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Thursday, 30 September 2010
Page: 380


Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (9:46 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table explanatory memoranda relating to the bills and to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL (ABOVE-THE-LINE VOTING) AMENDMENT BILL 2010

This bill was introduced by the Australian Greens in the 42nd Parliament. The following second reading speech reflects the debate at the time of the bill’s original introduction.

Senate voting, by proportional representation, was agreed to by Parliament in 1949.

At a full Senate election, twelve senators are elected from each of the six states and two from each of the territories: a total of 76. At a usual half-Senate election, each state elects six senators and each territory elects two: a total of 40.

This bill covers both full and half Senate elections and aims to improve the democratic outcome of all elections.

Above-the-line voting for the Senate was introduced in 1984 to address the problem of increasing informal votes. While this was an easier alternative for voters, the cost has been that the decision on preferences was removed from the voter and given to the party which the voter selected.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act requires each party or group contesting elections to provide the Australian Electoral Commission with a paper indicating how preferences will flow if voters choose that party or group by voting for it above the line.

This bill removes that requirement from the party or group and gives the voter the sole obligation to allocate preferences. The voter is advantaged because she or he decides the flow of preferences and, therefore, directly chooses who is next elected if her or his vote is not used, in full, to elect the person or party of first choice.

There will no longer be competition, inducement or cross-dealing by parties or groups over preferences nor public uproar about party preference ‘deals’.

There is also provision to remove the disadvantage for ungrouped independents to be listed in the last column on all ballot papers. This bill provides for this column to be included in the ballot for position on the ballot paper along with parties and groups of candidates.

This amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act enhances democracy. It provides a simple option for voters to have full control of the destiny of their vote and consequently the make-up of the Senate.

I commend this bill to the Senate.


NATIONAL INTEGRITY COMMISSIONER BILL 2010

This bill was introduced by the Australian Greens in the 42nd Parliament. The following second reading speech reflects the debate at the time of the bill’s original introduction.

The National Integrity Commissioner Bill creates a national integrity and anti-corruption commission through the establishment of the National Office of Integrity Commissioner, comprising three elements - the National Integrity Commission, the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) and a new Office of the Independent Parliamentary Advisor. The National Integrity Commission is established as an independent statutory agency.

This Bill provides in a comprehensive legislative framework, a critical addition to the national integrity system through the establishment of a National Integrity Commission to enable the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, federal parliamentarians and their staff. The Bill brings together and co-locates this function with the independent oversight functions of the Law Enforcement Integrity Commission for the investigation and prevention of corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crimes Commission, thus creating an integrated federal approach to misconduct and corruption in the parliament and public service. Additionally the Bill establishes the role of the Independent Parliamentary Advisor with the purpose of preventing inadvertent misconduct and impropriety by parliamentarians, thereby promoting informed and ethical conduct.

There is currently no national anti-corruption agency with the powers or the jurisdiction to investigate claims of misconduct and corruption across the Federal Parliament or Commonwealth agencies. This is an essential component for the prevention of corruption and maintenance and promotion of integrity and ethical conduct in the toolkit of all jurisdictions. The argument that the existing agencies and mechanisms are sufficient or appropriate for fighting graft ignores the important role of prevention, the promotion of ethical conduct, and the integration of integrity systems across federal and state jurisdictions.

Prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner in 2006, there were calls that its role be extended beyond investigating and preventing corruption in federal law enforcement agencies. In particular, the federal police and lower House Independent, the late Peter Andren, wanted it to be expanded to include politicians and public officials. These calls were not heeded but this Bill addresses that oversight.

The National Integrity Commission will operate in the federal jurisdiction and will not replace or over-ride state legislation. The Bill provides for the ACT and Northern Territory to contract the National Integrity Commission to operate in respect of their territories, in the same way that the Commonwealth Ombudsman acts as the ACT Ombudsman.

The national commission established by this Bill will complement the state-based anti-corruption commissions. The need to address corruption is evident in the fact that all Australian states, with the exception of South Australia, have established, or have committed to establishing, anti-corruption bodies with various powers and jurisdictions. Importantly they all include the power to investigate the activities of politicians. Victoria most recently announced the creation of the Victorian Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission. In other states, anti-corruption commissions have been operating for decades - The Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW was established in 1988; The Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland was established in 2001; The Corruption and Crime Commission in Western Australia was established in 2004 and The Integrity Commission in Tasmania established in 2009. The Commissions of New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have played a pivotal role in uncovering, investigation and prosecuting in landmark cases of corruption in these states. The evidence of the powerful and effective work of these bodies reinforces the necessity for a similar mechanism at the federal level of Australian politics.

The Bill provides a definition of “corrupt conduct” as including any conduct that:

  • adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of functions by the Parliament, a Commonwealth agency or public officials by any person;
  • involves the dishonest exercise of functions by a public official;
  • involves a breach of public trust by a public official;
  • perverts the course of justice;
  • involves the misuse of information or material by a public official.

It lists kinds of “corrupt conduct”, such as blackmail, bribery and fraud, for the purposes of adversely affecting the exercise of functions by the Parliament, a Commonwealth agency or public officials, and provides for retrospectivity in that the National Integrity Commissioner can investigate corrupt conduct that occurred before the commencement of the Bill or before a person became a public official or outside Australia. Importantly the Bill provides the capacity to investigate cases where corrupt conduct is foreseeable in the future making the National Integrity Commissioner’s role proactive in addressing corruption. Furthermore, it is clear in this Bill that investigations of corruption can be commenced even if the identity of the public official alleged to be engaging in corrupt conduct is unknown. This ensures that corruption issues cannot be ignored because the person concerned has not been identified at the outset.

The Bill sets out the specific functions and powers of the three component parts of the National Integrity Commission. The first is the National Integrity Commissioner. It is concerned with corruption in relation to public officials and Commonwealth agencies and has full investigative powers, including conducting public and private hearings and summoning any person or agency to produce documents and appear before the Commissioner. The provisions in the Bill in relation to the National Integrity Commissioner - including those dealing with corruption issues, conducting investigations, holding public inquiries, including powers requiring people to give evidence or produce documents, taking evidence at hearings, and applying for and executing search warrants - are based on similar provisions in the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006.

The second component part deals with the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner. It is concerned with corruption in relation to national law enforcement agencies in accordance with the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006 and has the functions and powers conferred under that Act.

Third component part of the Bill is the Independent Parliamentary Advisor. It is concerned with providing independent confidential written advice to ministers, parliamentarians, and former parliamentarians in relation to conflict of interest, ethics, proprietary and similar matters and providing advice on the development of codes of conduct. There are many instances where the rules or guidelines governing the conduct of federal parliamentarians are not clear or sufficiently detailed. Often the advice from relevant departments leaves it to the discretion of the politician. The lack of clarity and direction in these cases leaves parliamentarians unnecessarily vulnerable to inadvertent misconduct, with consequent serious penalties.

The Bill provides for written advice on such instances where the guidelines are unclear, or where claims of misconduct are made against a parliamentarian who has sought to follow the guidelines. The existence of such a body would help Australian federal parliamentarians to avoid the type of systemic misconduct seen recently in parliaments overseas as well an increase the ethical standing of federal parliamentarians generally.

This Bill provides the legislative framework for a comprehensive proactive and responsive national approach to corruption and misconduct. At a time when the Australian public are increasingly sceptical and mistrustful of its federal politicians and public servants, the National Integrity Commissioner Bill provides a bulwark against its concerns now and into the future.

I therefore commend this Bill to the Senate.


PLEBISCITE FOR AN AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC BILL 2010

This bill was introduced by the Australian Greens in the 42nd Parliament. The following second reading speech reflects the debate at the time of the bill’s original introduction.

This Bill provides for a plebiscite to be held to give the Australian people the opportunity to vote on whether Australia should be a republic. The Bill sets out one simple question: Do you support Australia becoming a republic? It requires a simple yes or no response.

The Bill sets out provisions for a plebiscite or advisory referendum. The purpose of the plebiscite is to determine the will of the Australian people on this question with a simple majority.  Its purpose is not to change the Constitution, but rather to ascertain the will of the Australian community on the republic question as the first step in the process. If there is not majority support for a republic, the question is decided clearly and without confusion. If the majority supports Australia becoming a republic, the specific details of the most suitable model to adopt can then be worked out in a context of that certainty.

The question set out in this Bill determines if Australians want an Australian as head of state? It does not attempt to determine what model should be adopted, what powers the head of state should hold or other operational or governance issues.

The question of whether Australia should be become a republic has been close to the hearts of many Australians since Federation. In recent times it culminated in the referendum of 1999.

This followed the Constitutional Convention in 1998, a public forum in which the participants, a mix of elected members of the public and appointed representatives, debated a range of issues. These included different models for choosing a head of state such as direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, or election by Parliament. The delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of a new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The Convention supported in-principle the resolution that Australia should become a republic. It recommended that a referendum be held to decide on a ‘bi-partisan appointment of the President model’ and other related constitutional changes and the enabling legislative package was passed into law in August 1999.

In the referendum held on 6 November 1999, Australians voted on the republic in a question which conflated support for an Australian head of state with the model by which the head of state should be elected:

“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

In addition, there was a vote on a separate question about changing the preamble to the Constitution.

Opinion polls consistently showed that the majority of Australians supported an Australian republic, but polls also showed most people wanted popular, not parliamentary election of the president. In the referendum of 1999, 54.87 per cent to 45.13 per cent of Australians voted ‘no’. All six states votes ‘no’ and only the Australian Capital Territory voted ‘yes’. The Constitutional requirement that constitutional change be supported by a ‘double majority’ vote, that is, the majority of votes nationally, and the majority of votes in the majority of states, was not achieved.

Academics and other commentators have provided useful analysis of the outcome of the 1999 referendum, generally agreeing that the republic question was too complex and technical.  Combining it with a question about changing the preamble confused and split the vote.

It has been suggested that the way the question was worded highlighted to the controversial election process, emphasising the division between republicans who supported direct election of a President and those supporting appointment by the Parliament.

Professor Ian McAllister from the Australian National University observed in research published in 2001 that “the Australian electorate was asked to make a complex, technical choice about the system of government, in the absence of clear partisan cues. How did voters resolve this dilemma? Although those in favour of replacing the Queen as head of state made up three-quarters of the electorate, they were divided on the method of election for the head of state, effectively resulting in three separate groups of voters.” He found that “Overall, the interaction between compulsory voting and lack of political knowledge among large sections of the electorate served to divide republicans, and caused the proposition to fail. Pairing the republic with an unpopular change to the preamble of the Constitution also depressed the ‘yes’ vote.”

It is important that in revisiting this issue, Australians are given the opportunity to express their will without the overlay of technical complexity and procedural confusion.

In providing a legislative framework for a plebiscite, this Bill adopts one of the key recommendations of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee 2004 report ‘The road to a republic’. The report recommends a ‘first plebiscite’ to get the process of an Australian republic back on track. The majority report found that it is essential that the first step in the process should be to seek from Australians their view on the fundamental question of whether Australia should become a republic; notes that opinion polls show majority support for an Australian republic, and supports the argument that before expending substantial resources it is important to first test this proposition in a full national non-binding plebiscite.

The report states that the importance of this question for the future of Australia calls for a requirement that all Australians should have their say and therefore supports compulsory voting in a threshold plebiscite and that the result of the plebiscite should be determined by a simple absolute majority of voters nationally.

The cost of conducting a referendum or plebiscite is significant and it is imperative that money spent on this produces a result that accurately reflects the desire of the majority of the electorate. There is a compelling financial argument for holding the plebiscite in conjunction with the next federal election. According to information from the Australian Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Library, the 1999 referendum cost $66.8 million. The statistics section of the library calculates this at approximately $87.5 million in current (2008) dollar terms. The general federal election held in 1998 cost $61.7 million, suggesting that the cost of holding a discrete referendum or plebiscite is approximately the same as the cost of an election. When a referendum or plebiscite is held in conjunction with a general election, the cost is approximately one-eighth of the total cost. For example in 1984, the total cost of the election was $31.7 million, with the referendum component of $4 million. The Statistics section of library calculates that amount at $8.9million in current terms.

Over a decade since Australians were last asked to consider the question of an Australian republic, the time is right for a new opportunity to vote on this fundamental issue. The government has a longstanding policy commitment for an Australian republic as well as the election promise to hold a new referendum in 2010. This Bill is to enable that process to test the will of the people on this important matter again.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.


BANKING AMENDMENT (DELIVERING ESSENTIAL FINANCIAL SERVICES) BILL 2010

This bill was introduced by the Australian Greens in the 42nd Parliament. The following second reading speech reflects the debate at the time of the bill’s original introduction.

Banking is an essential service.  A basic bank account is essential to function properly in present day Australian society.  This means that the nature of banking services - the kinds of financial products that are offered and the fees that are charged - has a very broad impact and the rights of consumers should be protected by law and not, as is currently the case, by the self-regulation of the banking industry.

The Banking Amendment (Delivering Essential Financial  Services) Bill 2010 provides legislative protection for banking customers in a number of basic banking services, including minimising or removing fees from basic services and ensuring mortgage arrangements are transparent and fair for consumers.

Banks enjoy a position of overwhelming market dominance in Australia, with around ninety per cent of the national market in loans and advances.  This kind of market power leaves them free to charge their customers a range of fees that often bear little relationship to the actual or reasonable costs of providing banking services.  These sorts of practices have resulted in ever increasing profits for banks at the expense of their customers.

In the 2008-09 financial year, Australia’s major banks announced massive net profits despite the global financial crisis.  For example, the ‘big four’ banks each posted profits between $4.7 billion and $2.6 billion, despite the global financial crisis.  At the same time, Fujitsu Consulting estimated that, on average, Australian households spend about $1000 per year on bank fees - roughly 22% more than UK householders and 10% more than the US.  The Australia Institute recently calculated that the average person earning around $50k is likely to be paying $28.85 per week toward bank profits.

Recently, consumer organisations have successfully campaigned for a better deal from the banks.  The banks have responded to some extent and voluntarily improved their approach to fees in some areas.  For example, now most banks do not charge their own customers for the use of another bank’s ATMs, even though it is open to them to do so.  Other banks have dropped overdrawn account fees and reduced their other penalty fees.  A number of banks have also introduced fee-free or low fee basic accounts for low income customers.  These are very welcome changes. 

The Banking Amendment (Delivering Essential Financial Services) Bill 2010 ensures that these changes apply to all banks as a matter of law, and makes further important improvements for the benefit of banking customers.

This Bill delivers fee-free essential banking services and greater competition and transparency in the mortgage and loan markets by: requiring banks to offer basic, fee-free transaction accounts to all; making bank ATM transactions free or capped at the cost of service provision; requiring financial institutions to offer mortgages and other loans with an interest rate fixed at a negotiated margin above the institution’s cost of funds; and by limiting mortgage and loan exit fees to a level that recovers the cost to the lender of the early termination, and ensuring that customers are made aware of these fees up front.

The proposed basic transaction account offers banking customers an easy to understand account that provides essential banking services without any hidden profiteering in the form of exploitative fees.  It is similar to the accounts some banks choose to offer to low income customers at present, but it will ensure that such accounts offer the same minimum features and are available to all customers of all banks.  It will provide essential transactions, internet banking, a debit card, freedom from ongoing service fees or unfair penalty fees for the actions of third parties, with other penalty fees capped at a level sufficient to recover the cost to the bank of the penalised conduct.  This represents a return to a simpler banking model where banks benefit from the use of their customers’ money, and in exchange they keep the funds secure and offer the customer secure and convenient access.  The only fees that may be levied will be for breaches of contract that the account-holder is personally responsible for, and these fees will be purely to recover the cost to the bank of the breach.

The Bill prohibits banks from charging their own customers for ATM transactions (locking in banks’ current practice), and caps the charge for using another bank’s ATMs at a level sufficient to cover the cost to the bank of the transaction.  The most common fee charged for foreign ATM transactions is around $2, yet in 2007 the Reserve Bank of Australia estimated that the average cost to banks for ATM transactions is 75 cents - less than 40% of the fee they levy upon consumers.  Australians are the second highest per capita ATM users in the world, with some 800 million withdrawals made in 2006, so the profits the banks make through this premium on ATM transactions is significant.  This has a disproportionate impact on poorer people, who are more likely to withdraw smaller sums and therefore pay a greater proportion of each withdrawal (and indeed of their income) in ATM fees.  The Bill’s restrictions on charges for ATM use would address this problem, while still permitting banks to break even on the cost incurred when non-customers use their ATMs.

The Bill introduces a requirement that authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) offer ‘fixed interest gap’ mortgages and loans with interest rates fixed at a negotiated percentage above the lender’s cost of funds.  The ADI’s cost of funds will be calculated according to a formula approved by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.  These loans will protect customers from interest rate fluctuations that are not genuinely caused by changes to the ADI’s cost of funds.  In the past, there have been occasions where the RBA has lifted interest rates and the banks have lifted their interest rates even higher.  If the ADIs were only passing on increases to their costs, their interest rate rises would be lower than those of the RBA, as a third of their borrowing is done in overseas markets that are unaffected by RBA interest rate hikes.  These additional increases would not be possible with fixed interest gap loans.  By keeping the lender’s margin on the loan constant, and faithfully passing on changes to the lender’s costs under the supervision of an independent authority, these loans will offer customers greater transparency and reassurance by behaving as customers expect variable rate loans to behave.

Finally, the Bill limits mortgage and loan exit fees to the actual and reasonable costs of early repayment, and obliges lenders to make consumers aware of the existence and amount of these fees up front.  The existence of exit fees must be mentioned in advertising, and they must routinely be included in the mortgage/loan contract under the uniform heading ‘early repayment charges’.  Exit fees are presently disclosed in the fine print of mortgage contracts, but this measure will ensure that they can be identified much more easily.  They must be given as a dollar amount for variable rate loans, and a plain language explanation of how the fee will be calculated for fixed rate loans (as it is not possible to anticipate the cost of early termination for these loans).  These changes would introduce greater transparency to the lending market, and remove a significant barrier to greater competition.  In 2008, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission observed that ‘some [exit fees] do not appear to be related to the underlying costs they are purporting to recover’ and ‘the size of these fees might now present a barrier to switching loans’.  The fact that many lenders waive exit fees after three or four years does not assist in most cases, as ASIC observed that ‘the average Australian mortgage is terminated or refinanced within approximately three years’.  The changes made by the Bill reduce this barrier to switching loans and make it easier for unhappy customers to take their business elsewhere, pressuring lenders to offer consumers a better deal or risk losing their business.

The provisions of this Bill will not prevent ADIs from offering a range of other financial products.  They simply ensure that banking customers also have access to basic, essential, transparent banking services on fair and reasonable terms.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.


PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM JUNK FOOD ADVERTISING (BROADCASTING AMENDMENT) BILL 2010

This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to encourage healthier eating habits among children and to prohibit the broadcasting of advertisements for junk food during certain times.

It is a bill that will ensure that the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages on television during children’s viewing times are prohibited.

Obesity is a significant problem in Australia. Studies show that between 1985 and 1997 the combined rate of overweight and obesity in Australia doubled and obesity among young Australians (7-15 years) trebled. Indications are that the trend to overweight and obese children is not merely increasing but accelerating. On current trends, the rate of childhood overweight and obesity is expected to double over the next 30 years, reaching around 60 percent.

Obesity is a problem that the parliament can no longer afford to ignore. According to the Australian Medical Association the rise in childhood obesity may, for the first time in Australian history, result in a decline in the life expectancy of newborns. Access Economics estimated the financial costs of obesity in 2008 was at $8.2 billion. The report calculates the net cost of lost wellbeing (including the dollar value of the burden of disease on individuals) as a result of conditions associated with obesity like diabetes, heart disease and various types of cancer, as well as lost productivity, adds up to a total financial burden of $58 billion a year.

Childhood obesity is a complex issue with many causal factors. An advertising ban alone will not eliminate the problem of obesity but it is a sensible first step that has the support of health experts, including doctors, community groups and, most importantly, parents. A study reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health of parental awareness and attitudes found that there was widespread parental concern about food advertising aimed at children and strong support for tighter restrictions. Almost 80 percent of respondents were concerned about the volume of advertisements and 68 percent were concerned about the methods used to market unhealthy food to children. 87 percent supported a ban on unhealthy food advertising during children’s viewing times. The 2007 survey commissioned by the Coalition on Junk Food Advertising to Children (CFAC) found that 90 percent of parents agreed that advertising food high in fat, sugar and salt directly to children was ‘unconscionable’. In 2004 an Australia Institute study found that 86 percent of people wanted more limits on advertising to children.

The evidence showing that children are susceptible to what they see on television is growing. Food advertising directly influences children’s choices and increases their requests for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. A 2003 review of the international literature on the impact of food advertising to children concluded that children under 12 did not have the cognitive ability to understand the concepts of marketing. The study further concluded that food promotion directly affects children’s food preferences, purchases (or what they ‘pester’ their parents to buy) and what they eat.

It has been estimated that the average Australian child watches 96 food advertisements a week, 63 of which are for high fat or high sugar foods. In 2006 the NSW Cancer Council found that food advertisers were deliberately targeting children, with 194 separate breaches of the Children’s Television Standards code of practice, involving mainly giveaways and prizes. It also found that 81 percent of food advertisements shown on commercial TV are for foods that are typically high in fat, sugar or salt and are of low nutritional value, like fast food, soft drinks and ice cream.

Many parents do not have the knowledge or the time or the energy to resist the constant ‘pestering’ by their children or the misinformation directed at children through junk food advertising. The parliament should regulate the junk food industry to protect the health of Australian children.

Restrictions on junk food advertising to children exist in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, as well as in Quebec in Canada.

It is remarkable that, in the face of alarming statistics on the increase in childhood obesity in Australia and the international trend to tightly regulate junk food advertising to children, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has rejected calls for further restrictions in its review of the Children’s Television Standards. ACMA’s statement said, “existing research does not clearly demonstrate a causal relationship between any of these factors [food and beverage advertising and obesity”. The failure of the ACMA to act on this critical issue was condemned by the Australian Medical Association and the community organisation, the Parents’ Jury.

The measures in this bill alone will not solve the terrible problem of childhood obesity but they are a critical component of the comprehensive plan that is required. The time for acquiescing to the interests of powerful lobby groups has passed.


Senator BOB BROWN —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.