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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2688

Mr DREYFUS (5:38 PM) —This legislation, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009, implements longstanding Australian Labor Party policy to clean up electoral donations and the electoral donations and funding system. It implements longstanding Labor Party policy to reduce the perception of undue influence from private donations to political parties, and it imple-ments longstanding Australian Labor Party policy to introduce electoral laws which protect the integrity of the democratic process.

We have seen some extraordinary positions adopted on the other side of the House in opposing the reforms that are bound up in this legislation—opposing them on the pretext that those opposite would wish only to support a larger set of reforms. What we have is opposition to partial reform on the basis that it is not good enough to introduce anything less than a full set of reforms.

It is a curious strategy. It might be explicable if there were a genuine risk that, if these reforms were to pass, it would mean that no further reform of electoral laws would occur. But there is no likelihood of that occurring. There is no such risk, because Labor is committed to ongoing electoral reform.

The Liberal Party position of opposing this bill on the basis that they—as they have claimed—are supporting only a larger and more comprehensive set of reforms is really accurately described as hollow, hypocritical and, indeed, duplicitous. It needs to be borne in mind that this is the party which increased the disclosure threshold during the last parliament from $1,500 to $10,000, indexed. This is the party which introduced not one electoral reform which could be said to have in any way improved transparency and accountability in the electoral system. This is the party, as other speakers on our side of the House have pointed out, which delayed the passage of this bill—introduced in May last year—through parliament by referring the bill to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. And this is, of course, the party which voted against this bill in the Senate last week.

It might be worth just briefly examining some of the extraordinary statements that have been made by members of the coalition. We have this extraordinary statement from Senator Ronaldson, in the other place:

Again I put on the record that we are very, very strongly supportive of comprehensive reform …

He went on then to explain that, notwithstanding the support—the strong support, according to Senator Ronaldson—for electoral reform, the Liberal Party was going to vote, and did in fact vote, against this legislation.

We have had equally hollow statements made in the debate in this place from, for example, the member for Sturt, who also claimed to be a supporter of electoral reform—but apparently not these particular reforms. We had from the member for Sturt perhaps the most ridiculous—I think that is an appropriate term for it—statement that has been made in the debate in this House, which was to describe this bill as:

… an attempt … to crush even more the democratic freedoms that we, at least on this side of the House, hold dear.

How it could possibly be said that a bill which increases the requirements for disclosure, which removes the possibility of secrecy in relation to electoral donations, which improves transparency and which improves accountability is—and I will again use the alarmist words of the member for Sturt—‘an attempt to crush democratic freedoms’ is beyond me. I would suspect it is beyond every member of this House, including those opposite, to even begin to work out what the member for Sturt was actually talking about, in making the comment that he did.

We heard, too, from the member for Cook, who also adopted the position taken by those opposite that only a comprehensive set of electoral reforms would be supported by the coalition and that, because this was merely some reform and not a comprehensive set of reforms, it was going to be opposed. That is what has already occurred in the Senate, and that is the position that was taken by the member for Cook.

Perhaps one should not only listen to the words uttered in this debate but also look at what some of the members I have referred to, including Senator Ronaldson and the member for Cook, said in their dissenting report when the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters reported on this bill in October of last year. They ran out their hollow proposition to this effect:

The view of the Coalition members of the Committee is that campaign finance reform is a complex issue that requires integrated reform, with no one measure considered in isolation to another.

It is hollow because—just to take one example—it did not seem to worry the coalition when they passed their change to the electoral laws increasing, effectively as a one-off measure, the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to $10,000 indexed. On no view was that introduced as part of an ‘integrated’ reform. It was an isolated change introduced because the Liberal Party in this parliament has always favoured measures which conceal the sources of the Liberal Party’s funding and which make it possible for very large donations to be made to political parties in this country without fear of disclosure.

When one looks at the actual measures that are bound up in this legislation, one is left to wonder why it is that members of the Liberal Party, members of the National Party and indeed Senator Fielding have chosen to oppose this legislation, because every single measure that one examines in this bill can be seen to be a measure which will improve the integrity of the electoral system, improve accountability and improve the necessary levels of trust that Australian voters should have in their electoral system. I mention Senator Fielding because there is, at the very least, curiosity in observing that, when the former government introduced its change to the electoral laws to increase the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to $10,000 indexed, Senator Fielding voted against the measure, saying that it was not a measure which he could support. One would have thought that this bill, a bill which would reverse the change brought about by the former government to take it back to an even lower disclosure limit of $1,000 not indexed, would be a piece of legislation that would be supported by Senator Fielding. But apparently, as demonstrated in the Senate last week, that is not the case.

I want to mention some of the measures that we find in this bill. The first group of measures is the one that I have mainly been using as an example: the reduction to a much more appropriate level of the disclosure threshold at which donors, registered political parties and candidates need to state and identify donors. As I have said, it had been increased to $10,000 indexed, which by this year had reached the high level of $10,900, and it was going to continue to increase annually with indexation. We now have in this bill a flat rate of $1,000, which is greatly to be preferred.

It is worth quoting just what was said very directly by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in relation to this particular change. The committee concluded:

The proposals included in the bill to lower the disclosure threshold … to $1,000 (not adjusted for inflation) will lead to a significant increase in the transparency of financial support and expenditure by participants in the political process.

One could ask rhetorically: what could there possibly be to oppose in such a measure? How is it that those opposite or Senator Fielding could persist in opposition to this particular measure in the bill?

There are related provisions concerning the closing of an existing loophole which allows for donation splitting and which treats state and territory branches as separate entities. It allows donors to contribute—on the current disclosure threshold—up to $10,899.99 to nine separate branches of the same political party, which is almost $98,100 in total. That loophole is to be closed. As the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters commented, that ‘will further improve transparency by limiting the opportunity to contribute large amounts of money to political parties and candidates and avoid disclosure’. Again one could ask rhetorically: how could anyone who was interested in the integrity of the electoral system or in increasing transparency possibly oppose such a measure?

The other measure to which I would refer is that which deals with changing the present possibility of a candidate in effect choosing to use standing for election as a means of earning money. We saw a dramatic example of that at both the last election and the election before that with the failed Senate candidacies of the former member for Oxley in this House. She, of course, had reached the status of being something of a professional leech, sucking on public funding for campaigns. Thus we saw that, in her failed Senate candidacy in 2004, the former member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson, spent some $35,000 but received in public funding more than $200,000, and in the 2007 election she collected some $213,000 in public funding. This bill will introduce a provision which requires that those funds be accounted for and that, instead of standing for election being simply a means of earning large amounts of money, the amount of public funding be directly related to the amount of money that was expended on an actual campaign.

There are other measures in this bill, all of which are measures that will increase the integrity and transparency of the electoral system. There will be a closing of a loophole in existing donor disclosure laws in relation to gifts from foreign companies. Again, this is something that was commended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In relation to the present possibility of very significant donations being made anonymously both domestically and from overseas, and in particular for extraordinarily large donations to be made from overseas, the bill would make it unlawful for other players in the political process, such as associated entities and third persons, to receive overseas gifts to be used solely or substantially to incur political expenditure. Again one could ask, as one could in respect of every single one of the measures in this legislation: what is there that could possibly be opposed by any political party that was genuinely interested in integrity measures and in increasing transparency in donations to political parties in this country?

I would urge the coalition parties and the Independent senators—in particular, Senator Fielding—to reconsider their present opposition to this legislation. It is not a matter of waiting forever for some comprehensive scheme of legislation; these are discrete measures, each of which will improve our electoral system. I would urge those opposite, as I say, to reconsider their position. I commend the bill to the House.