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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2681

Mr DANBY (5:09 PM) —The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 contains measures to address critical weaknesses in the Commonwealth Electoral Act relating to the funding and disclosure regime. These weaknesses have been identified by the green paper and by reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which I have had the honour to be on since being elected to this House. While I appreciate the sincere and thoughtful remarks of the member for Gippsland and some of the ideas that he raised about capping and fixed terms, this bill is essential because it reverses the regressive amendments that were made very deliberately by the Howard government to the Electoral Act—changes made in my view for the partisan benefit of the coalition parties. The previous government’s changes were motivated by a desire to help supporters who make large donations to the Liberal Party without disclosure.

Mr Ciobo —As opposed to your changes, which benefit you.

Mr DANBY —This breeds the suspicion of influence and other corrupt practices and damages the integrity of our electoral system. As the member for Moncrieff knows, one of the things that could be done under the previous system was that you could make a $10,000 donation to the Labor Party in Queensland, a $10,000 donation to the Labor Party in New South Wales and a $10,000 donation to the Labor Party in South Australia and it would only be revealed as one donation of $10,000 because they were allegedly separate entities. This was really not the clear intent of the legislation when it was framed in 1983, and we are setting about redressing what was done previously.

Moreover, I hope that further legislation will deal with the other regressive changes made by the previous government—issues that I have been raising over the last six years, particularly the early closing of the electoral roll and the requirement for photo ID to enrol or in the case of a declaration vote. I have spoken previously in this House about the disgraceful effect these small changes had on the electoral process at the last election. In my view, and I have spoken about it at other times, they crucially affected the results in four seats. This election was not that close, but to have these kinds of changes disenfranchise a sufficient number of Australians across the country so as to affect the results in four seats is not the kind of democratic Australia I believe in. Senator Faulkner, the Special Minister of State, has called this bill ‘a critically important first step in the electoral reform process’, and I am confident we will see further reform measures in this parliament.

Included in this bill is the area of the cash bonanzas that some people received because they got past the four per cent limit in the Senate and were able to claim the $2.10 per voter bonus—or cash bonanza, in the case of one person—without having to show any receipts. We are tackling this area of donations first because it is of immediate importance. People donate money to political parties all the time, not just at federal election times. Parties and donors need certainty, they need to know what the rules are and they need to know these things now.

The bill will reduce the disclosure threshold from the current CPI indexed amount of $10,900 to a non-indexed amount of $1,000. This will restore proper public scrutiny to donations of this size. The bill will improve transparency in the funding and disclosure regime by requiring participants in the electoral process to report every six months rather than every 12 months. The bill will provide consistency by reducing the deadline for lodging disclosure returns with the AEC to a consistent period of eight weeks. Currently, deadlines range from 15 to 20 weeks, depending on the person or the entity. The bill will treat donations to different branches of political parties as if the donations were given to the same political party, as they always should have been, to prevent a person giving multiple amounts below the threshold to various branches or divisions of the same political party—an entirely fictitious process, which the previous government knew was not the intent of the original legislation and which the member for Gippsland correctly described as having the noble purpose of enabling political parties to compete on an equal basis.

This bill prohibits the receipt of a gift of foreign property or an anonymous gift outright for some people and entities, while for other people and entities it will be unlawful to give or receive a gift of foreign property or an anonymous gift if that gift is to be used for political expenditure. In response to a recommendation from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the government’s amendments will allow low-level anonymous donations of $50 or less to continue—and this is done, as several members have said, for quite sensible reasons—where they are received through fundraising activities such as raffles. In our desire to make the process transparent, it is silly to affect innocent activities such as this very grassroots fundraising by insisting that there be disclosure of individual donations in raffles.

The bill prevents candidates or groups obtaining a windfall payment of election funding by tying electoral funding to the actual electoral expenditure incurred. In response, again, to a recommendation from JSCEM, the government has expanded the definition of campaign expenditure to ensure that it does not favour one form of campaigning over another. In these days prior to the Queensland election, we have seen on Today Tonight the extraordinary performance of the candidate for Beaudesert—who, I really regret to say, has been attacked by some of the tabloid newspapers in this country with salacious stories about her personal life, as if that had anything to do with politics. If anything, I would say that it has enhanced her profile in the coming Queensland election. It has nothing to do with politics. It is a shame, and it enables her to portray herself as a victim again. She is not a victim. She is a person who should be judged on an equal footing with other candidates at elections. Today Tonight posed a question to her about what she had done with the $213,000 cash bonanza that she had won from the 2007 federal election when she stood as a candidate in Queensland, scored above the four per cent minimum and was therefore able to receive $2.10 for each of those Queensland voters without having to furnish any receipts. That is clearly something that was never intended by the original legislation.

I conclude by noting the remarks of my friend the member for Banks, the splendid chairman of JSCEM, who pointed to the blockage of this legislation in the Senate by Senator Fielding. Senator Fielding really ought to be very careful in blocking this and other electoral legislation. The current government made a point before the election of pointing out the changes that it was foreshadowing to donations in regard to the issues of identification and of the early closure of the roll. It is an undemocratic reflection on Australian society that a person who was elected to the Senate with such a low primary vote—and then principally on preferences that came from the Labor Party—could block this legislation. I urge that this legislation be passed. I commend the minister for his excellent green paper and for the raising of all these issues. I hope that the process of democratic reform in Australia will continue and will be extended. I am very interested that the member for Gippsland has thrown his weight behind fixed terms, and I call on the rest of the opposition to stand up with the member for Gippsland, to join the government and to support that great reform, as originally envisaged by that great member for Werriwa, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. Let us pass this amendment and then go on to further reform in Australia, from the more obvious issues that grew out of the last election—such as revoking the measure of early closure of the roll, which was designed to prevent young people voting—to issues such as fixed four-year terms and ultimately a plebiscite and then a referendum on Australia having its own head of state.