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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1663


Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (17:35): I rise to speak on the matter of urgency:

The need to reform Australia's political donation system by lowering the disclosure threshold, banning foreign donations, restricting anonymous donations and preventing donation splitting to avoid disclosure.

While it is somewhat tempting to talk about Senator Bernardi's contribution, it is really not worth mentioning. So I will talk about the substance of this matter of urgency. The recent scandal relating to former Minister Robert's visit to China has yet again highlighted the urgent need for improved transparency of political donations. This type of behaviour leads to the belief that political influence can be bought by wealthy corporations or individuals. My colleague Mr Dreyfus, in the other place, summed up the perception the public would be given by Mr Robert's actions and Mr Turnbull's failure to take prompt and decisive action, saying:

If Mr Turnbull doesn't show some leadership and sack Mr Robert today, then all Australians will know that a government that Mr Turnbull is leading is the kind of government where $2 million from a wealthy donor to the Liberal Party will buy you the services of a minister in the Australian Government.

Whether reality or just perception, the impact is the same—it seriously undermines the credibility of our democracy.

The public deserve transparency around who wields power in our political system. While the scandal surrounding Minister Robert's visit to China with his friend and Liberal donor, Paul Marks, directly reflects on his poor judgement, it also highlights the broader systemic problems with the interplay between politics and political donors. Disgraceful events like this seriously erode public confidence in politicians and our political system. The best way to restore confidence in our political system is to enhance transparency and improve disclosure arrangements.

Labor upholds the highest standards voluntarily disclosing all donations greater than $1,000. The current legislation only requires disclosure of amounts greater than $13,000. The Australian Labor Party has a long-standing commitment to improving standards of transparency and accountability in relation to political donations. I believe any senator, if they were fair dinkum in their contributions on this matter, would acknowledge the Labor Party's longstanding commitment to improving standards. At our national conference last year, we committed to reform the political donations transparency system, calling for a better and more transparent political funding and disclosure framework.

As some of my colleagues have already highlighted, when Labor was last in government, we introduced legislation into parliament which sought to significantly reform the rules surrounding political donations, but, as many of us in this place remember, the then Liberal opposition blocked Labor's reforms.

Senator Rhiannon interjecting

Senator CAROL BROWN: Excuse me, Senator Rhiannon, but you are just as bad—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Order! Senator Rhiannon, the interjections are disorderly and, Senator Brown, direct your comments to the chair.

Senator CAROL BROWN: As I was saying, Labor's proposed reforms were designed to reverse retrograde changes implemented under the Howard government, when the Liberal Party last controlled this place. When the Howard government came to power, one of their first actions was to make it harder to track the flow of money into party coffers. Under the previous Labor government, the threshold at which a political donation had to be made public was $1500. The Howard government increased it to $10,000, which with indexation currently stands at $13,000. Even with the lax rules the Liberals and their old coalition partners have still felt the need to circumvent disclosure.

We have heard through the New South Wales ICAC all about the Liberals' practices of setting up associated entities to collect money and, by moving it between various party divisions, to exploit differences in rules between states. The Liberals' new coalition partners, the Australian Greens, claim to have a long-standing policy in favour of reforming donations, when in fact they have accepted large amounts of donations— (Time expired)