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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 665


Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (10:16): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Australians are telling us that our political system, the quality of our democracy and all of us here need to lift our game. What turns Australians off politics is the consistent bickering and meaningless daily squabbles. What turns Australians off politics is the perception that politicians are purely in it for themselves and their own interests. These are the reasons that too many Australians feel that our system is broken, that what happens here is cut off from their lives and, to quote Katharine Murphy from The Guardian, that politics has become 'little more than a series of arbitrations with cashed-up rent seekers'. As long as this perception holds we will continue to see the rise of fringe movements and false prophets who convert their anti-Canberra, antipolitics message into seats in the parliament for them.

This is a challenge for all of us who have come to this place to speak up for our communities and to deliver for Australians who call this their home a better standard of living. We all have a responsibility for restoring trust and confidence in our system. What the people of Australia want is leaders and leadership; when leaders say what they will do they mean it and they just get on and do it. This is why Labor is just getting on and doing it. This year we have outlined a three-point plan to restore confidence in the political process—not because we think that that in and of itself will change the daily lives of Australians but because it is the green fee for credibility, for Australians to say, 'Hey, this mob are taking us seriously and our concerns seriously.'

Our three-point plan includes: one, last week in the Senate introducing an inquiry into the merits of a national integrity commission; two, tomorrow voting for long overdue reform of the expenses system; and, three, today presenting to the House our plan for stricter donation rules, stronger transparency and accountability, because secrecy and reform cannot coexist. Secrecy and reform do not go together. The Australian people have a right to know. The health of our elections, our democracy and people's faith in our political process depend upon setting and meeting the highest standards. This is why this legislation is so important.

This legislation is about that great old-fashioned concept that Australians have a right to know, about making sure that voters, shareholders and consumers are aware of who donates to which party and how much they give. This legislation will also include loopholes that vested interests currently use to hide their donations and conceal their influence. This begins with a long overdue reduction of the disclosure threshold from $13,200 to $1,000.

I am very proud of Labor's record on this question. I genuinely believe we make a very strong case. In 2006 we opposed then Prime Minister Howard raising the threshold from $1,000 to $10,000. When last in government we sought to lower it back to $1,000 but we were prevented from doing so by the Liberal-Nationals. Now, yet again, we are rising to the challenge in opposition. This is not a hypothetical for us. The standard we are seeking to write into law is one that we have nationally voluntarily met for the last five years. Since 2011 federal Labor has had a policy that every donation over $1,000 should be declared. I believe it is time for the government to step up and show the same commitment to transparency and the same respect for the Australian people—not just complying with the legal minimum but meeting the best ethical standard, not just complying with the legal minimum but meeting the best practice standard.

Lowering the threshold is just the start. Labor's reforms will also stop donation splitting. When groups with deep pockets spread their donations out across different states they can sneak under the bar in every jurisdiction. It is wrong that an individual or company can write nine $13,000 cheques to nine different branches of a political party and the Australian people would never know about it. That is over $110,000 off the books in a year, $330,000 across the term of a government. We will also put a stop to the convenient fiction that donating to an associated entity is different to donating to a party.

The legislation makes some other common sense changes to the integrity of the system. Foreign citizens do not get a vote in Australian elections. And foreign companies should not be allowed to donate to Australian campaigns. Transparency in our donation system is critical for protecting against state or non-state actors who seek to influence our political system for advantage. Labor's legislation will ban foreign donations—full stop. I recognise there are other problems in this area to which we do not collectively have the answer. This legislation does not solve the challenge of foreign money being washed through Australian entities. We need to work with our agencies, including our security agencies, to look at the full transaction chain. This is a difficult issue, and jurisdictions grapple with this around the world.

Our legislation will stop direct foreign donations, but what we need to do is not just tick the box of a technical test; we need to thoroughly evaluate the origin of a donation. And where there is genuine apprehension, we need to act on it. This is vital to maintaining public confidence in our system. No-one can seriously talk about tackling foreign donations unless they acknowledge this issue which I have just outlined today in the parliament. The coalition has not caused this problem but I invite them to work with us to help solve it. If the leaders of this country know that there is a risk that foreign governments or non-state actors will wash money through Australian entities, then it is not good enough to say that we have not yet so far come up with a mechanism to solve it. We must solve this soft-influence problem.

Under our legislation the upper limit for anonymous donations will be restricted to $50. If you want to buy a new 'It's time' T-shirt for your parents without giving your name—fine. But that is where it stops. And of course with public funding allocated according to votes received—it is one of the key components of our democratic system—the legislation will keep that strong and relevant. If we are to use taxpayer funds in public funding of elections to help defray the reliance upon private donations, citizens can expect their taxes to be used transparently, not as a business model to be opportunistically exploited by some who seek to run parliament. This is how—and our measure will do this by tying funding to declared campaign expenditure—we prevent serial candidates from putting their name on the ballot paper but not putting in the effort to seek office. No-one should be running for the houses of parliament just to gain a windfall at taxpayers' expense.

Making these changes in law is one step: upholding and enforcing these laws is the next. It is why this legislation also contains tougher penalties for failures to disclose. It should not be a calculated risk to take the cash up-front and debate the consequences later. Disclosure should be in-built, automatic and instinctive, and it should be as close to real time as possible. This means as close to instantaneous as the technology in accounting allows. This has to be the next step because when we say the Australian people have a right to know, they have a right to know before they cast their vote. Australians should not have to wait until the election is a distant memory to find out who gave what. Our rules apply to business, banks, unions and wealthy individuals.

Of course, no party is without fault on this issue. None of us can say that we have always been saints. Everyone has talked about cleaning up the system. This legislation, though, is a chance to go beyond talk; it is a chance for the government to work with Labor and for the parliament to work together to put the right to know into law. If the government stand in the way—if they block this reform—they will give every single Australian another reason to be cynical about politics. If they want to be happy to be part of the problem, as long as they profit from it, people will mark them down. It is this simple: secrecy or reform—part of the solution or part of the problem.

We want to make the system stronger and fairer, and just get on with it. In the Labor Party, we know where we stand: more transparency, more accountability, tougher penalties and a better system. We need to respect the Australian people; they are the ones we are here to serve. We all need to do better. I have absolute faith in the Australian people—they will recognise this legislation for what it is: an important first step to rebuilding confidence in the whole system. I ask the government to work with us for the sake of the nation.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Ms Plibersek: I am very pleased to second the motion and I reserve my right to speak.

Debate adjourned.