December 2, 2019

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

I second the motion. I’m pleased to support this bill moved by the member for Mayo. Political, parliamentary and public service integrity is fundamental to the strength of Australian democracy. The transparency of campaign financing is key to its vitality. Capping donations at a modest limit is a powerful way of ensuring integrity.

The loss of political integrity concerns many people—I hear it consistently. It was an issue raised often with me in the 2019 federal campaign and since my election as member for Indi. It’s an aspiration at the heart of a call from Transparency International Australia for a robust federal integrity commission, one which has the support of a majority of Australians. It’s one also supported by more than 32 former senior judges and the Accountability Round Table.

Democracy 2025 Report No. 5, published in September, shows politicians are more satisfied than voters with our democratic system. It shows that public trust in government and Australian democracy is declining and that people expect politicians to be properly accountable for their conduct in public office. But I also found fascinating that 75 per cent of politicians and citizens actually agree that the amount of money political parties and candidates can spend on election campaigning and how much they can accept from donors should be limited. Yet the Commonwealth is still to enact this aspiration.

The parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have set a disclosure threshold on political donations at $1,000. Victoria has a cap, but there is no limit on donations to federal campaigns. 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. So we see the campaign finance laws diverge between jurisdictions, but it should also concern us that they do so here, too, within the Electoral Act determined by the parliament.

I acknowledge that the member for Melbourne has been calling for campaign donations to be capped at $1,000 for some time, but it remains that the Electoral Act means that I and the members for Clark and Warringah are obliged to do things which party members are not. There are rules that are the same for 148 members but are quite different for the three of us, and I commend the member for Mayo for bringing to the attention of the House the issue of political donations.

There are some things that we share. We are all required to lodge a candidate return within 15 weeks of an election, to declare the total of donations and the identity of people or organisations giving to individual campaigns more than $13,800—the disclosure set by the parliament—to disclose gifts in kind, such as contributions of professional skills, valued at more than $13,800, and to disclose the sum of election expenditure. Yet, when the AEC published an election return on November 4, candidate disclosures on the transparency register for the Indi electorate, for example, showed no donations, no donors and no expenditure for any candidate except me, the Independent, and one other.

Voters deserve to know how candidates are funded and who funds them, but the law today demands different levels of campaign funding transparency from the members for Clark, Indi and Warringah compared with that of the party candidates.

In Indi, a person or business donating cash in kind or property to a party candidate can make the gift to the party’s Indi branch. But Indi voters won’t find out about this—the law allows that gift to be reported by the party’s divisional organisation. The AEC, in fact, directs the party’s candidates in Indi, and in every other electorate, to lodge a nil return. This means political parties contesting elections are not obliged to show how much money was given, raised or spent in each electorate. These gifts and spending, instead, go into the party’s divisional stew and the only ingredients you can identify—when it’s served many months later, cold and unappealing, as the parties probably want it to be—are donations of more than $13,800.

Voters should not be blinded by the law to what candidates raise and what they spend. We need comprehensive, robust reform of the system of federal political donations and disclosure. This bill improves transparency, but there’s so much more to be done, and when it is the law it should be the same for all.

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