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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2685

Ms COLLINS (5:28 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I start by congratulating the member for Lyne on his valuable contribution. I too hope that this is the beginning of reform. Certainly this amendment bill was designed to improve accountability and transparency in our electoral system, and I hope that that continues also. What we are about is ensuring that political donations are not hidden, ensuring public scrutiny and ensuring the integrity of our democratic processes, something which we should all be aiming for. Labor have always believed in the values of fairness and transparency in the electoral system. We are the party that continue to reform the Electoral Act and that worked to make the system fairer in the past.

Our commitment to overturn the laws left to us by those opposite illustrates that our commitment to an open form of government where the public is able to scrutinise the actions of the government and of political parties is real. By introducing these amendments we will allow the Australian people to scrutinise donations and financial transactions of political parties. These changes are about being honest to the people who elect us. They also deliver on Labor’s election commitment to roll back the changes made by the former government in this area. This is also about bringing Australia’s electoral laws back into line with those of other countries.

This bill deals with many areas regarding political donations and forms an integral part of the government’s broader commitment to a robust electoral funding and disclosure system. We have heard today from other speakers about the fact that we have our green paper out there for discussion at the moment. This particular bill’s key areas include lowering the threshold for the disclosure of political donations and expenditure to a flat $1,000, down from the $10,900 currently linked to CPI; requiring a six-monthly time frame for disclosing donations and political expenditure, rather than just the current annual disclosure; no longer allowing donations to be made to separate branches of the same party but instead treating them as one entity; banning foreign donations; banning anonymous donations over $50; and tying public funding for elections to verified expenditure so that candidates will no longer be able to make a financial gain from public funding.

Reducing the disclosure threshold from $10,900 to $1,000 repeals the previous government’s increase. The aim of the measure is to provide transparency in donations. The current large disclosure limit of $10,900 allows huge amounts to be hidden from the public. It threatens the integrity of our system, as it can create a perception of large donors having a significant influence over political parties. In fact, when the existing threshold was introduced by those opposite, the then Special Minister of State, when introducing them, said:

Indeed, these measures are about making it more robust, fair and rigorous. As a result, people will be able to have even greater confidence in our electoral system

Talk about a load of rubbish! How does increasing a disclosure threshold to a relatively high level and hiding a number of donations made to political parties make them accountable? It does not. It shrouds our electoral system in secrecy. It seems to me that those opposite have increased the threshold in the belief that the public should not know who donated to political parties. I can only interpret their recent opposition to this bill as wanting to protect donors who donate to the coalition. My point about hiding donations is clearly illustrated when you compare the disclosure levels in the financial year 2004-05, when the threshold was $1,500. In that year there were 1,286 donor returns lodged with the AEC. For the financial year 2005-06, when the previous government raised the threshold, only 317 donor returns were launched and in the 2006-07 year—when it went up again, indexed to CPI—the number of returns dropped again, this time to 194. So we have gone from over 1,200 donor returns to 194. How can that be transparent? How can that be accountable?

This bill will also no longer allow donations to separate branches of the same party but instead treat them as one entity. Under the current system it is possible for a political party to raise over $90,000 anonymously, without any trace of where the money came from. For example, different state and territory divisions of a party with a national structure could each receive $10,000 anonymously from the same donor, which would equal $90,000 of untraced money. Currently donors who do not wish to have their identity disclosed can make multiple donations just below the threshold to various branches and divisions of the same political party. This bill will put a stop to that and eliminate donation splitting. It will treat donations to different branches of the political party as a donation to the same party, as it should.

The ALP are on record as opposing the 2006 coalition amendments, and we vigorously opposed them in parliament. I want to quote Senator Faulkner, who was arguing about the coalition changes when he said:

It is about money—dirty money and lots of it—in the coffers of the Liberal Party, and it is about making sure that no-one knows where that dirty money is coming from.

Clearly we have seen that here today with the Liberal Party’s ridiculous arguments: ‘It’s time for reform but not just yet; let’s do it later.’ I support the comments made by Senator Faulkner at that time, because the previous government was not—and is not now—in favour of open, transparent and accountable electoral and political processes. Their disclosure threshold changes removed the chance for the media and members of the public to scrutinise donations made to political parties.

This bill also allows for furnishing returns within eight weeks of polling day and will make it a much more timely reporting system. Candidates and members of Senate groups who have incurred campaign expenditure will be required to provide returns within eight weeks, instead of 15 weeks after the poll. It also requires donors, political parties and associated entities to lodge returns to the AEC within eight weeks of the six-monthly reporting period, instead of the current annual reporting, which can be provided up to 20 weeks after the end of each financial year. These changes will ensure that the AEC has details of gifts, revenues and political expenditure that are both timely and up to date.

This bill will also make it illegal for candidates and political parties to accept overseas donations. It will also make it illegal for other groups, such as associated entities, to accept overseas donations that are for the purpose of political expenditure. Making overseas donations unlawful will bring Australia into line with other countries that prevent foreign donations. Such donations are currently outside the jurisdiction of the AEC and can be impossible to trace. The United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada place complete bans on foreign donations. The AEC previously supported a tightening of the law to address the issue. I want to quote the AEC in their advice to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It said:

… an obvious and easily exploitable vehicle for hiding the identity of donors through arrangements that narrowly observe the letter of the Australian law with a view to avoiding the intention of full public disclosure.

That is, people can clearly hide behind these laws. Under the current disclosure arrangements contained in the act it would be possible for political parties to channel money through untraceable overseas bodies and sources. This is not okay. There is no current requirement for overseas donors to disclose, making it impossible to determine whether they are the real source of the donation. There is also no adequate way to enforce accurate disclosure of information from overseas entities under domestic law.

The final part of the bill is about tying public funding for elections to verified electoral expenditure so that candidates are not able to make a financial gain. This gives effect to our election commitment that funding will be provided only for expenditure directly incurred by a candidate or a party in an election to prevent any candidate or any party making a financial gain. It will ensure that people receive only the money that they have actually expended. It is about being responsible with the taxpayers’ money.

We have all heard about the evidence presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 2005 when there was an example from the 2004 election of a candidate making a profit from public funding. The candidate received almost $200,000 in public funding but spent only just over $35,000 and made quite a substantial profit. This bill will put a stop to candidates making a profit from public funding. I believe the measure brings the electoral laws into line with community standards. New claims processed under these changes will require candidates, registered political parties and Senate groups to lodge a claim specifying all or part of their expenditure if they wish to receive election funding.

This bill does what we said it would do. It will ensure fairness, transparency, integrity and accountability in our electoral system. It is the start of electoral reform. It is clear to me that those opposite do not believe in an open and transparent system which strengthens our democracy. That is why, when in government, they opposed almost every measure to improve the disclosure of donations. This is why they increased the threshold. It is also illustrated by their delaying tactics in sending this bill to a parliamentary committee and then voting it down in the Senate last week. It is clear that they have difficulty with an open and transparent political system. This is why they changed the laws in the first place and that is why they made it harder to trace donations. We all have to ask: just what are they hiding?

I urge those opposite to change their position and to vote to bring fairness and accountability back into the electoral system, and I commend the bill to the House.