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Speech: We need full political donations reform

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Sep 2016

Lee calls on Labor to support full electoral funding reform, including a ban corporate donations from for-profit organisations, to ban overseas donations, and to have caps in place on donations from individuals and not-for-profit corporations.

Senator RHIANNON (16:36): It is a very simple MPI, calling on the government and the opposition-Liberals and Nationals, and Labor-to commit to electoral funding reform. But, when you hear Senator Conroy again going into what seems to be the only mode he knows, attack mode, you wonder about the level of commitment that there could be, because, really, he has become, again, the senator for hypocrisy. It is a hypocrisy that runs deep, and he knows it well and truly; he often has a laugh about his own comments here.

So it is worth just putting some of the things on the record, because he makes out, time and time again, that there is poor Labor, trying to get electoral funding reform-those are the grand statements he makes. But let us remember that Labor had the opportunity-we had the numbers. Come the 2011 election, Labor and the Greens had the numbers in both houses to pass comprehensive electoral funding laws, and Labor would never bring on the legislation. They would not bring it on. So, yes, other times it has been defeated, but that time it would not have been defeated but it was not brought on.

So the deception that he runs is very extreme. Again, considering he tries to conflate the issue of Senate voting reform with political donation reform, that does need to be answered too. They are two issues that the Greens have worked a long time for. And, again, Senator Conroy, and his colleagues sitting there with him on the opposition benches, knows why they did that. They were not trying to get political donation reform at that time; they were trying to scuttle Senate voting reform, because at that time the government had made quite clear they were not going to be working on political donation reform. What we were trying to achieve-and it was a much fairer system as we can see here.

Let's remember all those grand speeches coming from Labor about the damage Senate voting reform would do; arguing that it would lock in a coalition government forever, that it would wipe the crossbench out completely; just ludicrous statements. Often they actually contradicted themselves. One time they said that it would be an advantage to the Greens; other times they said that it would wipe out the Greens. So, again, we see those tactics.

Sadly, Senator Conroy is still stuck in that mode. You walk in here, you talk about political donations, you go for the attack, rather than looking for how do we develop common ground? Hopefully-but it does not look as though we can have any hope after listening to the previous speaker-what is needed is the comprehensive electoral funding reform. That is the message we should all take from the past week.

As we know, the amount of money that Senator Dastyari was caught out for was not big in the scheme of things when it comes to political donations, but the outcry was something that we have never seen the likes of before. I would just like to comment on this, because I have been working on this issue since the early 2000s.

The Greens set up a project called Democracy for Sale. When we would present evidence about wrongdoing, often the journalists would say, 'But show us what the outcome was.' But here, in this debate-and all the commentary about what Senator Dastyari had done and many other examples of wrongdoing-the assumption was made by commentator after commentator, in letters to the paper, politicians and commentators alike, that when donations are given they are given to buy influence. At no time was I asked to prove that; it was just the assumption of where the debate had shifted. That is a very significant shift. It is something the High Court recognised in a very important decision last October. Now that understanding is much broader.

Now our responsibility is to be working together. It is certainly the Greens commitment to be working, through JSCEM, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, for a consensus position on these very challenging issues. We acknowledge that-while I am very proud of our policy-we now need to go deeper into it.

Just on the points that we have worked for, for a long time, our position is to ban corporate donations from for-profit organisations, to ban overseas donations, and to have caps in place on donations from individuals and not-for-profit corporations. We need, most definitely, caps on election expenditure. There is a range of other aspects that come into this.

I just wanted to put those details in there, because that is what we have been talking about in the past couple of weeks. But, if you listen to what Senator Conroy ran with today, if you listen to what Labor leaders were talking about when their colleague Senator Dastyari was caught out in such an embarrassing way, the two reforms that they would run with were a ban on overseas donations-and I think they had nowhere else to go but to talk about that, because it just became so embarrassing for them-and transparency.

Improved transparency is essential. It is something which is a great outrage of the Howard years. He brought in that change, lifting the disclosure to $10,000 per annum. It is now at $13,200, and you could give donations to different branches of the party just under that amount of $13,100 and quickly you are a very significant donor but nobody will know about it.

So, yes, transparency is very important. Again, it is something the Greens have worked on, and I acknowledge Labor has as well. But Labor needs to start talking about their position on other aspects of this, about limiting political donations. What is their position on corporate donations, on donations for not-for-profit? Do we bring caps in on individual donations? And that is what they are shying away from and what is quite disturbing.

I think what is also relevant here is that we need to remind ourselves that we need to get back to the issue of addressing the integrity of electoral process. I would imagine that we are all aware that for a long time political donations have really undermined people's confidence in our democratic institutions, undermined their confidence in people like ourselves, elected representatives. It does damage to all of us. I acknowledge that.

I just wanted to share with you some comments made by Professor Marian Sawer from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations. I think she really nailed the issue of integrity very well. She said:

Australia was once a pioneer in developing mechanisms for electoral integrity. We gave the world the secret ballot, for instance, as well as non-partisan electoral administrators and non-partisan processes for electoral redistribution. But our political finance regulation now falls way behind international standards.
And indeed it does.

You can look at so many other countries that are really tackling electoral funding reform in a comprehensive way, but in Australia we have just stalled. When it comes to disclosure-and this goes back to the issue of transparency-the current disclosure system, you have got to say, is a joke. As I think probably everybody in this place would be aware, there is the disclosure that the donors put in and the disclosure that political parties put in.

The Greens Democracy for Sale project looks at these disclosures in detail. We have uncovered many discrepancies. Then we thought we would look at both sides of the ledger and compare the donor disclosures to the party disclosures. And the system has failed. It has failed from day 1. These are some of the figures: about $8 million has gone undeclared as donations by parties in the past five years. Someone searching for donations through party returns on the AEC database would not find this money. Disturbingly, over $4 million of that money has come from the financial, insurance and resource sectors. I do not think anybody could really deny the influence of those sectors-the big mining companies, the finance institutions. So many of the laws in this place are watered down to suit their influence. Anybody ripped off by a bank would certainly agree with that. The influence of that money makes the injustice of fossil fuel subsidies in this era of global warming particularly outrageous.

Our most recent research found that $3 million has gone undeclared as donations by donors since the last election. Someone searching for donations through donor returns would not find this money. We were able to find it because it was declared by one side though not the other. It is a reminder of how comprehensive reforms are needed. It is also a reminder of why all the parties in this place need to put on the table what they think the changes should be, be willing to work with each other, and listen to each other about how we can get a consensus position on far-reaching reforms to limit the private money that goes into elections so we can return to the level of integrity that is so urgently needed.


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