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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8260

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (11:28): I'm afraid I may disappoint you, Mr Acting Deputy President Leyonhjelm! I do rise to make a contribution to what I think is a very important debate and a very important change to our electoral laws. Notwithstanding Senator Leyonhjelm's contribution and concerns about some of the impacts that this is going to have on a minor party, as someone who is involved in a minor party I do ultimately welcome the bulk of these changes. It is going to make things more difficult and these are not perfect changes by any stretch, but they are a big step in the right direction. Electoral donation reform in this country is important. I don't think we should have foreign donors. I do believe that only individuals should be able to contribute to political parties. I think disclosure should be in real time, and, indeed, we will be moving an amendment in the committee stage to encourage parties to disclose on their websites those donations in excess of the threshold within 14 days and to notify the Electoral Commission.

In this respect, we put our money where our mouth is on behalf of the Australian Conservatives. We are the only party, to my knowledge, that has in the two consecutive years we've existed lodged our disclosure return with the Australian Electoral Commission and published those figures on our website within weeks of being requested to do so. I think—and I'll stand corrected—that in this financial year we lodged our return within a week of the financial year closing. It is not difficult. It entails keeping accurate records during the course of a financial year. It means being diligent and applying rigorous accounting practices, as you would expect in any business, and particularly one that is entrusted with public money.

If you think we're just tinkering around the edges, in donations to the Australian Conservatives, there were circa 30,000 individual contributions in that 12-month period. The sums were in the region of $2.4 million. It's run with a minor staff, so you don't have to have a massive organisation in order to be able to acquit yourself in these circumstances appropriately. Having said that, there are challenges for smaller parties, and finance is one of them. There are huge advantages accrued to the big parties, not only in terms of public funding. They can predict the public funding that they expect to receive, and they can effectively borrow against that and spend accordingly in campaigns, which gives them a modicum of guaranteed success. That's because it's an inescapable law that marketing does attract votes. That is a concern if we are freezing out minor parties from making contributions or making it too difficult to contribute to the political process in a manner that I think many, many Australians would like to see. Senator Leyonhjelm said 22 out of 100 people voted outside of the major parties, and I suspect that will continue. We need to give them choice; we need to give them diversity of voices. Some of them will be successful and some will not, but that is the democratic process.

I come back to some other practical concerns. In the second reading debate, Senator Farrell mentioned that he wanted the disclosure threshold moved to $1,000, and we still have to vote on that. I support that amendment on the basis that it is Labor policy. But there's nothing, really, to be ashamed of. If someone wants to give an amount of money to a political organisation, having their name published is part and parcel, I think, of integrity and openness.

I share Senator Abetz's concerns about some of the—I will use the term 'quasi-political outfits', which are the campaign units and the political parties that do not nominate candidates but basically endorse other parties' candidates and work on their behalf and are not captured currently by the disclosure regime. Senator Abetz mentioned GetUp!, and I'm sure there are many environmental groups that are in that space and a range of other organisations as well. If people really want to get involved in the political discussions and political debate, I don't think we've got anything to fear. We've got to actually stop the manner in which soft dollars are getting into politics and influence. If you want to have an organisation that doesn't have to disclose funding or wants to pursue altruistic objectives, then I don't think they should be political-campaign organisations. Let them be training organisations, let them be charities, if that's what they want to do, and let them get involved in whatever sphere of community life they want to. But, if you want to get involved in politics and you want to advocate in that space in a public manner and try to influence elections or directly support candidates or political parties, I think you need to be captured by the process.

In the interest of giving Senator Griff a bit of time before we move onto other business, I recognise, and I want to put on the record, that this regime is not perfect at all. It is a step in the right direction. I don't doubt at all that it is self-serving for the major parties. I come back to the fact that we all know—or it's available on the AEC website and it's available on the Australian Conservatives website—how much money we received in the last financial year and who our donors in excess of the threshold were, and that's gone through all our divisions around the country. I regret that it will be after the next election that we will know who has tipped the money into the Liberal, Labor and Greens parties, because no-one has decided that they should be disclosing and be as clear and as up-front as my fledgling organisation have been. It is, quite frankly, a direct challenge to them that rapid disclosure is important. That is why, in the committee stage, I will be moving that donations in excess of the threshold should be published on the party's website and disclosed to the Electoral Commission within 14 days of receipt.

I commend the bill, and I hope it does get amended. I only wish that Senator Farrell had moved his amendment in the committee stage so we would know Labor are serious about reform rather than just looking after their own shameless interest.