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Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Page: 4027

Ms ROXON (Gellibrand) (16:19): I acknowledge the other contributors to this debate on the matter of public importance regarding political donation reform. Obviously, it is an important issue. When you talk about money and politics and the way that they combine there are many contentious issues that people want to have clarified. What has been interesting in this discussion is a realisation and acceptance from everybody that there is a need for reform, but perhaps some disagreement about how it is that we go about that reform. I have said many times before that my view of politics is that you have to be prepared to be an incrementalist or else you will never get anything done; you do not always get everything that everybody wants at any one time.

What I think is important in this discussion is to acknowledge that the proposals that the government is announcing and that have been discussed—and I understand that they have been substantially agreed by the Liberal Party—are important improvements on the system that we have in place now. When complaints are made, rightly, by both the member for New England and the member for Lyne about the way that money can be donated without being disclosed we can all say it would be better if the thresholds were lower, but the proposals the government is putting forward intend to lower by more than half the thresholds that currently exist.

I, and many other people, in a perfect world would like what the Labor Party has been arguing for for a long time—for those thresholds to return to $1,000. I understand that, despite the law having changed many years ago, the federal ALP continues to disclose according to those rules. I think we are living isolated from the current practice, saying it would be better to end up here, when, actually, we will have shortly before us a bill in parliament that, with the support of both major parties, may get through this parliament in the remaining sitting weeks. This bill will mean there will be a system in place that has many advantages compared to the current one, and I think that is worth considering.

Many committees have looked at this work and most of the members who have spoken have been those committees in various capacities—they know that there are certain changes that will be very beneficial. One of them is the lowering of the threshold from over $12,000 now. The member for New England particularly mentioned some individuals: I will not comment on those particular individuals, but the concern is that individuals can own a certain number of companies and related entities, and donate from all of those companies. Of course, that rule currently applies and, every time their figure is bigger, the more that problem is exacerbated. When you reduce it you still have that as a core problem, but you actually reduce the scale of that problem. I think we need to acknowledge all of those important steps. They are maybe not as great as everyone would like, nevertheless, it is important progress.

Another thing that has not really been mentioned in the debate in much detail, which I think is a huge improvement and which I think we should be spending a little bit of time on, is the timeliness with which declarations will have to be made. If the concerns raised by both the member for Lyne and the member for New England are circulating about the way people might make donations to affect the outcome of an electionor even to affect the outcome of a particular policy issue, it is a concern that the public always has, that money might be donated at a particular time when certain debates are on. The member for New England used the example of coal seam gas and water issues. Of course, in the time of my political life here we have had issues of tobacco reform. We have had many issues where people have asked: exactly what are companies donating for? The proposed change that those donations need to be declared every six months rather than every year means that the opportunity to have a timely reference and disclosure of donations is a very important advance.

From our political party's perspective, we are very clear about the rules that apply, that people do not buy influence by making donations and, as Minister Gray said in his comments, in his time as the national secretary many businesses actually donated to both major parties and sometimes also to minor parties as a way of supporting democracy generally and not necessarily favouring particular parties. I think the pattern is more often that particular parties are chosen by particular organisations and that is something that people are free to do. The reason for my interest in this matter and why the government is announcing a new proposal is that we want there to be a maximum level of disclosure. We want there to be timely disclosure and we want the changes to be workable through this parliament, which is why negotiations have been conducted with the other major party, potentially the government, to ensure that if changes are there they will be enduring changes. I think that that is an important consideration.

I am also concerned that some of the other benefits of the proposed changes that the government is putting forward have not been mentioned that much. One change is that there would be a restriction and a declaration process for anonymous donations that are made. I have not been in the situation where people have anonymously wanted to donate large or small amounts of money to my campaign. But I think the fact that that has been possible and that proper processes have not been in place would also raise questions that people are legitimately worried about, if they are concerned about ensuring that there is integrity in our politics.

From all speakers so far, I think there is screaming agreement in the terms of the motion, because everyone agrees that there is an urgent need for real political donation reform. When these proposed changes are put before the House, I hope that people will equally be enthusiastic about the need for change. We need to have a continued discussion into the future about how we might improve, at each stage of the way, processes that are workable for political parties and for those who want to donate to political parties. Our concern has been a consistent and long-held one.

When the previous government changed the threshold, we did not agree to it. That has increased over time. It is now at the very significant figure of $12,100, being a threshold under which people can donate without making any disclosure. I think that, to the vast majority of the public, it is a very large sum of money to be the threshold. We are proposing to cut that by more than half and believe that that is a very significant step in the right direction. It will restore some common sense. In the same way that making more regular disclosures touches upon something that people have been concerned about, while contentious debates might be in the parliament and donations might come in at particular times, there will be much higher visibility of those donations. Indeed, changes to the way information will be able to be accessed on the Electoral Commission's website is interesting.

I am also surprised that no-one has touched upon the fact that MPs actually have a much more rigorous regime of any contributions that are made directly to us or any hospitality or any gifts that we receive. Obviously, there is a difference between donations and gifts or hospitality that might be provided directly to an MP and a large donation to a particular campaign. But for those who are concerned that these rules might be strict, I would just draw their attention to the fact that we have far more restrictive rules that already apply that, by and large, members have no difficulty complying with. Sometimes there are problems and of course they are usually rectified very quickly when they are drawn to people's attention. It is always a contentious issue, but sometimes looking across the spectrum would help our perspective, because we already have regimes that we are quite comfortable with and are used to and that have been longstanding.

I want to speak on this matter simply to say that I share the concern of the member for Lyne, who moved this motion, that it is important for us to reform these processes. I am pleased that the member for Melbourne Ports is here because he has been a very passionate advocate for electoral reform for a long time and a number of the issues that have been part of his passion will be, if not completely resolved, partially resolved by these proposals. We are keen to see them go through parliament and be supported in this parliament.

We are pleased that the opposition is indicating its general agreement to that. We hope that if there are others in the chamber who would like them to go further, that does not stop support for important changes. It just leads to further debate into the future about how we can continue to ensure not only that money and politics do not entwine in a way that is damaging to democracy but that it can be used in a way that is transparent and open for public scrutiny and which therefore strengthens our democracy rather than weakens it.