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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2420

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:40): I appreciate the opportunity to contribute also to this debate on the report on the inquiry into funding political parties and election campaigns. I would like to thank all members of the committee for their involvement in what the member for Mackellar has previously noted was quite a contentious issue and an inquiry process which traversed some quite controversial territory.

The coalition members prepared a dissenting report because of our concern that many recommendations in the report served the interests the Australian Labor Party, the Greens and left-wing activist groups such as GetUp!. The most obvious example is in relation to the recommendation to lower the threshold for disclosure to $1,000, which we believe was another deal done to try and appease the Greens.

I want to take up the comments from the previous speaker in relation to the Greens involvement in this issue. When it comes to the issue of electoral donation reform, there is a remarkable exercise in double standards from the Greens. Over a period of weeks, months and years, the Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, has lectured other parties on a regular basis—posturing and pontificating about the need to ban all corporate donations to political parties. At the same time, Senator Brown and his colleagues have lectured the other parties about what they regard as inappropriate sources of campaign funds or campaign donations and have sought to ban donations from tobacco companies.

But it was revealed during the public hearings that Senator Brown was directly involved in negotiating a $1.6 million donation to his party. He was also involved in discussions about whether to announce this massive donation before the election. I am not reflecting on any other matters that might be before the other chamber, but after all the bluster about transparency and the potential for large donations to influence party policy, the Greens were exposed as having received the biggest donation of all.

Evidence was given by the Greens that the sum of $1.6 million did not exert any influence at all upon the party. But Senator Brown and his colleagues continually allege that corporate donations, from organisations like tobacco companies, can have undue influence on political parties and individual MPs. Somehow we are meant to believe that the Greens are above reproach but all of those other nasty MPs in the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Labor Party can be bought off by political donations. The double standard here is quite appalling. We are talking about a sum of $1.6 million, which the Greens indicated in evidence to this parliamentary inquiry did not exert any influence over their political party at all in terms of its formation of policy—there were no strings attached. But we are being lectured on an almost daily basis by the Greens that other corporate donations received by other parties have the potential to exert undue influence over our policy-making processes.

This is yet another example of the 'do as I say, not as I do' mentality that the Greens have become infamous for. During the inquiry, Mr Brett Constable said:

I agree that it can be seen as hypocritical in terms of the direction we want to go, but it is the direction we want to go and we are not there yet, so we are constrained by the system we have. In order to be successful in election campaigns at the moment, you need a significant war chest. The $1.6 million was a fantastic contribution to our campaign.

He agrees that it could be 'seen as hypocritical'. I say to the Greens: you cannot have it both ways. If you are going to be out there advocating for a ban on corporate donations, if you are going to be out there advocating that certain companies are not allowed to give donations to political parties because they might exert influence on their policy-making processes, then you cannot accept $1.6 million from one donor and pretend that it has had no influence on your policy-making processes. This issue of political donations and public funding of election campaigns has exercised the minds of many MPs at the state and federal level in many jurisdictions around the world. I do not believe that a perfect system actually exists. We may not ever get to the stage where we have something that we can all be satisfied with.

It is critically important that the public has confidence in the system and can be reassured that there is no undue influence to be brought by people who can afford to make a donation to political parties. It is equally as important that any rules and regulations which are enforced are manageable and are applied equally to third parties such as the union movement and activist organisations such as GetUp! seeking to influence political decisions. I think we will see more of these organisations in the years ahead—organisations one step removed from the direct political process, which will not actually run candidates but seek to influence the political policy making of the day. It is very important that any rules, regulations or laws we impose in relation to political donations and campaign funding reform also capture these groups, which seek to have a significant influence on the public policy making of the day.

From my own perspective, I have previously expressed concerns about the so-called campaign arms race when we debated the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 in the House. At that time I raised several points which I think are still relevant today. At the risk of repeating myself, I think that we need to recognise in this place that the Australian public want to be reassured that the model of campaign funding that we have in place is above reproach. They want us to provide leadership in that area. Campaign funding reform is one of most critical issues facing our democracy. We have an obligation to reform it where we can and, where possible, to improve the current system.

But we must resist any reforms which would give one side a political advantage over the other. That is one of our biggest challenges and the key reason why the coalition members of this committee submitted a dissenting report, as we believe many of the recommendations in this report were designed to give a political advantage to one side over the other.

We need to ensure that the community has confidence in our system. This perception of undue influence can be equally as damaging as undue influence itself. Even if there is no influence actually being exerted, if there is a perception of it then that can result in the community losing faith in the process.

In the past I have advocated campaign funding caps but, through my involvement in this inquiry, I am becoming increasingly aware that it would be very difficult to enforce that type of model and those requirements in an election period, particularly when you consider the participation by third parties such as the union movement or organisations like GetUp!

Without fixed terms at a federal level, the issue of what is the election period becomes very difficult to define. So if you were to introduce that system of caps, when would they apply? That would be difficult for us to do at a federal level, when we do not have fixed term processes.

There is an aspiration in many of the debates in relation to campaign funding reform that we need to level the playing field. I suppose that is an honourable objective, but it is probably more realistic to suggest that we need a fair playing field. I do not think we will ever get to a situation where it is level in the sense that everyone necessarily competes with the exact same amount of funding for the campaign. I have become even more committed to the important role and participatory nature of corporations and individual donors in our democratic system.

We do not want to head down a path where candidates are chosen because of independent wealth or their capacity to raise funds, but we do need to ensure that there are opportunities for participation in our democracy through active involvement in parties or through making donations to the party itself.

In recent times I have developed a greater appreciation of the role that the corporate sector can play in our democracy. My view on that has evolved over a period of years. I think the corporate sector has often been maligned for making political donations but the involvement with the corporate sector which I have had in recent years, since becoming a member of parliament, has given me a better appreciation of the positive role that it can also play. The corporate sector can be an excellent source of information for members of parliament and it can provide some technical expertise that members of parliament themselves would not be able to access in any other way. It is important that we have that relationship with our corporate sector, whether it be big business, small business or individuals. While I hasten to add that a cash-for-access type of approach is reviled by the general public I still think there is a very good role for the corporate sector to play in supporting our political parties. That role is in providing an opportunity for us to get a better understanding of how government policies affect real people on the ground. It is an important part of the process.

The coalition's dissenting report made a very important point in relation to that active participation in our democracy by campaign donors. We also made the point that there has been no evidence during the funding inquiry that there has been a particular problem with donations under the $11,900 threshold buying political influence. So in our submission we have rejected the position of the Labor Party and the Greens that the threshold be reduced to $1,000.

The coalition also raised some very good points in the dissenting report regarding the use of affiliation fees of associated entities obtaining to both political parties. The coalition believes that these affiliation fees, which often are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are far more cause for concern than donations which are under the $11,900 threshold.

I appreciate the opportunity to raise a few points today in relation to this issue. I think the debate about campaign funding reform will continue beyond today and beyond this report because it is such an important issue. As I said at the outset, any reform which is undertaken must be fair to all parties and not designed to give one political organisation an advantage over another.