May 10, 2006

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005

10 May 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (11.02 am)—The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005 represents a fundamental attack on Australian democracy. It contains some odious changes which Labor fundamentally opposes. The bill will make it far harder to vote but much easier to secretly donate to political parties. Labor is opposed strongly to the provisions in this bill which will see electoral rolls close early, introduce new proof-of-identity requirements, increase the disclosure threshold for political donations to $10,000 and increase the size and scope of the tax deductibility regime for political donations to $1,500.

The member for Hinkler has just contributed to this debate, and I had the privilege of being in the member for Hinkler’s electorate just last week. I went to Gladstone and marched and spoke at Labor Day. Let me tell you, and I say to the member for Hinkler: not many of the men, women and families that I met in Gladstone were about to donate $10,000 to the National Party, the Labor Party or anyone else. The idea that $10,000 should be able to be donated and not be disclosed is simply obscene. It will lead to a corruption of the political process, and that is what it is designed to do. I have no problem whatsoever with an individual, if they are wealthy enough, donating $10,000 to a political party. The issue here is that it should be disclosed, that the Australian public should know that that individual has contributed $10,000 to that political party. I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are not many people in my electorate of Grayndler who can afford to donate $10,000 that they have as discretionary funds to any political party. It is just not the case. So why is it that the Australian public should not know about that?

Regarding the size and scope of the tax deductibility regime for political donations, we know if you combine the two measures that there will be a lot of functions held by all political parties where the entry fee is a donation of around $1,490 or so. We have seen continually in the past that prices are set just below the threshold for disclosure. What will happen now is that not only will prices be set just below the disclosure level; they will also be able to be claimed as tax deductions. Therefore, government receipts will be less by 45c in the dollar, after 1 July. So the Commonwealth taxpayer will be subsidising these donations that no-one will know about except that government receipts will be less. As much of a budget surplus as we have, do we really have enough money in the long term as a nation to be sure that we have covered off on skills, on infrastructure and on adaptation to climate change to suggest in the long term we can promote these provisions? It is a huge increase in tax deductibility from $100 to $1,500 in one hit.

I come to the provisions designed to disenfranchise Australians from the voting system. Surely, the electoral system should enfranchise as many eligible Australians as possible and be as transparent as possible. The only reason for this bill is to enable the coalition to get partisan political advantage at future elections. The government plans to close the electoral rolls at 8 pm on the day that an election writ is issued. Current legislation allows for a seven-day grace period after an election writ is issued for people to enrol to vote and update their existing details on the electoral roll. The government justifies these changes by saying that the AEC does not have time to adequately process the details of people who are enrolling to vote or updating their details in the period between the issue of the writ and polling day, hence leading to more errors on the electoral roll. What absolute nonsense! The AEC itself has said that the current seven-day arrangement does not prevent it from taking adequate steps to prevent fraudulent enrolment. In fact, the AEC, critical of similar changes proposed about five years ago, said that closing the rolls early would make the roll:

… less accurate because there will be less time for existing electors to correct their enrolments and for new enrolments to be received.

Because of these changes the ability of some 280,000 Australians to vote could be jeopardised and most of those will be young people. Presumably, John Howard does not think that they vote for the conservatives.

History shows that closing the rolls on the day that an election writ is issued will see tens of thousands of Australians excluded from voting. In 1983, Malcolm Fraser played a dirty trick and closed the rolls the day after the election was called, breaking over 80 years of convention. Approximately 90,000 people found that they could not vote because they had not enrolled in time. In 1983 a lot of people went to vote, found they were not on the roll and just walked out of the polling station. John Howard should not return to the disgraceful tactics of Malcolm Fraser and take away people’s right to vote.

In my electorate of Grayndler, from one election to the next almost 25 per cent of names on the roll will change—every three years. I have an enormous number of students and young people in my electorate. Grayndler has among the highest numbers in Australia of people who rent rather than own their homes. This will mean that some of these people will be disenfranchised and will inevitably attempt to vote using their old address, thereby reducing the accuracy of the roll. This bill threatens a strong disenfranchisement of voters in my electorate.

We strongly oppose the disclosure threshold being increased to $10,000. The current threshold of $1,500 is a good benchmark. It ensures the Australian public have access to information on who provides substantial funds to political parties. This information is vital to ensure that voters can hold governments and political parties accountable. The increase in the disclosure threshold could see tens of millions of dollars received by political parties disappear from public view.

I want to outline some details that show that not just the major political parties will be affected by these changes. Minor parties use electoral tactics to secure political advantage. In mid-April this year, an advertisement appeared in a newsletter of the Fundraising Institute headed ‘National fundraiser wanted’. The job paid $80,000 per annum plus superannuation. The organisation offered an ‘outstanding, high-profile opportunity for the right fundraiser with a strong track record looking for a new challenge’. It stated that ‘the fundraiser will develop and implement a national fundraising strategy targeting wealthy individuals and small companies. I repeat: ‘targeting wealthy individuals and small companies.’ The organisation was looking for:

• Demonstrated success in developing and conducting significant fundraising campaigns;

• Demonstrated skills in organising large fundraising events that generate large amounts of funds;

• Exceptional people skills;

• Outstanding networking skills;

• Articulate and well-presented;

• Very comfortable operating in ‘business settings’ and dealing with high-net worth individuals;

• Demonstrated skills in conducting high level negotiations;

• Demonstrated skills in developing and managing budgets;

• Demonstrated high levels of energy and tenacity;

According to the advertisement: ‘After a three-month probationary period, continued employment will be strictly contingent on reaching agreed fundraising targets.’ The location was negotiable, and enquiries and applications were to be sent to the following email address: [email protected] That is right, the advertisement was not for the Liberal Party, the National Party or the Labor Party but for the Greens. The advertisement went on to say that the Greens were ‘very proud of their record in refusing corporate donations’.

Hang on a minute, on the one hand the Greens say they refuse corporate donations when on the other hand they are openly targeting ‘large fundraising events’ and want someone who is ‘comfortable in business settings with high-net worth individuals’. I repeat: the Greens say they refuse corporate donations but they want a professional fundraising officer to target these events. It shows that in the political system the Greens, just like other political parties, engage in these activities.

I draw the attention of the House to some of the hypocrisy that the Greens run when they talk about corporate donations. Recently, the Daily Telegraph exposed the corporate money received by the Greens through investments in the Wholesale Mortgage Fund. The Greens’ receipt of over $5,000 from the Wholesale Mortgage Fund was disclosed in their electoral funding disclosure return for 2004-05. This $5,000 represented interest on an investment. The Wholesale Mortgage Fund is a managed investment scheme and is part of the Challenger Financial Services Group, whose board of directors includes James Packer. I quote from the fund’s commercial strategy:

In buying, retaining or selling underlying investments we generally do not take into account labour standards or environmental, social or ethical considerations.

The fund has, according to its website:

… an impressive record in securing large scale, high quality property assets, predominantly in the office, retail and social infrastructure sectors.

Like every other investor, the Greens made a conscious choice to invest their money in this organisation—this organisation that does not ‘take into account labour standards or environmental, social or ethical considerations.’ I ask the Greens how this sits with the rhetoric that they engage in on these activities. The fund could invest in property development, overseas sweatshops, logging—anything at all, based upon the high rate of return. The fund is of course entitled to do that. But the Greens are not entitled to pretend they do not receive corporate money and that they engage on a different ethical basis to other political parties, when they are quite clearly able to get $5,000 in interest alone from investments in this fund. Understandably, the Greens are uncomfortable that they have made money from investing in development. They are uncomfortable because it has been brought out. That is the cold, hard truth.

That is consistent with other issues. In Queensland copies of minutes and emails between party officials of the Greens in August 2002 showed that the party sought donations from—and I quote from the Greens’ minutes—‘sensitive developers’. That was one point. They went further, though. The minutes of those meetings indicate that a motion was moved on August 8 that year:

… we approve that donations be made to the Rainforest Information Centre who will re-route the money to the Queensland Greens.

This is a problem because of a lack of disclosure, but it is also a problem because good environmental outcomes are undermined if organisations such as the Rainforest Information Centre are used to channel funds through to a political party. This was raised by Richard Nielson, the Greens candidate for Brisbane at the last state election, when he said:

With regards to the minutes circulated, I’m not sure that Drew’s idea for re-routing of donated money is good minute material.

He does not question the substance but questions the fact that it was recorded in the minutes. This certainly is an area of concern.

But there is form. In my electorate of Grayndler the Greens are particularly active at local government level. Two elections ago Sylvia Hale, now a Greens MLC in the New South Wales upper house, was a candidate for the No Aircraft Noise Party. She was a candidate in that election, in the south ward of Marrickville council. Her main opponent, and the person whom she just defeated for the last spot on the council from that ward, was the candidate for the Greens party. So Sylvia Hale, No Aircraft Noise Party candidate, was running for a spot essentially against the Greens candidate. But when the disclosure of that local government election occurred, what appeared was that Sylvia Hale, No Aircraft Noise Party candidate, had donated $5,000 to the Greens campaign in the very election where she was standing for a different political party.

These are the reasons why political disclosure is important. These are the reasons why we should not be increasing the figure for disclosure up to $10,000. Had these provisions applied, we would never have known that Sylvia Hale was running for one political party but funding another political party in the same election. And Sylvia Hale found herself elected on preferences, just defeating the Greens candidate for that fourth spot. A year later Sylvia Hale left the No Aircraft Noise Party and joined the Greens party. Did she do the principled thing and resign her position, as Cheryl Kernot did when she changed political parties and decided to join the Australian Labor Party? No, she did not—she retained her spot on the council. A short period of time later she became a Greens candidate for the New South Wales Legislative Council.

I am an opponent, as people in this chamber would know, of privatisation in general, as a political philosophy. Here we have a situation whereby the New South Wales Greens had privatised a spot in the New South Wales upper house! We would not have known about the connection between funding just prior to someone changing their political party and being preselected for public office in the New South Wales upper house were it not for the disclosure provisions that are there. That is why these provisions are important—because, regardless of which political party people represent, the Australian public is entitled to know where the money for people’s campaigns comes from and the Australian public is entitled to draw conclusions from that. Whether rightly or wrongly, there will be conclusions drawn on the basis of political donations.

I draw the House’s attention today to the activities of the Greens because the Greens, I think, have been particularly hypocritical in this regard in that they have been prepared to accept donations; they have invested in funds which clearly state that they pay no regard to labour, environmental or other ethical standards. They change political parties and donate to other political parties and they attempt from time to time to channel funds through environmental organisations as they did in Queensland.

I think these provisions should be opposed. They are an attack on a democratic system; they are an attack on the accountability that the Australian public deserves. (Time expired)