Report of the Electoral Matters Committee, Thursday 9 February 2012
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:25): It is an honour for me to follow Senator John Faulkner in this debate. I recognise that he has made a huge contribution, and I was very pleased when he came into the chamber to contribute a response to this report. When the green paper that he made reference to came out, it gave people who are following this issue closely and are campaigning for electoral funding reform great hope. Many of us actually felt great sadness when he was no longer the minister and we felt the chances of achieving reform had hit a roadblock and possibly gone backwards. Many people have said to me, and it is certainly my own feeling, that many of the recommendations in the report that we are considering now would have been fundamentally different if Senator Faulkner had still been the minister.
I was very pleased to hear Senator Faulkner's comments and I fully agree with him that the recommendations in the green paper stand the test of time. When he was Special Minister of State that document became a very regularly used reference for people who are deeply committed to the need for change here. I also agree with Senator Faulkner about how disappointing it is where the coalition stands. Senator Fierravanti-Wells has again unfortunately come into this debate with a lack of understanding, because her colleagues actually voted against some of the proposals that she said would have allowed reform to go ahead. I am referring to the comments that she made about union donations and third party donations. The Greens put forward recommendations on this issue. They appear in our dissenting report. If you look in the minutes, you will see that the coalition voted against them.
While the recommendations from this inquiry are limited, it certainly was a significant inquiry and the body of evidence that is now in this report is very useful. Electoral funding reform should remain a top priority for all political parties. Indeed, it is critical to the very strength of our democratic process. I can share with senators in this chamber that many people in our community are deeply troubled by the political donations that pour into this political system. What I see is that it is breeding a cynicism about the political process, where people believe, 'What is the point of engaging with politicians when they will clearly pick up the phone for those who donate large amounts of money?' This is something that we need to deal with in a much more detailed way than with the recommendations before us.
Having said that, there are some significant achievements in these recommendations and I would like to mention a couple of them. One is that Labor have honoured the promise they made that they would lower the donation disclosure threshold to $1,000. This is very important in terms of the public having a greater understanding of where the money comes from that is funding political parties and many candidates.
It is worth remembering the history of why this reform is needed. One of the very unsavoury aspects of electoral changes that were made in the Howard years, and would have gone through this chamber, was when the disclosure threshold was lifted to $10,000, to increase with the CPI. So now it is around $11,500, and that is the level below which donations in the federal sphere do not have to be disclosed.
Another important recommendation that has come forward in this report is that any donation over $100,000 must be disclosed within 14 days. I was pleased that this was one of the recommendations that we put forward which was picked up. The Greens have advocated for this for quite a while. However, although it was picked up and supported—and you will see it in the report—there is a loophole here, and that is that the donations will not be judged on a cumulative basis. Therefore, you could have a donor who gives many small donations and if you added them up they could be above $100,000. But because they are not added up, that information would not be required to be disclosed within 14 days. I do think that that is unfortunate. Again, that sort of trickery—and I do have to call it that because that is how many people view it—is what makes people very cynical. It appears that you are gaining a reform but the system has these loopholes that really hide important information from the public.
The major failure with these recommendations is that we do not have the substantial electoral funding reforms that are urgently needed and which are being achieved in the states. We now have a state of affairs where the federal electoral funding laws are becoming increasingly out of step with what is happening in state jurisdictions. I am particularly referring here to New South Wales and to Queensland, but there is certainly talk that their reforms could occur in other states. In New South Wales the reforms have actually been quite far reaching. It is now illegal for developers and donors associated with the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry and the gambling industry to donate to political parties. There are also very tight caps on donations. The amounts that can be given by any organisation, corporation or individual to a political party cannot be over $5,000 and cannot be over $2,000 to a candidate. That has been a significant achievement.
Another area which is another example of a missed opportunity with this inquiry is that the important bill that Senator Bob Brown gave notice of in this chamber—that is, the Electoral Amendment (Tobacco Industry Donations) Bill 2011—was not given support by this inquiry. It was a very simple piece of legislation—a very obvious piece of legislation—saying that we should stop anybody, any corporation or any part of the tobacco industry donating to the political process, and that was not agreed to.
In making these comments I have to say that my thoughts do go back to some of the hearings of this inquiry. A House of Representatives member, Mrs Bronwyn Bishop, was on this inquiry. Her behaviour on this inquiry made our work very difficult. It was quite appalling at times. She impugned the reputation of witnesses and she would grandstand with extreme statements. I came to realise that her tactics, from what I could see, were to be disruptive to the process of hearing important evidence and to throw witnesses off their evidence. That was certainly challenging, but I do congratulate the chair of this committee, Mr Daryl Melham, for being extremely fair in how he conducted the inquiry in the face of great difficulties from some members.
Because the inquiry recommendations were inadequate, I did set out a series of recommendations, in keeping with Australian Greens policy, in a dissenting report. These go through a whole number of key aspects that are already part of legislation such as that in Canada and being advanced in other Western democracies. Aspects of them are coming through in Queensland and New South Wales legislation. Again, I want to emphasise that important point—how out of step the federal laws are.
In summary, the Greens recommendations included a ban on all donations from all entities other than individuals. And just to emphasise for coalition members—again, going from the comments that Senator Fierravanti-Wells made—surely they could have been able to support our recommendation to ban donations from corporations, unions and other organisations and to deal with third parties. To go back to the recommendations in our dissenting report, we also called for a cap on the amount of money that can be donated in a year from a single individual, and caps on expenditure by political parties, candidates and third parties. I find that one is particularly popular with the public, because they realise that it would limit all those coloured glossies that get pushed into their letterboxes, and they have doubts about how useful they really are. (Time expired)
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Senator Rhiannon, your time has expired. There is a 10-minute limit on speaking to reports. Do you want to seek leave to continue your remarks?
Senator RHIANNON: I seek leave to make a short final statement.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you to my colleagues in the chamber. I would urge members to acquaint themselves with the dissenting report of the Australian Greens. Those recommendations do give a framework to how we could advance electoral funding reform at a federal level. That would bring more confidence back to the democratic process, which, while we have our differences, I believe we are all committed to.
Question agreed to.