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Speech: Electoral Funding and Disclosure

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 15 Nov 2018

I rise to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. This is a very complicated bill and it has certainly had a very chequered history. It purports to restrict the influence of foreign money over our politics.

It doesn't actually achieve that very well. It's a small step forward, and we support those provisions, but it leaves massive loopholes which will allow big money to continue to influence our democracy. That is one of our main beefs with this bill: it's pretending to fix a real problem. It doesn't do a very good job and it ignores the influence of massive corporate donations that continue to flow into the coffers of both big parties. If this were a genuine attempt to clean up our democracy and to get that vested influence and interest by corporate interests and big money truly out of politics then there would be support for the amendments that I will move to ban those corporate donations from listed vested interests, to cap donations to $1,000 for everybody else and to reduce that disclosure threshold.

When we get to moving those amendments I'll be very interested to see whether we have any real commitment to this issue by both of the big parties. I'm not expecting that they'll support those amendments because this isn't a real attempt to clean up democracy; this is an attempt to look like they're both doing something while they're still taking the money from the big corporates. The Australian people aren't going to be fooled by this. They know that the so-called reason for this bill, the money that former senator Sam Dastyari accepted from Chinese nationals, would not have been stopped if this bill had been in place. This bill does not stop the very thing that it purports to be introduced for.
 
This is a bill that wants to look like it's doing something while, in fact, it is still letting big money run this place. I think Australians will know that and they will be really disappointed that there is a pretence of addressing an issue while, actually, the real influence of money will continue unabated, and both of the big parties will be very happy with that situation. That is our first concern with this bill.

I rely on the advice of Professor Anne Twomey, a noted constitutional law expert who gave evidence into the multiple hearings in the inquiry into this bill. Professor Twomey said: Foreign nationals can still, under this bill, make enormous and influential donations to political parties, if it is done through a permanent resident or a foreign-owned corporation or a subsidiary that is incorporated in Australia.

There are loopholes so big in this supposed crackdown on foreign donations that it will effectively be business as usual. We accept this is a small step forward but we are incredibly disappointed the loopholes are so big that this won't actually change the behaviour of the big parties from accepting dirty money from vested interests who want policy outcomes to inflate their own bottom lines. Our democracy has been taken over by corporate interests. Both of the big parties have sold out to their donors. They are not making decisions in the interests of Australians anymore; they are making decisions in the interests of those people who have bought their support and who pay for their re-election campaigns. I think that is an abrogation of our democratic duty, and it is the single biggest issue people raise with me when I am back in my own home state or elsewhere around the country.

People want their democracy back. They are sick of feeling unheard and they are sick of feeling like their opinion doesn't matter anymore and that the decisions made in this place aren't for them, certainly don't help them and often make their lives harder. They can see decisions that make it easier for big polluters. They can see decisions that make it easier for big companies to increase their profit bottom lines. They also see decisions that crack down on people that are already below the poverty line, decisions that make life harder for people, decisions that don't put a roof over the heads of people who are homeless, that don't help women escaping violence to stay safe and keep their children safe, that don't make it easier for people to get a decent education no matter what their bank balance is, that don't put more hospitals beds in place. They see those decisions not being made and they see decisions being made that simply make a few rich companies even richer. They know it is because those companies donate to both of these political parties and they know it is because some of the people who sit in these benches will go and work for those very interest groups once they leave parliament. The Australian people know about the cosy relationship between lobbyists, industry and this parliament, and they are fed up. We hear them and we share that view. So that is our first concern with this bill: it's pretending to fix a problem; it doesn't fix that problem and that problem still remains.

The second tranche of this bill deals with a massive increase in red tape on the charity sector. I also accept that this bill has improved. The bill has gone through so many iterations, the charity sector has been thoroughly overwhelmed, and I think it is deliberate. It is hard now to work out precisely what the obligations on those charities will be and it will take more of their scarce resources to work out what those obligations are. I think that is the intent because that will have the effect of silencing them from doing the otherwise very strong advocacy that they are incorporated to do and that they exist to do.

I am concerned the sheer weight of regulation and its uncertainty will have that chilling effect on charities and not-for-profits doing their important advocacy work. We spoke a lot about this issue in the inquiry hearings into this bill and we do not have clarity on where the distinction lies between permissible advocacy on an issue that charities are formed to deal with, something that relates to their charitable purpose, their whole existence and reason for existence. It is still impossible to tell, and lawyers differ on where the line lies between that legitimate permitted advocacy and somehow making an implied political comment in the context of an election campaign. It is now hard for not-for-profits to know when they can continue to campaign on an issue—alleviation of poverty, protection of bushland, protection of our oceans. Whatever the issue might be, they don't know if they are allowed to campaign on that in an election context. For example, where one party has a good policy position and another party doesn't, those charities don't know if that is now going to be considered political activity, for which this mound of administrative obligations about where their donations are from and when they have to disclose them and what checks they have got to do when all of that regulation and red tape kick in.

So, what do you think they'll do? They won't take the risk. They will shut up and they will stop that valuable advocacy work that improves the quality of our democratic debate and advances the public interest.
Charities aren't formed for private interests. The not-for-profit sector is called the not-for-profit sector for a reason. They are not there to advance their own interests or their own profits; they are there to work in the public interest, and their advocacy should be cherished and fostered in a robust democracy. Instead, this bill sneaks in a massive level of regulation that will be very difficult for small not-for-profits and charities to comply with. They are already stretched. They have already faced five years of unfair scrutiny beyond the scrutiny that any other sector is receiving—and I know my colleague Senator Siewert has been tracking this and will speak very passionately about it.

The government has already put incredibly high obligations on the not-for-profit and charitable sector that they are already complying with. They don't need another level of regulation. They're working in the public interest. They're trying to help people and the planet. Of course they have opinions on government policy, because this government has set to war with the community and the environment, often with the opposition saying absolutely nothing about it or being complicit. There is a strong role for charities and not-for-profits in our democracy, and these laws will make it harder for them to continue that role. Democracy once again will suffer, but I'm sure that's the intent. We'll be moving amendments to try to soften the blow that this will have on the sector. I acknowledge that the blow is smaller than it once was. It was initially a complete outrage; it is now just a massive administrative burden for little gain.

There are also some changes in this bill that relate to election funding. They will change the way that political parties operate and conduct their election campaigns and the way elections are funded. We here at the Greens think that corporate donations should not run our democracy. We support public funding of elections. We don't think that it should be about what favours you can promise your big donor once you're in government in order to get their donation to campaign for your own re-election or election. We don't think it should be about power and money; we think it should be about democracy, and we think those elections should be publicly funded.

We'll be moving amendments that say not only do we want to get rid of the influence of big money from politics but we think there should be election caps on spending. We should take that private money out of the whole process, we should have it publicly funded and we should make sure that people can't massively spam people's televisions, overspend and waste the money that they've been held hostage by their donors to. I'll go through in more detail what our amendments actually do. But we have here a bill that pretends to do something that it doesn't do very well and is actually just a back door to crack down on a sector that's been very inconvenient for the government, because it is criticising their woeful policies.

I want to come to our amendments. I formally move our second reading amendment on sheet 8545: Leave out all words after "that", insert: "the bill be withdrawn because the Senate is of the opinion that:

  • (a) the bill ignores corporate influence over politics and disproportionately targets the not-for-profit sector, which is an attack on public interest advocacy;
  • (b) the bill is likely to discourage charities from engaging in issue-based advocacy in furtherance of their charitable purposes, because of uncertainty in the definition of 'electoral matter';
  • (c) there is no public interest benefit to the proposed added layer of regulation for the charitable sector, because the existing regulatory framework for not-for-profit organisations under the Charities Act 2013 is sufficient to prevent charitable organisations from engaging in partisan political activities; and
  • (d) the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 should be amended to introduce caps on campaign expenditure by political parties, candidates and associated entities, which are indexed to inflation and subject to periodic review."

We think this bill completely ignores the corporate influence over politics and disproportionately targets the not-for-profit sector, which, as I've said, is an attack on public interest advocacy. We think, because of the uncertainty in the definitions of 'electoral matter', 'implied political comment' and 'advocacy', it will have a chilling effect on not-for-profits and charities speaking out. The government know this, and they haven't fixed it. One wonders whether this is simply a deliberate attack in a long line of attacks on the charities sector. We don't think there's any need for another layer of regulation for the sector because the existing frameworks—the ACNC, the Charities Act—are already sufficient to prevent charities from engaging in partisan political activities. That is already prohibited. What this layer of regulation does is simply stifle advocacy.

As I mentioned already, we think that the electoral laws should be amended to introduce caps on expenditure by political parties, candidates and associated entities. That is our second reading amendment. But we also have some detailed amendments once we get to the committee stage. Chief amongst those is ending the influence of vested interests over our politics. We propose to ban donations from the following sectors: property developers, mining, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, banking, big pharma and defence.
People don't give money to political parties just because they've got nothing better to do with their money. They give money because they want policy outcomes that suit them. They give money because they want policies that will allow them to make more money. It is a very cosy relationship. If you look at the fossil fuel donations, for example, that big coal, big gas and big oil have given to both sides of politics over the last few years and then you look at the policy outcomes that this parliament has delivered for that vested interest, it is very hard to conclude anything other than that this is policy for donations. We were going to have a resource superprofits tax. A Prime Minister got rolled and we ended up with a weaker mining tax. That tax, of course, was then abolished anyway.
There have been so many times when the community has come together and demanded a certain policy, a certain regulation, and there has been that expectation, and then industry has rallied and has pressured the people in this building and, hey presto, the parliament's gone to water and nothing's been done. Perhaps it is the threat of the removal of those donations. Perhaps it is the threat that, if you make a fuss on the issue, you won't get the cushy job after you leave parliament: 'Just sit quietly, otherwise we won't give you that handshake once you leave.' It is about time we got rid of those big vested interests and their influence over our democracy. They have no place in decision-making. Decisions should be made for the benefit of the community. There is no reason for big money in politics. So we would like to completely end the donations from those sectors that I have listed.

The other important reform is that we think donations from everybody else should be capped. We're not just saying that there are a few sectors that we disagree with and that we want to silence them; we actually think that big money doesn't belong in politics. So our next amendment says that we want to cap donations from everybody. We don't care who you are or where you're from; we want to cap your donations at $1,000 per year. You can still make that small contribution, but that is not sufficient to buy a policy outcome. You can still exercise your constitutional right to free speech by donating a small amount if you want to back that cause, but we don't think that's an amount that would be sufficient to buy unfair political influence. And we think that should apply across the board to absolutely everyone. I don't expect that we will get support for that amendment either, because these two parties are hooked on the money from their donors. They are put here by them; they stay here because of that money. They are certainly not going to dry up that money source now. But the Australian people actually want that, and they deserve that. I am proud that the Greens will be moving those amendments.

Our amendments also talk about disclosure. We want to reduce the disclosure threshold to $1,000. I believe that Labor have a similar amendment, and I'm pleased to see that. We'll be supporting their amendment; I assume they'll be supporting ours. We're not sure which amendment will come on first, but that reduction of the disclosure threshold is such an important transparency measure. I've said that we think donations should only be $1,000; ergo, the disclosure threshold is the same as the cap, but I don't expect that our cap will get through. What might get through is that reduction of the disclosure threshold, and I hope that this chamber sees fit to accept that transparency as a principle is an important, crucial bedrock of our democracy. I look forward to that amendment being moved and being debated.
What I'm interested in, though, is whether our amendment for real-time disclosure of donations will get any support. We know it's Labor policy; it's been our policy forever. We know Labor have said that's something that they support, but are they going to vote for it? It's very easy to say you believe in something, but you've actually got to come in here and vote for it if your belief is to mean anything. I think the Australian community will be watching very closely just how legit the other parties are being in this place when it comes to that amendment about real-time disclosure.

I want to harken back to the fact that we've had a few by-elections lately, as people will know. Because of the existing disclosure rules, not only will people face the next federal election without knowing who's donating to the parties at that campaign; they won't even know who donated to the political parties in those by-elections. The voters of Wentworth, for example, don't know who funded the parties' campaigns in Wentworth, they're not going to know who's going to fund those candidates' campaigns as they face the next election and they still won't know who funded the last ones.

Because of that delay in disclosure, there is a pall over who's really in charge, and the Australian community, of course, draw the worse conclusion, and that conclusion is usually right: that it's the donors' interests that are being put ahead of the community's.
Real-time disclosure, folks. Let's actually be open and transparent. Let the people see where you're getting your money from, and then let them decide whether they think that's a good or bad thing and vote accordingly. But don't hide it. Don't try to pretend that it's not happening. Everybody knows what's going on. They can see that the interests that are being put first in this place are not the community's interests, and certainly not the environment's interests; they're the interests of the people who have made donations. They want to know who's donating to those political parties. Real-time disclosure is the least we can do for the Australian public to clean up our democracy.

I want to mention one final issue, that there have been so many drafts of this bill. In one of the earlier drafts thrown upon us—out of nowhere—was this notion that the federal laws might be able to be used to override recent state donation bans. I'm from Queensland, where our state government, under pressure from the Greens in our state election, finally brought in laws—which we support; which are great and we think they're good—to clamp down on donations from property developers. Of course, we think they should go further, and we'll be moving amendments to do that. Certainly our member Michael Berkman has done that. But it was a small step forward and we support it.

The federal government—very cross about that, because, of course, they get an awful lot of money from property developers—want to try to find a way to override those laws. So they lobbed in provisions to an earlier draft of this bill that would simply override that Queensland property developer ban. They were very open about that at the time. Senator James McGrath, who was caretaking this bill in the course of the JSCEM hearings, is quoted on record as saying that was the very intent. They have since resiled, a little, from that. I understand they've come under some pressure from the Labor Party to do that—certainly, we've made our position known: we don't think it's right that those state bans be overridden by the federal laws—and I understand the drafting has the opposition benches comfortable. But we have advice that says that the drafting of those amendments will still let people get around that Queensland property developer donation ban. We are not satisfied that the drafting closes that loophole, and we cannot support that provision.

I will be moving amendments that say that those state bans should remain; this parliament should not be seeking to overturn those. I am hopeful that maybe we'll get some reform today or when this bill comes to a vote, but our amendments would significantly strengthen this bill, would help clean up our democracy and could restore the confidence of the Australian people. (Time expired)

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