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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2613

Mr PERRETT (12:18 PM) —Mr Speaker, I need a little bit of indulgence on your part or, more importantly, on the Clerk’s part because I am going to refer to an article by Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, in this chamber. I hope you will be tolerant, Mr Speaker. It is an article called ‘The life of a state: Australia’s longevity’, in which he talks about democracy around the world. Basically, he refers to the fact that Australia is the country that has functioned continuously under the same constitution for the sixth longest amount of time. That is quite amazing when you think of the countries and nationstates that have operated around the world for the last 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 years. We are the country that has functioned continuously under the same constitution for the sixth longest amount of time. The United States is the first; then come the United Kingdom, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. It is quite amazing to think that our democracy ranks up there with the rest of the world in terms of being continuous.

I move from that to the fact that this chamber is all about democracy. I am a relatively new member of parliament. My first day in this House was the day when the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made the apology. That was an incredible way to start my political life, and I thought: ‘This is fantastic. It’s so wonderful to be here in this chamber.’ When I became a lawyer I thought law would be all about being someone like Atticus Finch; well, politics started like that for me. Obviously, not every moment in the chamber since then has been quite as lofty. All sorts of debates about legislation take place, and we certainly saw that in the previous speech from the member for Sturt. I have never heard anything like it. Metaphorically speaking, the whole way through that speech he was wiping his shoe as if he had stepped in something. That is what it was like. We have a great piece of legislation before the House that is all about protecting democracy, and he stood up there with a hollow voice—a hollow man—making a hollow speech. As I said, the whole way through his speech it sounded as if he had stepped in something and was trying to wipe it off his foot.

I rise to support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 before the House. The bill is about ensuring greater transparency and accountability in our political process. It delivers on a Rudd Labor government election commitment to do away with John Howard’s and Peter Costello’s ideological assault on open government. The previous government arrogantly used their control of the Senate to increase the declarable limit for disclosure of political donations, which was at a low of $1,500. They ramped it up to $10,000—and, with the CPI, it is equivalent to $10,900 today. This represented a huge jump in the limit required before donation details must be made public and ensured that massive sums of money had gone into party coffers without the public knowing. So, whilst the member for Sturt gave a historical rant about what might have gone on in Queensland—mistakes that have been long remedied—he could have gone back only a few years to see how people in his own party had abused things. Instead, he stood behind the facade of voting against this piece of legislation in the other house because it might have been better. That is, as I said, incredibly hollow.

The Howard government created a system that was much more open to corruption and allowed the possibility for conflicts of interest to go unnoticed. The Labor Party opposed these measures in opposition, and we are now following through with our election commitment to repeal these laws in government. It was wrong law when John Howard and Peter Costello controlled the public purse, and it remains wrong now when they do not. As a Queenslander, I remember the Fitzgerald inquiry; I remember the horrible years, and I can go back beyond that as well—back to the Bjelke-Petersen government and those horrible times when old National Party politics consisted of secret backroom deals, nods and winks, and money passing under the table in brown paper bags. That is right. That was used to influence political process.

Thankfully, I learnt about my political views from my grandfather. One of his proudest stories was standing up to a National Party politician, Russ Hinze, who was called the ‘Colossus of Roads’. My grandfather was able to say: ‘Look, I took a shovel to him because he was trying to rort a road-making process.’ I remember Russ Hinze well and those bad old days of the way political processes were carried out. Thankfully, now we are in a more modern Australia, where Australians want and deserve to know where the money is coming from that is used to fund political parties and candidates. But the opposition are opposed to this bill and they should hang their heads in shame.

The Liberals say they want transparency in the process but, every chance they get, they move to block this bill. It is the old Turnbull three-step: initially you say you support it, then as the next step you undermine it, and the third step is that you oppose it—you vote against it. They have already delayed this bill in the Senate by referring it to the parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for inquiry, and then they voted against it last week in the Senate. Apparently the opposition are not interested in political accountability. This bill will amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to reduce the current threshold of donations from the current $10,900 down to $1,000. It will also remove the CPI indexation and prohibit foreign and anonymous donations below $50. I assure people that this does not mean that, when they buy a couple of raffle tickets at their local branch, they will have to disclose their donations—it is only below $50.

This will bring Australia into line with other countries, including the United States, which is the longest continuous democracy under the one constitution. I cannot speak for those opposite, but I do know that we on this side of the House have nothing to fear from greater transparency in the process. In my experience, donors to the Labor Party are not ashamed of their association, are not trying to hide and would be proud to have their details recorded. The Labor Party, as the political arm of the trade union movement, know about our connections. I am always amazed when those opposite suddenly say, ‘You are connected with the union movement,’ like it is a great discovery. I am not sure why they are so scared of the collective. We have had some significant political leaders from the Right that have been of the trade union movement. Ronald Reagan was a trade union representative for the equivalent of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. I think even Brendan Nelson was head of a collective—I am not sure if you would call it a union movement—at one stage.

Ms Jackson —The oldest union in Australia.

Mr PERRETT —That is right. I am always amazed when those opposite call out such things. However, I can understand why some donors to the Liberal Party might be ashamed, given that party’s political legacy. I think I am operating under parliamentary privilege, but I will be certain not to mention anything bad about Clive Palmer—the guy who is suing Anna Bligh and Andrew Fraser. I do have two young children I need to support, so I do not want him coming after me for $1 million! Nevertheless, modern political campaigns are an expensive exercise. The United States chewed through more than US$1.5 billion for their presidential campaign and another US$1.3 billion on their house and Senate campaign. I would hate to think that we would ever spend anything like that in Australia, but I have no doubt that political parties will continue to face significant costs to get their message across to voters in this ever more complicated world.

Political donors are, therefore, key participants in the political process. Their contributions, including donations and gifts, should be open and transparent. I, like everyone on this side of the House, have nothing to hide. This bill will also overcome the practice of donation splitting. Under the coalition’s changes, corporations were able to use donation splitting to donate up to $90,000 spread across state and national branches without public disclosure of that funding. This will be removed by ensuring that donations made to related political parties are treated as donations made to the single political party for disclosure purposes.

This bill also reforms the electorate funding entitlements to eliminate the potential for candidates to profit under the current system. When the Hawke Labor government introduced public funding for political parties and candidates way back in 1984, it was never intended that it would be rorted by individuals for profit. Under election funding laws, candidates are reimbursed $2.10 for each vote they earn, provided they get at least four per cent of the vote—this is a fair system. However, unfortunately it is left open to abuse by pseudocelebrity candidates, who spend little actual money on their campaign and muster four per cent of the vote but have no realistic chance of election. In 2007, a failed businesswoman from Ipswich contested a Queensland Senate spot. I recall that her one policy was calling for a ban on Islamic immigration to Australia. It was a familiar line from the former member for Oxley and failed candidate for Blair.

Most Australians are fed up with that kind of intolerance, and that is why Queensland’s Mark Furner was elected to the Senate, and not Queensland’s biggest hypocrite. Senator Furner is someone who cares about all people, regardless of their background, and is someone who is making a great contribution to this country as a senator. This failed businesswoman is lining up again, this time contesting the South-East Queensland seat of Beaudesert, a place where I unfortunately have lots of family connections. One of them even had the joy of meeting her the other day!

Back in 2004 the serial candidate received about $200,000 in electoral funding after getting just over 100,000 votes, yet she spent only $35,000 on her campaign. In 2007 this professional leech came back for more, collecting $213,000. There is something sick about a system that allows candidates or political parties to profit personally from the electoral funding when they have no intention of actually being elected. Our democracy is precious, as I said at the start, and to think that some candidates would choose to rort the system for their own gain is particularly offensive and a slight on the integrity of our electoral process. That is why I am very, very surprised and disappointed that Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals would not agree with such a proposition and instead voted against the bill.

This bill makes no major changes to the amount of funding that candidates can receive for electoral expenses, but, by introducing a claims based approach, it will put an end to candidates exploiting the system. There will be no more blank cheques for candidates. Instead, it will introduce a new electoral funding entitlement for registered political parties, unendorsed candidates, Senate groups and joint Senate groups. The funding rate will be calculated as the electoral expenditure claimed and accepted by the Australian Electoral Commission or $2.1894, CPI indexed, per first preference vote, whichever is the lesser.

Funding will still be conditional on candidates or Senate groups receiving at least four per cent of first preference votes. To receive the funding entitlement, candidates or groups will be required to submit a claim. The types of expenses candidates are able to claim under this bill include advertising—obviously, that is very important—polling, signs and printing. The government amendments also include three further categories: rental of campaign premises, employing campaign staff and the costs of certain equipment used during the election period. This equipment is limited to computer, communication and photocopying equipment. So this amendment bill benefits all parties and all candidates rather than just the bigger parties that will do the lion’s share of advertising. We support a healthy democracy, not just the two major parties.

This bill has teeth and introduces a range of powers and increased penalties for the Australian Electoral Commission to enforce these new policies. These powers cover a range of offences, including failing to lodge, lodging incomplete claims or providing false or misleading claims regarding electoral expenditure. The unlawful receipt of foreign or anonymous donations will have a penalty of 12 months in prison, 240 penalty units or both.

The Rudd Labor government is committed to restoring integrity in our election process. Those opposite can bay all they like about what happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago; that is irrelevant. The only history that counts is the history that occurred last week when those opposite voted against this bill and the amendments before the House. The Labor Party is attempting to restore public confidence in the system and provide greater accountability for all candidates and political parties. It was an election promise and we are carrying through with it. I commend the bill to the House.