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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2393

Senator FOREMAN (10.12 a.m.) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I present an interim report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 1993 federal election and matters related thereto, entitled Financial reporting by political parties. I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

Honourable senators will be aware of the process whereby the committee in each parliament inquires into and reports on the previous federal election. The committee will be handing down a comprehensive report in the spring sittings on the wide range of matters raised in connection with the 1993 federal election. There are, however, some particular issues which in the view of the committee require urgent attention and which are the subject of the short interim report which I have just tabled.

  These difficulties arise in connection with the return that political parties registered under the electoral act must make to comply with the election funding and financial disclosure provisions of the act. This is a fairly recent requirement, having been inserted in the electoral act by amending legislation in 1991 and which operated for the first time in the financial year that ends today. The political parties have found compliance with the new requirements so burdensome and expensive that they have made urgent representations to the committee seeking some streamlining and simplification of the legislation as soon as possible.

  On the basis of the submissions made to it and evidence taken at public hearings, the committee is satisfied that the electoral act could be amended so as to reduce the burden of compliance without compromising the principle that political parties should disclose the sources of their financial support. Under the current structure of the act, the parties have to bear ridiculous financial burdens in order to comply. The National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party estimated that it cost the national office of the party alone $30,000 to comply.

  The committee was also told of the burden imposed on the ordinary membership of political parties. Small local branches have to maintain records detailing the cost of minor functions because they are liable to be spot audited. The committee agrees with the political parties which gave evidence on this matter at recent hearings that it is wrong to require a voluntary secretary of a branch of a political party or of any voluntary organisation to undergo the kind of auditing and questioning that is currently the case.

  The amount of detail required to be provided by branches of political parties seems out of all proportion to the mischief that the legislation was intended to prevent. For instance, the deputy federal director of the Liberal Party in his evidence told the committee that he had received a letter from one branch detailing funds amounting to $1,108 in all—two lots of money from fund raising events and one from an election night function. No amount exceeded $410. The functions were all held at homes of members, with food provided by members and drinks on a BYO basis. Yet technically all the contributions that were made should be accounted for under the act. As the writer of this letter complained, I hope we have not reached the stage where a casserole is regarded as a donation.

  In this report we propose amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act that will reduce the amount of detail required to be disclosed. This will be achieved by introducing a $500 threshold for disclosure of individual transactions to reduce the need to aggregate small amounts and by placing the burden of compliance on the state and federal agents of the parties rather than on the members.

  If the government agrees with us, we would like it to act promptly. We would like any legislation that is introduced to be backdated and made effective from the beginning of the next financial year. We would like, if possible, to achieve a situation where the parties can avoid beginning the process of collecting data from the branches for the next financial year. For this reason we have proposed in the report that, if the government agrees with our proposals, it should put forward a statement of intent as soon as possible on which the parties could rely in deciding the extent to which they need comply with the existing requirement. I commend the report to the Senate.