I rise to speak on this bill introduced by the Special Minister of State just last week. The substance of this bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Annual Disclosure Equality) Bill 2021, appears to be threefold. First, it will require all parliamentarians to lodge annual returns to the Australian Electoral Commission relating to gifts received during the financial year. These provisions would also require donors who make gifts to parliamentarians above the AEC threshold to report them in their annual returns. Second, this bill would extend foreign donation laws to cover current sitting members of parliament, not just when they are candidates for election. Finally, this bill extends by six months the period during which a person is considered a candidate for the purposes of reporting donations received during an election.
On the face of it, these are positive reforms. I say ‘on the face of it’ because, unfortunately, the minister did not make the time to brief the crossbench prior to this debate. The soonest I could get an appointment was tomorrow. I will say that these amendments would not change too much about how I already do business.
While the current provisions in the electoral act do not require non-party parliamentarians to lodge annual AEC returns, I am committed, as I have said so many times in this House, to disclosing on a quarterly basis all donations I receive, at any time, above $1,000. That information is on my website right now for all to see. Sadly, in the interests of transparency, the same cannot be said for all major parties. At this stage I do have concerns about the retrospective application of the candidate provisions. While I welcome any reforms to improve the disclosure of political donations in this nation, it’s very curious indeed to see that the government has become laser focused on reforms targeted at Independent candidates, all of a sudden.
It’s also curious to see that the government do not pay attention to the loopholes in the act which they proactively exploit. For example, it’s common practice for candidates from the major parties to lodge individual AEC returns that state that they received $0 during an election—zero dollars. This is obviously untrue. The major parties are clearly exploiting a loophole to ensure that the public is left in the dark about how much money they decide to spend in each electorate. The public has that information about an independent candidate, so why not from the major parties too? Wouldn’t that be great transparency? Wouldn’t that be a marvellous loophole to fix?
That’s why I will soon be moving a detailed amendment to this bill to require political parties to declare in an AEC return exactly how much money they gave to an individual candidate, if that candidate submits a nil return under part 5. If the government is truly committed to disclosure equality when it comes to political donations, then it will support this detailed amendment. I encourage them to do so, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I will also be moving detailed amendments to reduce the AEC political donations declaration threshold from $14,500 to $1,000. These amendments reflect the provisions of the private members’ bill I introduced last sitting and the private members’ bill the member for Mayo introduced at the start of this parliament, which I was very pleased to support.
The government is keen to say that they are ‘committed to increasing transparency when it comes to political donations via this bill’. Well, let’s see them ‘walk the talk’ on these amendments. Under current laws, the major parties only have to disclose donations received above $14,500 to the Australian Electoral Commission each financial year. Australians deserve to know who is holding the purse strings of the major parties before voting for them. Politicians are meant to represent the people, not their donors. The parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have all set disclosure thresholds on donations of $1,000. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia also require near real-time disclosure of donations, but right now there is no equivalent law at a federal level.
In summary, I challenge the government on whether it truly introduced this bill in good faith. This bill has had no consultation and was never contemplated by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I truly do wonder what the government’s ultimate motivation here is. If the government honestly cared about equality in political donations laws, it would also support my amendments to lower the disclosure threshold and prevent political parties from hiding where they spend money during elections.