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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8255


Senator ABETZ (Tasmania) (10:58): Democracy is a delicate flower. It needs to be tended. It needs to be nurtured. It is, in fact, one of the crowning glories of our society and the reason that we are, literally, the envy of the world. Our democratic system needs to be protected, nurtured, tended, looked after, and we need to ensure that the regulations and legislation surrounding our democracy are up to date with the times to ensure that we protect it from inappropriate influences. That is why I support this bill.

There are, regrettably, cynical operatives who would seek to occasion damage to our wonderful democracy by undermining it through undesirable practices, and one of those is through foreign donations. Indeed, I have been on the record for many years opposing foreign donations. Indeed, one of my failures as Special Minister of State in a previous manifestation was not being able to convince my party of the need of such a reform. So, today, I am glad that other people have been a lot more successful than I was, all those years ago, when I was Special Minister of State, to be able to get this ban, hopefully, legislated very shortly, because I believe that the integrity of our democracy needs to be protected.

Democracy, as I said, is very fragile. It does rely on the goodwill of the Australian people. It only operates and is capable of operating if people have confidence that the system provides a fair representation of the will of the Australian people. If we have opportunists or, indeed, people with sinister motives seeking to influence the Australian body politic through foreign donations, we have a problem not only because it might undermine the results that come from our voting system but also because people would lose faith in our democratic system. To ensure that the Australian people can retain their faith in our democratic system we need to fine-tune it from time to time to ensure that that integrity is absolutely maintained.

We all know that there was one political party whose parliamentary leader personally negotiated the biggest donation ever in Australian political history. He personally negotiated it, which I think shows a huge lack of integrity. What's more, after the event the donor claimed that he believed that it was a good investment on his part and the beneficiary, the leader of that political party, said that he would be forever grateful. Those sorts of deals in our body politic reflect very badly on it.

I daresay nobody in this chamber needs to ask which political party I'm referring to. Indeed, it was the political party that continually lectures and harangues everybody else about integrity in the political system. You've guessed it. It was the Australian Greens, under the leadership of former senator Bob Brown, who personally negotiated that deal with Graeme Wood—a donation of $1.6 million. That has come to light. At the end of the day at least it was Australian money, but you can foresee with deals such as that that people from overseas might think that with extra money they can influence the Australian politic. Indeed, I submit to this chamber we saw a real live example of a person who, thankfully, is no longer in this place. That person sought to talk about our foreign affairs and issues in relation to the South China Sea in a bid to endear himself and potentially source donations from certain overseas interests. They are the sorts of influences that I believe we should seek to repel from the Australian body politic. They are blots on our political experience in this nation.

I confess that I would like to see some more changes to our electoral system because there are very sinister organisations within the body politic, such as GetUp!, which was initially funded by supporters who were funded by George Soros from overseas. I have given previous speeches in this place outlining the connections with the sinister organisation GetUp!, which makes false claim after false claim after false claim. I will give a few examples. In 2014 GetUp! sought to change its objectives that were lodged with ASIC. It falsely claimed that it was a charity. It put into its objectives that it was a charity—false, false, false.

For four years they continued with that falsehood, until I asked questions of ASIC at estimates as to how this was allowed to be, when GetUp! was not on the register of the ACNC and was not a tax-deductible organisation in relation to donations. What does this sinister organisation do? They simply say that it was an administrative error—an administrative error my foot! You do not deliberately seek to change your objectives by an accident. That requires a deliberate act. They have now, thankfully, altered their objectives, having been exposed for falsely portraying themselves as a charitable organisation.

With GetUp! we also had a situation in which those who believe in transparency—and absolutely demand transparency of any other organisation within the political realm—had the requirement within schedule 1 of their constitution that they would set out the names of all their members. Well, if you go to schedule 1, it is a blank sheet of paper. When I exposed this double standard, also at Senate estimates with ASIC, GetUp! said, 'Oh, it's just an administrative oversight; we're happy to provide the names.' What has happened in recent times? GetUp! have changed their constitution so that they are no longer required to display these unnamed people who secretly deal with GetUp! and pull the strings and manipulate GetUp! Rather than being an administrative error, such as accidentally making themselves a charity and accidentally leaving the names off schedule 1 of their constitution, they deliberately changed their constitution so that they wouldn't have to disclose the names. I wonder why! Might it be that the CFMEU or the Australian Workers' Union might be shown up on that schedule?

When there are organisations such as this within our body politic, I think we need to be alert, and I trust that the government and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue to monitor these types of organisations. Make no mistake: GetUp! is, as I said, sinister. In my own home state of Tasmania, at the last election they flew at least half a dozen operatives into the seat of Bass who went around claiming to be locals, doorknocking all day and making advocacy phone calls of a night, besmirching a great Australian hero, Andrew Nikolic, the member for Bass. Indeed, they went around with a video camera at one stage, following his spouse, his wife, down the street—a simple act of intimidation. These sorts of people do nothing for our parliamentary democracy and our democratic system of government. They then helped the Australian Labor Party with the most dishonest of campaigns: 'Mediscare'. We now know that to be false. But on election day, outside the polling booth in Scottsdale in north-east Tasmania, in the seat of Bass, there was a huge sign saying that the Liberal Party would cut the budget of the local hospital—by more than the total budget of that hospital! It was just a fabricated figure, dishonest in the extreme. But of course the local community, needing their local hospital, were shocked and horrified, and—you cannot blame them—they voted in the mistaken belief that they had to protect their local hospital. It was completely dishonest, a complete manipulation of our political system, which got GetUp! their desired result and saw Andrew Nikolic defeated in the seat of Bass. He is a man that former Prime Minister John Howard, on election night in 2016, named as the first person he regretted had been defeated in that election. He was highly regarded by former Prime Minister John Howard. Yet, these are the sorts of antics that have sadly developed in recent times in our body politic. If we want to protect our body politic, if we want to ensure that the Australian people are able to continue to have faith that the results of elections are a true reflection of the will of the Australian people, I think we need to ensure that those sorts of behaviours are stopped as well. I trust that in future, when the electoral legislation is considered by this place, we do have a look at those sorts of activities, because, if more organisations such as GetUp! continue to pollute the democratic framework of our nation, it will undermine the people's confidence in our system which has served us so extremely well now for over 100 years.

Organisations such as GetUp!, which was originally funded by donations from Mr Bill Shorten's union, the Australian Workers' Union—he did not seek to disclose this to his union membership, but, of course, Mr Shorten has been the beneficiary of GetUp!'s activities for his political ambitions. We have GetUp! allegedly asking its online supporters—alleged members—as to the issues they would want GetUp! to campaign on. When the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters asked them, for the 2016 election, 'What was the result of that survey?' GetUp! wanted to refuse and did not come to the committee to tell them or answer the question. And, of course, what was it? It wasn't a surprise: it was the border protection issue that was of concern to GetUp! members. The issue of health funding and 'Mediscare' was, in fact, down the list. Yet, that is the issue on which GetUp! campaigned, along with—surprise, surprise!—the Australian Labor Party. This was at a time when GetUp! was still claiming full transparency: 'Oh, we accidentally overlooked the names of people on our schedule that we should have disclosed', and, 'Oh, we accidentally said that we were a charity'. No. When you have a look at the conduct of GetUp! from the get-go, right through, you know that they are a blot on our democracy. You know that they do a great disservice in our democratic system by misrepresenting, by manipulation and, indeed, by intimidation.

When we look at our electoral system, can I repeat: it is important that standards of integrity are maintained because otherwise people will lose confidence in the system. The bill that we're discussing, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, deals with one of those important aspects—that is, the banning of foreign donations. I think all Australians would agree that it should only be Australian money that impacts Australian elections and that people should have the capacity to be able to make their money available, for whatever civic-minded purpose, to assist their political party of choice. But if that money starts coming from overseas then one can be rightly concerned that that money might be for the purposes of determining an outcome within our body politic that is within the interests not of the Australian people but of a foreign entity or, indeed, a foreign country. If some of the allegations are correct in relation to influence of some of the bigger players within the political and international scene, be it Russia or China, then I think we are right, as a parliament, to legislate in relation to issues of foreign donations in our body politic.

I listened with some interest to Senator Siewert's contribution. I can understand the concern of some of the charities that was expressed on the original bill which, as a government that listens to the people, we were able to adjust to ensure that there were no unintended consequences. But let's also keep in mind that some of these so-called charities play a very loose and fast political game. I recall that in my home state of Tasmania some time ago a so-called charity was running TV advertisements encouraging people at the election to 'vote to protect the forests'. It was quite a lengthy advertisement on TV. It just happened that, within the same ad break, there were very short, sharp advertisements telling us that only the Greens would protect our forests. Oh—no collusion between the charitable organisation and the Greens political party; just coincidence! What happens is that, if you want to support the Greens political party, you donate to the charity and get a full tax deduction for your donation, knowing that they'll be using that money for a political advertisement, whereas, if you were to donate your money to the Greens for the political advertisement, you would not be getting the same tax deductibility. I think these things need to be looked at as well to ensure that there isn't this sort of manipulation—a wink, wink and a nod to each other. Indeed, whilst we expect that from the ACTU, the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party, I think most people are attuned to the likelihood of that happening. But, when it happens with a charitable organisation that has certain status and, just coincidently, there are trailers in the ad breaks for a political party, I think there is something that also, in the future, may need to be addressed.

Suffice to say that this bill deals with the issue of foreign donations—something that I've been concerned about for some time and something that, whilst I was minister, I was unable to achieve. I'm delighted that brighter and better people have been able to get it through my party and, I trust, the parliament as well. It will be for the benefit of the Australian body politic to have this legislation passed, and I commend it to the Senate.