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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8252

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (10:43): I rise also to make a contribution to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2018. This, I consider, is a missed opportunity to finally introduce adequate transparency and integrity measures into our political system. It's a bill I've been following closely since it was introduced in December last year. In fact, I have been to a number of meetings about it. It's a great shame that the government has missed this opportunity to introduce real, long-lasting reform, because it is clear that we need to clean up our politics and our donations in this country. Australians' faith in our democracy is diminishing, unfortunately. They see donations coming from big business flowing to the Liberal, Labor and National parties and they can see that there are policy outcomes expected for those donations. Massive injections of cash from the fossil fuel industry have meant that Australia's governments for years and years have failed to take long-lasting, meaningful action on climate change, and, quite frankly, we are seeing the impacts right now today and into the future. On the other side, the ALP receives donations from the oil and gas industry and apparently has no interest in making gas companies pay royalties or tax on the millions and millions of dollars they are raking in. And, of course, we see the revolving door between politics and big business, which certainly does not help.

Right from the start, when this bill was introduced last year, it was clear that this legislation was not, in fact, as the government articulated, motivated solely by concerns about the influence of foreign money in this country. It was obvious that there were also other objectives and agendas. If they were seriously concerned about the influence of donations on our democracy in this country, why on earth hasn't the government moved and started in the most obvious place—putting caps on donations to all political parties and limiting expenditure to boot?

To address one of the issues that Senator Reynolds just brought up, having a shot at Senator Waters: we have amendments to cap all donations. Senator Reynolds—I hope she's still listening—we are in fact addressing the issue that you were so inaccurately trying to label the Greens as doing. And also, by the way, you labelled our charities and not-for-profit sector most inappropriately. In our set of amendments, we have a cap of $1,000 on all donations. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the government's support for our amendments and, in particular, Senator Reynolds's support for our amendments. This is about a coalition government determined to stifle civil society—and what better example do we have than the comments Senator Reynolds just made? She failed to differentiate between charities and not-for-profits, who provide so many valuable services to our community, and big business. And what do they want? They want to lobby for their own profits. I noticed that that point wasn't made by the senator. Beyond that, her facts about what the charities and not-for-profit sector does were plainly wrong.

This is about a government that clearly wants to silence those in civil society who work every day to make Australia better and to support some of the most vulnerable members of our community. The government doesn't like us raising issues that are uncomfortable for them. They don't like it when we do it in this place. They certainly don't like it when the broader community pushes back at them about their heartless policies on refugees and around their failure to take action on the policies that really count—such as addressing homelessness and the three million people living in poverty in this country. Those are the things that our charities and not-for-profits are working on.

When we first saw this legislation in December, it was obvious that this was about seriously constraining the work of a wide range of charities and not-for-profits by treating their work as politically partisan—and we just saw a classic example of that in this place. It would have forced some charities to choose between public advocacy and accepting international philanthropy. It would have tied up many charities in bureaucratic knots—even more than they have to do already—forcing them to detail political expenditure and their senior employees' membership of political parties. And it would have required a statutory declaration from any donor who cumulatively gives more than $250 annually, an onerous burden that certainly would have impacted charitable giving in this country. Was that the government's intent? That's certainly what it would have done. I've been in this place long enough to know that the coalition—ever since I first set foot in this chamber—has repeatedly tried to undermine charities and not-for-profits.

Having come straight from the not-for-profit sector into this chamber, from the first time I was in here, I knew what the government was up to; I saw very clearly. Having been on the other side, having worked in the not-for-profit sector for most of my career, I knew what they were up to, as did other people in this chamber. The coalition have been intent on gagging charities and not-for-profits, and have repeatedly tried to stop environmental organisations from doing their work—raising uncomfortable facts and trying to protect and arrest the decline, for example, of our endangered species, of which Australia has the unfortunate record of having the highest rate of mammalian species lost in critical weight ranges in the world. I come from a place in Western Australia which is one of the biodiversity hotspots on this planet—some of the species found there are found nowhere else—and I'll campaign to the last breath in my body to protect those species, as will many in community based organisations.

The community sector provides services to our community that the government fails to provide. They stand up for policy change. They don't just support and provide services to some of the most vulnerable members of our community but they also want to change the policy that leads to people being vulnerable in the first place. I know it's uncomfortable for the government when organisations tell the government they need to increase Newstart because, as it currently stands, it leads to people living in poverty. They don't like feeling that heat. They just want to support and make people's lives a little more comfortable when they're living in poverty; they don't want to hear the uncomfortable fact that people are living in poverty because of their policies. That's the fact.

The government wants all these changes, but the charities are already regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission that comes out of that act. Thankfully, the bill has now been amended to address many of the concerns of charities and other parts of civil society—after a long campaign, I've got to say—but it wasn't easy to achieve these changes through that campaign. Over the course of the last year, in the charities and civil society sector hundreds of hours and countless resources have been spent trying to make the government and the Labor Party see sense. The Hands off our Charities alliance and other charities have engaged in the inquiry process. They've spoken extensively to their members, they've hosted democracy sausage sizzles at Parliament House and they've spoken to as many members of this place as possible. The result is a bill that has, fortunately, been improved. The Greens, too, have worked tirelessly to try and make the government see sense in relation to this bill. I pay tribute to my former colleague Lee Rhiannon and to Senator Larissa Waters, who has taken up that portfolio, for the tireless work they have done on this legislation.

In addition to the concerns outlined by Senator Waters, the Greens still have misgivings about this bill as it relates to the charitable sector. We have seen amendments rushed through at the last minute without the time for proper scrutiny, and we are concerned that we will only realise down the track that charities and civil society do face an increased burden of administration that may stymie their important work. I'm deeply concerned about tying them up in red tape when we've been told that the government's trying to get rid of red tape. We know that this government, as I articulated and as we've just heard in this place this morning, sees civil society as playing partisan politics when, in fact, what civil society is trying to do is ensure that we have policies in this country that provide for a better society. We do not want to see civil society silenced, even though they do tell us uncomfortable facts. This is a democracy and they have the right to speak out. They have the right, in fact, under legislation, to be able to advocate.

We've heard the government's agenda, via Senator Reynolds, of trying to provide an excuse to shut down the work of charities which provide essential and valuable work for our communities. Charities and the not-for-profit sector advocate for better outcomes for our community. Whether it is trying to ensure that we don't suffer from the catastrophic impacts of climate change, whether it's ensuring that an oil spill from an accident from the offshore oil and gas industry doesn't impact irreversibly on our marine environment—in other words, ensuring that some of our most important marine environments are protected—whether it's campaigning to make sure that we have an increase in Newstart so that people aren't living in poverty, or whether it is ensuring that we're investing in research for better medical outcomes, that's all the work of civil society. Some organisations I can think of have raised illnesses that the government didn't think were illnesses and weren't on their agenda, and they are now on their agenda and getting the attention they deserve. Civil society organisations are the leaders in this country. They are the ones that lead change. They are the ones that drive change.

The Greens support our charities and not-for-profit sector. We do not want to see them stifled in red tape and gagged. Previously we have seen charities and the not-for-profit sector having contracts that gag them from speaking out if they take money from government. That is not appropriate for those organisations. It is obvious from the past, from those gag clauses, that it was definitely about providing those services and turning a blind eye to the policies that lead to you having to provide those services in the first place. Well, we won't stand for those changes. We are deeply concerned that, even with the changes that have been made, we may, in fact, see an adverse impact on the sector, and we will continue to monitor this extremely closely. This bill has been improved but it shouldn't have gotten to the point where the sector had to run such a campaign to get the changes to reverse this government's agenda.