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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10393

Mr DANBY (5:04 PM) —In speaking on this report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the Advisory report on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008, I want to commend the committee’s chair, the honourable member for Banks, for his firm conduct of this inquiry; he was collegial but he was firm. I thank other members of the committee for their contributions. I also acknowledge the secretariat’s work to support the committee’s deliberations.

Some of you will know that I am not sure that the issue of political donations is the most important issue in the area that the electoral matters committee looks at—the democratic reform of Australia. In particular, I would have thought that issues emerging from the last government’s regressive legislation, issues of provisional voting and early closure of the roll, are just as important. It is my contention that, in the area of provisional voting, the changes that the previous government wrought to the electoral legislation probably affected three or maybe four seats at the last federal election in a way that disadvantaged the current government.

Having said that, I do not really think that this inquiry, in another sense, was necessary. It was forced on us by the Senate when the government did not have a majority—and it still does not have a majority. The Rudd government has a clear mandate for this piece of legislation. At the time the Howard government foreshadowed the legislation which this bill overturns, we said we would oppose it. When the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters conducted its inquiry into the Howard government’s legislation, we exposed many of its deficiencies and the Labor members of the committee wrote a minority report saying why we would oppose it. During the last election campaign, the then opposition pledged to overturn this harmful, regressive and undemocratic legislation, and now that we are in government we are carrying out that commitment.

The opposition members of this committee, led by the deputy chair, the honourable member for Cook, have presented a dissenting report to the committee’s report. This is, of course, their right. But they cannot claim that this legislation came as a surprise to them. We said all along—and I personally said many times in this House before the election and publicly—that we opposed the Howard government’s damaging changes to our electoral laws and that we would repeal them as soon as we had the opportunity to do so. So opposition members are entitled to go on arguing the case for discredited legislation but they cannot deny that we have a mandate to overturn it. Opposition members said in their dissenting report:

A responsible government would adopt a holistic, broad, bi-partisan view of the issue and most importantly, consider what is in the best interests of the community and our democracy.

I am delighted to see that the opposition has been converted to the principle of bipartisanship now that they are out of government. I am entitled to ask how much bipartisanship the previous government showed when it rammed electoral laws through both this House and the Senate in 2006.

Mr Georgiou —You were deputy chairman, so you should know we have done consensual reports with no dissents, so don’t try and—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for Kooyong will not disrupt. The member for Melbourne Ports has the call.

Mr Georgiou interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne Ports will be heard in silence.

Mr DANBY —Well, to be fair, we issued a dissenting report with the last report, for the 2004 election—maybe not when the member for Kooyong was chair of that committee.

The opposition also used a lot of evidence adduced from recognised experts in the area, Brian Coster and Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes, that was simply ignored. Maybe the member for Kooyong was a secret dissenter, as he was a dissenter on other issues, from the then minister, Senator Abetz.

The bill the committee has just examined is part of a fulfilment of Labor’s commitment to, as I say, undo these regressive changes to our electoral laws by the former government. It reverses the decision by the Howard government which made it easier for individuals and corporations to give money to political parties without disclosure—a decision that was widely seen as a device to put more money in the coffers of the Liberal Party. The Howard government’s change to financial disclosure arrangements, most notably lifting the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to more than $10,000, allowed large sums to be donated to the Liberal Party without being disclosed, and, of course, that was the intention of the legislation. The delay in the publication of disclosures made above this higher threshold has meant that up to one year and three months could elapse after a donation had been made before it was made public. That is quite unacceptable.

The days when the Liberal Party can rewrite our election law to suit their own partisan fundraising needs I hope have now ended for good. I have particular hope that this bill will reduce the likelihood of a repetition of the events we saw in the seat of Indi in 2004, which I drew to the attention of the House at the time, when tobacco interests used an entity called the Friends of Indi to channel money without disclosure to the honourable member for Indi. After an inquiry that lasted for most of 2007 the Australian Electoral Commission found in November last year that the Friends of Indi was an associated entity of the Liberal Party and either the Liberal Party or the honourable member for Indi had a disclosure obligation in relation to gifts of the kind provided by the Friends of Indi.

The Liberal Party then lodged an amended return for the 2004 financial year disclosing $23,514 in additional total receipts and $16,158 in additional detailed receipts. I do not think Australians in Indi or elsewhere like the idea of members of parliament being in receipt of secret donations, especially from organisations as controversial as the tobacco lobby. If honourable members want to take money from the tobacco lobby, that is their right but they should do so in the light of day so that their electors can see what they are doing. It has not been disclosed whether the tobacco lobby demanded action or response from the member for Indi. Perhaps she will tell the House one day, but it is clear that the previous government’s legislation made it easier for interest groups like this to buy influence by giving money under the threshold to members of parliament. The Rudd government’s legislation will make it harder for them to do so. I think I know which approach the Australian people will support.

The bill which is the subject of this report will do a number of things. Firstly, it will reduce the disclosure threshold from more than $10,000, indexed to the CPI, to $1,000, not indexed. Next, the bill will require people who donate to political parties during election campaigns to furnish a return within eight weeks of the polling day. Next, the bill will require people who make gifts and others to furnish twice-yearly returns. Next, it will close a loophole which allows people to donate to each state branch of a political party and claim each donation as a separate donation.

Finally, the bill will close what I call the ‘Pauline Hanson’ loophole, which allows a person who is a well-known name to nominate for the Senate, appear on Dancing with the Stars, poll four per cent of the vote without doing any campaigning and then automatically receive public funding. In the 2004 election the former One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, a person who that year—I am sure it will depress the member for Kooyong to be reminded of this—was a guest at the Liberal Party’s 60th anniversary celebrations, pocketed almost $200,000 of public funding while spending only $35,000 on her campaign. This was the person described by the honourable member for Mackellar as a ‘political prisoner’ when she was convicted for fraud in 2003. The law will now limit public funding to actual expenditure incurred by the party or candidate. Since I used a series of speeches and articles to draw attention to this abuse of the public funding provisions of the act that were used by Ms Hanson in the 2004 and 2007 elections, I think I can claim some small amount of credit for the provisions of this bill.

I said earlier that I did not think this inquiry was necessary. That is not to say that nothing useful has come from it. As a result of our deliberations we have recommended two amendments to the bill, which I hope the minister will take on board. The first is that definition of electoral expenditure be expanded to allow reasonable administrative expenses related to campaigning. This will ensure that minor parties are not disadvantaged by the proposed closing of the Hanson loophole. The second proposal is that anonymous donations below $50 be allowed since we recognise that a complete ban on anonymous donations might create a situation where, for example, a party could not sell a raffle ticket or accept small cash donations at public events.

As the member for Longman said, I think the government remains reasonable on this issue. Fifty dollars may not be the appropriate level. It may be slightly higher, as the dissenting report demands. If the minister feels that small lunches or dinners that some individual candidates have are going to be wrapped up in this legislation if anonymous donation is set at that level, he may feel that that would be administratively impossible to deal with. I think that other members of the government would go along with him. This report is another stage in carrying out the Rudd government’s commitment to electoral reform. We have a mandate for these reforms. They are in the interests of Australian democracy and we intend carrying them through.

Debate (on motion by Mr Hayes) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 5.16 pm to 6.38 pm