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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11651

Mr MELHAM (Banks) (19:53): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters I present the committee's report, incorporating dissenting reports, entitled Review of the AEC analysis of the FWA report on the HSU, together with the minutes of proceedings.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the report was made a parliamentary paper.

Mr MELHAM: by leave—In this report the committee makes 13 recommendations to improve Australia's disclosure arrangements and enhance the transparency of the flow of money through our political system.

During this inquiry the committee reviewed the Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC) analysis of the Fair Work Australia (FWA) report on the Health Services Union National Office. It also considered a list of matters provided by the AEC as possible measures to improve the operation of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Electoral Act).

The committee's focus was on disclosure obligations under the Electoral Act. It was not the committee's role to forensically examine internal HSU authorisation processes, or to adjudicate on alleged contraventions against the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act or other alleged fraudulent behaviour. This was outside the committee's terms of reference. A number of other processes are underway to address those matters.

The committee acted responsibly in only releasing publicly available information that was relevant to its terms of reference. The committee did not support using this inquiry as a fishing expedition for matters in the FWA report and investigation that are outside the terms of reference.

As with the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee, the electoral matters committee carefully considered what should be released into the public domain. It would have been irresponsible for this committee to authorise a blanket release of all documents pertaining to the FWA investigation, when those matters are still under consideration by other agencies.

The committee was mindful that other investigations are underway that do not directly relate to whether Mr Thomson, the HSU or a political party met their obligations under the Electoral Act. In fact, the committee provided the BDO Kendalls report, annexure J to the FWA report and transcripts of interviews undertaken by the FWA delegate to the AEC. It confirmed that the additional information did not change its analysis of the report or the 17 possible measures provided to the Special Minister of State.

In its inquiry, the committee examined the relevant sections of the FWA report and relevant material against the AEC's analysis. It did not find any grounds to challenge the analysis.

The committee then moved on to consider what problems or gaps in the current arrangements this situation had served to highlight, and how these matters could be addressed in the future.

The committee considered 17 possible measures provided by the AEC for consideration and supported most of these measures. A number of the recommendations made in this report have been made in previous reports, including to:

reduce the disclosure threshold from more than $12,100 for the 2012-13 financial year to $1,000 and remove CPI indexation; and

increase the frequency of disclosure reporting from annually to six monthly.

Changes to the penalties for breaches of the Electoral Act are also needed. The committee has recommended introducing administrative penalties for straightforward breaches, such as a failure to lodge a return by the due date. This will enable the AEC to deal more effectively with these types of offences. The committee has also recommended strengthening the penalties for the more serious offences, including those involving fraud.

In this inquiry it was clear that the category of 'associated entities'—which requires disclosure by certain organisations with close links to political parties—is confusing and is not operating as effectively as it should. To address this, the committee recommends clarifying the definition of an 'associated entity'.

A significant reform the committee is proposing is to deem registered parties as bodies corporate for the purposes of the Electoral Act, to better focus the responsibility for breaches on the parties. It is intended that this will encourage political parties to ensure that the person tasked with lodging its returns is suitably qualified to perform the role, and that effective systems are in place to ensure a complete and accurate return is lodged.

Another gap in the current arrangements is in the current disclosure period for new candidates, which only commences from their pre-selection or nomination. The committee has recommended introducing a requirement for new candidates to disclose relevant donations and gifts received and money spent in the 12 months prior to their pre-selection or nomination.

There were certain measures that the committee did not support, which were:

to require that all returns are audited before they are lodged;

to abolish the category of associated entities; and

to require that political donations and spending must move through dedicated campaign accounts.

In developing its recommendations, the committee aimed to strike the right balance between the goals of transparency and accountability, and the administrative realities for the parties, organisations and individuals with reporting obligations. The committee believes that these recommendations strike the right balance.

On behalf of the committee I thank the organisations and individuals who assisted the committee during the inquiry through submissions or participating at the public hearings in Canberra and Melbourne. I also thank my colleagues on the committee for their work and contribution to this report, and the secretariat for their work on this inquiry. I commend the report to the House