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Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Page: 3477


Senator WATERS (QueenslandLeader of the Australian Greens in the Senate) (15:41): I table the explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this Bill today, and take a first step towards getting dirty money out of politics. I would like to acknowledge the important work done on this issue by former Senator Lee Rhiannon and Senator Richard di Natale that has assisted in the development of this bill.

If passed, this bill would stop dirty industries with a track record of seeking to influence decision makers through donations - the banking, mining, defence, pharmaceutical, liquor, tobacco and gambling industries - from making political donations. The bill would also limit the amount that can be donated by individuals and other entities to $3,000 per election term, minimising the opportunity for big money to buy outcomes.

There has never been a more important time for donation reform. Our democracy is in trouble. Public trust in parliament and politicians is at an all-time low, and the community feels less and less confident that their representatives represent them, rather than doing the bidding of their corporate donors.

And it's no wonder. One hundred million dollars is the amount of corporate donations that the Labor, Liberal and National parties have taken since 2012 from the big banks, from industries like mining, defence and big pharma, from property developers, and from alcohol, tobacco and gambling companies. These are just some of the industries that have paid the Liberal, National and Labor parties to put their private profits ahead of the needs of our community.

These industries are not donating tens of millions of dollars because they believe in the institution of strong democracy. They are donating because it gets results.

The Greens have maintained the www.democracyforsale.org website for over a decade, tracking publicly disclosed political donations and putting a spotlight on influence-peddling. In 2018, the Senate Select Committee on the Political Influence of Donations laid out examples of the nexus between donations made by industry bodies and public policy outcomes or project approvals. The cosy relationships and the proximity of donations and policy outcomes that boost industry profits suggest undue influence.

Recognising the corrosive influence that donations from the development sector had had on planning policy, infrastructure, and urban development, Queensland and New South Wales have both legislated to restrict political donations from property developers. The High Court has upheld these restrictions and this Bill seeks to extend those to the Federal arena. But it also recognises the influence of other key industries.

Since 2012, the fossil fuel and resources industries have donated over $7.5 million to both of the major parties. They get $6 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies. That's cheap fuel and accelerated depreciation that the rest of us don't get. That's a pretty good return on investment - about $2,000 in subsidies for every dollar they donate. Generous donations have also bought them a Liberal government that is completely paralysed by the words 'climate change' at a time when the Australian community faces a future of more extreme bushfires, crippling droughts and floods.

The cosy relationships and financial support have led to a situation where, despite overwhelming scientific evidence demanding action to address the climate crisis, borne out by the recent devastating bushfire season, no coal mine or coal seam gas project has ever been rejected by the Federal government - Coalition or Labor.

The gas industry donates millions of dollars to the government, so it was no great surprise when the Prime Minister appointed his gas industry mates to the National Covid Coordination Commission and did not even require them to publish their conflicts of interest. It was also no surprise when a Taskforce of that Commission called for and received government support for a "gas led recovery" and a plan focussed on projects that directly benefit the gas industry. Representatives who met with the Taskforce have confirmed that discussion was dominated by gas projects, ignoring renewable energy proposals despite strong support for a renewables-led recovery from scientists, economists and policy analysts. Again, the community loses the opportunity for a sustainable recovery because the government is beholden to its fossil fuel donors.

The banking and financial sector is also a regular contributor and beneficiary. The sector has donated about $60 million since 2012 to both sides of politics, and that support secured them immunity for some time despite the evidence of customers being ripped off all over the country. Both of the major parties had to be dragged to the banking royal commission, something the Greens campaigned for since 2014, following scandal after scandal and public backlash over their inaction. How much faster would the commission have happened if the Liberal, National and Labor parties weren't on the payroll of the banks? And would we have seen stronger action in response to the scathing royal commission report?

The gambling industry is another significant donor to State and Federal political parties, and their influence can be seen in the deeply entrenched support for poker machines throughout Australia. ClubsNSW donated heavily to the Liberal party following Labor's commitment to Andrew Wilkie pokies reform. Submissions to the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations inquiry set out the clear efforts of ClubsNSW to support Coalition members who opposed the ALP / Wilkie, funnelling $30,000 to then opposition spokesperson on gambling, Kevin Andrews, and a further $10,000 following the Coalition's election and repeal of the poker machine regulations.

These are only the donations that we know about, none of which have been illegal. It doesn't include money paid to attend business forums or cash for access meetings, it ignores exorbitant subscription or membership fees, and it doesn't include money funnelled through representative and fundraising bodies.

But regardless of the source or the amount, the obvious expectation from industry is that donations will return results. They're buying outcomes. This feeds the public perception that decisions in this place are made improperly, with self-interest and the interests of donors and mates consistently overriding the public interest.

In banning political donations from those industries that have a history of seeking to influence policy decisions, the bill implements a key recommendation of the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations. It makes it an offence for a prohibited donor to make a donation, or solicit another person to make a donation on its behalf. It is also an offence to accept a donation from a prohibited donor.

Another Committee recommendation that this bill seeks to implement is to limit all other political donations to $3,000 in an election term. As the High Court recognised in McCloy v NSW, uncontrolled use of wealth to influence decision-making compromises equal participation in democracy. By aggregating and capping all political donations made by any person or entity, the bill seeks to level the playing field and avoid those with more money gaining greater access to government.

The bill will limit donations made for political purposes, but is not intended to limit donations made to political campaigners or other entities to support their non-campaign activities.

The bill makes it unlawful to accept a donation above the donation cap, and allows the Commonwealth to recover the excess as a debt. The bill complements reforms to strengthen the disclosure regime. However, the bill also recognises that, in the absence of real-time disclosure laws or a standardised register, there may be a time delay in aggregating donations. Where a donation is accepted in error that exceeds the cap, the recipient has the opportunity to return the excess to the donor to correct the error.

The Australian public are demanding more transparent and representative government that acts in the public interest. This bill is an important first step towards getting big money out of politics and restoring public confidence in our democracy.

If we are committed to enhancing the democratic process, which surely is something that every parliament should regularly turn its mind to, this should be a priority. This bill does not stifle debate or prevent individuals from donating to support a political party. It bans donations from industries that have become associated with having a corrupting influence on how we work as decision makers and will return democracy to the community.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

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

Leave granted; debate adjourned.