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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2684

Mr OAKESHOTT (5:19 PM) —I rise only very briefly to put on record my support for the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and, in fact, my surprise that we are seeing this for a second time. Surely, given all the debate that we are seeing in regard to a campaign arms race—and I think that everyone within this parliament concurs with the use of such a term to describe the huge costs incurred, at both state and federal levels, by candidates and the major parties to run election campaigns—there should be general agreement in regard to the urgent need for reform in this field. I am certainly surprised, therefore, that we are seeing this a second time. I do not think the argument that was given as a reason for rejecting the legislation in the other place was strong—that we need comprehensive reform rather than what I would hope is only the start of a reform process. I do not buy that argument, and I do not think most people in Australia buy it either.

In response, I would certainly hope that this is not the end of the process for the government but the start of a process of reform, and it is in that context that I give the government my support and the support of the people of the mid-North Coast. This is a huge concern to many people within the democratic process. In many ways, I think democracy hinges on accessibility. If it becomes unaffordable for anyone to put their hand up for the democratic processes of becoming a member of this chamber or other chambers throughout Australia—whether for a major political party, as an Independent candidate or for a minor party—then our democratic processes are weaker because of it. I certainly acknowledge the starting principle, which is one of the pillar principles behind this legislation appearing—that is, that the figures that have to be raised by those wanting to be elected are now getting to a level of absurdity and to the point where there is the concern, which is becoming more than just a perception, that it is a buying of the vote and that the vested interests are now really, in many ways, wanting to see a return on their substantial dollars invested.

How will that reform process take place in regard to trying to deliver on other pillars of this process, such as transparency and greater accountability? I hope this is the start of that process. Whilst there are many different arguments that can be presented in regard to a reform process for political donations, at least this is a start. Certainly the reduction of the threshold is a start. Having spent 12 years in a state parliament, I had my eyes nearly pop out of my head when, coming to the federal by-election in September, I saw that the threshold was over $10,000. Whilst it creates huge opportunities for various players to make donations, I think that morally the man on the street would in most cases see that threshold as simply way too high. So for me that is an important part of this legislation.

I would strongly urge those in the other place, both the coalition and the crossbencher involved in blocking this legislation, to strongly consider the perceptions of the man on the street about the question of the accessibility of democracy for Independent candidates as well as for candidates from major political parties. I certainly hope that this is the start of a process that looks at the cost of standing as a candidate. I am talking about standing as a genuine candidate—not someone who wants to put their hand up and have their voice heard for 12 weeks but rather someone who, without having to spend a huge amount of dollars, can actually stand on a good platform of policies and principles and has a very good chance of getting elected if they argue their case well and if they present well. I would hope that all of us in this place support that as a principle rather than continuing the outrageous figures that we have seen donated, particularly in the last couple of elections, both at a state level in New South Wales, where I come from, and in the more recent federal elections.

On a related issue that I would hope comes up in further rounds of reform, it was only last week that the declaration figures for the recent by-elections in Mayo and Lyne were released. I found it absolutely extraordinary that for the seat of Lyne I came out on top of the list in regard to the amount spent. I was clearly outspent by a major political party in that field by a ratio of five, six or seven to one. There is no question about that. The fact that the declaration of your expenditure happens separately for non-aligned candidates versus candidates who are members of major political parties is an issue that I would hope this government strongly considers. Surely it should be the same rule for all, and that includes the major political parties as well as Independent and unaligned candidates. The fact that the major parties can bury their figures in some sort of global expenditure at the end of the year, separate from by-election figures, which have to be declared by people such as me within a certain time frame, is an anomaly. I hope it can be corrected through what I hope is the start of a reform process.

The people on the mid-North Coast would love to see the figures for the expenditure of all the candidates put on the table. Unfortunately they do not have that right and privilege given to them. Maybe the figure will never be known but will be lost in some sort of overall annual figure from the political party in question. I say this not to isolate them but to reflect on a process which now has built into it rules for political parties that are separate to the rules for Independent and non-aligned candidates. If the principles are to be fair to all within a democratic process, if it is about being accessible for all within the democratic process and if it is about allowing absolutely anyone who comes in off the street to stand as a candidate in a representative process then surely the rules that apply to one should apply to all.

I speak in favour of this legislation. I do not think it is perfect at this stage as far as the full political reform process goes. I am taking it on good faith that this is the start of a process of reform and that we will see more to come throughout the coming term of this government. I think the arguments in the other place are weak in arguing that only comprehensive reform, in one package and in agreement between the two major political parties, should be presented to this House. I think that is a weak argument. I think we should start a reform process now. Hopefully we can see the other place support this the second time around and hopefully all of us can in good faith play by the spirit of the legislation that is before us rather than look for ways around it.