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Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Page: 4022

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (Mackellar) (15:48): In rising to speak to this matter of public importance, I do so supporting the motion of the member for Lyne saying that there is a need for political donation reform. I absolutely concur on that need. And because I am the shadow special minister of state and I also sit on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and have taken part in both inquiries that have resulted in the reforms that are proposed—that is, the inquiry into the review of the AEC report on HSU and the earlier report into the funding of political parties in election campaigns—I feel that it is necessary to look at the complexity of the area in order to expand on the case that was put forward by the former Special Minister of State and now Minister for Resources and Energy, the member for Brand.

In the course of the creation of these reports, of course we had many public hearings. In those public hearings we took evidence from a variety of people—some who obviously did not mind coming along and were quite prepared to put in submissions and then be questioned upon them, and others who were obviously more reluctant about giving evidence. I think it is fair to cite a couple of examples that I think highlight the need for this sort of reform. I want to preface my remarks by saying that I believe, and the coalition believes, that it is not only the right and entitlement of individuals and corporations to participate in the political process by raising money, which is used to fight election campaigns, but indeed there is also a moral obligation for those people who benefit from the democratic system and seek the great rewards of being in an open and free society to make a contribution towards its continuance. In our view nothing could be worse than having all political activity funded out of the public purse. That would make us like some of the totalitarian regimes that we have seen in other countries.

The fact that people participate freely and willingly and take part in the fundraising efforts to sustain a political campaign and a political party—as the former Special Minister of State in his speech outlined very simply—although we do not have chook raffles, I don't think, we certainly do have raffles of a different sort and other fund-raising activities, as indeed do Independents and minority parties.

I know that the Greens have been making a great to-do about the fact that the reforms that are coming forward may not be what they have dictated. But I think it is worthwhile going through the evidence that was given to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters regarding the Greens and the fact that they were calling for a $1,000 cap on donations whilst at the same time they accepted a donation of $1.6 million from the founder of Wotif and, against their own internal policies, failed to disclose that donation until after the election. You could be forgiven for thinking that that would be a hypocritical position to take.

Mr Frydenberg: No! Never!

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP: I do think that some people might think that that was the case. It is quite instructional if we go to the actual quotes that were given by Mr Brett Constable, National Manager of the Australian Greens.

Senator RYAN: Thank you, Mr Constable. Senator Brown, I understand, was involved in discussions—and I am using as less inflammatory language as I can—with Mr Wood about the donation, was he not?

Mr Constable: At the time of making the donation?

Senator RYAN: Yes.

…   …   …

Senator RYAN: Whose decision was it not to disclose it prior to the election?

Mr Constable: That was really out of respect to the donor. Yes, we have an aim to improve the disclosure regime. We have an internal policy within the party which looks at how to review as best we can within the resources we have available the capacity of the donor and the alignment of the donor with the aims of the party, and then we have a rule about disclosing donations well in advance of what is currently required.

Later it was reported into The AustralianFinancial Review, when Dr Wood gave an interview, he said:

Wood has certainly forged a unique path and his donation to the Greens is hardly typical of Australian corporate philanthropy, but it is not woolly do-gooding either. He saw the $1.6 million donation as a defensive move that saved him many millions of dollars.

‘I was a bit concerned that if the Coalition got in a lot of my investments in environmental causes would have been down the plughole,’ he says. ‘It will hopefully save me a whole lot of money in fighting other environmental wars or battles.’

I asked Mr Constable a further question:

… could you tell me what influence he has exerted as a result of his donation? You would, like others, assert that we have to restrain donations because they influence political parties. Could you tell me how Mr Wood has influenced your party and what gain he has had from that?

Mr Constable: I would say that he has not exerted any influence on the party.

Yet this is the sole basis on which the Greens are criticising the need for reform, which, as the former Special Minister of State has said, is needed to have a fair and transparent system of disclosure in order that we can bring about reform that improves the fairness of the system and allows our free and open democracy to continue.

I think it was important, too, that when we took evidence concerning Mr Thomson, the member for Dobell, we saw that the use of credit cards had enabled him to circumvent the electoral laws as they exist, and this certainly made out a need for reform.

The case for further reform was made out with regard to the timing of disclosure. Further need for reform was identified when I questioned the Electoral Commission as to what their form of, I will use the term, 'auditing'—people will understand that better, but it was an appraisal of various third parties known as associates—had filed. I found that in 256 so-called audits done between 2007 and November 2011 not one trade union had had such an investigation. On further investigation the AEC said, 'Well, we didn't get any extra resources to do that sort of thing. They were much bigger entities and therefore we didn't do it.' Clearly there is a need for reform in this area.

Another area for reform that was disclosed was that the HSU itself had put in three returns which showed, in the first one, from within a very short space of time, that their political expenditure had been minimal but ultimately the third return showed that in fact the expenditure had been $25 million. Clearly there was need for reform.

So when you looked at the evidence that was before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and you saw the evidence that was taken, a case for reform was very clearly made out. It was quite proper that there be discussions about the best way in which this could be effected to enable the disclosure, to enable the fair working of the parties, to enable all participants in the political system to be able to continue to put their case forward but in a way that the public could feel confident that there was no corruption in the system. As I said, there was no evidence given that there had been any distortion of political decisions made because of donations made. The closest we came was the donation to the Greens themselves, who are one of the loudest voices of criticism.

I would simply say, as we are bringing forward debate on a bill we are yet to have presented to the House, that there will be opportunity to elaborate further on why these reforms are needed and why I suggest they will be adequate to warrant support.