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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

WILKINS, Mr Craig, Chief Executive, Conservation Council of South Australia

Committee met at 09:46

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Giles ): I declare open this public hearing for the inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 federal election. Today we are focusing on political donations. Welcome, Mr Wilkins. Although the committee does not require you to provide evidence under oath, I wish to advise this is a formal proceeding of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. These proceedings are being broadcast and recorded by Hansard. These are public proceedings, although the committee will consider a request to have evidence heard in private session. If you object to answering a question you should state the grounds of that objection and the committee will consider the matter. I invite you to make an opening statement and then the committee will proceed to questions.

Mr Wilkins : The Conservation Council of South Australia is the peak conservation body in our state. We are an independent non-profit and strictly non-party-political organisation, representing around 60 of South Australia's environment and conservation organisations, and their supporters. We are committed to a healthy environment for our state. We were founded in 1971 and we have operated with good standing with state and federal government agencies since that time.

We strongly support the desire of this committee to increase the integrity and fairness of our electoral system. However, we'd like to note that this inquiry and the current companion bill are active at a time of concerted attack on the right of Australian charities and not-for-profit organisations to advocate in our country. We believe that charities are already strictly regulated by the ACNC. There are already clear rules in place, which define the scope and limits of activity involved in the political space and the electoral process. We feel that what should not be in dispute is that the law allows a charity to advance their charitable purpose through engaging actively in public political debate. That's entirely appropriate, given that injustice, whether it's social or environmental or even economic, is always a political concern and charities have an essential role to play in that public debate.

Our assessment is that the bill that is being currently canvassed to respond to some of the concerns of this committee will stifle the voices of charities such as ours by wrapping us up in red-tape requirements and compliance burdens that are disproportional and unreasonable and will have a chilling effect on our ability to engage, which, overall, has a negative effect on democracy. Ultimately, many of society's great leaps forward have been achieved by community groups and charities engaging in advocacy and pushing for changes that might have been deeply challenging to the government of the day but are now accepted as being hugely necessary and beneficial. We have advocacy to thank for showing us a better way. We urge the committee to carefully consider the outcome and the effect of what it is considering. Thank you.

Mr MORTON: Are you aware that third-party organisations, including charities, that seek to influence Australian voters are currently covered by the Electoral Act as well as the Charities Act?

Mr Wilkins : Yes, I am aware of the federal legislation.

Mr MORTON: Sometimes we have evidence that seems to suggest that charities think the only legislation that applies to them is the Charities Act. I just wanted to test that, in the first instance. Is it your view that your organisation does seek to influence electors, Australians, in relation to the issues that are important to them, come election time?

Mr Wilkins : As part of our advocacy, as part of our mission, we see our role as highlighting issues and convincing the citizens of our state to hold a view that we share around the environmental and social future. So, absolutely, we see the essential role of advocacy is to inform and influence people in our state to care about the future of the environment.

Mr MORTON: And to take that care into action, one way or the other, in the context of an election.

Mr Wilkins : The election is a very important time, in terms of our political debate. It certainly sharpens minds. If we can advocate for a change in policy, a position, that advances our mission, then we feel like we are doing our job.

Mr MORTON: Your evidence is consistent with other evidence—that is, you are in the field to influence Australians. I agree with you, in relation to red tape. I have particular concerns as well. But shouldn't there be as much transparency as possible applied to organisations that seek to influence Australians and how that may impact on how they vote and interact in Australian policy and politics?

Mr Wilkins : The principle of increasing transparency, we strongly agree with. Where we would like to have a deeper conversation is around the effects of some of those transparency requirements. I'm speaking on behalf of a smaller not for profit and I'm very conscious that a lot of the requirements around disclosure and auditing and those other requirements are enormously time consuming for a small organisation. There are larger organisations that have people employed who do this, normally, as part of their normal work. We don't have that luxury. So to be aware of the various requirements and to meet them requires a significant burden, and when resources are stretched that is very challenging. One of the effects of a disproportionate amount of transparency requirements from groups such as ours is that it stifles the voices of the smaller groups, because the larger organisations are able to do it and we can't.

Mr MORTON: Ultimately, we're in agreement that there should be as much transparency as possible, with the minimalist impact on regulation red tape on organisations. That would allow Australians to understand where the money is coming from to influence politics and policy in this country.

Mr Wilkins : Taking a step slightly back, I suppose it's a question of what the problem is you are trying to solve and if it's a problem where the measures to try and solve it will improve the situation. There might be a case where the problem itself is very small and the measures involved to try and solve it makes the situation worse, in terms of that broader goal of improving democracy.

Mr MORTON: How long have you been involved in advocacy and public campaigns?

Mr Wilkins : It is probably around 20 or 25 years.

Mr MORTON: And have you seen an increase in the role of non-political-party organisations in trying to influence the issue agenda in the lead-up to campaigns over that 20 years?

Mr Wilkins : I think there's been an interesting trend towards the role and importance of civil society in shaping the public conversation, and I actually think that's a really good thing.

Mr MORTON: I don't disagree with you. I'm looking for equality when it comes to disclosure and transparency regimes across those organisations and political parties. So, if a political party is trying to influence Australian voters and a third party, a non-political-party organisation, is trying to influence Australian voters to take action in a particular way, should there be some equality in relation to the transparency and disclosure obligations of those two organisations?

Mr Wilkins : I think there are a range of ways that issues are debated in public and influenced. For instance, there are mechanisms that involve direct lobbying, which often have a far greater impact on the standing of an issue in a politician's mind and the public's mind. If we were to look at what measures are required to improve our democracy, we need to consider all of them.

CHAIR ( Senator Reynolds ): Thank you very much for appearing here today, and for your submission. I just want to pursue a bit further with you the nature of campaigns and elections today. When I first started campaigning, in the late eighties, campaigning was very different. Political parties would come together around about the election. We'd campaign on policies and philosophy. Someone would win, someone would lose, and then it sort of died away again until the lead-up. But today elections are won or lost on issues, and issue advocacy—it's quite a different campaign environment. So, what I'm trying to do as chair is to make sure that we recognise the current campaign environment and we regulate for that, and we don't try to regulate on the basis of how we used to conduct campaigns with political parties.

So, I'm just wondering whether you could explain a bit further: obviously you're a peak body. What's your organisation's role in terms of coordination with the other—60-odd members?

Mr Wilkins : Yes.

CHAIR: How do you perform your function?

Mr Wilkins : We regularly communicate with our groups around the issues they care about. It's true that some are more interested in the advocacy side than others, but we have a range—some that are just focused purely on their local patch or local animal or area of concern, while others are looking at the broader issues. We speak regularly with them. We canvass their opinions. We identify those priorities they want us to work on. And then we seek to work out the most effective way to raise our issue and have some impact in the public debate.

CHAIR: Has the Conservation Council of South Australia ever put in a third-party return?

Mr Wilkins : For the federal—

CHAIR: For the federal election, yes.

Mr Wilkins : No, we haven't.

CHAIR: For the state?

Mr Wilkins : It's interesting: we've got recent changes in South Australia which we are grappling with at the moment in terms of the impact. One of the concerns we have with the recent changes in South Australia is that, for instance, in our case it stopped us doing some of the activities we planned to do, mainly because there is a requirement in there that any donors who give us money beyond the election, even if it's not related to the election—for instance, it might be an issue that they care about in terms of protecting swamps in the south-east or something like that—they will need to publicly declare that, and we need to publicly declare that donation, and link that to the electoral process. And we are very concerned about the impact that will have on our private donors, some of whom are very happy to support particular issues but don't want their donation to be made public. This is where the question of transparency comes in, because actually we don't think it's an issue for the electoral system if that donation or that donor is made public, because it's not actually designed to influence a particular political issue.

CHAIR: And one of the issues is that many people have quite a different interpretation of 'designed to influence'—that greyness between, as you've just described, with your members, people who are getting on and doing great work on their various environmental programs, those who are pushing the boundaries of issue advocacy, which by design or not can actually have an impact on the election, and those who are very clearly still within the ACNC guidelines but very clearly seeking to influence the outcome of the election. So, we've got that sort of continuum.

In Western Australia I know that the Conservation Council of WA set up separate campaigns themselves. There was one at the last state election, Frack Free Future, which was clearly out there on the polling booths with scorecards and paraphernalia. Does Conservation SA set up similar issue based campaigns?

Mr Wilkins : Yes. If there is an issue of concern that we want to highlight then we see the electoral process as an opportunity. And certainly for the upcoming state election we've got a coalition of around 33 groups that have signed onto a common set of election asks. And we are currently getting the political parties to respond to those asks, and we are rating their responses, and then that scorecard will be released to the public.

CHAIR: When you say 'released to the public', do you mean by the usual means, such as social media, advertising and maybe a scorecard at the polling booth—those sorts of typical things?

Mr Wilkins : Yes. Our organisation is not planning to operate at polling booths, but other groups within our coalition may decide to distribute the scorecards.

CHAIR: Campaign material?

Mr Wilkins : Yes.

CHAIR: At the polling booths.

Mr Wilkins : Yes.

CHAIR: Okay. So, what's this particular campaign called? In WA it was Frack Free Future. Is this on a similar issue? What's the name of this coalition campaign?

Mr Wilkins : We've called it Our Future SA. There are around 35 different environmental issues. Depending on the response of the party, they're given a score, and we are being as objective as possible in terms of rating those scores.

CHAIR: In terms of the rating, do you have a panel with a representative from each of the 36 organisations? Or do you have someone at Conservation SA who does that score rating?

Mr Wilkins : We have a panel of five of the key organisations who are working through those scores. But each of those groups then consults with others in their area of interest.

CHAIR: That makes sense. So, of the 36, five of the organisations will sit down and rate the responses?

Mr Wilkins : Yes.

CHAIR: Will that have the different parties, and be 'fail' or 'pass'—some of them are smiley faces, frowny faces, and some of them are ticks or crosses. What sort of device will you use to rate the parties?

Mr Wilkins : That's yet to be decided. The parties still have a little bit of time before the election to respond to our asks. Once that's finalised, we'll finalise the design and get that printed out.

CHAIR: For your members, five of the 36 organisations sit in judgement of the parties in relation to their response. Is there much transparency in how these decisions are made? Do you put your reasons on a website or something so that members of the public, if you're advocating—I presume that the Greens would be the biggest smiley face of all and conservative parties probably the biggest frowns. How do you do that?

Mr Wilkins : Actually, it's interesting in South Australia: there are some really great policies—

CHAIR: Unusual!

Mr Wilkins : from the Liberal Party here in South Australia, who are actually far ahead of Labor in many cases.

CHAIR: That's good to hear! Thank you very much I'll pass over to my colleagues.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks very much for coming today. I understand that more than 50 organisations make up Conservation SA. I'd be interested to really understand what this bill becoming law would mean for the organisations that make up your council as well as for the council itself. We have heard considerable evidence from other organisations—environment groups, but particularly in the aid sector and some charities—that they feel it will be a serious burden on them in terms of how they go about their work and in terms of compliance. Could you just work us through that? I notice that you've got some interesting organisations that are pretty specific, around echidnas or snakes, which was wonderful to read. I imagine some of those organisations would be borderline—they might get over the $250, which is when it kicks in and you have to start reporting—and they therefore have to track all these donations. You'd obviously have some understanding because you have spoken about the burden this could be and what it could mean for your organisations.

Mr Wilkins : I think it comes down to the size and the resources of those groups. I suppose it's a basic human reaction that if there is an unknown or a risk you tend to change your behaviour even though, perhaps, you don't need to fear any reporting or anything in that realm. The whole nature of having to spend precious time and resources analysing, getting legal advice, responding and reporting takes an enormous amount of effort for these groups, who are mostly volunteers. They rely on the goodwill of the people to be on their boards and to do the hard work. These kinds of red tape and compliance requirements are deeply challenging, even for ourselves. We have the luxury of having some paid staff, but it's still a large administrative burden. So the net effect of that is that we just steer clear. That's what I fear.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'steer clear' you mean to steer clear of—

Mr Wilkins : Hoping not to be caught up in a definition of being a political campaigner by avoiding anything that could be seen as issue based advocacy. I think our democracy is the poorer for it.

Senator RHIANNON: So you mean that they would cut back on their advocacy to avoid getting captured by it?

Mr Wilkins : Yes, because they're nervous that in hindsight expenditure will be seen as political, when they see it as part of their core mission.

Senator RHIANNON: But the Conservation Council wouldn't be able to avoid that; you would still have to comply. There's the big one that you cannot donate an amount of $250 or more in a year to determine if a donor is an allowable donor. You'd have to be tracking it in considerable detail and then get the stat dec signed, et cetera. Is your ability to handle that something you've been talking about within your organisation?

Mr Wilkins : We have been, so far mainly in the context of the state based legislation because that's the one currently before us. Those systems for tracking donations are sometimes quite challenging for small organisations to set up. The database is not very sophisticated and it involves a lot of manual handling, and there is always room for human error. Therefore, groups get very, very nervous if the penalties are incredibly harsh and potentially straying into criminal negligence. That's where the chilling effect comes in; they just steer clear because they're nervous about even being caught up in that inadvertently.

Senator RHIANNON: You're referring there to the possibly very heavy fines and 10 years in jail. Is that what you're referring to?

Mr Wilkins : Yes, it is.

Senator RHIANNON: This is a hard one, and maybe it's not possible to ascertain, but a lot of this is coming down to those organisations that undertake some advocacy—have you made an assessment of how many of your members do undertake that work? I wasn't sure if you'd be able to assess that, because if you take, say, the echidna society, maybe they're working on saving echidnas, but maybe if the echidna habitat gets threatened then all of a sudden they're advocating. If you could comment on how you'd manage that and the advice you're giving to these organisations.

Mr Wilkins : You're right that there are a range of groups and a range of ways that they engage. Overall though, they have all chosen to join our organisation. For many of them the main reason is they do want to have us involved in issue-based advocacy—sometimes on behalf of their particular issue, but sometimes just in general around raising the importance of nature and environmental protection in our state. Even the groups which are just focused on ground activities and don't conduct advocacy themselves are still members of our organisation because they want to see us being a loud and proud voice for our state's environment—so there are groups in that circumstance. There are other groups that are very active themselves, and we have groups like The Wilderness Society or the Australian Conservation Foundation that are members of our organisation. We have other groups like the National Trust, where the majority of their work is focused on preserving heritage and preserving natural heritage, but, for instance, for the state election, they are being very vocal around the need for planning reform to protect buildings, culture and character. That would be a clear example of issue-based advocacy in order to influence politicians' minds.

Senator RHIANNON: That's interesting. Even if an organisation were purely looking after the echidnas in the south-west, or something like that and they’re really not doing advocacy themselves but they are a member of your organisation, they could be captured by this bill because they're a member of your organisation which is doing advocacy. That's something we need to consider.

Mr Wilkins : I haven't actually worked through the implications of that myself, but that is part of our concern in terms of how far this will reach.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Can I firstly ask: do you or your organisations receive foreign donations in order to campaign with?

Mr Wilkins : Our organisation has a partnership with Pew Charitable Trusts, and that work is focused on the protection of our desert region in the north, so there is focus on pastoral land, Indigenous protected areas and on protection for buffel grass. It is called the Ten Deserts Initiative. The focus of that work is very much around on-ground protection; however, as I've said previously, it is often very hard, when you are working on an issue and seeking change, to draw the line between that on-ground protection and seeking to change the rules or policies which make that protection more possible. We work in partnership with Pew to help improve those regions.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Pew is an international body?

Mr Wilkins : It is based in the US.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It would be on a register somewhere and the committee could access it, but for the sake of expediency, what is the financial partnership or relationship that you have with Pew on an annual basis?

Mr Wilkins : I'm not sure of the exact figure. I'd have to take that on notice.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Is it tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions?

Mr Wilkins : It's in the hundreds of thousands, I think.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Are there any caveats on that funding—for you to become politically active?

Mr Wilkins : The project outlines don't specifically talk about political advocacy or political activity. They are very much focused on protection of those desert regions. Perhaps to use the example of indigenous rangers, which is an example of a very well accepted—

Mr BUCHHOLZ: We have them in Queensland. They're very popular.

Mr Wilkins : Yes. Pew have been advocating—certainly in the state election—for more rangers. We support them in that advocacy and are very happy to work with them around that.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Are you familiar with Australian Aid—the Australian Aid campaign?

Mr Wilkins : No.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It is an organisation that was created by World Vision, Oxfam and others. One of the major foreign influences of funding was from the US—respectably, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They advocate through Australian Aid to the Australian government to increase foreign aid, a noteworthy and worthy attribute, cause and issue. The organisations—of which there are about eight or nine well-known charitable organisations—got together, created a committee and appointed a campaign manager. The campaign was funded and volunteers were sought to target marginal seats with a direct campaign of phone calling constituents to make them aware of particular parties. If a political party had a strong influence on foreign aid, they would give them priority over a party that did not. On election day there was material handed out by volunteers, again, with funds that were given by foreign charities. Seats were won and lost on the date, and some will argue that it could've been because of the presence of those people on campaign day.

Those are the issues that this committee are looking at. Those people have come before the committee and suggested that they were acting within the law. It is my opinion that if it looks like a campaign duck, smells like a campaign duck and quacks like a campaign duck, it's a political duck. That is what we're looking at, not the advocacy for more rangers. My question was going to be: if you were aware of the campaign of Australian Aid, had the Conservation Council reached out to Australian Aid and voiced your concern because their actions have now affected the way that you advocate here in South Australia? But you had no idea of the campaign of Australian Aid—that the funds came from overseas interest.

Mr Wilkins : I'm not aware of that particular story around their involvement and I haven't communicated with them around that. I don't have a particular concern about what you're describing. I hear that obviously members of the committee do, but in that case that sounds like very effective advocacy by groups that see it as critical to their mission.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It's effective for those people who believe that there should be greater foreign aid—and not many, I suppose, would argue with that—but it's not effective for those who suggest that there should be less foreign aid and that charity should start at home. I was surprised here in Adelaide. I saw more homeless people in the streets last night and this morning than I have in any major capital city. So there would possibly be a very strong position here in Adelaide, your home city, that aid should start at home with the people sitting across the road homeless, begging people for food. That happened to me personally this morning on more than one occasion. The point is that, whilst it's an effective campaign for those who want foreign aid, it's not a very effective campaign for those who believe that charity should start at home. The point about equity is that people who believe charity should start at home under the current rules are not eligible to go and source foreign aid to influence their campaign. That's where the inequity comes in. Forget that it's about foreign aid. On any issue, the question on equity for us a committee is, 'Do both sides of the argument have the capacity to put their case forward?' In this case, I would suggest they don't.

I want to take you to your submission where you said:

We understand and support the inquiry’s consideration of political donations and agree that Australia’s political system needs to be transparent, fair and free from undue influence.

Are you aware of any particular cases of undue influence or ways in which the political system is not transparent?

Mr Wilkins : I can answer that by also perhaps referring to your previous question. Many of the issues that occupy our work, such as climate change or broad-scale marine protection, transcend national boundaries. I don't have a particular concern about charities and not-for-profits from around the world working together to achieve their mission in the best way possible. If the single best way we could achieve our mission were to work with people in Indonesia then that would make sense to me. Equally, if there were support for a foreign aid campaign around increasing resources in South-East Asia then I would think there was some merit in that. It comes down to that broader question of, 'What is the focus of the committee around improving democracy?' I would suggest that there are broader issues there.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Could you give any examples of lack of transparency or where the political system wasn't free from undue influence?

Mr Wilkins : The example I would give is around influence in terms of access to political parties through lobbying activities. I think there is an unequal ability for smaller groups to have access to politicians compared with those who are able to encamp themselves in Canberra and have frequent meetings. There is perhaps a lack of transparency around how much influence certain groups have.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Okay, thank you.

CHAIR: Unfortunately, Mr Wilkins, our time for this has concluded. We thank you very much for coming in today and providing some very useful evidence.

Commit tee adjourned at 10 : 24