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Wednesday, 5 February 2020
Page: 251

Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (16:09): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator LAMBIE: I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Australians found out who paid for the major parties' 2019 election campaigns this week.

The Liberals finally told the Australian public about the nearly $23 million they received in political donations. The ALP released information about nearly $18 million.

We're only now finding out about where that money came from. We're only now finding out who funded their election campaigns.

Here's a newsflash for anyone who hasn't noticed: it's February. The election was in May.

Money changed hands between the major donors and their favoured parties more than eight months ago. We're finding out about it now.

And that's just the money they've bothered to tell us anything about. According to the Mercury, the Tasmanian Liberals only disclosed 23 percent of the $3.3 million they received in the year. Labor disclosed less than 5 percent of their $1.2 million.

I mean, come on. Are you serious? Is this a joke?

Let's get real here: these disclosures are too late and too limited. You can bet that the big donors have already gotten bang for their buck. They've cashed in before we knew anything about it. There's not much the rest of us can do about it now.

This really isn't good enough. Time to wake up, you guys: voters aren't stupid. Regular people know that something is off.

We might not have all the details; we might not be able to find a smoking gun.

But we know enough by now to wonder: have we been sold out here? Have you sold us out?

Because if you have, we have a right to know.

We have a right to know who you bow to -- and for how much. At least have the guts to tell us the truth. Don't sit on information that's the public's right to know for more than eight months and think everything is fine and dandy here.

Because this is not okay.

Because we're onto you.

Because when the Australian Hotels Association gives over $1 million to both parties, and our parliamentarians let poker machines continue to ruin the lives of gambling addicts, we know something is up.

When both parties take money from Crown and then join together to vote down an inquiry into allegations of corruption centring on the casino, we know something is up.

When the CFMEU donates $1.4 million to Labor, and they turn a blind eye to bullying and corruption in the construction sector, we know something is up.

Wake up!

Australians know that you're selling us out. We know, and we've had a gutful of it.

Quit taking us for a ride.

I mean, what exactly do these companies and unions think they're buying with all this money? Are you trying to pretend to us that they just throw their money around because they value our democracy that much? Come on.

It shouldn't be a surprise to you that they aren't giving millions out of the goodness of their hearts.

They don't usually spend that much money without expecting something in return. Frankly, you'd think their shareholders and members would have something to say about it if they did.

Guess what? I've got a surprise for you. The jig is up.

I'm not going to let you get away with this anymore.

I've had enough, and so have the Australian people. It's well beyond time to do things differently.

Today I'm introducing the bill to do it.

My proposal, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Donation Reform and Other Measures) Bill 2020, is an opportunity to get a fresh start.

It's a big bill, because there are big gaps to fill. It's got a lot of the things that Australians have been begging for for years: real-time disclosure, a lowered disclosure threshold, more thorough disclosures of parties' sources of income, and stronger penalties for people or organisations that do the wrong thing.

It's also got some new ideas, like the AEC Disclosure Portal, which will ensure compliance and help smaller organisations keep track of their new obligations.

All of these changes will work together to make a new disclosure system that will be easy to navigate and hard to avoid. The bill is a cohesive plan to get the Commonwealth up to speed with community expectations when it comes to donations disclosures.

The first part of this bill tightens the rules on the types of donations that need to be declared.

We're changing things so that donors can't buy a table at a fundraising dinner and get away with not declaring the money for what it is—a donation. Membership fees to parties or their fundraising bodies would also have to be declared, so donors can't sign up for a 'dinner with the Minister' subscription service without having to declare it openly.

It's a long overdue change. I am very sorry to the donors that like to quietly pay thousands for the opportunity to 'bend the ear' of our elected representatives at the 500 Club or Progressive Business but if disclosing the cost of their dinner puts them off, I doubt they'll miss the company or the food.

The bill would also lower the disclosure threshold from $14,000 per year to $2,500 every six months. That means that smaller donations will have to be declared. It is utterly ridiculous that someone can donate $13,500 and the Australian public won't know anything about it.

Even worse, a donor could split up their donations so that they were all worth less than the threshold, and the parties wouldn't have to declare source of the income. That means the parties don't have to declare two 8,000 dollar donations from the same donor, because each individual donation is worth less than 14 grand.

You can bet we're getting rid of that loophole too.

Under this bill, donors and recipients will keep track of any donations under the threshold over a six month period, and declare them as soon as the total value of the donations is more than $2,500. Any subsequent donation from the same donor would also need to be declared until the end of the reporting period—either in January or July.

Australians won't be waiting for months and months (if not years) to hear anything about donations that are over the threshold, either. This bill would bring in real time disclosure of donations, so that donors and recipients have seven days to make a declaration when one is required.

We have the technology to do this now—there's no excuse for making people wait for so long to find out about who's been donating to whom. Look at Queensland, and look at South Australia. They've been doing this for years. There's no reason why the Commonwealth can't too.

These are big changes, and I know some of the people in this place won't like them much. So I've had to think about bringing in compliance measures too. We've got to ensure everyone plays by the same rules, or the bill wouldn't be fair to those who do the right thing.

One of the most important compliance measures introduced in this legislation is to introduce electoral expenditure accounts.

Any organisation that pays for electoral expenditure will need to set themselves up with an electoral expenditure account, and provide details about the account to the AEC. If they want to spend money to engage in political debates, they'll have to take the money—exclusively—from their electoral expenditure account.

And here's the catch: the only way to get money into the account will be to transfer it to the account through a disclosure portal run by the AEC. When the money goes through the Portal, it will require parties and donors to provide information to the AEC about the source of the donation.

This will give the AEC visibility over the sources of the income that parties are using to pay for electoral expenditure. It will ensure the money that gets used in our election campaigns has been properly accounted for according to the requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

It will also help donors and donation recipients out, by keeping track of whether they need to make a public declaration and letting them know when it's time to disclose a donation over the threshold.

The Commonwealth Government is more than capable of making this happen. In fact, we're well behind what the States and Territories have already introduced. They've already enacted a bunch of these ideas, and—no surprises—the sky didn't fall in.

Real-time disclosures in Queensland and South Australia are possible thanks to online software that automatically cleans up and publishes the data. It helps weed out stupid spelling mistakes and other issues that get in the way of researchers using the data, and showcases the information to the public in an easy format. It even produces interactive maps to show the electorates where the most money is coming from.

In NSW, parties and other political campaigners have to hold a campaign account, from which all their electoral expenditure is paid. It makes it harder for parties and others to avoid disclosure because it gives the Electoral Commission more information about the income that they're using to pay for election campaigns.

I've got a bit more to tell you about. I warned you this was a big bill.

We're also reforming the annual returns that are currently provided by political parties and other political organisations about their income and donations.

Unfortunately, the annual returns aren't particularly useful right now. They're released well after the money has changed hands, and they don't contain much information about the organisation's income that supposedly isn't from donations—income that the Commonwealth Electoral Act calls 'other receipts'.

These so-called 'other receipts' are often incorrectly declared, so that they don't show up on a political parties' return as a donation.

Worse, there's a lot of money that gets dumped in the 'other receipts' bucket so it's hard for anyone looking at the returns to know what it's there for. Profits from fundraising dinners or returns on an investment get declared the same way as money from a public body like the ATO.

Under this bill, parties and other reporting entities will have to provide returns declaring the sources of all their income every six months. On top of that, other receipts will need to be categorised so that people have some idea where the money has come from.

Regular reports and better information about this money will help stop people from trying to avoid real-time disclosure by categorising more income as an 'other receipt'.

Another compliance measure under this bill is to allow the AEC to appoint inspectors, who will have the power to investigate and monitor serious breaches of Part XX of the Act. In the absence of a strong federal ICAC with teeth, these changes will at least allow the AEC to ensure everyone is following the rules when it comes to disclosing donations.

The bill takes a big whack at large donors who are trying to get in the ear of politicians. But the intention is not to remove people's right to contribute small amounts to their preferred political party.

That's why we've made some exceptions for donations of up to $500. For an anonymous political donation to be permitted, the party or entity that receives the donation will have to provide the AEC with information about the context that the donation was received in.

That means you can still have small fundraising events and stalls in markets—you just can't fail to declare it when you charge people thousands for the privilege of speaking with you.

We've also exempted registered charities from the real-time disclosure obligations, to recognise that they already have strong accountability and disclosure requirements under the Charities Act 2013 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012. Charities will still be required to disclose the source of any reportable income used to fund electoral expenditure every six months.

These changes will substantially increase public transparency over political donations. They're long overdue, and they reflect best practice in the States and Territories.

To finish off: I'd encourage everyone in the chamber to reflect on how urgently we need this change.

Trust in government is at its lowest level in Australia since 1969. More people than ever think government is run for the benefit of big business instead of the public interest. Aussies are now more dissatisfied with our democracy than New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans.

Money in politics isn't the only reason that people are so fed up, but I'm willing to bet it's a big part of it.

This bill will help give voters a better understanding of exactly what's going on. It will bring a bit more accountability back into this place.

And it will finally force donors and parties to be honest with the Australian people about what's going on behind closed doors.

Senator LAMBIE: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.