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Tuesday, 2 March 2004
Page: 20542

Senator MURRAY (2:53 PM) —My question is to the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz. With the exception of small donations, does the minister accept that the fundamental principle that should govern the disclosure of political donations is that whoever makes a donation should be identifiable? Does the government recognise that keeping donors' identities secret has the potential to encourage corruption in politics? What steps does the government propose to take to ensure that those individuals, organisations or companies who donate secretly via trusts, foundations, clubs and fundraisers are disclosed?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Murray for his question. The government believe that, in general terms, the framework that currently exists within the Commonwealth Electoral Act is appropriate. The question as to what a small or large donation might be, of course, varies. In respect of people opposite such as Senator Bolkus—and he is already smiling in anticipation that I will raise his raffle in the circumstances of this question—it does raise some very genuine and serious concerns when raffles are allegedly held without anybody actually winning the prize. Whether or not appropriate disclosure has been made is a matter that the Australian Electoral Commission is looking at, and I will not comment on that any further.

There are a number of issues that arise for public discussion in relation to donations to political parties. In fact on the adjournment debate the other night my colleague Senator Mason raised a very interesting circumstance where the Wilderness Society, which has tax deductibility status, has issued how-to-vote cards asserting that people ought to vote 1 the Greens and then 2 the Australian Labor Party—allegedly in contradiction to what the Greens actually wanted. So we have a whole host of circumstances in which moneys are made available to various causes. Of course, we have the trade union movement. The worst rort of all is Centenary House.

Senator ABETZ —It is interesting that, when I say the worst rort of all, Senator Sherry gets the cue straightaway and acknowledges that it would be Centenary House—because even the Australian Labor Party know that Centenary House is the biggest fundraising rort that has ever been set upon the people of Australia. If Senator Murray has a particular plan of action in relation to donations to political parties—and he is nodding his head in agreement that he has such a plan—then we as a government, being a consultative government, would be willing to have a look at his proposals and consider them. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters may want to have a look at it, but that would be a matter for them.

Senator MURRAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, although I must say that it did not address the core issue of the importance of making donors' identities public. With respect to the Centenary House matter, at least there is nothing secret about that. Just using one example, and there are many, the Australian Electoral Commission has recently revealed that the Cormack Foundation has poured $1.8 million into the Liberal Party. Does the government know who lies behind the foundation, the nature of the business of the foundation and whether the donations do indeed come with strings attached?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —In relation to the Cormack Foundation, it has been disclosed on a number of occasions at Senate estimates and in other places that the Electoral Commission considers that to be an associated entity and, as a result, it has to comply with the requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The importance of public disclosure has been in the statute books since about 1983.

Senator Robert Ray —When you voted against it.

Senator ABETZ —Senator Ray tells me that I voted against it, but I only got here in 1994. Senator Ray can keep on with that sort of nonsense.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Minister, ignore the interjections and address your remarks through the chair.

Senator ABETZ —Mr President, you are quite right that I should ignore the interjections but the problem is that, if the interjection happens to make it into Hansard, it is important for me to correct the public record. Nevertheless, I would be happy to engage in dialogue with Senator Murray and the Australian Democrats if they have any firm proposals in this area. (Time expired)