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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1644


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:26): I table the explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2016 would make a significant step towards restoring public confidence in our democratic institutions.

There is deep cynicism among the public about politicians and much of it stems from the hefty donations that candidates and political parties receive. Expanding the transparency that covers the receipt of such money is therefore of crucial importance. At the very least, the public should know who is funding political parties and candidates and this information should be provided in close to real time.

Knowledge of the relationship between donors and political parties needs to improve.

While bringing details about political donations into the public spotlight will not in itself stop corruption, it is a significant part of any regulatory regime.

Federal laws on disclosure are long overdue for an overhaul.

The essence of this Bill is that it would shine a light on who hands over political donations and who takes the money.

The threshold for donations that have to be disclosed will be lowered to $1,000. The Howard government in 2006 lifted the threshold from $1,500 to $10,000. Through indexation it is now at about $12,800.

The change to the disclosure threshold was part of the Howard government's agenda to weaken electoral funding rules. In what one could see as an act of desperation to attract more donations prior to the 2007 election that was not looking good for the Coalition, the Howard government used its control of the Senate to lift the threshold.

It was widely understood that raising the threshold was a way the Liberal-National parties hoped they could attract more donations as people could effectively give donations without disclosing that they had done so.

The argument used to justify the secrecy about donation sources is that donors have a right to privacy. This justification sidesteps the public's collective right to know who donates to political parties and candidates.

When the Howard government moved to make this change in 2006 Senator Abetz argued that amounts of $10,000 were not enough to improperly influence political parties.

Responding to this argument, Joo-Cheong Tham from the Democratic Audit of Australia said - "… the observation that a $10,000 sum does not carry risk of undue influence or corruption is implausible".

This Bill would also require for political donations made in different states and territories to be accumulative. That is, it prevents 'donation splitting' by ensuring that for the purposes of the disclosure threshold, related parties are treated as one entity. Currently a donor could donate $10,000 in every state and territory. That means a donor can donate nearly $100,000 by donation splitting while avoiding disclosing their generosity as they have split their donation across a number of jurisdictions to remain under the disclosure threshold.

The Bill bans all anonymous gifts except where the gift is $50 or less and received at a 'general public activity' or a 'private event'. Again, this provides greater transparency and accountability. If donors want to give a significant gift, the public has a right to scrutinise that gift and the donor should accept that accountability.

The Bill also shortens the timeframe for disclosure for all political donations above $1,000. Such donations would have to be publicly disclosed within eight weeks of a polling day. The present disclosure regime could not be called transparent. In the 2013 election held in September, donations made between July 1 and election day were not publicly revealed until 1 February 2015.

This is ludicrous. To have to wait nearly 18 months to find out who donated and who received millions of dollars in donations is one of the factors that makes so many people deeply cynical about our democratic institutions and politicians.

Requiring donations over $1,000 to be made public within eight weeks is significant. It will enhance transparency and I believe create a more ethical approach to private political funding.

This Bill will also make foreign donations unlawful. This would rightly restrict the influence that foreign entities and people can have on elections and policy.

The Bill also provides for recovery of gifts of foreign property, anonymous gifts and undisclosed gifts that are not returned. If recipients do not return these sorts of gifts, the public should rightly expect that they are recovered.

The Bill would allow the AEC to request advertisers take down misleading statements and advertisements. If advertisers refuse to withdraw misleading statements, as deemed by the AEC, courts are able to take this response into account as evidence in court proceedings. This is beneficial to voters as it encourages transparency and truthfulness in electoral campaigns, ensuring that politicians remain accountable to their promises, campaigns are penalised if they attempt to mislead voters and ensuring voters are well informed for elections. Surely a properly informed electorate is a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy.

Finally, the Bill introduces new offences and penalties, and increases the penalties for existing offences. The new offences and penalties are required to provide an incentive for compliance. Increases in penalties for existing offences are sorely needed. It is clear that the existing penalties are not sufficient to dissuade donors and recipients from being careless or deliberately breaking the law.

Labor, as well as the Coalition, has used their time in government to weaken disclosure laws. In 1995 the Keating Government removed the requirement that receipts be provided for funding. This eased the administrative burden on political parties, but meant less information on political donations was made available to the public.

I am proud of this Bill. If passed it would make a significant contribution to people's understanding of political funding. I acknowledge it does not deal with the all-important issue of putting limits and bans on political donations and election expenditure.

The Greens have campaigned hard for limits on election spending and bans on corporate donations. The Liberal, National and Labor parties have voted together to block such changes.

In our representative system of democracy while the top order accountability measure is on election day - that is, when people cast their vote - the actual operation of the whole electoral process needs to be opened up to greater transparency and accountability.

The Greens Bill helps to drive these important reforms. They are long overdue.

The agreement reached between Labor, the Greens and the Independents before the last Labor government was formed included a clause to progress important issues to do with enhancing electoral funding transparency.

It was disappointing that Labor did not move on electoral funding reform when the Gillard-Rudd government were in office.

I congratulate former Senator John Faulkner for his work in this area.

It is now time to act. Voters have a right to be thoroughly informed on all aspects of how the party and the candidate they vote for raise money to undertake their work. As legislators surely we should back reform that requires transparency of political donations.

Last year the High Court heard a most important case about political donations. The judgement of the Court has significantly reset the debate on how donations impact on political life of this country.

Their conclusion was clear - elected representatives should be beholden only to the public, not to donors. To achieve this we need to clean up the rules governing political donations. This Bill is an important step to changing the rules and culture of how democracy operates.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Laeve granted; debate adjourned.