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Speech: Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Donations Reform) Bill 2014 Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 4 Dec 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:46):

I move: That this bill be now read a second time. I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard. Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

I am pleased to introduce the Greens Donations Reform Bill to reduce corporate influence on Australian politics. If passed this Bill would stop certain industries from donating to political parties.
Since 1998, we know millions of dollars from the liquor industry, clubs, hotels, developers, tobacco companies, gaming industries, and the mineral resources sector have poured into the coffers of the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Labor Party.

We don't know if and if so to what extent businesses involved in these sectors have gained advantages and influence from their political donations. However, there is certainly the perception that these companies do not give political donations without expecting something in return.

These industries have all made large donations to political parties and there is strong evidence that such donations influence government policies that affect those industries. Prohibiting these industries from making political donations would be an important step in combating the corrupting influence of political donations.

The Greens' Bill contains amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Act) that will prohibit political donations from specific industries. The purpose of the amendments is to strengthen the integrity and accountability framework underpinning Australia's electoral system.

Specifically, amendments are proposed to ban donations from:
-  property developers;
- tobacco industry business entities;
- liquor business entities;
- gambling industry business entities;
- mineral resources or mining industry business entities; and
- industry representative organisations whose majority members are those listed above.

These amendments will improve the electoral system by strengthening the regulatory framework, enhancing individuals' capacity to take part in public life without undue influence to their decision making capacity, and reinforcing the integrity of the electoral system, particularly from efforts from third parties to unduly influence the political process.

Over the last three decades the scale of spending by these industries in Australian elections has sky-rocketed. Both major parties are engaging in an election expenditure arms race, particularly on advertising. Political donations from these industries largely fund these campaigns.

The major political parties have become increasingly reliant on private donations, particularly from business and lobby groups who stand to benefit from the decisions of ministers, cabinet and often individual MPs.

This growth in political donations has seen a culture develop where large donors have gained privileged access to ministers and MPs. This has contributed to a perception that corporate donors are buying influence. In some cases there is evidence that this perception accurately reflects the real relationship between politicians and donors.

The revelations of the NSW corruption watch dog ICAC, where former ministers have been accused of granting mates mining leases that stand to deliver million dollar profits; the sanctioned release of polluted water from coal mines in the Queensland Bowen Basin into rivers and the waters of the Great Barrier Reef; and the diversion of federal funds from public universities and TAFEs into private colleges are just a few examples of why people are losing faith in their parliaments and elected decision makers. The public see that many corporations work against the public good when they try and influence government outcomes that will boost their profits.

In NSW, these issues have resulted in a series of scandals where ministers have been exposed making decisions to benefit key donors. Property developers in particular have formed inappropriate relationships with local councillors and state politicians who make decisions about property development.

While this poisonous culture has been most obvious in states like NSW and Queensland, the perception that political donations buy influence in federal politics and in other states is very real.

While federal electoral funding laws put no limits on political donations, they make it difficult for most people to identify who is donating to whom. High disclosure thresholds and loopholes allow many tens of thousands of dollars to be donated to a political party from a single company without being disclosed. Lengthy disclosure periods mean that donations made in the lead up to an election are kept secret until well after the election is held.

We acknowledge that there is a lot more to do on electoral funding reform than is set out in this Bill but what we are proposing is an important start .

While it is easy to dismiss concern about the corrupting influence of donations as a mere perception of corruption, it is understandable as long as large political donations remain a secret.

The Greens NSW launched the Democracy for Sale research project in 2002 in order to shine a light on the influence of donations on the political process. The website for this project is at This website has compiled information from donations returns to the Australian Electoral Commission and the NSW Electoral Funding Authority, classified donations by donor industry and provided them in a transparent and easily accessible format that allows the public to view at a glance where political parties are sourcing their funding. Official disclosure websites do not provide information on political donations in an easy to access and understand format.

The Greens have introduced this Bill as we urgently need uniform electoral funding laws across this country. New South Wales and Queensland have introduced some legislative reforms to restrict donations and campaign expenditure. Although they have been partly eroded and loopholes have been exploited by donors and parties hell bent on breaking the rules to funnel donations for what one would have to assume is to their political advantage.

My Greens colleagues in the NSW parliament were able to secure a ban on all donations from the tobacco, gambling, alcohol and property development industries - a move that had widespread community support because people are concerned that these industries are generous donors to political parties as they expect something in return.

It is understandable that people have this perception as all around them they see governments changing laws, issuing tenders and approvals that benefit certain industries and sectors.

We see it in the failure of this parliament and the previous parliament to introduce pokies reform and pursue mandatory pre-commitment.

We can see it in the impacts of the tobacco industry, which kills 6,000 people and hospitalises 42,000 people each year. This industry costs the taxpayer millions in social and health costs. Companies associated with the tobacco industry should have been banned from giving donations years ago.

A stand out example of why people think the worst of elected decision makers comes from NSW where we have seen property developers boost their profits as successive state Labor and the Coalition parties have voted together to weaken the state planning laws.

The culture of political donations distorts Australian politics and the consequences have been appalling. Not only have we seen poor decisions and bad outcomes, we have also seen citizens alienated from the political process, from engaging with the democratic processes.

Federal legislation is central to tackling the issue of reforming the culture of political donations. Money for election campaigns regularly flows from one state to another. It is impossible for Australia to effectively reform the electoral funding system without reform at the federal level. We now know that the new NSW laws can be effectively circumvented by donating to a federal election campaign.

Internationally there is a trend towards electoral funding reform. The Australian government is out of step with other democracies that are strengthening their democratic processes.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.

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

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

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