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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10391

Mr SULLIVAN (4:51 PM) —It is a pleasure for me to support the Advisory report on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. This bill was referred to the committee by the good senators. I would like to say how much I appreciate the work that has been done by the committee secretariat in relation to this bill. You will find it is a bill about which there have been some differences of opinion based across the political divide. However, as it turns out, the chairman, Daryl Melham, has been able to negotiate a fairly decent outcome in terms of the recommendations and the modest dissension that has come with this report.

In the first instance, I will mention a little bit of historical information. Political donations are not a matter that we have argued about just in recent times; it has been around for as long as I can remember. In particular, I note that colleagues who were on the joint standing committee in the previous parliament put in a dissenting report quoting Senator Ray back in 1983. One sentence encapsulates it all. Senator Ray said:

I believe that the public has a right to know who is donating to political parties.

I think that all of us would expect that to be the case. We should be open with our communities as to who is giving us the money that we use in order to attract their vote. A good friend of mine, Michael Lavarch, was on a committee of the parliament in 1989, which is when I think the report called Who pays the piper calls the tune was presented. I think that is what the community believes: who pays the piper calls the tune—who is sticking the money in the hands of the political parties is who, if not to get their way, gets to have influence over government.

As a Queensland MP I am very familiar with the process that led up to the 1988 Fitzgerald inquiry regarding the legendary brown paper bags of money that passed hands in Queensland at that time. The whole country has come a long way since then and political processes have matured somewhat, but it is still the case that, in almost any survey of the public that is taken, MPs rate at the lower end of occupations of Australian workers—because, of course, we are Australian workers—that are trusted by the community. We share that status with a couple of other professions, like used-car salesmen and journalists.

We are open to that kind of lack of regard by our community. If we are seeking to hide from them the sources of the money that we use to campaign then we are playing into the hands of that kind of opinion. They should see, as I do, members of both sides as honourable people who are striving to see to it that the values system that they support is the one that is driving the country for the moment. The report that the committee has brought down is simply about that. It is about openness and accountability. It is about the restoration of public confidence in the political process. And while the dissenting report suggests that these matters should be delayed until the green paper of the full review of electoral legislation comes through, I believe that openness, accountability and the restoration of confidence are not matters that we as members of parliament should be seeking to delay. I believe that this is what we should have been offering up to our community not now but years ago. I think the increase that occurred in non-disclosable donations in the course of the last parliament was a blight on our political process.

There are some fairly interesting matters that are also covered in here aside from the disclosure threshold, which we are looking to bring down from $10,900 and indexed, as it is now, down to $1,000 and non-indexed. I know that in Queensland we have an issue that my colleague, the member for Melbourne Ports, has been very vocal about over a number of years—that is, the use by certain individuals of public electoral funding to gain an income over some years and, by dint of, shall we say, celebrity, being able to acquire many more votes and much more money than they need to expend in order to acquire those.

Mr Georgiou —Mike was one of them.

Mr SULLIVAN —He is a major celebrity in our quadrant in the parliament. The issue is: is it an appropriate use of public money to pay people in excess of what they spend to conduct an election? I believe that it is not, and I am yet to find any of my constituents who think that it is. They figure they work hard enough in paying their taxes and if they want to make a donation to an individual politician over and above what he spends, they would prefer that they be given the option to do that themselves rather than the government doing it on their behalf. I note there have been people who have been elected to this parliament in the past who fall into the category of people who receive more than they spend, and they have then in turn donated that to community groups. I commend them for doing that but, again, if my constituents are contributing to the money that those members get, I suspect that they would like to know that it is going to community groups in their electorate.

One of the other major issues here—I do not believe that it has been a significant problem in Australia; it certainly has not bothered me in the five or six elections that I have contested—is the issue of donations from overseas. In essence, the provisions that are included in the bill are simply to shut a door before a horse bolts. I think we all accept that that is, in itself, also a reasonable view. There have been some significant donations that have flowed into Australia from overseas from time to time. It is not a regular occurrence, but it is not something that we ought to encourage happening in the future. The support for that provision is appropriate.

We then have a look at anonymous donations. Again, the dissenting members of the committee have not taken issue with the matter itself, but they have suggested a slightly higher threshold for anonymous donations. The committee has recommended that anonymous donations of less than $50 be acceptable. That really means that somebody who attends a local party function and buys a few raffle tickets does not have to have their name recorded and reported ad infinitum. I can tell you that the greatest amount of my campaign money that does not come out of my own pocket comes out of the pockets of my branch members who pay $10 to come to a barbecue—and hopefully we will get $15 out of them for raffle tickets. I noted at a recent function of one of our state MPs that he sold at least 107 $5 tickets for a bottle of wine signed by the local councillor. I am not sure that the bottle of wine cost him more than $6.

Mr Georgiou —It wasn’t vinegar?

Mr SULLIVAN —It was not vinegar but I do not think it was wonderful.

The northern outskirts of Brisbane and the adjacent area, where we come from, are really tough country to raise money. We do not have big businesses, so none of this is going to bother me terribly much at all. But I think that $50 is reasonable, although I could be convinced that it might be $100. But the majority of the committee said $50. Some members think a couple of dollars more than that is fair. That is okay that they should think that.

We have also talked about increasing the capacity of the AEC to follow up complaints and to ensure compliance, and we have talked about increasing the penalties for people who miss their time lines or seek to indicate something that might be misleading.

At the end of the day, what this bill is about—and what the committee’s report supports—is simply openness with the community: let the community know that it is not a great difficulty for us to think about the fact that they deserve to know. As Robert Ray said in 1983, they actually have a right to know who is supporting us. It is not something we should hide from them. Heaven forbid that we should end up with an electoral system the same as that of America—which we like to laud, and they themselves particularly like to laud, as the greatest democracy in the world—where Barack Obama was able to raise, I understand, US$600 million. That is a substantial amount of money. If those sorts of funds came flowing in our direction, graduated down to the relative size of our population it would be $60 million of public money that could be raised—and $60 million can buy a lot of access. That is the purpose of major companies donating, of course. They want access—not necessarily influence but the ability to put their case.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to support the report. I am delighted with the work that the committee has done. As I say, despite the fact that we have different political views, this committee works fairly well. To my mind, the fact that the dissenting report has been modest—on a sensitive area of the work we do—is a testimony to the way that the committee, particularly the chair, Mr Daryl Melham, and the deputy chair, Mr Scott Morrison, have been able to work together to overcome those issues as best we can. We will never actually see eye to eye on these matters, I suspect, but if we can go a long way towards doing that then I think that the people of Australia are well served.