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Thursday, 11 February 2010
Page: 1250


Mr DANBY (10:20 AM) —I was very pleased to see this morning the government introducing legislation arising out of recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Such legislation will fix the rort introduced by the previous government at the last election to close the rolls early to prevent young people voting. There are a number of other matters that the government must address to make sure that the democratic franchise in Australia remains as wide as possible, which is after all the responsibility of this parliament, particularly given the fact that we in this country have a compulsory voting system.

In debating the appropriation bills, I would like to raise the issue of disenfranchisement and the need to invest in our electoral system in a wider way. As at the end of September 2009, according to public testimony by Mr Killesteyn, the excellent Electoral Commissioner of the Australian Electoral Commission, just last week, 1.39 million Australians were not enrolled. Fully one-third of these people are aged between 18 and 25. All of these people would have been unable to exercise their democratic rights at a federal election. In the 2007 federal election, 92.3 per cent of the population voted and the AEC estimates that in 2009 only 90.9 per cent were enrolled. This downward trend in enrolment, especially among young people in Australia, is of deep concern. More and more 18- to 25-year-olds are being disenfranchised and turned away from voting booths. During this election year thousands of 18-year-olds will be eligible to vote and it is their fundamental right to vote and to make a decision as to who represents them. Therefore, we have to work very hard to change legislation in Australia to make that more easily possible. All members of parliament understand why this is happening.

Over the last decade Australia has used a very wide system of data matching—for which the Electoral Commission uses the acronym CRU, continuous roll update—to make sure that we are aware of people’s latest changes of address. The Electoral Commission uses this information to match data from agencies such as the Roads and Traffic Authority in New South Wales and electricity boards to work out that someone has changed their address and it takes people off the roll when they move from an address. We, as members of parliament, are all aware of this because we get return mail when we write to people in our electorate. The Electoral Commission, by law, is not allowed to put these people on at their new address, even if they live in the same electorate and even if the commission knows that they are there. The Electoral Commission has to send them a piece of snail mail—hard mail—and the person must write their name on the letter and send it back, saying, ‘Yes, I am here.’ Unless they actually go through that act, those people are not re-enrolled. That is why we had the undemocratic situation at the last election of 800 to 900 people per seat—people who actually lived in an electorate but who had moved house within that seat—turning up to a polling place but being denied their vote. It is a scandal and, in my view, changed the results in four seats at the last federal election. I am sure the Liberal Party in a close election would be very happy that their specially organised system of increasing identity requirements for provisional voters in particular disenfranchised those 800 to 900 people per seat. Political observers like Malcolm Mackerras, Professor Brian Coster and Professor Brent have established that those provisional voters would probably have voted between 50 and 60 per cent between Green and Labor. Slicing off that piece of the salami was the intention of the change to the identity rules for provisional voting.

Let me turn to the issue of campaign donations. Over the past year, both sides of politics have been coming up with various ideas on this subject. The former Leader of the Opposition, Mr Turnbull, the member for Wentworth, suggested banning donations above $1,000 and substituting public funding as the main source of campaign funds for political parties. He gained some support, particularly in the Sydney media, for this idea. I opposed the idea then and I still oppose it. Taxpayers already spend something like $50 million at election time to pay for the election activities of the major political parties—the Greens, the Liberal and National parties and the Labor Party. To publicly fund political parties would probably cost 10 times that amount if we were to fund political parties over a three-year election cycle. I have the tables worked out by the Parliamentary Library explaining what political parties cost during this year from the electoral returns. This is no surmise or suggestion from Mr Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, without any firm background to it. The libraries’ sifting of the AEC’s receipts show that the operation of political parties cost $500 million. The taxpayers of Australia have to ask the question: do they want to spend such money on hospitals, defence and education, or do they want to spend $500 million on funding political parties during a three-year electoral cycle?

I think the current mix of private, union and some public funding is a much more equitable formula for the people of Australia. A scheme to make political parties funded by the taxpayer would rob our democracy of one of its most important elements: the support by citizens of the party of their choice. Political parties are supposed to reflect the views and needs of their supporters. If a party cannot persuade its supporters to donate money to it, it does not deserve to survive. It certainly does not deserve to be placed on life support in the form of taxpayers’ money.

Ideas of this kind arise from the belief that campaign donations breed political corruption, since people assume that donors are buying political favours with their money. I think this is a false notion, and therefore I reject drastic changes such as banning political donations to fix what I think is a greatly exaggerated problem. There is little evidence of serious corruption in Australian politics and almost none at the federal level. There is an excellent organisation called Transparency International, which publishes an annual index of corruption rating every country in the world by degree of corruption. In its 2009 index, out of 180 countries surveyed, Australia ranked eighth—in other words, we were assessed as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, ahead of the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan.

Where there are suspicions of corrupt influence in the funding of political parties the correct cure is disclosure. As many doctors will tell you, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this is true of politics as well as medicine. Making all donations above a certain minimum publicly known is the best way to prevent influence buying. This is why those opposite, instead of proposing draconian and unnecessary solutions such as banning donations, particularly from unions, which seems to be their obsession, should stop blocking the proposal in the Senate for campaign donation disclosure. Time is running out for this bill to be passed in time to have an effect on this year’s election. I urge the new Leader of the Opposition to pass it without further delay.

Recently published figures on political donations show one startling fact about the donations issue. The Citizens Electoral Council, a fringe political organisation, received donations of $1.8 million in the last year. This is a very large sum for an organisation that gets virtually no support as measured by votes in the elections. We know that the CEC’s godfather in the United States, Lyndon LaRouche, has a criminal record for swindling particularly elderly people via credit card fraud and in fact was jailed by the United States government after an FBI investigation that convicted him of what they call in the United States ‘interstate mail fraud’.

I have called many times for the CEC to be investigated by the Electoral Commission and the AFP, and I intend taking this issue up with the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I believe the same process is happening here in Australia. The bunker in Coburg has a bank of telephones. Those poor, deranged people sit there cold-calling elderly people all over Australia. Once they get their credit card details, they then ring them back and half-convince them to take more money out. When you see the electoral returns of some ordinary people, all around Australia, it is extraordinary—they are giving $25,000 or $50,000 to this completely fringe political organisation—and I think the AFP should investigate.

Turning to the issue of foreign affairs, this week saw Ukraine’s fifth presidential election since declaring independence from the Soviet Union. Australians became briefly aware of Ukraine during the protests and other actions that became known as the Orange Revolution, which took place in the aftermath of their 2004 presidential elections. The protests were prompted by reports of several domestic and foreign election monitors as well as a widespread public perception that the results of the run-off vote between the two leading candidates, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, were rigged by the authorities in favour of the latter.

The nationwide protests succeeded when the results of the original run-off were annulled and the revote was ordered by the Supreme Court of Ukraine on 26 December 2004. Under intense scrutiny by domestic and international observers, the second run-off was declared to be free and fair. The results showed clear victory for Yushchenko, who received 52 per cent of the vote compared to Yanukovych’s 44 per cent.

Although the results are not final, democracy seems to be established in Ukraine. It now appears that all the controversy and misplaced hopes for the Orange Revolution have seen Viktor Yanukovych, the loser at the last election, win this election. I must say I have to join many people in expressing disappointment with the former president of Ukraine. The decision just before his political demise to award the Nazi puppet and stooge Stepan Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine really reflects very, very poorly on him. I think that right across the world people are shaking their heads and wondering what happened to the prospects of the Orange Revolution under Viktor Yushchenko.

This part of eastern Europe is an important issue for Australia in an important way that I do not think people understand. Ukraine is, after all, a country of 50 million people. Ukraine is the largest country in terms of both population and geography in Eastern Europe. It is the second largest country that was part of the former Soviet Union. Its GDP is nearly $350 billion. There are around 15,000 Ukrainian Australians. Perhaps one of the reasons why there is so little interest in Ukraine is that there is no Australian embassy in its capital, Kiev. Australia has embassies in many countries which are arguably far less important in global terms and far less important to Australia than Ukraine—Malta, Ghana, Mauritius, Kiribati, the Holy See and Ramallah, just to name a few. Hopefully we will see this change in coming years.

On 28 January I was very pleased to see that the Minister for Foreign Affairs had a meeting with the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr P Poroshenko. I am told that the main focus of the talks was renewing the diplomatic and consular presence of Australia in Ukraine. After all, the Ukrainians have an embassy here in Canberra. I am told the foreign minister has indicated he will appoint, at the nearest possible time, at least an honorary consul in Kiev with the authority to issue visas. Mr Poroshenko apparently lobbied hard for full-fledged diplomatic representation of Australia in Ukraine. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade position is not yet public but I, for one, will be strongly supporting that. It is ridiculous that in that country full of mining engineers, excellent universities and high-grade technical education, where people should be of great interest to Australia, people cannot get a visa in Kiev. In order to even acquire a tourist visa to Australia, Ukrainians have to apply for a visa to go to Moscow and then, only when they are there, apply for another visa to come to Australia. It is very convoluted. That system could be obviated by an Australian embassy in Kiev, which would much more naturally serve Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia and, of course, the important country of Ukraine with 50 million people.

On another issue of international affairs, the announcement of the International Criminal Court that it was pursuing new charges of genocide against Sudan’s President Bashir brings the situation of Darfur back into the limelight. This catastrophe of two million internally displaced Darfuris, many of whom survive only on handouts from the few aid agencies left there, should be sharply in people’s focus. The upcoming Sudanese elections in April, pundits predict, will be fraudulent. Now more than ever is the time to focus on the situation. Last year’s expulsion of aid agencies by the Sudanese government, following the charges of President Bashir, worsened the situation as to the food, water and medicine available to the 4.7 million affected people in the western region of Sudan. On 21 January Sudan revoked the licences of 26 aid agencies in Darfur. As a consequence, little aid has been reaching the impoverished, the sick and, more importantly, the children of Darfur.

I have spoken previously in this House about the disgraceful increase in gender based violence, particularly against women in the west from Darfur, by the Janjaweed and other Sudanese government sponsored militias. The UN World Food Program estimates that it will need to feed 11 million displaced people in the various regions of Sudan this year alone. A peacekeeping force set up to protect the civilians of Darfur, UNAMID, has repeatedly stated that there is a severe lack of food and water for the population. Ninety per cent of the population of Sudan lives on less than $1 a day. One in seven children dies before the age of five, primarily from preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhoea. One in seven women who become pregnant is likely to die from pregnancy related causes. Only 6.4 per cent of the population has access to sanitation facilities, and an estimated 85 per cent of the population is illiterate. This is an indictment of the regime in Khartoum.

It is pleasing to see that Australia has, following continued pressure from this parliament, some military presence with the international forces authorised by the United Nations in Sudan. Unfortunately, because of the international situation and the concentration on Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability of the mainly African forces to transport themselves around to emergency situations is almost zero. The request for Western countries to provide helicopters so that the mainly African soldiery of UNAMID can be ferried immediately to points of transgression by the Janjaweed militia against the innocent people of Darfur has not been acceded to. The United Nations seems completely incapable of affecting the regime in Sudan.

In my last few minutes, I want to turn to the issue of migration and this government’s wise programs. I am very supportive of the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, and the government’s program of skilled migration. I think that his tweaking of the categories is a natural progression for the government as it continues to refine our immigration process. I was very pleased to hear the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister for immigration arguing for the economic as well as cultural benefits of our skilled migration program.

I want to go on the record here to just remind people—including people like Mr Dick Smith, who argues in the Daily Telegraph today against the ability of this country to grow and prosper—of an optimistic and positive view of migration. The 2008-09 immigration figures show that the net tax benefit, after paying for the humanitarian program and for family reunion, was $830 million in the first year. In the 20th year, that level of immigration brings a benefit to the Australian people of $1,760 million. This is in uncontested, unchallenged modelling from Access Economics which is in the budget papers and available from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. If you look at just that one year of immigration, over a 20-year cycle there are benefits of $20 billion plus.

Of course, when you look at the population bulge that Australia has with people my age and older—the baby boomers who are going into retirement and leaving their working lives—one of the sensible ways for Australia to provide for this is by continuing to have an intelligently based moderate, balanced immigration program. We bring primarily skilled people into this country—doctors, nurses, engineers et cetera—who will have the above positive economic effect.

A dear friend I saw last night at dinner, former minister for the arts Barry Cohen, for whom I used to work, had a very combative argument in the Australian on population. He said he had first raised this issue in 1970, when Australia’s population was 12 million. Today it is 22 million, and I cannot see Australia collapsing. Most Australians enjoy a standard of living and quality of life that are the envy of the world and a great improvement on the way we lived all those years ago. In my view, the 6.9 million Australians who have come to Australia since 1945 have made a great contribution to this country. They have supported our democratic norms, invigorated our culture and made an economic contribution as well.

Naturally we have to integrate planning in our cities for sustained water, transport and all the kinds of facilities that we now enjoy. I point to examples. In Perth, the Kwinana-city suburban railway is carrying seven times the traffic that was originally envisaged. The problems that are envisaged in Melbourne growing to seven million people are being catered for by the Victorian government, with many transport innovations and many water innovations, including the desalination plant. Much of the pessimistic world view of Australia—with Bob Carr and Dick Smith—is a very Sydney-centric view. It is to do with problems that exist in that city. I am much more optimistic, and I think the current Australian government has a much more constructive view—(Time expired)