator FAULKNER: How does your engagement with the political parties work? And, very briefly, how does your engagement with politicians work? I have mentioned informally in the past to people from GetUp that I considered—and I have noticed it has improved of late—that the approach to parliamentarians to try to drive them even more clinically insane than they are by sending them multiple tens of thousands of emails is actually counterproductive. I would have to acknowledge that it appears that the leadership of your organisation may well have embraced that understanding.

That is how—to use the words of Norman Vincent Peale—not to win friends and influence people. But regardless, can you say very briefly how the engagement works? And I am going to follow up, I will just flag this: are there partisan differences with engagement? In other words, do you engage differently with perhaps the party that Senator Rhiannon represents, the Greens; or the party that I represent, the Labor Party; Senator Canavan, the Nationals; Senator McGrath, the Liberals; and so on. You might just very briefly outline that to the committee.

Mr McLean : I see our role as engaging in advocacy that represents the values and positions of our members. We ascertain those by regularly surveying them and by being in constant contact with them on social media and in person. We then represent those views—or give people opportunities to represent their own views, really—to politicians of all sides, and hold them accountable.

I guess the reason that GetUp was started was the feeling that there were so many Australians coming to marches, for example, to try to make their voices heard during 2005-6, and they were going home from those rallies or marches and being disconnected from each other. The idea was simply to provide a way for people to connect to each other and keep taking action together to hold politicians, and indeed other forms of power, accountable.

I would say that our role is to provide Australians who agree with the values of GetUp with opportunities to hold their politicians accountable. That looks like encouraging and standing behind MPs when they take a stand on issues that we support. I had the amusing experience yesterday, for example, of holding a press conference with Mr Clive Palmer in support of his party's advocacy for continuing the Newstart allowance and opposition to Medicare co-payments, and having journalists ask me why GetUp was endorsing his party and standing behind the Palmer United Party. We are not endorsing his party, but we do stand behind those positions when they accord with the overwhelming opinion of our members.

Senator FAULKNER: If you have the 600,000 members—I am from the Labor Party, so I am very jealous about that; we can manage about five per cent of your membership—you might explain to the committee—although we now have a division in the House of Representatives—how you can be confident that your submission to this committee represents those 600,000 people? I will stop there.

CHAIR: Hold that thought. We are going to need to adjourn. Hopefully, we will be back in about ten or fifteen minutes.

Committee adjourned at 10:32