Speech in Parliament on electoral donations reform

1.47pm | September 13, 2016

I take the opportunity this evening to continue my remarks earlier today in the MPI debate about the need for electoral donation reform. I think it is important to go through some of the details of the various policy needs and responses that we might consider in this policy area. I know that we have been having this debate for some time in this chamber; and, long before I got here, it was an active debate out in the public sphere as well. There is value in us thinking in constructive ways now, given the technologies that we have and the opportunities available to us, about the type of reform we could make and the real benefits that that would bring to our polity, to our parties and to our parliament.

Tonight I want to lay out some of the headline priorities that I think we need to be thinking about as we enter this new phase of debate. The first, of course, is increasing transparency. It is very difficult to argue that the Australian people do not deserve to know who is giving what support to whom. Having the information in the public domain is so important. It allows the public to properly scrutinise the behaviour of their elected representatives and to ask informed questions about whether relationships with donors are inappropriately influencing representatives in the conduct of their duties. It helps the voting public make an informed decision about their representatives. Knowing who supports parties and candidates is part of this.

There are at least two prongs to transparency. The first of these is more comprehensive disclosure. The Labor Party for many years has advocated for reducing the threshold for disclosure of donations by corporations. More than $13,000 for a corporation to donate to a political party before it becomes public really is just too high. Labor has long supported reducing the threshold for anonymous donations from individuals as well. The second prong is the timeliness of disclosure. When I spoke in the MPI debate earlier today, I mentioned the ALP's commitment to introducing real-time disclosure of donations. It is not something we had committed to at the time of the 2013 election, but it is an important policy that we took to the 2016 election. More timely disclosure is an important part of our policy platform and it forms an important element of the package of reforms that the Labor Party will be pursuing in this parliament. The truth is that disclosing donations 12 to 18 months after an election is no good for anything at all except an interesting post-hoc analysis.

The second objective I think we ought to pursue is to end donation splitting. This is when you donate just below the disclosable threshold to each of the state and federal branches of a party, or to a number of those state and federal branches. It is clearly a loophole that allows people to subvert the intention of donation disclosure laws, which is to provide information to the public about circumstances when significant amounts of money are being provided to political parties. It rests upon a legal fiction, because these party branches, as we understand, are closely linked and often share money in any case. It is particularly concerning when it is combined with third-party entities such as the Free Enterprise Foundation in an attempt to further muddy the waters about who is donating and who is benefiting from donations, which significantly inhibits effective disclosure.

The third area where I believe we need to pay attention is foreign donations. The High Court has said that donations are a constitutionally protected form of political communication and a way of taking part in political debate. But we should make sure that the people who are entering the debate are those who have a real and legitimate interest in its outcome, not just an intellectual interest. The regulatory arrangements for this will no doubt be complex, but it seems that, at minimum, persons or entities that live or work or conduct business in Australia ought to be the group of people who we consider have a legitimate interest in Australian political outcomes. There should not be a place in our electoral donations laws for those who have no connection with Australia apart from the money they donate.

The fourth general priority, I would suggest, is tightening up the Electoral Act. The public funding provisions help to prevent an 'arms race' of fundraising and they allow minor parties to have a voice in elections. But no-one should be able to make a profit from running in an election. We need to tighten up existing laws to tie public funding to campaign expenditure. We also need to make sure that the offences and penalties in the act properly reflect the ways in which breaches of electoral laws undermine our political system.

At the moment, there is a real passion for, a real interest in, donations reform, but in this chamber I think we have an obligation to make sure that this lasts beyond the news cycle. This should be about building a more efficient and ethical system in a practical and progressive way. There are real issues that need to be addressed. I am proud to be part of a Labor opposition that is committed to doing something about those questions.