Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020

I was taken aback, but not at all surprised, to watch the government prioritise this bill on the schedule this week, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. ‘Miscellaneous’ is the best descriptor of this bill. It’s even in the title of the bill itself.

The past two weeks of parliament have illustrated beyond doubt the blinding moment we have arrived at as a nation and as a parliament when it comes to the question of integrity in federal politics. Australians feel demoralised and angered by the unending revelations from Senate estimates and the reckless behaviour of some parliamentarians in this place.

Australians are asking themselves how deep the culture of entitlement and disregard for the public good goes in our body politic. Australians are desperate to know where the threads lead to and how systemic corruption allegations are. How long is that piece of string, Mr Speaker? This bill and our current integrity laws give Australians no comfort, nor answers, to those questions.

Let me explain for the record what this bill does. This bill locks in the status quo when it comes to the current political donations culture at the federal level. In May last year the High Court upheld the validity of the anti-corruption measures in Queensland, which prohibit the making of political donations by property developers.

Those measures in Queensland are decent and improve transparency and accountability in electoral funding. Of course, those measures don’t exist at the federal level. Indeed, it’s crystal clear that this government wants to minimise and tokenise discussion on transparency and accountability in federal politics as much as possible. When forced to reflect on the need for greater transparency and accountability in politics, through a High Court decision, this government has chosen to produce a superficial bill to lock in the status quo.

This government has turned around this miscellaneous bill in the same time it said it could not possibly pass any integrity reforms, because of the coronavirus response. This could have been a moment for the government to come with clean hands to this parliament and have a robust and principled discussion about integrity reform writ large. Instead, it’s decided to back itself in. This is not the bill Australians wanted to see this week. At a moment when Australians want hope for the future of their democracy, this bill is disappointing and cannot be characterised in any way as noble electoral reform.

I have received overwhelming support this week for the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill that I introduced on Monday. I’ve received support from MPs across this parliament, on both sides, and from the vast majority of Australians across the political spectrum, imploring this parliament to debate and pass sophisticated integrity reforms as a matter of urgency.

The Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill that I introduced on Monday includes a comprehensive, independent, statutory review of political finance, funding, donations, and campaign regulation at the federal level, within the next 18 months. The bill I introduced on Monday includes a specific clause that makes it abundantly clear that it is the intention of this parliament to revise federal laws on transparency, integrity and accountability in political campaign finance and campaign regulation so that it meets best practice and is streamlined within the objectives and operation of counterpart laws at state and territory level.

Now, I make no statement on what those final provisions should be. I’m here to work with my parliamentary colleagues in a constructive way to make those reforms as ambitious and as practical as they can be. What I will say is that the vision I and many others in the parliament have for our democracy goes well beyond minor tweaks to electoral laws in Antarctica, like we see in this bill. I cannot express how short this bill falls at a moment when Australians are desperate for honest reflection and a political culture that’s pro integrity, not just anti corruption.

The parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have set a disclosure threshold on political donations at $1,000, but there’s no equivalent law at the federal level. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia require near real-time disclosure of donations, yet the Commonwealth requires disclosure just once a year, and then seven months after the reporting period has ended. There are caps on expenditure in some jurisdictions, but not for those of us here. The New South Wales Electoral Commission actively pursues breaches, yet the Australian Electoral Commission rarely employs its coercive powers, as the Senate finance and public administration committee heard in 2017.

I have long been on record in this space. I was pleased to second a private member’s bill from the member for Mayo in December last year that sought to usher in measured and evidence based political donation reforms. That bill would have extended the definition of ‘reporting entities’ to include political entities, campaigners and third parties; lowered the political donation disclosure threshold from $14,300 to $2,500; and required real-time disclosure by reporting entities within seven days of a reportable donation being made so that Australians could see and understand who was supporting who at what times, at the right time.

I’ve also been working with Senate crossbench colleagues, all of whom are enthusiastic to act in this space as well in lockstep with the wishes of the Australian public. This is not the bill Australians wanted to see this week. This is not the direction that Australians want the conversation on integrity in federal politics and campaign finance to go. This bill is exactly what it says it is: miscellaneous.

I call on all parliamentarians in this place to admit we can be more sophisticated and robust when it comes to integrity and when it comes to integrity reforms and to commit to working collaboratively with me and others in this place to have the right detailed conversation, to build a consensus vision and to write laws that reflect who we aspire to be and what the Australian people are crying out for. Let’s get real about this. Let’s stop talking about miscellaneous things. Let’s talk about the real issue here and let’s instil some values into this place.

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