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Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Page: 1260


Senator XENOPHON (11:51 AM) —I can indicate that I will be supporting the second reading of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 [2009] and am quite supportive of the measures contained in it. I acknowledge the concerns of the coalition: they say that it is a piecemeal approach and that we should wait until the more significant, comprehensive changes are dealt with. Whilst I understand that position, I think it is preferable to deal with the issues contained in this bill now. I note that it is the intention of the government to bring in legislation in the coming months and I look forward to this matter being dealt with by no later than the end of this year.

I am on the record as being a strong supporter of electoral finance reform. Amongst my proposals on this to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I suggested that there ought to be a mechanism in place so you could have continuous online disclosure of donations. I think that is the preferred course. It gives a level of transparency, particularly in the course of an election campaign, when I think the public ought to know who is donating what and in what amounts. That is quite important. I also think that public funding should be linked to expenditure and having restrictions on donations.

I have spoken publicly about the need for sensible approaches to disclosure and tax exemption for political donations to candidates, Independent members and parties. That is why I support the Greens amendments, proposed by Senator Ludlam, for a $1,500 ceiling for tax deductibility but that it would only apply to individuals and it was not appropriate for it to apply to corporations. Political donation schemes need to be transparent and they must be structured in such a way that they foster democracy. They should not be an avenue to give incumbents and political parties an unfair advantage, nor should they be a mechanism for donors to exert undue influence on decision making.

Can I indicate in relation to the issue of donations at the last election that I offered, after getting advice from senior counsel, a moneyback guarantee to donors so that they would receive a proportion of their donations back as a proportion of the level of federal funding I received. I did in fact refund a significant amount of money to donors in accordance with that guarantee. Some did not want their money back, and that was used to run a skeleton office from the time of the election to the time I started in this place. I think that is important. I also think it is important to address the concern about rorts with respect to some candidates whose campaigns may have cost them next to nothing but who then pocket the windfall. That is inappropriate, and I welcome the reforms with respect to avoiding those windfall payments.

In relation to foreign donations and gifts from foreign companies, I think it is appropriate that those donations be excluded. I note that in other jurisdictions such as the United States that is banned. The provision relating to more frequent disclosure—from 15 weeks to a period of eight weeks after polling day—is appropriate, as is the requirement for disclosure twice a year. You often get the situation where people do not know who has made a donation for 15 months or thereabouts, depending on when the election was held, because of the time lags involved. I think that is inappropriate. I look forward to discussing with the government the possibility of having more continuous disclosure mechanisms.

I believe we need to get on with these particular amendments, which I welcome, but we also need to look at the big picture in terms of comprehensive reforms. Even Senator Faulkner’s critics would acknowledge that he has been very genuine and has put in an enormous amount of work on reforming electoral laws in this country on donations and funding, and that is welcome. I think our current laws are inadequate. This is one step that will make a difference, and that is appropriate. I do not want us to go further down the path of the United States, where you have the best democracy that money can buy. The enormous amounts of money that are involved in US election campaigns, even for Senate or congressional races, are just mind-boggling. We need to have a good hard look at that, otherwise only the very wealthy will be able to run. We also need to look at the issue of public funding and donations in the context that if you take public funding you then elect to be circumscribed in the level of donations you receive, both the quantum of donations overall and the individual donations. I do not think you should have your snout in both troughs, so to speak, in terms of public funding and non-public funding from private or other sources.

With those few words, I indicate my support for the second reading of this bill. I look forward to the committee stage. I am also looking forward to further and comprehensive reform of electoral funding and disclosure laws in the coming months.