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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2693

Mr WINDSOR (6:04 PM) —I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I thank the member for Fisher for those complimentary remarks about me being a fair-minded person in relation to these matters. But I would point out to the member for Fisher that our Constitution does not recognise the term ‘political party’; it actually recognises members of parliament who are elected by the various jurisdictions. One of the polluting factors which I think has occurred in terms of the electoral process and the way in which fundraising takes place—in terms of associated entities and a whole lot of other things that are assumed by the major parties to be acceptable in terms of raising funds so that they can advertise their wares to the electorate—

Mr Slipper interjecting

Mr WINDSOR —The member for Fisher is in a sense just compounding the problem by saying that all parties should have fair and equitable access. He should know that the Independent members of parliament—those people who still abide by the constitutional arrangements—do not in fact have fair access to some of the electoral processes that apply to the major parties. As the member for Fisher has left the chamber, I will not get into all of that, but I think he would take that as read.

One of the interesting parts of that—and it is a great shame the member for Fisher has left the chamber—is that, when one examines the disclosure documents for contributions to individual members of parliament, one finds it is the Independent MPs who have to make a disclosure. The party MPs, in the main—even though they may have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money and their various donors’ money—will have on their return ‘nil disclosure’. That does not mean that they have not spent any money. It means that they do not have to declare who they received the money from in terms of their particular seat and they do not have to declare any allegiances.

As the major parties would know, the way that this nil disclosure business works is that most donations—and the public funding, of course—are made to the political parties. So the Liberal Party or the National Party or the Labor Party receive some public funding and, in other cases, washed through the associated entities and washed through the $9,999-donations under the current legislation, there is the capacity for people to have a financial interest in the political process and not declare that in any transparent way.

I do support the reduction in the disclosure threshold from $10,000 to $1,000. I do not support at all the member for Fisher’s explanation that somehow this should fit with some economic equation to keep it in real terms. I think what the general populace would like to see is who pays the piper, who is paying the money outside the public funding arrangements to the political parties—and Independent MPs—and who is actually making donations, so that people in the electorate and the parliament and others can make a judgment as to the authenticity of decisions that are being made on public policy and have a clear and transparent trail back to who paid what.

The member for Fisher made an important point about the union movement, which is a major donor for one side of parliament. I think it is generally assumed in the community that that money will always be there. The bulk may come and go slightly, but at least people know who is paying that side of parliament. In some cases, on the Liberal and National parties side, for instance, we do not know, particularly with the way that some of the associated entities are set up. There is the capacity to hold a dinner where hundreds of people may attend, and they may well make significant donations—buying a table et cetera—that do not necessarily flow through to the public knowing who actually paid the contribution. Regrettably, the information does not flow through in a transparent process when public policy is analysed. If we ever wanted a good example of how that pollutes the process and actually works to the detriment of political parties, we have only to look at the New South Wales Labor Party and the way in which there is a whole range of indiscretions and rorts and possibly corruption that have occurred. There is an inability to really track the money flow in relation to some of the accusations and allegations that have been made in that arena. It demeans the political process.

I am reminded in these debates, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke—as you possibly would be—of the late member for Calare, Peter Andren, and the various contributions that he made to these sorts of debates, particularly in terms of transparency. I am sure if he were here today he would be raising the issues in a much better fashion than I am about associated entities and all of these transgressions of the process that are built into the system. I am sure he would be indicating some sympathy for Senator Fielding’s position in the Senate.

If we remember back to why public funding was actually put in place, it was to achieve an outcome similar to what the member for Fisher was talking about—where all people could have a fair go, there would be a fair amount of funding expended and that would assist the political players to get their message out in terms of campaign expenses. What in fact has occurred is this explosion of money. It has not negated the political parties going after private donations. In fact, that has proliferated and it has been through these associated entities and other mechanisms—disclosure rules et cetera. I am pleased to see that gifts have been looked at in this legislation, but the disclosure rules under the previous government went from, I think, $1,500 to $10,000. There were any number of contributions being made just under that limit. So I think it is a positive move to restrict the disclosure threshold to $1,000.

Senator Fielding has made an important point: at what stage do we cap the public expenditure? The last thing we need in this nation is what has occurred in the United States. I am a supporter of President Obama, but the principle that he with the greatest amount of money should win the fight is something that I think we should avoid at all costs in this country.

On the associated entity problem that I have referred to, the great concern that the general public and I have is with the influence that the contributors have. We have recently seen an example in this parliament in relation to an amendment to legislation that was supported by the coalition in the lower house. I am talking about the Murray-Darling legislation. There was an amendment that called for an independent study into groundwater systems in the Murray-Darling Basin so that we could ascertain the interconnectivity of groundwater systems and the relationship that they have with river systems, in terms of the mechanisms of the Murray-Darling. The coalition supported that here and supported it in the Senate—and then the piper rang up. Mitchell Hooke, Chief Executive Officer of the Minerals Council, made some calls and all of a sudden there was a reversal in relation to the coalition’s vote in the Senate. If the coalition had stuck true to its position in the Senate, that amendment would have had the numbers in the Senate and would have been returned to the lower house for further adjudication. I think that just shows the power of some of these people.

I also suggest in terms of some of the workplace arrangements currently before the parliament that there may well be subtle pressure from people who have funded various political players or political parties. I am not suggesting that we are ever going to get away from that. What I am suggesting is that the transparency of the money flows should be far more obvious. Possibly the only thing this bill does, other than identifying foreign gifts and a few other things, is reduce that disclosure. The minister, as he is an undoubted expert on political funding, might correct me if I have not correctly interpreted it, and if there are some anomalies that I have not been able to ascertain, but I do not think it does anything about the way in which donations can be washed through the associated entity process and then disclosed in bulk as donations to the political parties, and then when the members of parliament make their private disclosures they have a nil disclosure. We really do need to look at that particular process.

The other issue I raise relates to donations and the capacity of the Electoral Commission to actually investigate donations. Madam Deputy Speaker, you would well remember, as I am sure the minister does, that I made certain allegations in terms of an intermediary making a suggestion to me that I vacate the premises for some promises in relation to life after parliament. Many members may recall that a Tamworth businessmen called Greg Maguire was that intermediary. A Senate inquiry evolved from that process. Part of that Senate inquiry process did involve the Australian Electoral Commission and did involve me and others, including the said Mr Maguire. During that process, under oath, Mr Maguire made certain statements that he had made political donations to me, on a number of occasions apparently. The Senate inquiry attempted to investigate whether that had in fact happened. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission was unable to find that any donations had been declared—because none had been received so they could not have been declared. But there is no way through our existing processes, other than severe criticism by the Senate inquiry, that that particular individual could be brought to book in terms of, first, misleading the parliament and, second, lying to a Senate inquiry under oath and not even being called on to substantiate those allegations in front of the Senate inquiry.

I think there are a number of outs for the political system if in fact both sides do not particularly want transparency to really flow through, even though they might suggest it in terms of legislative arrangements. You see in a number of speeches that this is about transparency. I think there is an enormous distance to go to achieve anywhere near transparency in relation to who actually pays the money to the political parties, how that flows through to the political candidates and how those political candidates repay or do not repay the favours in relation to those amounts of money.

So I ask the minister—I know he is a very fair man—to take those comments on board, particularly the issue of associated entities, if we in this place expect people to have respect for the way in which the private donations are made. There are some positive steps in this legislation and I will be supporting the legislation. But there is a long way to go before people have real respect for a process and can actually say that the process is transparent, we know who paid the money, we know which candidates received it and we can adjudicate on those issues. They can do so in some local government jurisdictions. They can adjudicate on those decisions and funding arrangements accordingly.