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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 15


Senator LUDLAM (1:41 PM) —I rise to speak briefly about the position of the Greens on the Tax Laws Amendment (Political Contributions and Gifts) Bill 2008 that is before us today and also to foreshadow the amendments which we will move in the committee stage, which a number of other senators have already referred to. Firstly, I will go to the issue of whether we should be moving now or whether we should wait for the outcome of the green paper process that is afoot. The Greens will be supporting this bill with the amendment that I will speak to because it essentially removes something that to us is a no-brainer. Tax deductions for corporations to participate in the electoral process are clearly unacceptable. It is not something that the public should be supporting. We believe that there probably is merit in waiting for the consultation process to wind up before progressing with a comprehensive electoral reform package, but these are measures that are entirely appropriate to proceed with today rather than just maintaining the status quo, which is quite clearly unacceptable.

The Greens believe—and we are firmly on the record as putting this position in state and federal parliaments—that elections should be publicly funded. It creates a much fairer and more democratic system for the public to fund political parties, independents and people seeking to express a point of view through our electoral system than the heavily out-of-balance system we have at the moment where, in a sense, corporate free speech is privileged above that of citizens. Private money plays an enormous and out-of-balance role in our political system today. Some donors, and particularly private donors—referring to some of the headlines that Senator Birmingham referred to before—are using financial assets to buy access to the political system. Current requirements for disclosure of these donations are clearly unacceptable, and that is one of the reasons we are here today. There is a perception, which I think is probably well founded, that corporate money buys political influence. That is not only damaging to our political system but also damaging to public confidence in the political system, which winds up being much the same thing. So I think there is certainly a case for the moves that the government has proposed and has put before us today to restrict tax deductibility—that is, public support—for corporations’ perceived rights to buy influence amongst decision-makers.

We believe that the case for restricting donations from individuals is actually much less clear. In essence, we are arguing that public participation in the political process is a public good and is therefore entirely worth supporting—with some caveats. Small donations from individuals will encourage parties to reach out to their grassroots rather than relying on very large corporate donations. So there is certainly a case for retaining tax deductibility for personal donations up to a threshold of $1,500.

I will now go to the make-up of funding for political parties when they run elections. The major parties receive, roughly, 80 per cent of their funding through private sources and receive the balance through public sources. The major parties receive significantly more in larger donations: roughly 80 per cent of donations are $10,000 or more, 60 per cent of donations are over $40,000 and 45 per cent of donations are $100,000 or more. There is a break-up of the way funding was received for the major and minor political parties and for Independents in the last election, and it shows quite clearly that the balance of private donations overwhelmingly favours the major parties. That profoundly unbalances the playing field. It means that some voices are much louder than others by being able to afford electoral advertising, campaign staff, administration costs and so on.

The Greens support strong requirements for funding disclosure. We are very keen on exploring any other options and will be proposing other options to improve the transparency, the accountability and the equity in our electoral system. The current system, I believe, is failing Australian democracy and is probably not as good as we think it is. I will speak briefly again when we move amendments in the committee stage.