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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8295

Senator HUME (VictoriaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (13:17): I rise today to speak in particular on the government amendments to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Australia is one of the few Western democracies in which foreign donors can still influence domestic elections. The government's bill before us today will ensure that our electoral system, most importantly, protects our national sovereignty—and Australians should expect no less of a modern and vibrant democracy such as ours. Reform is necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and Australia's sovereignty by ensuring that only those with a meaningful connection to Australia are able to influence Australian politics—in particular, Australian elections—through political donations. Importantly, the bill before us will assure Australians that all political campaigning that targets Australian voters is paid for by Australians first and foremost, be it election advertising, campaign phone calls or how-to-vote recommendations. Foreign governments, foreign billionaires and foreign companies should never have a legitimate role in funding these activities to influence Australian politics.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 will improve the consistency of the regulatory treatment of all political actors. This includes political actors who have emerged in the Australian political landscape who neither endorse candidates from their own ranks, nor seek to form government themselves, yet actively seek to influence the outcomes of elections through their campaigning activities. While this is a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society and of political and civic engagement, it is vitally important that these actors are subject to the public accountability of more traditional actors such as registered political parties or, indeed, candidates.

This bill introduces a registration regime for all third-party campaigners who spend amounts on federal election campaigning above a particular disclosure threshold, and that threshold is $13,800 a year. Groups that spend at this level are already required to report annually to the Australian Electoral Commission on that expenditure. A registration regime will improve the transparency for voters and enable voters who receive material attempting to influence their vote to look up on a register the entity that has sent the material or that has provided that material. Registration will also assist the AEC's compliance and education activities by identifying the political actors and providing a contact person for AEC communications. Registration of third-party campaigners reflects current practices in other jurisdictions, in places like the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Similar to Australia, these are vibrant, robust and mature modern democracies.

In the 2015-16 financial year, which included the last election, you will recall third-party campaign groups spent almost $40 million—an extraordinary amount—on election advertising, polling and campaigning. These are third-party campaign groups; these are not political parties themselves. It is clear that elections are no longer just fought between political parties and candidates. For that reason, it is appropriate that all participants who choose to expend significant amounts of political expenditure are subject to the same transparency as those political parties and candidates that are fighting it out on the ground.

In recognition of the prominent role that a smaller subset of third-party campaign groups plays in public debate and their growing influence in elections, organisations that spend over half a million dollars in any financial year will have disclosure obligations imposed upon them in line with those imposed on political parties. These highly political organisations that choose to campaign at this level cannot use foreign donations for any purpose. By contrast, because many third-party campaigners such as charities spend far less on campaigning and also carry out non-election activities, they will not be prevented from receiving foreign gifts. Instead, third parties will be prevented from using foreign money for their electoral expenditure.

The bill does not restrict federal election campaigning—not in the least. It merely requires that Australian money be used for this category of expenditure. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has undertaken over the last couple of years very significant work on the topic of foreign political donations and this bill over the course of the 45th Parliament. JSCEM tabled two advisory reports on the bill. The first was delivered in April 2018 and made 15 separate recommendations. The government has responded positively to those recommendations by sharing draft amendments with the committee to give effect to those recommendations. The government invited the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to provide its views on those draft amendments before they were circulated in the Senate. The joint standing committee made 12 further recommendations in relation to the draft amendments, and they included supporting the passage of the bill, subject to their final suggestions. The government has agreed to all of those final recommendations, and government amendments were circulated to senators at the end of October, reflecting endorsement of the last of the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

The final amendments simplify red tape and make the penalties more proportionate to the size of any breaches incurred while also ensuring that the measures that reduce the regulatory burden do not compromise the bill's ability to protect Australia's national sovereignty. Importantly, these amendments clarify that spending solely on issue advocacy is not treated as electoral expenditure when that spending is not aimed at influencing voting in a federal election. The government's amendments also go further than the committee's recommendation in one important regard. In evidence submitted to the committee inquiry, representatives from the not-for-profit sector indicated that there has been widespread and inadvertent noncompliance with the longstanding disclosure obligations in their sector, so the government's amendments guarantee statutory forgiveness for historical noncompliance with third-party disclosure obligations.

The amendments also clarify the overlap of state and Commonwealth disclosure regimes, which is an issue that has arisen in recent state based litigation. The amendments ensure that, on the one hand, state or territory laws do not regulate donations for federal campaigns while, on the other hand, they give assurance that Commonwealth laws do not apply to money that is directed towards non-federal campaigns, so this includes state, territory and local government elections.

Subsequent to the previous inquiries of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the government has engaged further in constructive dialogue with the opposition and with stakeholders in the charitable sector. A final suggestion raised in these discussions was for a post-implementation review in two years time. The government has confirmed its support for that proposal. There will be another federal election under the belt by that stage, so the timing is appropriate. That will be achieved by way of a Senate motion that will be moved after the bill has been passed by the parliament.

The reforms in this bill are very important and necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and Australia's sovereignty. They will ensure that only those with a meaningful connection to Australia are able to fund Australian political activity. They will ensure that the Commonwealth electoral funding and disclosure regime keeps pace with international developments to prevent foreign interference. These reforms also provide transparency for Australian voters ahead of the next election.

There has been considerable support for this legislation, particularly from the not-for-profit sector. With your indulgence, Mr Acting Deputy President, I will enlighten the chamber on some of the support for this bill and the government's amendments. Universities Australia said:

Universities Australia welcomes the proposed amendments to the Bill, and believes they effectively resolve the concerns that the university sector had with the original Bill.

…   …   …

Universities Australia strongly supports the amendments proffered by the Government to resolve the university sector's concerns with the original Bill. Additionally, we believe the amendments will provide greater clarity to the disclosure requirements in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which will be warmly welcomed by universities and other organisations in the research sector.

Universities Australia urges the Parliament to adopt the proposed amendments to the Bill prior to its passage. We believe that the amendments represent a sound response to the Committee's advisory report on the Bill …

Very encouraging words indeed. Philanthropy Australia said:

We welcome the manner in which the Australian Government has responded to the recommendations of the previous JSCEM Inquiry into the Bill.

…   …   …

We also recognise the work of the members of JSCEM and their clear commitment to ensuring that any Bill which is passed is fit-for-purpose …

That was in their submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry in September. Professor Tony Cunningham AO from the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes said:

… there will be no impact on our members—

that's the members of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes—

and the health promotion work they undertake. Furthermore, the greater clarity given to the academic exemption also provides an additional reassurance that the work of medical researchers would not fall under the remit of this legislation.

Professor Cunningham goes on to say that the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes:

… encourage the committee and the Parliament to support these amendments being made to the Bill.

Mr Hugh de Kretser of the Human Rights Law Centre said:

This proposed law adopts a far more sensible approach to regulating election communications while ensuring charities and other community groups are free to speak up about their work.

   …   …   …

We welcome the major improvements to this bill and thank MPs across the parties for their constructive engagement on this issue.

Mr Joseph McCarthy of the University of Melbourne said:

Given the narrowed scope of the new defined term 'electoral matters', universities will not be subjected to onerous political campaigner reporting requirements. Importantly, philanthropic donations will not be captured, thus enabling the university to continue to receive these vital funds to advance its academic activities.   …   …   …

… the University welcomes and supports the proposed changes to the Bill, and thanks the Australian Government for addressing the concerns raised by the sector.

Krystian Seibert from the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology said:

The proposed amendments are sensible and well targeted and have therefore been welcomed by various stakeholders across the not-for-profit sector.

The government should be commended for listening to the widespread and serious concerns raised about the bill from a diverse range of stakeholders, and for responding so comprehensively to both these concerns and the various recommendations made by the JSCEM when it first examined the bill earlier this year.

   …   …   …

It’s reasonable to expect that where charities do undertake electioneering activities, they should meet some basic transparency requirements regarding how much they spend on these activities and whether they received any larger donations to fund this spending. And charities are already required to do that anyway under the existing law.

   …   …   …

… it’s a hard argument to make that charities should receive a special exemption.

The Australian Major Performing Arts Group said that they welcomed the proposed amendments to remove the term 'political purpose'. It effectively addressed their major concern. The Australian Performing Arts Group welcomed the proposed amendments to the exemptions and they welcomed the narrowing of entities required to register. They also said that they appreciated the bipartisan approach to developing what they believe are effective amendments.

Ms Jill Reichstein from the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network said they congratulated the government for listening and responding, resulting in a significantly improved bill. They said, 'The narrower definition provides greater clarity for philanthropic funders, thereby enabling donors to support important advocacy activities undertaken by the charitable sector, with less concern that their funding could trigger electoral laws.' The Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network also said that they were pleased that the bill continued to encourage international donors to fund Australian environmental issues.

A joint submission to the JSCEM from the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation, the Reichstein Foundation, the Ian Potter Foundation, the Australian Communities Foundation, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, the Myer Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund collectively said:

We welcome the way in which the Australian Government has responded to the recommendations of the previous JSCEM Inquiry into the Bill.

They also said that the proposed amendments which were the subject of the inquiry were therefore very welcome and addressed many of the concerns raised about this bill.

Mr Gideon Rozner from the Institute of Public Affairs said:

The IPA therefore welcomes these amendments, insofar as they achieve the government's objective without casting a net that is unduly and unreasonably wide.

…   …   …

… the government's amendments represent a substantial improvement on the bill in its original form.

Finally, Research Australia's Ms Nadia Levin said that Research Australia 'called for the bill to be amended to avoid these unintended consequences, and are gratified to see that this outcome has been achieved with the latest amendments'. The Health and Medical Research Centre is regularly invited to respond to reviews by government departments and is pleased to see that these activities do not fall within the new definition of electoral matters.

To summarise them, the proposed amendments essentially ensure three things. Firstly, they ensure that key political actors who spend significant amounts of money on electoral expenditure are subject to appropriate disclosure obligations, with obligations commensurate to their level of electoral expenditure. Secondly, the amendments clarify that spending solely on issue advocacy is not treated as electoral expenditure when that spending is not aimed at influencing voting in a federal election. This has been clearly the main concern for the charities and other organisations that have lobbied the JSCEM and also the government on laws where those groups do not specifically also seek to influence voting in elections. Thirdly, the proposed amendments importantly override state laws to the extent that they would prevent donations or compel reporting of donations that were made for Commonwealth electoral purposes or were made available for Commonwealth purposes, not pledged or reserved for use in state and territory jurisdictions.

So the reforms in this bill clearly are vitally important and necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system and, of course, Australia's sovereignty. They do that by ensuring that only those with a truly meaningful connection to Australia are able to fund Australian political activity. This bill and its amendments will ensure that the Commonwealth's electoral funding and disclosure regime keep pace with the international developments that will prevent foreign interference. The reforms also provide transparency for Australian voters ahead of the next federal election.