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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29946

Mr ANDREN (12:33 PM) —Of all the reforms needed to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2001 is by far the least worthy. Here we have the parliament of the nation debating what percentage of public funding should go to state or federal secretariats of the Liberal Party. It is more than interesting to trace the history of public funding. Introduced in 1983 under amendments to the 1918 act that we are amending here, public funding was not designed to `subsidise ongoing administration costs or provide a financial base from which future election campaigns could be fought'. I contend that with subsequent amendments, notably in 1995 and, indeed, now with these subtle changes, that is exactly what is occurring.

In those 1995 amendments the direct link between funding and costs incurred in a federal election campaign was broken. Scrutiny by the Australian Electoral Commission was curtailed and in the words of the Bills Digest to these amendments `the distinction between reimbursement for campaign costs and subsidy for ongoing administration' was blurred. These amendments purportedly ensure that public funding is directed to the agent of the Liberal Party's federal secretariat and not to state branches.

The public can rightly ask whether it is designed to settle a family dispute, notably between the Queensland branch of the party and head office. The Prime Minister is on the record as saying how concerned he was that the Queensland division of his party had reneged on handing over its share of funding after the 1996 election. And so, amid the continuing preselection brawling over the seat of Ryan and the decline of the Liberal Party in Queensland, we have to entertain legislation designed to help the federal division sort out its family squabble, while other more fundamental flaws in the electoral system are ignored.

The cost to the public purse of election funding is substantial and rising. In 1984 just on $7 million was paid out at 60c a primary vote to parties and individuals securing more than four per cent of the primary vote. By 1998 it had risen to $33.9 million at $1.62 a vote. Next election the rate will be almost $1.77 a vote, indexed steeply as a result of the inflation spike caused by the GST. How pensioners and small business wished they received full compensation for the impact of the GST!

The legal opinion on this bill suggests some real concerns about public accountability. The Bills Digest says:

A law which permits the agent of the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party to determine the funding entitlements of a state division would seem to be a law which gives a private body—

that is, the secretariat—

the power to make an important public funding decision.

It goes on:

The apparent outsourcing of this decision from the AEC to the federal secretariat raises some difficult public accountability questions.

As the Bill Digest points out, there is no guidance in these changes as to the role of the agent of the federal secretariat in determining federal and state percentages. I would go further: there are no guidelines as to what purposes such public funding, ostensibly for campaign expenses, is put. Similarly, the ALP and the Australian Democrats have a centralised control of public funding and, again, no clear accountability, so far as I can see, as to whether these funds are used to directly subsidise election expenses of candidates or for other reasons.

Let me outline why I find it so offensive to be debating a bill that is designed to centralise even further the so-called democratic processes in this country to ensure that the head office of the major parties controls the propaganda machines. Let me outline how offensive it is to be debating a bill like this when so much needs to be done to make our electoral laws transparent and fair to all. In April this year the Financial Review detailed results of an investigation that showed how leading companies were channelling millions of dollars to political parties in ways that ensure that they do not have to disclose it as donations to the Australian Electoral Commission. The newspaper reported that Australia's system for disclosing political donations was in disarray—deliberate disarray, I would say—with glaring discrepancies between the level of donations declared by political parties, the amounts that big corporations say they are donating, and the level of donations reported by the AEC.

According to the Financial Review, companies are making political donations by paying large sums to intermediary companies and investment vehicles linked to parties paying for unidentified services provided by political parties, or paying thousands of dollars to attend fundraising events. Of course, we have also seen the so-called loans arranged through associated entities. While the AMP lists a payment of $65,000 to the Liberal Party as a donation, the Liberal Party lists it as a receipt, which is defined as any money including in-kind services. One wonders if anyone pays the GST. The National Australia Bank and the St George Bank, according to the Financial Review, have not declared any political donations in 1999 on the AEC records, but the NAB is recorded by the Australian Electoral Commission as providing funds of more than $365,000 to various political entities, including the ALP and the Liberals and their investment vehicles, Labor Holdings and Vapold. These receipts are somehow not regarded as donations under current legislation, and according to a NAB spokesman quoted in the article of 20 April, they represent `other types of income that are reportable by the party but are not donations from the National, such as bank transactions and attendances at political conferences for commercial purposes'. In other words, as the Financial Review says:

Discordant opinions on what a company has reported and what a political party discloses makes it difficult to ascertain the levels of corporate donations to Australia's political parties.

I make these points to highlight that while we are debating how one party corrals its share of the $40 million available from public funding at the next election, the public has no way of properly knowing the degree or scope of funding coming from other sources. Public funding should be sufficient in any election campaign. The alternative is to head down the US path and have the second best democracy money can buy. In 1996, a US congressman had to raise $US600,000 in each campaign in order to be re-elected. By 2001, the figure is probably closer to $US1 million, with full-time fundraisers on each congressman's staff. The influence over votes has been documented. I remember one story about the US IT industry and how massive campaign donations to both parties were followed by several sympathetic legislative outcomes. Public opinion and the untiring efforts of people like Republican John McCain have led the charge to reform the US donation regime and the electoral laws, but no-one is holding their breath that the reforms will be wide ranging or enduring enough while those laws are legislated by a majority of vested interests.

As it stands, there is very little chance of anyone being elected to this place who does not have party endorsement and support. Like a giant tsunami, the overwhelming resources of the major parties can sweep away an independent candidate. In 1996, at the very end of the campaign, slick television commercials produced at Liberal campaign headquarters in Melbourne told viewers in my electorate that a vote for Andren was a vote for Keating. At the Lithgow end of the electorate, more modest although significant ALP literature said that a vote for Andren was a vote for Howard. As a novice, and naturally unsettled somewhat by that blitz, I had to find $8,000 of my own resources to shoot and run a commercial to counter those fatuous arguments, by simply saying that a vote for Andren was a vote for Andren and that voters could allocate their preferences according to their choice. It gave me the opportunity to cement the completely free choice on my how-to-vote ticket, which people appreciated, and in many ways the clever-trick campaign backlashed on the major parties. But it underlined the resources that the major parties have that can swamp an independent or, indeed, a minor party candidate.

All up, the major parties spent about $400,000 on electronic advertising in Calare during the 1996 campaign. I spent $50,000 on the entire campaign, and about $15,000, from memory, on radio and TV. Public funding covered the lion's share in 1995 and all of the budget in 1998. I believe that a cap of $50,000 per candidate should be mandated and audited to level the playing field for political campaigning in this country to give ordinary individuals the chance to stand for parliament. As in so many areas of public accountability, the Canadian model is worth close study. In those legislated outcomes, we see restrictions on the candidates' and parties' total spending. Public funding in Canada is based on the reimbursement of authenticated candidate and party campaign expenses and it is paid at a set rate of vote obtained, but importantly in Canada access to electronic media is intensively regulated. What an absolute joke were the high-minded reasons that were given publicly back in 1984 for the public funding of elections. The Labor Party argued that it gave the parties an equal opportunity to present their case to the electorate and that it diminished the likely influence of big donors. The Hon. Kim Beazley told this House on 2 November 1893 that:

It is simply naive to believe that no big donor is ever likely to want his cut some time. The price of public funding is a small insurance to pay against the possibility of corruption.

The trouble is the big donors got bigger, and I certainly am not so naïve as to think that a big donor is never likely to want his cut some time, especially with electoral laws that are so clearly and cleverly avoided as to hide the degree of big donations from big sources with big agendas. The former member for Gwydir, Ralph Hunt, got it right when, on 9 November 1983, he said:

I do not believe any system will effectively stop those who seek to avoid disclosure. It will not stop those groups in the community who wish to support a party and its policy from doing so and avoiding the disclosure processes.

Not only do the parties enjoy funding disclosure laws that can best be described as non-disclosure laws, they are able to exploit existing parliamentary entitlements to further fuel the propaganda juggernauts with such things as use of staff overtime and travel allowances in complete defiance of so-called regulations, or that cuter term `conventions', that enable use of full entitlements, for instance, right up to the time of the Prime Minister's policy speech. For example, in 1998 the staff TA and overtime of ministers not up for re-election skyrocketed. Indeed, more recently there was the establishment of campaign bunkers months before the election in a capital city—staffed by whom? Not volunteers in all cases, I bet; perhaps a `cipher' or two. Then there are the uncapped entitlements available day in, day out to carry on campaigns throughout the course of a parliament. And, on top of all this, there is $40 million worth of public funding.

The parties are on notice that the use of such entitlements is under the scrutiny of the Auditor-General in the lead up to, and during, this election campaign. However, as usual, one wonders what response, if any, the findings will elicit from this or any future government, because we would not want to upset the club, would we? In this regard, I also note the words of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business when he introduced the government's Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001, which was designed in the interest of increased accountability to enforce more onerous reporting and disclosure requirements on unions. However, even with the Auditor-General concluding in his recent report on the entitlements of parliamentarians that `the control framework governing parliamentarians' entitlements doesn't effectively address the risk of abuse, irregularities and errors in expenditures', there is no sign of any action from the government to increase the accountability of a system of entitlements wide open to misuse for party political purposes. That is double standards yet again when it comes to political interests. I am waiting for the prime minister with the gall to hold his policy speech until the night before voting day to exploit to the fullest the convention that the campaign begins when that speech is delivered, and only then do the parties have to dip into their mysterious reserves instead of into the public purse.

It is important in the context of this bill to remind the House of the arguments used to discredit public funding. A parliamentary research paper prepared in 1994 on this issue by Dr Rolf Gerritsen makes the following points:

Various critiques of public funding have emerged. It supposedly shifts organisational power from local/state membership and supporters to the central party bureaucracy and its national organs. This shift of the locus of power may have occurred in the ALP ... also despite the advent of public funding a similar centralisation of power is not obvious in the Liberal Party.

Well, it is today with these amendments. So both major parties in this country have completed the journey from grassroots to inner sanctum, the corporate model of controlling democracy so that it does not get out of hand and let real people interfere. Although I see that the Victorian Independents took a different line on public funding yesterday, I do not find it a problem per se. The problem lies in the control of such funding and the complete reluctance of government and opposition to make any moves on capping access to other publicly funded entitlements, or to make any moves on proper and transparent funding disclosure laws.

Again, it is interesting to note from the 1994 parliamentary research paper the observation that the Labor Party's historical funding disadvantage vis-à-vis the coalition has been ameliorated by its incumbency, at that stage since 1983. As the writer says, this `may reflect no more than the greater acceptability of its economic policies to business'. You bet that was the reason, and the reason why the public are looking more and more for alternatives to Tweedledee and Tweedledum, with large slices of the electorate completely alienated by many of the economic forces driven by both parties across the Australian landscape over the past 20 years.

As we stand here debating whether the Liberal Party's federal secretariat should have access to public funding in a hasty piece of amending prior to the federal election, what are we doing about the recommendations included in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of May this year? That was a report into the integrity of the electoral roll. For example, there is no sign of any amendments in line with recommendation 12, that the benchmark penalty for enrolment fraud be increased to 12 months imprisonment or that the Electoral Act be amended to ensure that the principle of one vote, one value for internal party ballots be a prerequisite for the registration of political parties.

Let me remind the House of the allegations surrounding electoral fraud in connection with the Queensland roll in recent years. In an eye-opening introduction to an updated publication by noted electoral author Dr Amy McGrath, the investigative journalist Bob Bottom detailed some of the electoral rorts he uncovered in relation to Bribie Island. Digging further, he unearthed discrepancies in voter turnout in that one Bribie Island booth in 1989 recorded an extra 879 voters in two years since the notorious 1987 federal poll. According to Bottom, that was the greatest population boom in Australia's history.

Bottom records that, as recently as a few weeks ago, a so-called Labor Party insider made allegations about multiple voting in the 1987 federal ballot in the seat of Fisher, while the chairman of the National Party in Fisher at the time of the 1987 poll, according to Bottom, told the post-election committee inquiry that year:

On election day groups of people visited the booths and voted under different names.

The same allegations were made from two opposing parties 13 years apart about the integrity of the electoral roll.

Until all these things are properly closed off in the existing legislation by unanimous and multipartisan agreement, the public can have little confidence in the electoral process and will look with even more jaundiced eyes across the party political landscape, seeking alternatives. The only way to reform the system is with a non-rortable voter ID, perhaps a card with barcode and photo. I know the issues of lower income or indigenous constituents and general privacy come into the debate, but we must protect the integrity of our voting system, and that needs across-the-board commitment.

I note that another protracted inquiry by the joint standing committee has been under way since last year into electoral funding and disclosure, but there will be no report and certainly no amendments to legislation in this parliament's life, and no guarantee that there will ever be a report, let alone changes. The government is now displaying to the electorate the level of its determination to reform the electoral processes in the lead-up to the federal election by debating how public funds are divvied up by the Liberal Party.

Before I conclude, I must place on the record my great disquiet at the protracted delay in the registration of new political parties. I have been engaged in discussions with David O'Loughlin of the Lower Excise Fuel and Beer Party, who has been trying since February, along with seven or so other groups, to have a new party listed. I read with interest the Electoral Commissioner's answer to me as to why this delay has occurred. The answer included two by-elections and the need to be satisfied new parties have not relied on the same members as existing parties for the purposes of registration. Given the registration of Country Labor in New South Wales and the failure of this House to support my amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendments Bill (No. 1) 2000, it seems more than unfair that minor parties have been held up to the point that they stand little chance of being registered in time for the upcoming federal election.

In debate on that bill last October, I simply moved that the commission may not register an eligible political party where a political party that is related to it has been registered. That is the situation as far as I can see with Country Labor. There was no interest in this and a related amendment. It only shows how much our existing laws favour the major parties, framed as they are to allow the commissioner to register an eligible political party notwithstanding that a political party that is related to it has been registered. This bill is about further concentration of political power away from the grassroots and it certainly does not have my support.