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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2621


Mr MELHAM (12:52 PM) —I rise to support the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This is a bill that is worthy of support by both sides of the House and worthy of support now. This is a reintroduced bill, so it is not the first time it has been in the House. It is a bill that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, of which I am chair, examined. The committee made certain recommendations for amendments that should take place, and the government picked up most of those recommendations.

The member for Cook, who preceded me in the debate, is the Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. He talks about bipartisanship. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words. I want to go to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and read the two recommendations of the dissenting members, of whom the member for Cook was one. Recommendation 1 was:

Coalition Members believe that further debate in the Senate on this Bill should be deferred until proper public scrutiny and discussion of the Green Paper and the report of the Joint Standing Committee into Electoral Matters into the reference made by the Senate on 11 March 2008.

That has been the mantra of the opposition: ‘Do them all together; do not do them a little bit at a time.’ That is something that I think can be dismantled with very little debate. Let us have a look at the merits of each of the propositions. The second recommendation of the minority report was to amend clause 40—proposed section 306AE of the bill—in relation to anonymous donations, to increase the threshold from $50, which we recommended, to $250. So when it came to making recommendations in relation to the substantive provisions of the bill, the only difference between the government and the opposition is that the government members of the committee recommended $50—because it was at a $0 level—and opposition members recommended $250.


Mr Morrison —Read the first one again!


Mr MELHAM —I have read the first one, but the first one was in general terms. In relation to specific provisions, we have nothing from the opposition.

The sad fact of the matter is that we have a modern-day Albert Field in the parliament, in the Senate. People might remember Albert Patrick Field from the seventies. He was put into the Senate by Joh Bjelke-Petersen to, in effect, frustrate the then Labor government. In the Senate now we have Senator Steve Fielding. I think it is worthwhile quoting a few statistics in relation to him. He is well intentioned but not consistent. The last time this sort of legislation was before the parliament, when thresholds were increased, Senator Fielding opposed the lack of transparency and accountability. He voted against the measure that the coalition was introducing. But the coalition had a majority in the Senate and it passed into law. But now his vote counts and the whole measure that is before the House—and will go back before the Senate—is about transparency and accountability. In effect, it says: ‘If you want to buy a politician, we want to see how much you are paying to buy him.’ The coalition increased the thresholds for donations so that much less is now disclosed.

What mandate does Senator Fielding have? Senator Fielding in 2004 got 55,551 votes out of a state-wide vote in Victoria of 2,996,594 votes. He had 1.8 per cent of the vote. He got himself elected on the back of the Labor Party’s preferences. The remaining three candidates were from Family First, the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party. Senator Fielding was sitting on 309,740 votes, or 0.7236 of a quota. He got 219,934 preferences from the Labor Party and, overall, 230,272 preferences. The Greens got 9,647. So he got elected off the back of the Labor Party. I am using those figures to show that 219,000 of his final 540,000 votes came from the Labor Party. I am saying to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that he does not have a mandate to frustrate the Labor Party at every opportunity in relation to every piece of legislation. A large percentage of the vote that he got elected on came from the Labor Party. He should look at these matters on their merits.

I understand that he has a problem in relation to the amount of money that goes to political parties and he wants to have a serious cap on what the major political parties can get—which was all he talked about when he voted against this legislation in the Senate. But I say to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that is a separate issue. Let us deal with that. We propose to deal with it. It is on the political agenda, through the green paper. The green paper has been released. Submissions have been made in relation to the green paper. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposes to have a roundtable conference in relation to those submissions. So it is not as if Senator Fielding’s objections to the system as it currently operates are in the ether and are not going to have an opportunity to be aired. But what do we have? We have the opposition siding with Senator Fielding to block this legislation once, and probably twice, again. What is it all about? They do not want a start-up date of 1 July this year and they do not want a lead-in time so that the Electoral Commission can start implementing the new systems. We have already missed one deadline in relation to this bill.

I repeat that the only objection—and it addressed a substantive matter—was to say, ‘We don’t like a $50 cap on anonymous donations; we want a $250 cap.’ So that actually went into the substantive nature of the bill. Indeed, we picked up some suggestions within the committee that opposition members wanted—as did Senator Bob Brown. I do take the view that you look at these matters on the merits. If something has merit, you pick it up. This is the second committee I have chaired. I chaired one in the former Keating government—the House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I have always believed in committees acting on material in front of them, acting in good faith and trying to achieve consensus. Notwithstanding the first recommendation of the minority members, which is let us do it altogether, I say that is not practical. We would then get the criticism, ‘We have got an omnibus bill that is too big; we cannot look at it in a discrete manner.’ The question is, where do they stand on each of the matters that are currently before the House? We have had no objection from them even though they did change the law.

That is where I get a little annoyed when I hear the words, ‘We want bipartisanship, we want to do this and we want to do that when it comes to electoral matters.’ On the 24th of this month I will have been in this place for 19 years. For over 11 years I have been on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I have yet to see proposals brought forward by the Liberal and National parties that have involved decent transparency and a cleaning-up of the electoral act. It has all been about hiding money that went to them through the Millennium Foundation and it has all been about disenfranchisement, running fear agendas about multiple voting, proof of identity and a whole range of things, knocking out votes where there was a safety net previously for people who made a mistake on their ballot paper. It has cost hundreds of thousands of voters their vote. I appreciate the comments of the member for Cook because I think actions speak louder than words. I want to work with members of the opposition on these matters because I actually take the view, and I know the minister takes the view, that we need the opposition as part of the reforms so that we can have long-term reforms. The time for partisanship is over.

But what I do not agree with is having a gun held to my head or the government’s head in saying, ‘Unless we deal with everything at the one time, we are going to keep rejecting these proposals.’ Tell us about each of the particular proposals in the legislation that you do not agree with, that you think you can improve in terms of caps, in terms of transparency. We have not heard any of those arguments. Sadly, we got a letter as a submission from the Liberal Party national secretariat to the green paper with the same mantra, in effect not making any contributions or suggestions as to the way forward other than, ‘We don’t want to talk about this unless we deal with everything together.’ Forgive me for being a cynic, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think it is an attempt by the opposition to frustrate electoral reform, electoral transparency, and to not in effect be fair dinkum in relation to this matter. That is the only conclusion I can draw. If they want to get up and say: ‘This is bad. We have this proposal,’ they should do it in relation to each of these matters, because they are discrete. What we are putting to you is not reliant on the green paper. The way the minister has progressed his proposals is in a discrete way that can be dealt with on the merits.

So that is why I get a bit frustrated by Senator Fielding. I think he is well-intentioned. He has got a lot on his plate. But I do not cop the argument, ‘Just because we are not going to put a cap in this legislation,’ which I think would be wrong, ‘I am going to bomb your legislation, and I am going to allow another year or another two years till I get defeated at the next election to go by before we have lower thresholds, before we have shorter reporting periods.’ I say to the opposition: if you are fair dinkum about bipartisanship, if you are fair dinkum about being involved in this process in a genuine way, abandon this fanciful argument that we have to deal with everything together and let us sit down and deal with each of these matters on their merits. As I say, on the merits, the only objection that the minority report has is that they thought that an anonymous donation should have a cap of $250, not $50. And I applaud them for putting that in there as their view.

I do not want to speak the full length of time because I know there are a few speakers. This is the second time the matter has been before the House, because it is a reintroduced bill. But I say in all sincerity that I do not think that the government should be left in a situation where it has to necessarily haggle with one Independent senator on very important legislation. The Liberal and National parties should come to the table in relation to some of this, as a sign of good faith that they actually want to engage in the process and in the debate on political reform. This is an opportunity to put up further substantive amendments, if they have any, or to support the legislation as has been brought before the House, which has been amended by the government, taking into account a lot of the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. That says something about the minister, Senator Faulkner. He is prepared to sit down and look at stuff on the merits and take on board the work of the committee.

I do commend the bill to the House and I ask the opposition to rethink what I think is a wrong attitude, a wrong stance that they are taking at the moment. I understand the problems within the coalition at this point in time but particularly in the Liberal Party. I do not think it relates to this. It might relate more to other pieces of legislation. The matters in relation to this have actually been throughout the life of this parliament, but I think it is a nonsense they are arguing.