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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2617

Mr MORRISON (12:32 PM) —This is a very serious issue. As the deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and as someone who has spent an enormous amount of time working in party organisations and dealing with the matters that the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 addresses, I think I come to this debate with some experience of the things that are on the table. It is an incredibly serious issue, because right now, as I look around the country, I would say that the politics of money either has overtaken or is at serious risk of overtaking our democracy at both state and local levels. We have seen, I think, all the worst abuses and all the worst examples of the sorts of issues that this bill touches on come to bear. We have seen the events in Wollongong. They have been spoken of many times in this place and they have been the subject of many reviews. When we see things like what happened in Wollongong, I think our first thoughts must be for those who actually live in Wollongong and have had to put up with this nonsense. They are now seeking support for their current administrator, and hopefully they will have another elected council sometime in the future—the sooner the better, I would say. It is our constituents, the people who live in our electorates, who are the ones who ultimately pay the price for these issues that are the subject of this bill—and more generally that are the subject of this broader debate—when they are not addressed. But address them we must, because this is getting out of control.

I often make reference to this in speaking on these matters in this place, but we do have a political arms race which is now well and truly out of control. In New South Wales, my home state, the spending by the Labor Party at the last three elections went from $6 million to $12 million to $15 million. And the next one in 2011 is anyone’s guess. It is an absolutely absurd situation, because the demand for so much money is, at the end of the day, what prompts the collection of so much of it. When we get our democracy so significantly affected by elections effectively being bought at a state level, as we have seen in New South Wales, then I think that sounds the bell for some serious reform of political donations in this country.

Equally, we see the level of support from particular groups within our community increasing. Where there is no restraint on what can be done, we see that particular sections of the community can really have an enormous influence. Even though they represent a diminishing level of the workforce, they can have an enormous influence on electoral outcomes. The most recent figures released by the Australian Electoral Commission, released back in February, showed that in the year in the lead-up to the election the union movement across Australia gave $9.2 million in cash to the Labor Party. That was $9.2 million in cold, hard cash straight from the union movement into the coffers of the ALP to fund their orange-placard-fuelled campaign all around the country. But, in addition to that, if $9.2 million in cash were not enough, you could not move around most of Australia without being run over by a Your Rights at Work truck. These were provided to Labor Party candidates in the field and on the ground—these were seconded resources from the union movement. It was also people, resources, fax machines, office equipment, paper—you name it, this was provided to the ALP by the union movement. If you think $9.2 million is a lot for one part of the community to shout with their voice at an election through the provision of funding then the in-kind contribution was $26.8 million. So, all up, well over $35 million was spent by the union movement—the largest ever from any one constituency group in the country spent on one election, I would argue.

It was from a range of unions: the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, $1.5 million; the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, $1.3 million; the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, $1 million; the famous liquor, hospitality and ‘miscos’ union, $765,000 in direct cash; the Electrical Trades Union—the member for Deakin started in the Electrical Trades Union, and our friend Dean Mighell is there—$674,000; the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, $650,000; the Maritime Union of Australia, $581,000; the Australian Workers Union, $568,000; the Health Services Union, $366,000; the Transport Workers Union, $304,000; the Australian Services Union, $244,000; and the National Union of Workers, $236,000. We had an avalanche of money being poured into an election campaign from one specific section of our community.

In addition, beyond that, there has been a campaign from the ALP over many years to intimidate the business sector with its own views on political donations. There are the AGMs where the ALP moves people into various meetings and places to ask questions of directors to create some sense of guilt in a company that would clearly be more advantaged by a process, a set of laws and a set of economic policies that would grow our economy as opposed to contracting it, as is occurring under this government, and to intimidate them about where they will be putting their money.

At the state level, it is even worse. At the state level the level of intimidation and bullying that goes on is much worse for small businesses and for others in the business community who know what is best to create jobs, what is best for the economy and what policies are best going to suit these things. Yet they are intimidated by those who now, under the workplace changes which are being looked at in the other place at the moment, will provide an unfettered right of entry to those unions to come in and parade themselves around these small business enterprises and look at people’s individual records. That is what $36 million gets you in this country: $36 million gets you a package of laws that go beyond what the now government said before the election. That is what $36 million gets you. This is a very serious issue when we have spending, donations and levels of influence, I would stress, which are emerging and creeping up. This has, sadly, always been a fairly unpleasant feature of state governments, as we have seen writ large in local governments. We now see it emerging on the federal scene.

This is a major opportunity for change. There should be some major changes. They should not be piecemeal changes. They should not be changes that have trickled down through this place in no context and that suit the political persuasion of those on the other side of this House yet fail to confront the big ticket items that are relevant to the issue of political donations reform. This is a major opportunity for change. I fear that if this parliament does not grasp the nettle on this and take the opportunity to make major changes systematically and holistically across the board—not piecemeal and trickle-down changes but a complete and unified package—then in years to come we will see the damage that inflicts on how this place operates and the pressures put on members in this place in their ability to do their jobs for their constituents. It will seriously compromise and undermine our electoral process in this country, as we have seen it do at a state and local level. This is our opportunity to get this right.

How do we do that? I refer to an article by the former federal secretary of the Labor Party, Mr Tim Gartrell. He makes mention of a number of types of reforms, which I will touch on in a minute. He says:

A limit on campaign spending is the best option—

something I tend to agree with him on, but that is not my point—

but it too requires a lot of work.

It would need a watchdog with real teeth and resources. It would need a similar cap on third parties—so the funds aren’t redirected to front campaigns …

But he says:

Most importantly, it requires the major parties to take a long-term view of the problem and the consequences of letting the arms race continue at the next election.

The former federal secretary of the ALP is arguing, like those on this side of the House, for comprehensive reform—not piecemeal or trickle-down reform and not saying, ‘This is what suits us at the moment, so we’ll ram it through.’ He is arguing for comprehensive reform, and I think those on the other side of the House should take a careful interest in what the former federal secretary of the Labor Party is saying, because I think he has a better idea of its direction than those currently driving the boat, who are trying to force this bill on this parliament at this time.

This actually requires a genuine bipartisan approach. I pay tribute to the member for Banks, who is in the chamber and who I work with on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That process, I must say, has been a genuine, consultative and engaging bipartisan process. There are no surprises in that process. It is a very open process, as joint committees of this House and the other place should be. When we gathered together at our first meeting at the start of this year, there were Senate terms of reference for the electoral matters committee that were provided and put forward by the coalition. Those terms of reference were rejected by the Labor Party in the other place. The terms of reference proposed a comprehensive review of donation reform measures by the joint standing committee in addition to the normal inquiry that the committee undertakes each year. After an election the committee normally undertakes a review of that election, and we have been doing that. Later today in this place the first interim report of that committee on some of those matters will be tabled and we will touch on it at that time. But the coalition thought that, after the last election, one of the most important things that the electoral matters committee should be addressing was this matter of donations reform. I can only go by the way the Labor Party voted in the other place as to what their view was, but they opposed these terms of reference:

That the following matter be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for inquiry and report:

All aspects of the 2007 Federal Election and matters related thereto, with particular reference to:

(a) the level of donations, income and expenditure received by political parties, associated entities and third parties at recent local, state and federal elections;

(b) the extent to which political fundraising and expenditure by third parties is conducted in concert with registered political parties is;

(c) the take up, by whom and by what groups, of current provisions for tax deductibility for political donations as well as other groups with tax deductibility that involve themselves in the political process without disclosing that tax deductible funds are being used;

(d) the provisions of the Act that relate to disclosure and the activities of associated entities, and third parties not covered by the disclosure provisions;

(e) the appropriateness of current levels of public funding provided for political parties and candidates contesting federal elections;

(f) the availability and efficacy of ‘free time’ provided to political parties in relation to federal elections in print and electronic media at local, state and national levels;

(g) the public funding of candidates whose eligibility is questionable before, during and after an election with the view to ensuring public confidence in the public funding system;

(h) the relationship between public funding and campaign expenditure; and

(i) the harmonisation of state and federal laws that relate to political donations, gifts and expenditure.

That is a comprehensive list of things that need to be addressed as part of this debate—and there are other things, as our committee is learning. But the government has not taken this view. Once again, when it comes to bipartisanship, what is put to us is a take it or leave it proposition. Whether it is workplace laws, ETS laws or any other laws that are before this parliament at the moment, the government says: ‘Our way or the highway. There is no room for any real engagement. We are just going to sing the song of bipartisanship.’ But, when it comes to the practicalities, we have a bill that is pushing a Labor Party agenda ahead of what should be a comprehensive reform package.

So the coalition has said: ‘No. If you want to have a genuine discussion about this then let’s have a genuine discussion. But enough of these high jinks, enough of this bringing bills into this place which seek a partisan advantage.’ You cannot bring a bill into this place seeking partisan advantage and then pretend to be engaging in a bipartisan approach to this problem. It is a complete joke. You cannot do both. You are either going to have a genuine bipartisan conversation, and put aside your partisan advantage positions, or you are not. What we have here is a bill that seeks partisan advantage. We are going to say no because we want the bigger deal of reform and because we believe the people of Australia want the bigger deal of political reform in this area. They do not want something piecemeal. They do not want something hashed together to advantage one political party over another—or other candidates, for that matter. They want a deal that is going to see the political funding arms race come to an end. They want to see sense reign and they want measured propositions put on the table that stand aside from partisan interests and genuinely improve our democracy.

A range of things have been talked about, and I am happy to touch on a few of them. The issue of expenditure caps has received a lot of treatment. There are many different views on it. Our committee, the parliament and others will continue to look at these things in detail, as they will do through the green paper process. But, from my experience, this is a demand problem. So long as the sky is the limit on how much you can spend at an election then so will be the appetite for funds through political fundraising. That is the bottom line. You can craft all sorts of definitions of those whom you do not like or whom you do not want to be providing funds to political parties, but the fact is that they just do not work; the definitions can always be got around. Frankly, who are we to be saying, ‘You’re worthy, you can donate, but you can’t’? That seems to be somewhat undemocratic, in my view. If it is a legal business and it is legally undertaking its affairs in this country, then how could it be viewed differently from anyone else in this country as an actor in the economic process in this country—and the individuals, more specifically, whose livelihoods depend on the operation of that business? We cannot go around picking and choosing winners and losers in this process in terms of who is fit to donate and who is not. What we can do, though, is say something about how much we think is a realistic amount that can be spent on elections, and thereby realistically quench the appetite for so much money.

Then there is the issue of thresholds. Thresholds have been around for some time now. There will always be a debate about the level at which they should be set. I think thresholds present a far more democratic way of addressing the issue of disclosure and transparency. The idea of capping—saying how much one individual can contribute—runs contrary to the principle of people’s freedom to participate. I note how much support the union movement gave the government at the last election. They have every right to do that, but the point I am making about that level of contribution is that, because there is the opportunity to spend so much money, that is where these areas can be abused. By limiting the amount we can spend, I think we can have a much more sensible discussion about disclosure thresholds.

There is the issue of third parties. It is simply not sustainable, I think, in this debate to apply different rules to businesses and unions. You cannot say that unions can continue to contribute but business donations should be banned. There are some who make that argument, but it is a ridiculous argument. If we are going to limit donations to individuals then it should apply to individuals directly donating. If we are going to broaden it out then unions and businesses sit in the same camp—and anyone who seeks to provide a special deal for union donations, as opposed to business donations, is clearly seeking a ridiculous partisan advantage.

The last two points I would make relate to compliance and harmonisation. This bill, in particular, raises the issue of additional penalties. The vast majority of people who are involved in politics in this country, as we all know, are those who are not involved in it on a day to day professional basis as we are in this place. They are ordinary members of branches of political parties and supporters of candidates all around the country. We have to make the job of compliance as amenable for them as possible. We want to achieve the goals of transparency and all of these sorts of things, but at the same time we must be careful not to impose such a burden that the only people we are catching in the net are those who cannot do paperwork, as opposed to those who are seriously seeking some form of improper advantage. So we need to be careful when it comes to compliance. We need to make sure it is simple and easy for people to comply with.

The final point I would make is on harmonisation. We have significant variations in state and federal laws, particularly when it comes to donations. Ensuring that we have some harmonisation of those laws is another part of the big picture reforms which this bill should be addressing but does not.