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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2425

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (12:05): I have been a part of the political process for 53 or 54 years. I have my 50-year medal from the National Party, and I am now a proud member of the LNP as well. I have seen a lot of developments go on in how funds are raised and the purpose to which they are put at election time. Let me say that the vast majority of people in all political parties go out with their chook raffles and run all sorts of things, like jam stalls, gymkhanas and race meetings—all sorts of things—to raise money to participate in the political process.

The vast majority of members work in their electorates at small functions and raise small donations. This is all to do with participatory democracy. It allows everyone to play a part. I must admit that when I saw this report I was quite taken aback. As I think two of the previous members said, this inquiry was an opportunity for a new start: to simplify laws, to simplify the rules, to remove the excesses and to make the whole process transparent. But it has become the exact opposite.

If you want any further proof of that—and, by the way, I do not reflect on the secretariat of the joint standing committee—just read the press release which, presumably, was under the hand of the chair, Daryl Melham. Read the recommendations that were in that press release: reduce the threshold from $11,900 to $1,000; single donations of $100,000 to be disclosed within 14 days; and treat related political parties as the same party—all these things. You can go right down through the whole list, and they all say, 'Let's make it as hard as possible for the conservative side of politics. We will make it as difficult as you can possibly imagine. Hey, but hands off the unions, hands off any related environmental groups that might be supporting the Greens and hands off things like credit cards paying for political material.' If you are going to be fair dinkum and you are going to have transparency, then the rules have to be not only in actuality but in spirit the same for both sides. As previous speakers have said and as the dissenting report concludes, there has been no evidence over recent years of any abuses of the threshold, of $11,900. Is anyone seriously going to be corrupted for $11,900, particularly a businessman? Of course not. Is any member of parliament seriously going to be corrupted because one or two people give a large donation of around $10,000 or $12,000? Of course not. To reduce that to $1,000 will hogtie the party that relies on that form of donation more than other parties.

On the proposal that single donations of $100,000 or more be disclosed within 14 days, I would not die in a ditch on this one. The principle of large donations being readily disclosed probably has some merit. But there is one clear implication of the 14-day limit: if the conservative side of politics were to get a large donation in the course of an election campaign, this rule would almost certainly force the donation to be revealed before the election day. At the same time, if affiliated third parties are spending the same sort of money—as unions have in the past to support the other side of politics—then somehow that is deemed to be okay.

Treating related political parties as the one entity would have a particularly unfair effect on the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, on the LNP in Queensland and on the Nationals in Western Australia. They are individually-run state parties. And for that matter the Nationals in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales fall into the same category. They are state based parties. They have efficient head offices. They raise funds and they report their funds. Why should their funding have to be considered in concert, for example, in the case of the LNP with either the Liberal Party or the National Party? It is by its very nature an already merged political entity. Would it have to report through both the Liberal Party and the National Party? How would you differentiate the amounts that they would have to declare in each case? To differentiate that would be a nightmare. It would place another layer of unnecessary compliance and bureaucracy over state based parties.

Those parties that I just mentioned have always tended to be state based parties. That is not said with any intended criticism of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party, which tend to be nationally controlled parties. But an electoral act should make provision for all sorts of parties, not just provisions for the political convenience of one side or the other.

The proposal that the money raised at fundraising events be counted as donations is one of the most ridiculous propositions that we have heard here. New South Wales and Queensland are already trying to enforce this, and what a nightmare it is. Every person who goes to a dinner has to get a receipt and that receipt has to play back through the political process to make sure that over a year any particular person did not donate above the threshold. It virtually looks into the chequebooks or bank accounts of anyone who happens to like a political party.

Some people like to go and hear Kevin Rudd or John Howard at a function—some people really like to go to those functions; that is their buzz. They see those big events where party leaders make national statements and up to 500 of the faithful turn out as significant. People like to be part of that participatory democracy. Are they going to be corrupt because they pay $50, $100, $250 or $500 to go to that function? Why would we want to turn those things into political donations? Make the proceeds of the actual function a declarable political donation—that is fair enough; I have no hang-up with that—but interfering in people's lives to this effect seems to me totally unnecessary and, if anything, it dampens down the vibrancy and the participatory nature of our democracy.

I repeat that I am working from the committee's own report, and I stress that I am not making any inference against the secretariat. The report has come out in the name of the chairman and therefore his side of politics can answer for it. Disclosure reporting is to occur six-monthly instead of annually. Isn't there enough bureaucracy going on without that? What possible good purpose would that serve, especially if you are going to have another rule that donations of $100,000 or more have to be revealed within 14 days? There is not much scope left—there will not be a lot of big donations between federal elections, but there might be some in the election year. So why would you start imposing that rule for six-monthly periods? What possible good does it do?

There is a recommendation that anonymous donations above $50 be banned. There are some sporting events in Australia now that you cannot go to for under a hundred bucks. I have never been a great believer in all this high-powered national sport which has killed off a lot of the great participation of suburban teams in football and cricket and other competitions, but we have it here now and we pay a lot more than $50 to go to major sporting events. At the very least we could make it $100 or perhaps $250, but $50! Are you going to try to tag all those $50 donations somehow? You can't. The best thing to do in a case like this is to set a realistic level.

If we move to the other side of politics, we have the Greens accepting a donation after insisting, hand on heart, with the purest of intentions, that these donations to the dreadful major political parties had to be capped. They accept from Graham Wood the biggest donation in Australian political history, $1.6 million, and they try to say that in their case it did not garner political favour—it always does with those dreadful Labor Party and Liberal Party and National Party people, but not with them. Mr Constable, who is the national manager of the Greens, said in evidence before the committee that the donation was 'a fantastic contribution to our campaign'. That is it, plain and simple.

The union movement has a great deal of influence in Australia. I am not against unions—I am a great believer in them, and especially voluntary unionism. It is fair enough if unions want to participate in the political process on either side of politics, providing the rules that apply to the broader community apply to unions. It can be seen, for example, that because the membership of unions is tax deductible and certain donations for unions are tax deductible, then therefore, if you channel your funds into political campaigns that way then yes, you do get tax deductibility. Not only that, but with the union being a third party in the process it is not subjected to the same rigours as the major political parties. As I said, I am not knocking unions, but I think that what we need to have is a rule that fits all.

I am disappointed in this report. I think it was a lost opportunity. I do not think it is going to make the political process any fairer, and I think it is going to lead to untold bureaucracy and an unnecessary strain on people that may drive them out of the participation process.

Debate adjourned.