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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 238

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:31): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by the Leader of the Australian Greens (Senator Di Natale) today relating to political donations reform.

The Greens are taking up the call for political donation reform in the current ACT Legislative Assembly election. We have a clear example here of why we need national, uniform electoral funding laws.

With respect to the ACT, we know that corruption does not stop at state and territory borders. At the moment, developers are bypassing the New South Wales electoral funding laws and avoiding disclosure obligations by donating to other branches. The Canberra Liberals have had three donations amounting to $255,000 from the federal Liberal Party. We also know that the New South Wales corruption watchdog, ICAC, have found that different branches of the Liberal Party are laundering illegal donations and getting them back to the New South Wales Liberals.

There is one New South Wales developer who has developed quite a bad name for himself: Tony Merhi. He only recently made a major donation to the Canberra Liberals through his company Merc Shoppingtown. He does not live or trade in the ACT. In the light of these findings, the ACT Greens are calling on the Canberra Liberals to return this donation. That is just a small step to cleaning up what is a huge problem when it comes to the corrupting influence political donations are having on our democratic process, particularly when it comes time for elections. We also know that the Canberra Liberals have taken over $100,000 from property developers since the last election.

It is very interesting to look at the returns on the Elections ACT site. They show that the ACT Liberals are taking donations from New South Wales developers and that they are regularly making transfers to the federal Liberals and the New South Wales Liberals. It appears that this is not illegal. However, it shows again the problems that we have with the funnelling of money, and it adds to the public cynicism about how our electoral processes are working and where the money comes from.

There is also a local government election underway in New South Wales at the present time. Again, we are seeing really serious problems in the way the Baird government has failed to clean up the electoral funding process for local government. First off, they have allowed real estate agents and developers to run for council. This has been called out time and time again as more communities become frustrated about how they are being done over by this. Business people who are well cashed up are able to use their contacts and use their money to get onto council, and then communities are effectively locked out.

But there is also the need here to limit political donations and limit the role that money, particularly developer donations, is having. We know that under the New South Wales Premier, Mr Baird, the donation caps that were put in place did not kick in until 1 July this year. That means there have been huge amounts of money with no limits at all, because the very fine laws that were originally brought in in New South Wales were never applied to the local government area. In some ways, some would argue—and I know they do—that this is where they are needed most. So there has been a huge rush of developer money into the local government elections that are playing out in New South Wales. If we had had expenditure caps as well as donation caps, it would be a very easy way to bring back a more level playing field. We know that when it comes to local government elections, many people want to stand, and that is a welcome part of our democracy. It would be a much fairer electoral process if we had those caps in place. It certainly would make it much easier in having an accountable system to ensure there is a measure of equity in how our local government elections are run.

So the Greens will continue our work, and I thought that the question from my colleague Senator Di Natale was really spot on today—really taking it up to the government. There has been a commitment—

Senator Conroy: Except you voted against it!

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to take that interjection because what the senator is referring to is just some wedge tactics that have gone on. He is not acknowledging that Labor voted against it when there was a clear proposal. It was nothing to do with Senate voting reform, it was not linked to anything, and they had the opportunity to vote for political donation reform. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.