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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2630

Mr BRIGGS (1:30 PM) —It is with great pleasure that I follow the member for Braddon, who spoke before me on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The member for Braddon made some points with which I agree, but the fact is that this country is in dire need of electoral funding reform. I think that one of the great shames of the previous government is that it did not undertake this reform. It did not undertake a holistic reform agenda on political donations and, to quote the member for Cook, we are now in a situation where we are headed down a funding arms race—which is not good for democracy and is not good for either side of this House.

It is in the best interests of both sides of this House and the people that we seek to represent that we reform the system of donations that operates now. The sums of money are becoming so large that the integrity of what we do in this place and what happens in the Senate can be called into question. That is why I think that this bill is a very big disappointment. It is the same as we saw last week with Senator Wong on the flawed ETS. It is saying: ‘You can’t have a Ferrari, but you can have a Datsun. If you want the best model, we are not going to be able to give you the best model. We can give you a very poor second choice instead.’ That is the same excuse that the government is using on this bill. It disappoints me that the member for Braddon has said: ‘We’ve got to do a little bit. We can’t do it all.’ I am not sure why we cannot do it all. There is a process going on at the moment through parliamentary committees to look at holistic reform, and I support it, many on this side of the House support it, and many on the other side support it as well. We can do this with a holistic approach, and we should.

I think this bill is a cop-out, because it favours those on the other side of the House. That is the disappointment about this bill. Rather than taking a holistic approach and looking at the benefit for both sides of the House, for the benefit of our democracy, we have a bill which seeks to benefit one side of the House over the other. That is why we are opposed to it. We do have a political arms race going on, and it poses a grave danger to our democracy.

The reason that this bill seeks to assist those on the other side of the House rather than to fix the system is that it gives the Labor Party a great opportunity to continue the great fiscal advantage they have in political campaigns. In the last election campaign they had a $37.6 million head start over any other party—$37.6 million given to them by the trade union movement, and these are direct donations. There was $9 million in cash and in kind from the union movement to the Labor Party. The only reason we know this is because of the Howard government reforms. There was $26 million in a completely dishonest political campaign. The parliamentary secretary at the table, Mr Shorten, knows it, because he was part of it. Of course, he was a beneficiary as well. That is why the Labor Party do not want to reform this system in a real hurry. They get a $37 million head start in every election campaign, and that adds up to the difference in what the party raised in the last election. If you look at the total campaign funding for both sides of parliament, you had $110 million for the Labor Party and $89 million for the coalition. These are enormous sums, and I am sure that most people out there in the electorates do not actually understand how much money it takes now to run an election campaign. To run TV ads alone—as the parliamentary secretary at the table knows—you are talking many tens of millions of dollars. This is a danger for our democracy.

The problem with this bill is that it favours those who benefit from a $37 million head start. In the last campaign we saw completely fictional examples on a piece of public policy to make a political point. That is what the Labor Party and the union movement did in the last campaign: they ran ads which were not true. They ran ads which sought to mislead the Australian people, and they spent $37 million doing it—for the benefit of those who sit on the other side.

We know that most of those who sit on the other side come from the union movement. The parliamentary secretary at the table does, and he did a fine job as the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union. I was always a fan of the job that the parliamentary secretary was doing—certainly in comparison with some of his contemporaries in other unions. The AWU is a much better union than the CFMEU, and the parliamentary secretary would agree with me on that matter.

If we look at the unions that gave the most money, consistently at the top of the list is the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, which gave $1.5 million. Of course, they run the Labor Party in South Australia; they run the government. In recent times we have seen their factional war lord in the state parliament, Tom Koutsantonis, promoted to the state cabinet far and above his ability and against the wishes of the Premier. The Premier has seen the writing on the wall or the money in the bank, and Tom has been promoted. This is a man who welshes on bets, as my state colleagues will tell you. The SDA is an organisation run by the Labor Party in South Australia, controlled by Senator Farrell, whom the Advertiser calls—and these are not my words—the ‘godfather of the Right’ in South Australia. He runs the efficient operation of the machine. They pay a lot of money to operate this machine, and they run the government in South Australia.

We have a big problem with donations in Australia. We have an enormous problem with the system and it needs to be fixed, and the parliamentary secretary at the table knows it. But, of course, those on the other side do not want the system fixed because they benefit under the current system. The old saying ‘those who pay the piper pick the tune’ operates in the Australian Labor Party every day, and the money they receive—their $37 million advance on every other party in elections—is the reason you do not see a genuine attempt at reform with this bill; you see a half-baked attempt which seeks to give the Labor Party more advantage. Why does it give it more advantage? It seeks to reduce the disclosure limit from $10,000 to around $1,500. The reason they seek that is not for transparency. Rather, when they find the list of those small businesses who dare to donate to the Liberal Party, they visit those small businesses, through their affiliates, and make sure that those small businesses or individuals know—particularly at the state level where they control government—that, if they think the state government will ever deal with them again, they are kidding themselves.

Ms Collins interjecting

Mr BRIGGS —It is true; it happened in the Queensland election. In recent days there have been reports of this behaviour. It is a system which the Labor Party have benefited from for a long time and it is a system that needs to be changed. We do have a problem in this area. This bill is disappointing. It sells the government short. They should wait for the parliamentary committee to finish its work. They should look at all the options.

I am on the record as saying that the Canadian option is well and truly worth considering. In fact, I made some comments about this over Christmas when a hardworking reporter called me on Christmas Day. The story appeared in the Age on the day after Christmas, in which I dared to raise the issue about how much trade unions give and how much GetUp! spent on campaigns. I think the parliamentary secretary used to be on the board of GetUp!, from memory—not that they are a political association but, you know. The hate-filled emails that I received from some of the parliamentary secretary’s former colleagues were quite astounding.

We do have a problem and the figures from the last federal election campaign indicate that about $110 million was spent by the Australian Labor Party and around $89 million was spent by the coalition, or fundraised by the coalition and by Labor. That is a lot of money but it takes a lot of money to run election campaigns. Television advertising alone costs so much. The problem is that voters see this as dangerous and as raising integrity issues. In all fairness, I think this is a reasonable thing to be concerned about. I do not think anyone comes here seeking to misuse the system. However, the problem with the amount of money that we now have to raise is that questions will be asked on bills that we vote for, depending on who has donated.

A very good example of that happened in South Australia not long ago. For those familiar with North Adelaide, there has been a piece of land not developed for a long time because of disputes with getting approvals from councils and so forth. It is on the main street in North Adelaide—O’Connell Street —and it is called the Le Cornu site. It has sat there for many years not developed. In recent times, the state government moved legislation to give them powers to approve developments for what they call ‘specific need’. The state government has given approval to develop this site to the Makris Group, a well-known developer who has done much good for South Australia and for Adelaide. However, in the time leading up to the decision by the state government to give this major approval status, the Makris Group gave the Labor Party $180,000. This issue has been raised in South Australia by my good friend and colleague Rob Lucas. He has asked whether there is an issue with this donation. I am not suggesting for a moment that the Makris Group sought favour. However, is it right for people in the community to have to ask whether someone got a better deal from the state government because they donated this amount of money? It is a question well worth asking because it brings into question how we operate our electoral system and how we make public decisions, particularly when it comes to development. We have seen the problem with Wollongong council in New South Wales. It is a problem which has occurred in South Australia and it is still occurring in South Australia and across the states. Thankfully, the federal parliament does not make development decisions, because I think they do raise significant issues.

What it gets back to is that there is a problem with our donation system. It is something about which we will be attacked from the Left and the Right. You are attacked from the Right on the basis of free speech and that people should be able to do and say what they like. You are attacked from the Left because allegedly major corporations fund the Liberal Party. That is simply not true in modern politics. What happens is that major corporations give to both sides of politics equally, which left a funding gap between us and the other side of $37 million in the last campaign due to union donations. Unions give only to one side of politics. A couple of the rogue unions, the ETU for instance, I think gave some money to the Greens. But, in large part, the trade union movement in Australia give a large proportion of their money to the Labor Party, and alongside that they run political campaigns to benefit the Labor Party.

Mr Shorten —Why would they donate to you?

Mr BRIGGS —They would donate to us on the basis that we created 2.2 million jobs for their workers in the last government, Parliamentary Secretary. We gave them more opportunities than this government seeks to give them. We hear much from the other side about protection from redundancy at the moment—‘We are going to protect people from redundancy.’ I hope so because there are a lot more Australians now who are going to need it than there were previously.

We also see an IR bill that seeks to reward the trade union movement for their loyal service, and the parliamentary secretary knows it. Good faith bargaining is a step back into the workplace for the unions, to give them control of the workplace again and to increase their membership. It is as pure and simple as that. And it will destroy jobs. Those opposite know that they are moving a terrible economic policy, but it is payback for the $26 million that the unions spent on their own campaign and the $9 million in cash donations to the Labor Party.

We have a problem with perceptions about donations in this country and, in some instances, we have a problem in reality. The member for Braddon referred to the candidate for Beaudesert in the Queensland state election and what she did previously in this place and in other campaigns. He makes a very good point. I notice that last week her former chief adviser gave some of us on this side a free character assessment in the Australian newspaper. He included me, which I take in good humour as it was delivered by the man who formerly advised Pauline Hanson, with the reputation that that brings with it. We do have a problem with donations, but this bill is a cop-out because it seeks to benefit those on the other side at our expense and because, rather than having a holistic approach to reform, it is limited to issues that benefit the Labor Party.

I will finish on this note: some of those on the other side—not so much the parliamentary secretary at the table, because he is above this sort of behaviour—seek to question the motives of members on this side of the House when we raise issues on this bill. They say we do it because we benefit from the current system and that it is all a stitch-up—and I noticed the member for Banks attacking Senator Fielding earlier, which I thought was an interesting approach to diplomacy given that the Labor Party are trying to get him to agree to bills this week. If the Labor Party want to raise inappropriate behaviour with regard to donations, we are happy to step back through the absolute scandal and disgrace that was Centenary House and the $4 million in above-market rents from which those on the other side benefited and which was the subject of two royal commissions. They were fleecing Australian taxpayers through a dodgy deal by—you guessed it—the very minister responsible for these reforms.

If the Labor Party—though not, as I said, the parliamentary secretary at the table—want to come into this House and bully and threaten over unions and workplace relations, as they generally do, they can go right ahead. We are more than happy to step back through the $4 million that you people fleeced from Australian taxpayers with the rort over Centenary House, that nondescript piece of real estate in Barton that had a higher rental value than real estate in Manhattan. Can you imagine the rent in Barton in the ACT being the same as that in Manhattan? It is quite extraordinary. Hong Kong, Seoul, Washington, Geneva, Barton—the names just roll off the tongue, don’t they? We are not going to sit here and listen to the high priests of hypocrisy on the other side telling us that we are all about trying to benefit from donations and that is why we are standing in the way of reform. We agree that the donation system needs reform because it is sick and broken, but we want holistic reform, not the piecemeal approach that those on the other side seek to implement for their own electoral benefit.