Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2428

Senator ROBERT RAY(6.07) —Before the debate was interrupted, I was talking about the cut-off date for postal votes. The Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform recommended 14 days, which appears in the legislation, although there will be a Government amendment to make it 13 days-I presume so that the period will end on a Friday rather than on a Saturday. There are three strong reasons for supporting this proposition. The first is the difficulty faced by the Commonwealth Electoral Commission in striking a Senate quota if there is an inordinate delay in receiving all votes. For instance, if one follows the process of waiting two or three months to get in every possible vote on the basis that some have gone missing and may eventually turn up, one cannot strike a Senate quota, which in certain circumstances may well mean that this chamber cannot meet if the Senate election is very close to the expiry of a term.

The second reason really relates to the rulings coming out of the Nunawading case, which was in many ways a landmark case in determining disputed returns. On that occasion Mr Justice Starke agreed that there was really an unlimited time and that State returning officer Eric Richardson was in fact in error in putting a 10-day limit on it.

Finally, I point out that there is a fail-safe mechanism in all of this. There is nothing to prohibit a Court of Disputed Returns overruling an election on the basis of excluded votes or counting those votes at a later point in time. The circumstances in which they occur historically may be one out of every three or four elections. In any event, if the count is so close and votes are excluded, I can guarantee that it would go to the Court of Disputed Returns in any event.

I turn to a later clause of the Bill. We are reducing the amount of time for the lodgment of group tickets from 48 to 24 hours. That really is based on the 1984 experience. It does not really take political parties or other groups very much time to work out their ticket. It certainly does not require 48 hours; 24 hours is quite sufficient. We also recommend, and this is in the legislation to an extent, that group voting tickets be displayed prominently. That was our intention all along. Honourable senators will realise though that that is a fairly difficult assignment. But we had what I think are justifiable complaints from electors who did not know where party preferences were going. They put No. 1 in the top box for their choice of party, but they were not certain where the preferences would flow. Too often within a polling booth it was too difficult for the electors to have access to those posters showing where the preferences were going.

Probably the most vital aspect of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill relates to the more esoteric area of the counting of votes. We are recommending two major changes to the Senate count. Honourable senators will recall that in 1983 we made two fundamental changes. First, we did away with random sampling and moved to the Gregory transfer method. Secondly, we provided for the taking into account of the preferences from candidates who were not elected on an initial quota, but who received surplus votes. Previously, only the surplus votes were allocated for preferences; now, all are allocated. Whilst that is perfect in theory, it became a counting nightmare. It took five, six or seven weeks to finalise the Senate count. That is probably an acceptable period, but if there is a double dissolution, or double or even treble the number of 56 candidates nominated, it may take six months to obtain a Senate result. That would be a disaster for this Parliament and for democracy. By two fairly simple expedients, which in no way alter the final result, those problems can be overcome by using bulk exclusion and delay transfer. I do not think that anyone in this chamber would disagree with the adoption of those two proposals.

I come now to the provision to allow divisional returning officers to do a provisional throw of preferences, presumably on the Monday morning after the election. That is helpful both to political parties and to the public. By doing a quick provisional throw of preferences, we have an idea of what is happening in a seat. It has either been won or lost or it is too close to call. It takes a great deal of pressure off divisional returning officers by having scrutineers milling about the recheck for three, four or five days, trying to check the eventual results. In no sense will that provisional throw of preferences be binding, but it will make the life of both divisional returning officers and political parties a great deal easier.

I understand that Senator Sheil intends to move an amendment condemning public funding. I have always supported public funding-it has worked well both overseas and in Australia. The basic rationale for public funding is that it lessens the dependence of political parties on their donors. Anything that does that-be it for the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia, the National Party of Australia or the Australian Democrats-is a good thing. It puts a floor of expenditure under each political party to allow it to survive in the election. It is not based on a fixed grant to each political party; it is dependent on the amount of support that is obtained in the election. Currently, it is about $1 a vote-64 cents or 65 cents for a House of Representatives vote, and half that for a Senate vote. I do not think that that is too great a price to pay to stimulate and help democracy in this country.

I note the shameless hypocrisy of the National Party in condemning public funding, yet taking it. If it is serious about public funding, its members should stand up here today and say that they will refuse it at the next election--

Senator Sheil —Do not be ridiculous.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Senator Sheil wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to get up in the chamber, postulate, strut around and say that we should not have public funding-yet the minute it is available, the National Party snouts will be in the trough and it will accept it. That is monumental hypocrisy. I know that the Liberal Party has a philosophical objection to public funding. It stated that when it first occurred in New South Wales and then when it occurred in the Federal Parliament. But the Liberal Party does not try to eliminate it; it regards it as part of the democratic process.

The most important part of all the laws is the disclosure laws. They are anathema to the National Party and, peripherally, to the Liberal Party. Yet most democracies throughout the world are quite happy to adopt disclosure laws, for the simple reason that the public has the right to know who is funding political parties in election campaigns. Once they know that, the possibility of large donors or interested groups-be they individuals, businesses or trade unions-donating to a political party and getting something back is considerably lessened. The public has a right to know who is making the donations--

Senator Sheil —The trade unions.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Senator Sheil talks about trade unions. We had a public disclosure of trade union donations long before the 1983 legislation. Any person could go to the industrial registrar and find out which union had donated one cent to any political party. That has been the position for 50 or 60 years. What we did not know was what private individuals or businesses were kicking into the political parties. We have to go back to the basics-why does a business, an individual or a trade union donate to a political party? It has often been argued from the other side that it is pure altruism-the donors are in love with the democratic process; they like kicking in money to help the democratic process along. I gave up believing in the tooth fairy years ago. I do not believe that individuals, businesses or trade unions donate to political parties and expect nothing in return. It has been part of the political process for 80 years. However, I assert the public's right to know who has donated and to whom.

The 1983 legislation brought in the disclosure laws in principle, but, of course, there were still donations that were not tracked down. Let us consider the National Free Enterprise Foundation in Queensland. It was set up one day and, within five working days, it had raised $300,000 to donate to the Queensland National Party. When required under the disclosure laws to reveal where the money had come from, lo and behold it had come from a bank loan. In other words, the company was set up one day and within five days it has a bank loan of $300,000. That money was sloshed into the National Party campaign in Queensland. How that money is being paid off, we do not know.

I make the point that if honourable senators want disclosure laws that would pick up every nook and cranny in this area, we would have an Act two inches thick. It would be as complex and as detailed as the Income Tax Assessment Act. The Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform said that, in current circumstances, with time constraints and the ingenuity of political parties, it is not possible to write an Act that is absolutely watertight. Instead, it is giving a warning to all political parties-not just the poor old Queensland National Party, but every party-that if they contravene the spirit of the Act, a standing committee with the full powers of this Parliament, may investigate those breaches. That would include subpoenaing witnesses, papers, bank accounts and the lot. Therefore, if any Federal or State official of a political party is listening, and thinks that he can flagrantly breach the disclosure laws, I tell him that he may find himself before a committee of this Parliament having to explain himself, probably to his great embarrassment. The political parties are on notice now, they are being warned now-we have disclosure laws in this country and we expect people to abide by them.

During the past few weeks, however, there have been two or three great examples of how people will not abide by those laws. Sir Robert Sparkes, President of the National Party in Queensland, said in the National Times on Sunday some six or seven weeks ago: `You don't have to take any notice of the disclosure laws, give us as much money as you can'. He was guaranteeing that when the National Party wins power in Canberra, it will retrospectively abolish the Act. What a staggering piece of information that is. For a start, it commits the conservatives to retrospective legislation-and how often have we been lectured about the evils of the philosophy of retrospective legislation? That statement was made at the same time as the Premier of Queensland was condemning the retrospective legislation that picked up the bottom of the harbour offenders. The great duo in Queensland is now saying that it is justified to introduce retrospective legislation to abolish the disclosure laws. I warn any business, individual or union that thinks that those disclosure laws will go by the board after the next election, that there is very little chance of that happening. For a start, the National Party would have to have a massive victory in the Senate, obtaining 60 to 70 per cent of the Senate vote, to establish a large enough majority, even a majority of one, in the Senate to do away with the disclosure laws.

Just the other day in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, there was the great headline `Joh-I need money'. For a start, I can think of $400,000 that he can kick into his campaign. But leaving that aside, he describes the disclosure laws as devilish-apparently some Satanic influence descended over the chamber three or four years ago and made us pass the disclosure laws. He goes on to claim that the disclosure laws were specifically set up to stop his march to Canberra. I claim many things, but we on the Electoral Reform Committee and the Acting Special Minister of State, Mr Kim Beazley, do not claim to have the sort of foresight whereby four years ago we suddenly designed disclosure laws to prevent Joh, four years later, from coming to Canberra.

Joh pleads for money for his campaign. He wants $20m. What sort of prostitution of the political system are we talking about when one party wants $20m to fight the next election? It has promised an advertising agency $5m and a direct mail group in Melbourne $7m, plus it has brought in a Canadian opinion poll organisation to do its polling. That is how Australian the Queensland Nationals are. The Queensland Nationals desperately want to abolish the disclosure laws so they can get the same sort of money into their organisation as the Bjelke-Petersen Foundation has in Queensland. I ask the question: What promises have been made in Queensland and what favours have been granted for that money? It seems that if one kicks in to the Bjelke-Petersen Foundation in Queensland one suddenly gets rights to tender for business, one suddenly gets soft loans from the Government, one suddenly gets through rezoning laws which help oneself. The Nationals seek to bring to the national capital the sort of political chicanery that exists in Queensland. The only example I can find in history of this sort of perversion occurred in Louisiana in the 1930s when the Huey Long machine got going. There was a deduct box, and 10 per cent was taken off the top. We do not want Louisiana politics brought to Australia. We do not want Louisiana politics to exist in the national capital. I always remember the great line when Huey Long lay dying in the hospital, having been shot by an assassin. All his cronies could say to him was, not `Sorry, Huey, you have been shot', but `Where is the deduct box, Huey?' Maybe the same thing will occur in Queensland in some years to come.

Many other allegations are going around about polling. Even the poor old Democrats fell in the other day. On the front page of the Australian someone made the accusation that they had received a $3,000 and a $5,000 anonymous donation. I put very little credibility in that statement. Considering the rest of the ratbag statements made by the Port Adelaide branch of the Democrats, that statement does not have very much credibility. But from time to time accusations are made against all political parties. The only way to clean up the situation is with disclosure laws. Tonight in the Melbourne Herald I read an interview of Mr Lindsay Fox, a prominent Liberal businessman and apparently a strong supporter of John Elliott. He was staying at the ultra-expensive Cipriani Hotel in Venice, or somewhere like that. He managed to pontificate on a variety of things concerning Liberal Party policy. The final part of the article reads:

Mr Fox fudged when asked what direct input he and the other Elliott boosters had in the campaign. `Would you put up $1 million for an advertising campaign if you were asked?' `I'd consider it', he replied.

It is Mr Fox's right to put $1m into the Liberal Party if he wants. I think he would be making a pretty bad investment. But the public has a right to know. He has a very large and efficient transport operation in this country which has relatively good relations with the unions. If he did donate $1m and suddenly a Liberal government started using his company, anyone would be entitled to know. So the disclosure laws act to protect democracy in this country. I feel a bit sorry for Senator Sheil. The boys from the north have said: `You are the spokesman. Go out on mission impossible. Try to get this knocked over'. I am afraid that Senator Sheil not only will not have the numbers; he will not have the logic.

I turn to two or three other matters raised in this debate. Senator Archer is concerned with how complex the electoral laws are. Anyone who tries to read the Commonwealth Electoral Act can only agree with him. There is no way of simplifying electoral law. Political parties are ingenious groups. If a loophole is left they will walk through it. The very complexity of the Act is absolutely necessary. Senator Archer also says that elections may cost up to $50m a year. Considering that government expenditure outlays sometimes go as high as $80 billion and, over a three-year period, we are talking about $240 billion, $50m to protect democracy does not seem to me to be excessive. There are occasions when even the other side argues that we do not spend enough money. We only have biannual habitation reviews. Most of us would like to see annual habitation reviews.

Senator Macklin said that if he could have a wish list he would have other things in the Bill, but recognises that everything balances out. I also have certain wish lists. I would like to see optional preferential voting. It has been in our Party's platform for many years. I believe that we should give electors a right to extend their preferences as far as they would like. I also understand that the Liberal Party is in favour of compulsory preferences. We are in favour of compulsory voting. So neither of us is in a philosophically pure position to argue the case. So we do not get optional preferential voting and the Liberal Party does not get its preference.

Senator Michael Baume —You have got a blatant self-interest in optional preferential voting because there are two Opposition parties.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I am afraid that Senator Baume, as always, simplifies things. There are not two Opposition parties; there are four Opposition parties. Let us be honest, we have the Joh Nationals, we have the southern Nationals, we have the wets and we have the dries. So really there are four parties. It would work to our self-interest and advantage on this occasion if we had optional preferential voting.

Senator Michael Baume —You are concerned with self-interest and you have admitted it.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I absolutely admit it. Of course I admit it. Why should I try to hide it? I can justify optional preferential voting in a theoretical and conceptual way. It is very easy to justify. In the current circumstances of the coalition parties, which are ripping each other's throat out and backstabbing each other on the front pages of the newspapers every day, we are now in an optimum position to have optional preferential voting. It would be of benefit to us. It may not benefit us in the long term. One cannot see into the future and there may be circumstances where optional preferential voting would be harmful for the Labor Party.

Most of this legislation is not contentious. Most of it merely amends the Electoral Act to take into account the problems which occurred after the massive 1983-84 legislation. I commend the passage of this Bill to the Senate. It will mean a better electoral system. I conclude on this note: I agree with Senator Macklin that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. An electoral system needs to be kept under review and needs to be amended from time to time to meet existing circumstances. As much as possible this should be done in a bipartisan manner. If one political party is totally alienated from the electoral processes and the electoral system it does not benefit the country in any shape or form. We are now in the position we were in during the first decade of this century. We are a country which leads the rest of the world in electoral system and electoral reform. It is a position we held 70 years ago and we abrogated it through lack of action, mostly at the instigation of the conservative parties of this country. The passage of this Bill will continue the restoration of that position.