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Monday, 25 November 2019
Page: 3999


Senator WATERS (Queensland) (10:56): I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019, which presumably was designed to stop instances such as those where we saw almost six million people spammed by Clive Palmer in the lead-up to the last election—ironically, at one point with a text message saying he would ban unsolicited text messages. Irony is clearly dead in that scenario. It's a very welcome bill that we will be supporting when the time comes; I understand that it's not coming on for a vote today. I note the amendment moved by Labor providing for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to examine the bill. We'll be supporting that further examination as well.

This bill allows members of the public to unsubscribe from unsolicited political text messages and also from other unsolicited messages, which we think is also a fair enough step. It's pretty outrageous that we saw folk like Clive Palmer spamming so many people—thankfully, with little result, although arguably we now have the government sitting on the benches that they're sitting on partially as a result of such campaigns by Mr Palmer. But 5.6 million people received those text messages from him—numerous text messages, on a whole range of topics—and there was no ability for them to unsubscribe. It's no wonder that there were more than 3,000 complaints by people saying, 'I want him to stop texting me.' But they had no means to enforce that desire. This bill would remedy that, and it would require such text messages to include an unsubscribe function that then would have to be respected by the political party who received that unsubscribe request. That seems to me a fair balancing of the right to freedom of political communication and the right of people to not be spammed by Clive Palmer, so we support this bill.

The other facet of the bill which I thought was quite amusing was the requirement for folk to declare when they're actors and are not really tradies but are just paid to dress up as a tradie and pretend that they support whichever major political party is paying for that particular ad. Likewise, we think that's a really good transparency measure and will ensure that voters aren't deceived. There's an awful lot of need for truth in advertising—in particular, truth in political communications—and this is a small step in the right direction. There's a lot more work that needs to be done in that regard.

What's really needed, though, is genuine reform of the influence that big money has on our election campaigns. Are we to become America? There was some research over the weekend that showed that there's a direct correlation between money spent and seats won. That is a very scary prospect for this nation to be potentially heading down. There's no cap on spending and certainly no cap on donations. The vested interests and big corporate donors that line the pockets of both of the big political parties get a very good return on their investment.

We've looked at the figures, going back a few years, and for every dollar that fossil fuel—that is, big coal, big oil and big gas—donated to both sides of politics they got $2,000 in subsidies. Their donations were able to purchase policy outcomes from governments of the day, of either persuasion, thanks to that cosy relationship of, 'Gee, I'll make a donation to you, and, when you're in government, you can write me some subsidies, or I can write off my equipment faster than anyone else can, or I can get accelerated depreciation and diesel-fuel subsidies that nobody else can get.' What a very good return on investment for those big corporate donors! It's that sort of corruption of democracy that we think needs to be addressed. This bill is a great step in the right direction, but it doesn't deal with that more fundamental issue of how big money is buying our politics.

Since 2012, we've seen $100 million donated to both sides of politics—Labor, Liberal and the National Party. There has been more than $100 million in big corporate donations. Is it any wonder that disenchantment and disenfranchisement are at all-time highs? People don't feel like this democracy is for them anymore. They don't feel heard, they don't feel represented and they know they can't get the access that the big corporates can get. The money flows, the meetings are given and the policy outcomes flow. The rich get richer and the poor get done over. This is what needs to be fixed in our great democracy of ours. It has the potential to give voice to people's genuine concerns and help make their lives better. Instead, we have $100 million in corporate donations flowing to both sides. They get the policy outcomes they want. Everybody in here is very happy. Meanwhile, out there in the community, life's getting harder for people, and they're feeling like this democracy doesn't even speak for them anymore. It doesn't represent their interests, it doesn't help them and it's not for them. That's a cancer on our democracy, which we need to arrest.

The Greens have been campaigning for more than a decade now for limits on corporate donations. In fact, we think the fossil-fuel, alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries shouldn't be allowed to donate at all. We don't think that they should be able to buy outcomes that suit their profits, because their profits inevitably disadvantage everyone else. We think that this house of democracy is meant to be here for the people, for the community, for making decisions, in the public interest, that address climate change, fix financial inequality, redress the lack of affordable housing and finally end violence against women—and for all those other issues that are real issues for people out there in the community. We think that those sorts of issues should be what this parliament deals with, rather than the corporate outcomes that the big donors buy.

We've long been campaigning for a cap, or in fact a complete ban, on corporate donations by those particular interest groups—dirty money, if you like—and a cap on donations by everybody else—and we mean everybody else—of no more than $3,000 per political term, so essentially $1,000 a year. Big money should not have its dirty influence on our politics. Big money does not belong in our politics. This is not America. Our democracy is a precious thing. It should be treasured and it should be given voice to. Instead, we are seeing that big money is running this place, so we've long campaigned for a ban on those donations.

We need spending caps, and that harks back to the substance of this bill. If we'd already had spending caps then perhaps Mr Palmer wouldn't have been able to send his more than 5.6 million unsolicited and unsubscribable text messages to unsuspecting Australians. It's well documented that he spent upwards of $60 million in the election campaign and ran some very scathing ads, and he arguably delivered government for this mob over here. We don't think that big money should buy election outcomes. That's why we think there should be a cap on election spending.

There's also a real need to clean up the revolving door of lobbyists and politicians. I talked a bit about the access that vested interests and donors get in this place, but the lobbyists get an awful lot of access too. I don't know what sorts of promises they make, but often you find that people leave this parliament and end up working for those groups. And it's not confined to just one side of this chamber. There are examples on both sides of the chamber. Closing that revolving door between lobbyists and MPs will help restore public confidence that democracy is for them, is about them and is there to make their lives better; it's not just there to feather the nests of politicians once they leave parliament. They're the sorts of reforms that the Greens would like to see to our democratic system.

As one small step forward, we think this bill is very welcome. People should be able to unsubscribe from text messages, from political parties, that they didn't ask for, that they don't want, that are from a party that they may not support and that they want to stop receiving. It's just an absolute travesty that people were able to get spammed text message after text message when they wanted to unsubscribe but had no legal ability to do so. This bill is an important contribution to enabling voters to say when enough is enough. We think the flip side of that should be spending caps, for the reasons I've mentioned. Big money should not be able to influence election outcomes. An election should be about campaigning, it should be about policies and it should be about listening to the community and addressing their real concerns. We'll be supporting this bill and we'll likewise be supporting, if they come on for a vote, the amendment that seeks further examination of this bill through the JSCEM process and then the bringing back on of this bill for further debate and, hopefully, passage in due course.