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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2609

Mr PYNE (12:03 PM) —In speaking on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 this morning, there are several general comments that I wish to begin with. The coalition strongly support comprehensive reform of the Commonwealth Electoral Act and, in our time in government, introduced many reforms to the Commonwealth Electoral Act which improved its operation and which tightened up issues to do with transparency, accountability and deductibility. But we do not support piecemeal reforms which only serve to entrench Labor’s strong position with regard to donations. It is a sad day when I have to rise in the House to say that the coalition cannot vote for this bill, even though we do believe in reform of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, because of its content and because we can see that it is simply another measure that the Labor Party has introduced to try and entrench its political dominance. It is not a genuine attempt by the Labor Party to address any of the issues that the public are concerned about involving electoral transparency and the potential for fraud under the Electoral Act—a matter of which I have intimate knowledge given that I handled the inquiry into the Queensland Labor Party and New South Wales Labor Party rorting of the Electoral Act in the last government. It is not an attempt to address third-party donations, particularly from groups like the union movement or through the activities of third-party organisations such as GetUp! which support one particular side of politics. It is not an attempt to genuinely trace down and find the sources of donations that are given in bulk rather than separately. It does not address in a comprehensive way the issue of overseas donations, from which the Labor Party has received great benefit and advantage over the years—famously, from the Philippines when it received donations from people who had been charged with murder or, going right back to the time of the Whitlam government, when it received donations from the Ba’ath party in Iraq.

This bill represents a partisan and piecemeal approach to a serious issue. If the government were serious about electoral reform, they would have done a great deal more than simply cherry-picking the ideas that serve Labor’s own political advantage. Of course, I do not expect any better from the Labor Party, because they usually mouth platitudes and rhetoric about what they think the Australian public want to hear but, when it actually comes to delivering on the ground in the area of real reforms that would create a level playing field for political parties, they are short on substance and long on spin. Where are the provisions in this bill that deal, for example, with the way the unions operate—with the donations that come from the union movement—or with the control of third-party politicking for one party at the expense of the other? Where are the provisions that deal with the operations of an organisation like GetUp!, which very effectively campaigned against the Howard government? I certainly give them full marks for political effectiveness, but there is no provision in this piecemeal act for dealing with the transparent and open operation of third-party activity. Such activity is much more regulated in a country like the United States than it is in Australia. I am sure that the Labor Party have many criticisms of the United States’ model of government, yet the reforms that they have proposed are not nearly as strict as those that already operate in the United States with respect to third-party activity.

The process for coming to this bill has been counterintuitive and politically driven. The coalition have consistently maintained our position that we will await the outcomes of the government’s electoral reform green paper before committing to specific electoral reforms. The government have only just in the last fortnight even released the public submissions to their green paper, yet this bill is allegedly so urgent that they felt the need to rush it back into the House last Thursday and to bring on for debate today. On the one hand we have a process of public consultation with a view to implementing serious and considered reform, which the coalition supports. But that is not important or urgent for the government; what is urgent for the government is to bring in a piecemeal piece of legislation that suits one party’s interests over those of another—and that does not represent an addition to the process of comprehensive reform. Yet apparently this piece of partisan legislation is the No. 1 priority of the House of Representatives today. In fact, it is such a priority that it has forced other aspects of the government’s legislative agenda out of the way for this partisan, piecemeal piece of legislation. We regard that as ridiculous and farcical. We are not forced, required or obligated to vote for pieces of legislation that entrench partisan politics in the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The Commonwealth Electoral Act should be above such partisan attempts by political parties to entrench their dominance in a political world where they are already dominant. We all know that the Labor Party are dominant in Australia at the state and federal level in terms of electoral success, yet there is an attempt in this act to crush even more the democratic freedoms that we, at least on this side of the House, hold dear.

In March last year it was the coalition which initiated comprehensive terms of reference to go to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. This was supported by the Democrats, the Greens, Family First and the coalition and was opposed by the Labor Party. This reference to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which I used to chair, was opposed by the Labor Party because it was a comprehensive reference about long-term reform of the Electoral Act which did not entrench partisan politics but in fact opened the act to more accountability, more transparency and greater fairness. As my colleague and friend Senator Ronaldson said in the other place:

… it was a comprehensive proposal which addressed all the matters which we believe need to be included in a comprehensive campaign finance reform.

As I said, the coalition are committed to electoral and campaign finance reform, and that is why the coalition parties initiated this process by reference to the joint standing committee in the first place. We are happy to take the government at face value when they say that they are also committed to campaign finance reform, but the real question is: where is the beef in the Labor Party’s commitment—because it appears on the face of this bill that their commitment goes only so far as to entrench their dominant political position? There is no commitment to campaign finance reform that actually creates a level playing field and gives all political parties a fair chance to win an election. There is no beef in the Labor Party’s attempt to don the clothes of the party that represent campaign finance reform; they simply mouth the words, the platitudes and the rhetoric. At the end of the day they cannot come to real campaign finance reform.

This bill is partisan. It is cherry-picking those aspects that suit the Labor Party. This bill is not the answer to campaign finance reform. For example, the tax deductibility part of the bill was introduced as part of another package and then withdrawn and introduced on its own. The tax deductibility question and the disclosure question are two issues that the government has chosen to pull out of comprehensive campaign finance reform simply for its own purposes. If the government were genuinely committed to comprehensive electoral finance reform then why were we debating the tax deductibility bill previously and why would we be debating this bill today? These measures should clearly be part of a comprehensive bill that deals with campaign finance reform rather than a piecemeal approach.

Again, as Senator Ronaldson pointed out:

… it begs the question, when every commentator in this country has talked about the level of influence of unions, third parties and large corporate donors, of why those issues were not also a part of these measures. The reason that was not done was that the Labor Party views these two isolated pieces of campaign finance reform as good for them and bad for everyone else in the political process—

that is, bad for the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Australian Democrats—or what is left of the Australian Democrats—the Australian Greens, Family First and all those other political parties that might not be represented in legislatures federally or around the country but which are still an important part of our democratic process and give people a choice on election day about who they wish to place their preference with on their ballot. He also said:

We also believe that there should be stronger penalties for infringements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act but we note that most of these electoral abuses are actually committed by the Australian Labor Party itself—

Mr Perrett interjecting

Mr PYNE —I understand that the member interjecting actually comes from the great state of Queensland, which has produced most of the—

Mr Bidgood —Hear, hear!

Mr PYNE —I would not be saying ‘hear, hear’ too quickly, because unfortunately Queensland has produced the majority of cases of electoral fraud that have been investigated by this House; for example, the Shepherdson inquiry, in which we are talking about electoral fraud which cost the Deputy Premier of Queensland his job. It cost that rising star of the Queensland parliament—who now, I think, works for the federal secretariat of the Labor Party in Canberra—his job. It cost Mike Kaiser his job. It saw members of the Queensland Labor Party put in jail. I will not name them, because the poor woman, Karen Ehrmann, was the victim of bullying and thuggish behaviour by her factional warlords in Queensland—which we investigated in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I am not surprised that members of the Queensland Labor Party in this House have gone silent and hang their heads in shame. The sad thing was that members of the Australian Labor Party were jailed for electoral fraud in the 1990s and the 2000s, and unfortunately I had to go through the tawdry, messy, dirty and ugly business on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of investigating those matters arising out of the Shepherdson inquiry.

Mr Perrett interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Moreton will remain silent if he wishes to contribute to the debate.

Mr PYNE —Of course, we found in fact that all the cases that were investigated were on the Labor Party ledger of electoral fraud. Whether it was in New South Wales or in Queensland, whether it was the activities of members of the Australian Labor Party parliamentary party or, indeed, members of the organisation, they were almost all on the side of the Labor Party. I will tell you why—members of the Queensland Labor Party might be interested to know. To have a vote in your internal preselections you needed to be on the electoral roll in the seat in which you were voting, so there was a tremendous motivation amongst the warlords in Brisbane to insist that their minions throughout Queensland rent flats and houses and, in doing so, be able to enrol in the seats in which they were voting. And when you were dealing with a place like Townsville—

Mr Lindsay —They had them enrolled at vacant pieces of land.

Mr PYNE —‘Vacant pieces of land,’ my honourable friend the member for Herbert points out. When you had small numbers of people in the Labor Party itself in Townsville, you could actually have five or six enrolments at the same address and, in doing so, dominate the preselection process, and unfortunately that is why Queensland wears the crown as the state that has been investigated the most in this House for electoral fraud. Of course, it does not just stop in Queensland, with the Shepherdson inquiry and with my own inquiry. Unfortunately, it spread to New South Wales. The most recent case has been the Wollongong council sex and bribery scandal, which has dogged the Wollongong council and the Australian Labor Party in that state in recent months.

The Liberal Party want to work with the government to make sure that we get something decent out of this reform process. Some members of the Labor Party might not think so after my excoriation of the Queensland Labor Party for electoral fraud, but I can tell you that we are prepared to put that aside and work with the Australian Labor Party for real reform of the Electoral Act. If only they were as genuine as the coalition! This is the chance to make real improvements to our system of electoral funding, to improve transparency and credibility and to improve the public perception of politics and politicians in general. If this were a serious and comprehensive campaign finance reform bill, it would do something to account for or limit the influence of trade unions and other rich third parties, which provide overwhelming support for the Labor Party. The Electoral Act should be politically blind and nonpartisan, open and neutral. The coalition say, ‘Let’s tackle campaign reform seriously and with consideration of the whole process, not just those parts that assist the Labor Party.’ So, while we can see the need for the content of this bill, we do not support a piecemeal approach to campaign finance reform. We believe that the report of the green paper into campaign finance reform should be awaited, and so should the reports being done by those committees of the parliament that are meeting to discuss this very important issue. I thank the House.