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Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Page: 3293

Mr MORTON (Tangney) (16:36): by leave—I join the member for Scullin in thanking the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Senator Reynolds, and the secretariat for their work. Only Australians and Australian money should influence Australian politics and policymaking, not overseas billionaires or foreign governments. A ban on foreign money and influence should apply to all political expenditure and political campaigns in Australia. The government is not alone on this. Alternative legislation from Labor and the Greens would ban donations of foreign property to political parties and candidates or anyone who would use it for political expenditure. This would include charities. The report, in paragraph 1.32 and 1.33, makes it very clear that the Labor and Greens proposals would also extend to charities in relation to banning gifts of foreign property for the purposes of political expenditure.

The majority of submissions to and witnesses before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended that political donations should be regulated further at the federal level and that there should be further reforms. Despite broad agreement on the principles of greater transparency, there has been significant public debate about who and what activities a ban on foreign donations should apply to. What was very clear in the evidence received was that campaigns have changed over time. Long gone are the days when campaigns occurred after the issuing of the writs and when the only players in a campaign were the political parties and the candidates themselves. We now see a multitude of organisations that spend money and seek to influence voters as they make their decisions and take action as voters. Those voters deserve transparency in relation to where the money that seeks to influence them is coming from as they take part in our nation's democracy.

Much public attention has been placed on the issue of charities, and that was a major focus of concern. It was a focus of concern that I think was whipped up a little bit by some people who were trying to increase the number of people subscribing to their organisations, so I'm going to spend a little bit of time on that issue today. Some in the charities sector in partnership with GetUp! wanted to create a loophole that would allow 55,000 registered charities to use foreign money to influence Australian voters and elections.

What was quite interesting was that many of the organisations giving evidence to our committee were not aware of the fact that charities were already covered by the Electoral Act. They thought that being covered by the Charities Act and being regulated by the charities commission fulfilled all of their responsibilities and they need not be regulated further by the Electoral Act, even though the Electoral Act currently covers them and their activities. Those organisations campaigning for an exemption did acknowledge that they sought to influence Australian elections. They just didn't think that they should be subject to the same rules. In fact, several politically active charities gave evidence to the committee that elections are a very important time for them to achieve their objectives. The chief executive officer of the Australian Council for International Development told the committee, 'We were trying to influence voters through the campaign, all the time during an election period.' Evidence was also presented that showed charities handing out material at polling booths in support of certain candidates and asking electors to pledge their vote.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission also confirmed to the committee that there is nothing in charities law that would prevent Australian charities from using foreign money to campaign at Australian elections. The debate is not whether charities should be trying to influence Australian voters. Most accept that the charities sector has a role to play in our democracy. They have a role to have their voice heard in relation to their causes, and I support that. But the issue is whether all political campaigns should be transparent and whether we want foreign money targeting Australian elections and influencing Australian voters at the ballot box.

In evidence to the committee, Professor George Williams compared foreign political donations to water—money, like water, will find a way. Stopping foreign interests funding some political activities but not others would simply see foreign money flow to other sources. Charities, if exempt, would likely end up as proxies for foreign political donations. Professor Williams said, 'It's very clear in the US and a range of countries, including Australia, that you can't exempt one part, or that's simply where the money will flow to.'

Australia's electoral laws must apply equally to all who participate in the political process. Australian charities will still be able to influence Australian voters and elections—and they should—but they should be able to use only Australian donations to do so. Charities can continue to receive foreign income as long as that income is not used to fund political expenditure. In fact, part of the scare campaign was making out that the government was trying to target charities. The actual mention of charities in this legislation was to provide a carve-out and an ability for charities to still be able to receive foreign money for their charitable purpose as long as it wasn't used for political expenditure to influence Australian voters. That is fair and appropriate.

There are some issues with the current legislation. The committee has looked at that and made appropriate recommendations, particularly around the compliance burden. The committee is committed to balancing the need for transparency with compliance and ensuring entities are not adversely affected by the legislation. There are a number of recommendations that are worthy of note. I want to just highlight a few. Recommendation 2 relates to political expenditure. The uncertainty about what that meant caused great concern. The committee recommends that the government consider amending the definition to define the type of expenditure which relates to influencing voters to take action as a voter. There is a recommendation to make the registration process much simpler for all organisations that would be required to disclose under the Electoral Act. Recommendation 4—and this is very important—is making sure that we have increased reporting obligations that affect organisations at particular thresholds. Those organisations that have more significant impact on voter behaviour should have a greater burden of disclosure placed upon them, and the committee recognises that.

I think it's pretty hard to argue against greater transparency for organisations that seek to influence Australian voters and Australian elections. The debate is not over yet. Some will argue that some organisations should be exempted, that they should not be treated with the same level of transparency as other organisations who communicate to voters. But only Australians should be able to influence the outcome of Australian elections. I think that's a pretty simple arrangement and one that this committee supports. I look forward to the introduction of this legislation to the House and working with the opposition to make sure that we pass this legislation in a way that keeps intact those principles that I've mentioned.