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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8258


Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (11:17): Well, the fix is in. The Liberal government and the Labor opposition have done a deal to change electoral law. Under the smokescreen of preventing foreign donations, evidence about which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters could not find, they have struck a deal to implement changes that amount to a virtual de facto ban on small parties and independents. In conjunction with the changes to the system of Senate voting, the deal will see the disappearance, within a couple of elections, of any party or independent that has not yet consistently won four per cent of the vote or is not backed by a multimillionaire. It will mean the disappearance of parties that 22 out of 100 Australians vote for. I'm talking about parties like the Democratic Labour Party, the Australian Liberty Alliance, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, the Health Australia Party, the Australian Christians, Drug Law Reform Australia, and the Republican Party. The Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens and One Nation will continue to contest federal elections because they regularly win four per cent of the vote, giving them an entitlement to millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Extremely wealthy Australians will be able to buy their way into politics via a minor party, including people like Clive Palmer, and two or three parties that win four per cent of the vote in their home state or have a presence in state parliaments may also continue to contest federal elections, but dozens of parties will disappear—literally dozens.

Seventy-eight out of 100 Australians voted for the Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens or One Nation. Many of these Australians might not care if the parties they didn't vote for disappear from the ballot, but they should, because giving everyone an outlet to express their political opinion is in everyone's interests. Small parties that cannot reach the threshold required to achieve taxpayer funding on a predictable basis will not be able to survive today's change in electoral law, because today's change in electoral law will effectively require all parties to permanently employ lawyers and accountants if they want to be sure they comply with the piles of new red tape and avoid the new heavy penalties. But small parties cannot afford to employ lawyers and accountants any more than your local tennis club can. Once today's change in electoral law sinks in, only the most reckless of our smallest political parties will remain—or those with a very wealthy backer.

Let me outline some of the new red tape and new heavy penalties imposed by today's changes in electoral laws. Parties will need to provide an opportunity for donors donating less than $13,800 to affirm that they are not foreigners and will need to verify that donors donating more than $13,800 are not foreigners. Consider for a moment how your local tennis club would go about verifying that a donor is not a foreigner and you will begin to understand the problems to be faced by small political parties. Parties will need to return donations over $250 if they don't have the details of the donor. But how can you return a donation if you don't have the details of the donor? If you can't return the anonymous donation, you have to forward it to the government. Again, I ask those listening to ponder how your local tennis club would deal with this bizarre red tape—and for what benefit? What possible harm could come from receiving an anonymous donation of $251?

Parties will no longer receive around $2.70 of taxpayer funding per vote whenever they win four per cent of the vote. Instead, if a party wins four per cent of the vote, the party will receive either $2.70 per vote or an amount matching their expenditure at that election—whichever is lower. Perhaps this change would be fine if there were no four per cent hurdle for receiving taxpayer funding, but it is disastrous for small parties that sometimes win more than four per cent of the vote and sometimes don't. Currently when such parties win less than four per cent of the vote they make considerable losses, and when they win more than four per cent of the vote they can recoup those losses by receiving taxpayer funding in excess of their expenditure at that election. It more or less evens out. But, with today's change in electoral law, recouping losses will be impossible. Small parties will continue to incur considerable losses at some elections but won't be able to do more than break even at other elections, even when they receive funding. This will accelerate their departure from the political scene. Now, it is true that small parties shouldn't rely on taxpayer funding to keep afloat—indeed, the Liberal Democrats would prefer that all taxpayer funding was abolished—but it is undemocratic and despotic that major parties can rely on taxpayer funding to keep afloat but small parties cannot.

Today's changes in electoral law will require parties to keep records for five years. This might be easy for the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with their well-established head offices and the continuity of staff, but for small parties that operate out of someone's garage it's a bridge too far. Today's changes in electoral law also quadruple fines on political parties, so a breach of electoral law will be punished with a fine of up to $42,000. This might be small change for the President of the Labor Party or the Liberal Party, but it is more than enough to deter potential volunteers from getting involving in running a small party.

If the threat of massive fines doesn't scare volunteers away then the publication of their names surely will. Today's changes in electoral law require the names of these volunteers who manage parties to be published. The presidents of the Labor Party and the Liberal Party won't mind their names being published, because their involvement is already public knowledge, but many everyday citizens who have non-political jobs and lives outside politics will balk at the idea that their political involvement will be advertised.

What's unforgivable about the piling of red tape and heavy penalties on small parties is that it is of no benefit. Foreign donations, which are a negligible part of party finances, will continue through indirect means. Incidents like the Sam Dastyari saga will still occur, because today's changes to electoral law don't affect donations received for personal gain. And parties will continue to withhold the details of donations over the disclosure threshold of $13,800, because the loophole of subsection 314AC(2) is conspicuously untouched by today's changes.

The fix is in. Today's changes to electoral law, stitched up by Labor and the Liberals, will corrupt our political system. Today's changes, together with the changed voting system, will see our Senate ballot voting papers eventually showing the Liberals or Liberal-National coalition, Labor, the Greens, possibly One Nation and not much else. No matter who wins government, the Greens or One Nation are very likely to hold the balance of power unless another Clive Palmer throws millions of dollars into a new campaign and breaks through, none of which is good for democracy and none of which either the Liberals or Labor should encourage or welcome. And 22 out of 100 voters will be disenfranchised, so political angst in this country will rise further, possibly to dangerous levels.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I stand here to oppose today's changes to electoral law in the strongest possible terms.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Thank you, Senator Leyonhjelm. I do appreciate your offer to relieve me in the chair whilst I deliver my speech on the second reading. I thank the Senate for their indulgence.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Leyonhjelm ): Following a magnificent speech, I call Senator Bernardi to make another magnificent speech!