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Wednesday, 17 February 1999
Page: 2037

Senator SCHACHT (9:35 AM) —I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 and in doing so point out that this is, in the vernacular, a crook bill on electoral matters. It is shameful of the government to bring in this bill with the measures it contains.

From 1983, the former Labor government and the former minister in charge of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, my colleague from South Australia Mick Young, established a process where the parliament would have due process over reviewing each election, dealing with issues of electoral administration in a timely and considered manner and trying to reach bipartisanship on the way in which we conduct our elections.

Australia has every right to be generally proud of the fact that, at the national level, the conduct of elections since Federation has been very good by world standards. However, as the joint committee looking at the Electoral Act in 1983-84 recommended, there should be a standing committee to review our Electoral Act and look at ways of improving it on the principle of making it easier and more timely for people to be able to vote in an election.

What we in the Labor Party are about is always ensuring that it is easy for the members of our community to exercise their democratic right—some would say that sacred privilege—to vote. That is a process that, unfortunately, many countries of the world still do not have or do not have in an open and transparent way. That was a major reform of the Hawke Labor government and due credit should be given to Mick Young, the minister, and Dick Klugman who chaired the committee which made all of those recommendations.

Since that time the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which I served on once for a term of government, from 1987 to 1990, has performed that function well. But since this government got into office it has used the process only on the basis of how it can shave the edge off improving the coalition's prospects at election time by the way the act is administered, the way it is changed. The sticky fingers of my colleague Senator Minchin, who in the last period of the government had some interest and responsibilities in this area, are all over this bill in finding ways to give an electoral advantage to the coalition.

Nick Minchin was the State Director of the Liberal Party in the 1980s while I was State Secretary of the Labor Party in South Australia. During that period we fought out a number of election campaigns. I do not think the partisanship that one brings to helping one's party win an election is the right attitude to have in this parliament—drawing up legislation to try to advantage your party at the expense of democratic principles. That is what this bill is about. It is a crook bill and in a number of areas the opposition is going to move amendments to or oppose the provisions of the bill.

I want to mention the extraordinary episode of the so-called Greenfields Foundation. If ever there were an example of how the Liberal Party will find a loophole, even a very small one, and try to drive the Queen Elizabeth ship through it to their electoral advantage, it is the Greenfields incident. Fortunately, the Electoral Commission is now finding ways to further call on the people involved with the Greenfields operation to disclose where the money came from and how it was raised and to ensure that there is proper transparency. In 1983 the then committee, chaired by Dick Klugman, a member of the other place at the time, under the terms of reference from Mick Young, inquired into two major areas of reform: public funding and disclosure.

At the time the Liberal Party opposed public funding, but when it came in they never sent the cheque back. They always took the money, though they said that ethically they disagreed with it. If they had some ethics about it, if they believed it was unethical to get public funding, why did they keep accepting the money? Even in the 1984 election Mr Peacock, the then Leader of the Opposition, campaigned to remove this provision of public funding. Of course, he lost the election. The Liberal Party still accepted the money under their entitlement. It is the height of hypocrisy for the Liberal Party to go around questioning issues of public funding but still be willing to accept the cheque.

Public funding is a very important part of our democratic process. It ensures that political parties get access to reasonable funding to run their election campaigns so that the public have an opportunity to hear all views. It is not just advantaging those political parties that have access to the most money. It was and is a very important reform. But on the disclosure side, it is equally important for people to see who is putting the money up for various political parties. Of course, that was opposed by the Liberal Party. They said that all sorts of terrible things would happen, that intimidation would occur, to those who had been giving money to one party and not to the other. Not one scrap of evidence has anywhere been presented that any organisation which gave more money to one political party than the other has suffered intimidation.

I stand to be corrected—there might be a case—but I cannot recollect since 1983 or 1984, when the legislation came in, anyone being charged with intimidation or threatening somebody who made a political donation to a political party. The disclosure rules have worked very well. It is published, so that you can see who is putting the money into which party. People can make their own judgment as to whether that party's policies have been duly affected by those donations.

The Liberal Party has always been embarrassed that it has to rely solely on money from the big end of town, from the big companies, to keep them going. Four or five years ago, at the time of Alexander Downer's leadership of the Liberal Party, the big end of town, the big companies, decided that his leadership was so bad that they told the Liberal Party: `We won't be putting any more money in.' So in a sense they helped in the downfall of Alexander Downer and Mr Howard became leader again of the Liberal Party.

At that time the debts left in the Liberal Party were substantial. I think the National Australia Bank made a generous facility loan available of $4 million or $5 million to the Liberal Party. Ultimately, they wanted their money back, and how did the Liberal Party do it? They established the Greenfields Foundation whereby, by claiming it is a loan from this company, it does not have to be disclosed. It is absolutely breaking the spirit of the law that we introduced in 1983 and subsequently amended through the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Liberal Party think they are very smart in finding a loophole. Fortunately, the Electoral Commission appears to be now chasing this down. We will be moving amendments to make the Greenfields example no longer available to any political party, so that the disclosure laws work very well.

I would also point out about disclosure and about funding the oddity that the Liberal Party often complains that trade unions make donations to the Labor Party but do not make them to the Liberal Party and that this is unfair. Those donations to the Labor Party have been disclosed in the annual accounts of every trade union under the industrial legislation in Australia for many years, long before public disclosure. So they are available to every union member to see where their membership fees are going.

In South Australia at the moment the Liberal government is trying to outlaw trade unions making such donations. But they are not making any suggestion that you cannot make a donation from a trade union without a specific plebiscite or vote of all the members of the union. They do not want to put that into the provision. However, they are not putting in a provision saying that publicly listed companies have to take a vote of all their shareholders to see whether they should make a donation to a political party.

BHP, Western Mining Corporation and other companies have publicly disclosed that they are making donations to both sides of politics, usually much more to the Liberal Party than to the Labor Party. I would like to see the chairman of the board at the annual general meeting of such companies move a resolution to the shareholders saying, `I hereby move that we make a donation of half a million dollars to the Liberal Party, $100,000 to the Labor Party, $5,000 to the Democrats and the Greens get nothing,' and a ballot of every one of those hundreds of thousands of shareholders of those companies—and see what happens.

If the Liberal Party in South Australia was fair dinkum about this proposal they would amend it to include the fact that every share holder in every company has to be consulted before any political donation can be made to any political party. They will not do that, of course. They want to hit the trade unions around the head. The trade unions have always been open about their affiliation and payments to the Labor Party. The Liberal Party want to remove from the shareholders their opportunity to be consulted and have a vote on whether they believe the dividend money paid to them should be paid to political parties.

I think the issue of disclosure, the Greenfields operation, is a shameful one for the Liberal Party. As I said in my opening remarks, this is a crook bill. It is a disgrace to the process of bipartisanship that we have had over most issues of improvement in the Electoral Act. Many of the other provisions in this bill have only been designed by the Liberal Party because they think they will have the advantage of getting people who they think may not vote for them off the roll and stop them voting.

It is a disgraceful bill in most of its aspects. We will be moving amendments to a number of areas of the bill and rejecting others.