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Monday, 19 June 2006
Page: 87

Senator ABETZ (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (5:23 PM) —The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006 will enhance Australia’s electoral system. We have a very good electoral system in this country, but that does not mean that it cannot be enhanced. Indeed, these measures are about making it more robust, fair and rigorous. As a result, people will be able to have even greater confidence in our electoral system. Confidence in our electoral system is vital to the acceptance by the people of the electoral outcomes. What problems does this bill address? It addresses a number of them. I will go through them in some sort of order. I will also try and glean from the contributions of various senators what the themes were.

First of all, in relation to tightening up the electoral roll, Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Deputy Leader of the Democrats, told us that the key aim of the Commonwealth Electoral Act is to make it as easy as possible for people to get on the electoral roll. No; wrong. The Commonwealth Electoral Act should make it as easy as possible for people to get onto the electoral roll, subject to the appropriate tests being in place to ensure that the roll cannot be rorted.

I was absolutely astounded to hear and read in some of the speeches by opposition senators the suggestion that electoral fraud does not exist in this country. Senator Carr made the mistake; Senator Webber did. Every—

Senator Carr —Seventy-one cases since 1990; one in a million.

Senator ABETZ —He now admits that fraud does exist, and he has offered the number 71. Karen Ehrmann went to jail because of electoral fraud perpetrated within the Australian Labor Party. Tony Mooney, Andrew Keogh, Lee Birmingham, Jim Elder, Mike Kaiser, Grant Musgrove, Bill Ludwig, Joan Budd and David Barbagallo are all names that have come up in relation to electoral fraud. It is disingenuous in the extreme for those opposite to suggest that electoral fraud is not a problem. Tell Karen Ehrmann, who served a period of imprisonment, that electoral fraud does not exist.

Senator Ferris —What about that cat that voted twice in a marginal seat?

Senator ABETZ —And we have the case of ‘Curacao Fischer Catt’, who was enrolled in the seat of Macquarie. The cat was able to get onto the electoral roll through fraud and misrepresentation. And, if somebody can get a cat onto the electoral roll, you cannot have confidence in the electoral system. But, for the roll rorters, that is fantastic news. If you can get a cat onto the electoral roll, chances are you can get anybody on the electoral roll, and then you can rort the system. Tell Karen Ehrmann, who served a period of imprisonment courtesy of Labor Party roll rorting, that roll rorting does not exist. It exists, and you know it. Thank goodness it is at a minimum. But we need laws to ensure that that cannot occur again.

The Liberals for Forests campaign was a disgraceful campaign, and the Labor Party support of it tells us why the current Labor member for Richmond refused to come before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, because she would have been asked this question: ‘Were you aware of what was happening with Liberals for Forests?’ Because there was not a Liberal candidate running in that electorate, the Liberals for Forests wore blue t-shirts with ‘Liberal’ emblazoned on the front. They put their thumbs over the ‘for Forests’ on the how-to-vote cards and accosted people coming into the polling booths saying, ‘Vote Liberal,’ not ‘Vote Liberals for Forests.’ Unfortunately, a lot of people were misled. Disingenuously, the how-to-vote card for Liberals for Forests had only their own candidate’s party listed, next to ‘vote 1’. All the other people on the how-to-vote card did not have their party listed next to them. There was clearly a stunt being pulled. Unfortunately, it worked. We say that that is not good enough.

We then have the situation of Labor trying to defend the changes made in 1984 by the Australian Labor Party in the current Commonwealth Electoral Act. You do not have to listen to me in relation to what motivated these changes. Listening to Senator Ray’s speech, I was nearly convinced. He nearly convinced me how outrageous this was—until the good former senator Graham Richardson reminded me what Senator Ray and he had been up to in changing the rules. This is what Senator Richardson said about these changes. They were made so:

... that Labor could embrace power as a right and make the task of anyone trying to take it from us as difficult as we could.

What shameful cynicism! Then Senator Ray has the audacity to come into this place, having been part and parcel of that, to try to pretend that somehow his hands are clean!

Senator Carr —So that is what you are up to? Is that your confession?

Senator ABETZ —The confession in fact comes later because Senator Sterle foolishly said, ‘If it happens to have suited Labor and it is good for the nation then so be it and let the cards fall where they will.’ Unfortunately, Senator Sterle’s researcher did not read further on in the Graham Richardson chapter because Senator Richardson made a confession. It is very interesting that you should talk about confessions, Senator Carr. This is what Senator Richardson said:

It is hard to argue that we have a better country for it.

Senator Richardson is willing to say that, with all of those changes that the Labor Party forced through, it is hard to argue that we have a better country for it. We now move onto the issue of people’s votes being accepted which are not able to be substantiated. At the last federal election 27,000 provisional votes were accepted into the count. There were more than 27,000 votes in total; but, of those provisional votes that were taken into the count, the Electoral Commission was unable to follow up on 27,000 of them to verify that they actually lived where they had asserted. When you divide that by the number of seats we have in this country, noting that some seats are won by 100 or so votes, that becomes a very serious concern.

Senator Carr interjecting—

Senator ABETZ —Would you mind, Senator Carr? We actually listened to you guys and your very pathetic contributions for a while. Let me turn to prisoner voting. There are those who are now suggesting that everybody should be entitled to vote, including prisoners, and that this is somehow a fundamental right. It has long been the case in Australia, especially in state jurisdictions, that, if you are serving a period of imprisonment, you do not get the vote. We as a government happen to believe that if through the judicial system you have been sentenced to a period of incarceration—in other words, you have been removed from society by society through the judicial system—then, during that period of your removal from society, you forfeit the right to vote.

Senator Nettle and others are trying to justify the right to vote for these people. She says it is an important part of their rehabilitation. Can I say that I acted in the criminal law jurisdiction for quite some time. Not once did a person likely to go to jail say to me: ‘Eric, whatever you do, just give me the right to vote. Send me to jail by all means, just as long as I keep the right to vote.’ Not once was that said.

Let us get a grip on reality with this. The concern of citizens is their removal from society by the judicial system because they have so offended against the rules and laws of our society that they are deemed to be unworthy to walk the streets. I know some academic said that I put it deliciously simply by saying that chances are that, if you are unfit to walk the streets, you are unfit to vote. I suppose the reason they say that it is deliciously simple is because there is no argument in principle against that proposition. If you are removed from society then chances are that you should not be entitled to vote.

Allow me to go through some of the contributions of honourable senators in relation to the threshold in particular. What I seek to do is put on the record and repeat into the Hansard that which was said nearly a quarter of a century ago. Who said this, Senator Marshall? This person said:

People should be protected, if they want to be protected, by not having their names associated with a particular political party. What we are saying is that people who make these donations to political parties should be allowed to remain anonymous. We say that any donation—

and this will give you the hint, especially Senator Murray, I trust—

over $2,000, which we would regard as significant, should be capable of public disclosure.

That, of course, was the former leader of the Australian Democrats, speaking in this place some 24 years ago, saying that $2,000 was the appropriate threshold. If you then go to the Parliamentary Library and ask them to apply the inflation factor to that, you now have a figure well in excess of $5,000. So if the principle of Senator Don Chipp at the time remained and if you were to forward it to 2006, a quarter of a century later, you would have a figure in excess of $5,000. But he does make this point:

I would be sympathetic to the view that if persons because of altruism want to give a certain amount of money they should be protected if they want to be protected.

Senator Bernardi —They need protection.

Senator ABETZ —Senator Cory Bernardi has quite rightly interjected that they need protection. They need protection from those people who would seek to intimidate them because of their donations. That is quite right. Senator Don Chipp a quarter of a century ago recognised that important point. We as a government, in fact, have had the view that the threshold should be $10,000 for the last 20-plus years. So there are no surprises here. We have remained consistent in that regard.

The important thing about this is that 88 per cent of all donations disclosed by both Labor and the Liberal Party were donated in amounts of $10,000 or more in the 2003-04 year. So, really, only 12 per cent of current donations might not be disclosed. If people are saying that that 12 per cent is going to somehow create undue influence on the body politic of Australia, I would say with great respect that I do not think you are right. What that 12 per cent—the rats and mice of the donations—is doing is putting untold pressure on political parties, especially small political parties, that have difficulty in coming to grips with the current system. And the Australian Electoral Commission spends far too much time on those figures for no real benefit. I would point out that on 9 March 2006, Karen Cassidy, the Tasmanian Greens convenor, said:

The Tasmanian Greens have two part-time employees, one of whom is our adminstrator. She basically has a full-time job in a part-time capacity trying to comply with the current regime for reporting of donations.

So even the Greens are complaining about the amount of work involved with these small amounts—and I am sure that is why Senators Brown and Milne are very quiet in relation to this point.

Those opposite have the absolute audacity, Senator Bernardi, to complain about the new threshold of $10,000. Coming from the state of South Australia, you will undoubtedly recall the stunt pulled by Senator Nick Bolkus—as he then was—for the campaign for Steve Georganas, who is now the member for Hindmarsh. He ran a $10,000 raffle. The one donor bought all the raffle tickets and there was no raffle prize—and it was not disclosed until he was flushed out. Senator Bolkus, a former minister responsible for the Commonwealth Electoral Act, engaged in this sort of behaviour.

It shows that the Labor Party will window-dress and assert themselves as being cleaner than the driven snow and then engage in the practice of trying to get donations and hiding them through the guise of a false raffle. It is the same when they talk about electoral roll rorting—‘It doesn’t exist; we don’t need to tighten up the provisions’—when they are the ones who have had people going to jail for roll rorting. I indicate to honourable senators that the electoral roll is used not only for electoral purposes but also for social security and other fraud related matters. Therefore, it makes good sense for the electoral roll to be robust.

I say to my good friend Senator Fielding that I disagree with his unfortunate reflection on political parties. In his contribution, he told us that community groups and lobby groups that push political agendas are not eligible for tax deductibility status. I say to Senator Fielding, yes they are, unfortunately. There is the Wilderness Society, the RSPCA and a number of organisations. What we are saying is: ‘Let’s level the playing field. Rather than taking tax deducibility status off some of these organisations, we ought to level the playing field.’

Senator Fielding said that he was opposed to the electoral roll being used for the purposes of the Financial Transaction Reports Act. I would be happy to give Senator Fielding a private brief on that. Basically, as a result of Commonwealth legislation, we require banking institutions to undertake checks for which we allow the electoral roll to be used—and they have now outsourced that to a third party. As I understand it, there is, at least on this issue, unanimity between Liberal and Labor and, I think, the Australian Democrats. So, if I have the opportunity to explain things to Senator Fielding later on, hopefully there will be agreement from him on that issue.

Unfortunately, time is short. Suffice it to say that those who are seeking to assert that there is somehow a conspiracy involved in relation to the thresholds et cetera conveniently overlook their own behaviour as a political party—for example, the raffle that I indicated earlier—and what Labour governments around the world do. In New Zealand, the threshold is $NZ10,000 and in the United Kingdom it is ₤5,000, which in very rough terms translates to $A10,000. Nobody has asserted that there is a democratic deficit in New Zealand or the United Kingdom because of those thresholds. They have had Labour governments for some considerable period of time and they have seen no need to change the laws. Nobody is asserting that there is a democratic deficit in those countries, and there is no basis to assert that there would be a democratic deficit if we were to have the $10,000 threshold in this country.

I thank honourable senators for their contributions. I look forward to the committee stage and I recommend the bill as printed.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Carr’s) be agreed to.