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Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Page: 2586

Mr MELHAM (9:06 PM) —I rise to support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010. In the last parliament I supported a similar bill that was brought forward by the government and indeed, as chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which I am in this parliament and was in the last parliament, we did an advisory report on that previous bill and, in the main, recommended the passage of that bill with some modifications. I know that the member for Cook is in the chamber and he was on the committee at that time, and there was a minority report by the coalition members of the committee, who wanted further debate on the bill and said that it should be deferred, but the only substantive recommendation they made, which was the second recommendation, was to allow anonymous donations below a threshold of $250, whereas I think back then—and it is what is in this bill—it was a recommendation of $50 only.

I want to address something that the member for Wentworth said. He talked about big business being able to live with being outed in terms of their donations and the unions being able to live with being outed in terms of their donations but said that small business cannot. I have to say this: my view is that everyone should live with being outed for their donations on a reasonable threshold test. We should have transparency and openness. We should not be designing our systems so that there can be hidden donations that can be wound up like the Millennium Foundation does and never see the light of day. Or, if it is the union movement, the same thing applies to the Labor Party. These are basic principles, in terms of a threshold, as to what people should be allowed to donate before there is a disclosure period.

It is interesting that for a very long time, from 1984 to 1991, the threshold level was $1,000. It was raised in 1991 to $1,500 and it was only when the coalition had a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate in that period of 2004 to 2007 that these new threshold levels came in. When you do the mathematics of them, those new threshold levels allow for substantial donations to be made to political parties and they will not see the light of day. Now frankly, if we are going to have the best politicians money can buy, I want to see who is buying those politicians. And if that means that people will not donate because there is a lower threshold then so be it. Basically, they should be prepared to declare themselves—and I know that in other countries around the world, including the United States of America, people get disclosed on very low threshold levels. So I have always been a low threshold person. I do not discriminate against business at whatever level and, in the 20 years I have been here, I have always argued for a low threshold test. I can remember in the old Hawke and Hawke-Keating governments, and when I was on this committee I was always arguing for a low threshold. Why? Because I want to know who is paying the money.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Because it doesn’t hurt you!

Mr MELHAM —The honourable member for Mackellar can bellow as much as she wants. She has been a fundraiser for the Liberal Party, and a quite successful fundraiser, as has the member for Wentworth. I think he was the federal treasurer of the Liberal Party and was quite a fundraiser. And they like raising money but not disclosing who has given that money. That is why they like high thresholds—because they do not mind being bought; they just want people not to know who bought them.

Mr Baldwin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I ask the member to withdraw. He has just cast serious aspersions against members of the coalition about hiding funding disclosures.

Mr Bowen —Mr Deputy Speaker, on the point of order: this has been a wide-ranging debate. Members on this side have been very tolerant of a lot of allegations made by the other side in this debate about the motives of Labor members both federal and state. This has been a debate which has been willing, and the member for Banks has been completely in keeping with the debate which has gone before him.

Mr Baldwin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a further point of order, which is that, whilst it may be a wide-ranging debate, the member for Banks has laid a direct assertion alluding to corrupt activities by the coalition seeking to hide funding declarations.

Mr MELHAM —On the point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think it would help for me to say that I did not make that allegation. At no stage have I suggested illegal behaviour. I have suggested that the members opposite are operating within the system. It is the threshold levels I am attacking. I will not have it said that I made any allegations of illegality against any member opposite. I have not and I would not.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams)—I will rule on the point of order. This is a very wide-ranging debate. I heard the previous speaker from the coalition make some pretty broad comments about New South Wales Labor. I do not believe that there were any personal allegations against any members and I ask the honourable member for Banks to resume his comments.

Mr Baldwin interjecting

Mr MELHAM —I want to continue further, Mr Deputy Speaker. For the member for Paterson’s benefit, in over 20 years in this place I have never made allegations against members opposite of illegality, and I have never had reason to. We have a difference of philosophical opinion. This is a philosophical debate as to what a proper threshold is in relation to disclosure and I understand members opposite are operating within the law. I am arguing that the law was only recently changed. It is not working. You can actually have $100,000 distributed to political parties if you do it in a particular way, and it is not disclosed—and you have only got to read our report, which shows that. It has never been challenged. Now, at the end of the day there is this obsession—

Opposition members interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! I ask members to refrain from interjecting across the chamber, especially from the table.

Mr MELHAM —The interesting thing is that the members opposite rail against unions. What the members opposite allow is for unions to use the system under the opposition’s preferred system, which would not lead to disclosure. What I am arguing is: if unions want to disclose under the system I am proposing, there would be more disclosure. The unions could run campaigns similar to that of the Millennium Foundation and, in relation to raising large amounts of money under the current law, if the law were changed as we propose, it would mean more disclosure. What this is about is trying to stop disclosure. It is an argument about transparency.

It is also an argument about anonymous donations and foreign donations. I notice that those opposite who were members of our committee—and the member for Cook was one of them—did not rail against specific sections of this bill. I took it from their minority report that there was a general argument about electoral reform and political donations that they thought should be wrapped up into a whole range of things. But in relation to some of the specifics—and I do not say this in relation to the threshold, but in relation to other specifics—I felt that there were no objections to the way in which the committee conducted itself and the evidence on a number of proposals within this bill. There were only a couple. In particular on anonymous donations they went from $50 to $250. That is my recollection of the way the matter was conducted.

I understand there is a philosophical objection. I am saying quite clearly that I believe that there would be more public confidence in the system if there were lower thresholds, if we went back to $1,000 instead of the current system. Let’s have a look at what is proposed. If one goes to the explanatory memorandum for this bill, it says:

The Bill contains provisions that will:

  • reduce the disclosure threshold from ‘more than $10,000’ (indexed to the Consumer Price Index annually) to $1,000 (non-indexed)—

that is something I think the coalition are feral about—

  • require people who make gifts at or above the threshold to candidates and members of groups during the election disclosure period to furnish a return within 8 weeks after polling day …

I would argue that is reasonable. The explanatory memorandum continues:

  • Agents of candidates and groups have a similar timeframe to furnish a return in relation to gifts received during the disclosure period—

in other words, much earlier disclosure. The bill will also:

  • require people who make gifts, agents of registered political parties, the financial controller of an associated entity, or people if they fall within the relevant provision, who have incurred political expenditure to furnish a return within 8 weeks after 31 December and 30 June each year;
  • prevent ‘donation splitting’ by ensuring that for the purposes of the $1,000 disclosure threshold, related political parties are treated as the one entity—

I think donation splitting is something that needs to be addressed, because it is one way of hiding donations. The bill will:

  • make unlawful the receipt of a gift of foreign property by political parties, candidates and members of a Senate group. It will also be unlawful in some situations for associated entities and people incurring political expenditure to receive a gift of foreign property;
  • extend the ban on anonymous gifts to encompass all anonymous gifts except where the gift is $50 or less and received at a ‘general public activity’ or a ‘private event’ as defined—

I know that in their minority report the opposition members of the committee said $250. Further, the bill will:

  • tie public election funding to reported and verified electoral expenditure. In other words, unendorsed candidates, registered political parties and unendorsed Senate groups, who receive at least four percent of formal first preference votes in an election, will receive the lesser amount of either:

i.   the ‘electoral expenditure’ that was actually incurred in an election period; or

ii.   the amount of $2.31191 (indexed to CPI every 6 months) per formal first preference vote received …

What is the opposition’s view on that? My understanding is that the opposition was not opposed to that particular proposal because it was not about enriching candidates at an election. The explanatory memorandum continues, stating the bill will:

  • provide for the recovery of gifts of foreign property that are not returned, anonymous gifts that are not returned and undisclosed gifts; and
  • introduce new offences and penalties related to the new measures and increase the penalties for existing offence provisions.

I have heard a lot about bipartisan support. In all my time on the electoral committee, the evidence shows that I have attempted to embrace bipartisanship wherever possible. In a number of areas it is not possible, because we have different philosophical views. That is the reality of life. The opposition might agree to some things; we will not. However, my approach is not to shout down the other side. My approach to conducting the joint standing committee is to allow both sides to obtain evidence, bring evidence before the committee, inform themselves and allow matters to be argued on their merits. Sometimes an argument might have merit but will still be voted down.

In the 20 years that I have been here, there has always been opposition on these particular areas from those opposite. They have never wanted to participate in change to these provisions, because they have always had a view. At one stage Senator Minchin was on the committee while a parliamentary secretary, which is generally unheard of. He was a formidable member of the committee with his vast experience from South Australia. He did not give an inch when it came to disclosure provisions, the Millennium Foundation or a whole range of other things.

I know the honourable member for Mackellar is currently on the committee and I look forward to working with her during this term of parliament to see if there are things we can agree on. If history is any guide, there are things we will agree on and there will be much we will disagree on. And we will not need generators because I am sure the electricity will fly! That is the way it should be. But let’s admit the prejudices we have. It seems to me that those opposite have a real anti-trade-union sentiment running through their veins. They are dirty on the trade union movement because the trade union movement’s involvement has historically been to support this side of politics. That is a legitimate use of trade union resources because, after all, our history is that we came out of the union movement and—

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Mackellar will remain silent.

Mr MELHAM —in terms of conditions for their members, it is honourable. Historically, that is the same as how capital has always supported the other side, in the main. There are some notable exceptions. That is politics. But what we are talking about here is confidence in the disclosure and transparency of our system.

I know, for instance, the honourable member for Cook has longstanding knowledge because of his former position as the state director of the New South Wales Liberal Party. He understands more than most the areas where we might be able to achieve agreement on these matters and lend more credibility to this situation. He also understands how to put the boot in to other areas.