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Electoral Amendment (Electoral Expenditure and Political Donations) Bill 2020

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Tags: Legislation, Political Donations, Transparency, Electoral Reform

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I thank Ms Ogilvie. That was an interesting and informative contribution. I am not sure I agree that there is any real way that we can stop people, behind the anonymity of their keyboards, from slinging abuse. I do not think it is possible because there are quite a few people in the world who feel deeply aggrieved -

Ms Archer - People who use nom de plumes too. Yes, and I know who a lot of them are, which is interesting.

Ms O'CONNOR - about everything. Yes, it is the anonymous cowards who think attacking particularly female MPs is good sport. It says so much more about them than it does about us.

I also thank Ms Haddad the member for Clark, for bringing on this legislation. It is a significant step forward and, of course, the Greens will be supporting this bill. I am glad that we will be given the time as a parliament to go through the second reading process and then into Committee and work through some of the issues that Ms Ogilvie has raised, but we would also want to talk about some amendments.

Politics in Tasmania, in many ways, is damaged by our lack of any donations disclosure framework beyond the Commonwealth law. It has created a rot at the heart of our democracy. It treats voters like mugs because what the system says to them at the moment is, we do not believe that you should know who is donating how much to which political party and for what purpose. That is insulting to voters and it is wounding to democracy.

If you want to understand one really good example of how the influence of money on politics corrupts outcomes and works against the public interest, we need look no further at a federal level than the 2018-19 disclosures that revealed fossil fuel companies have donated a total of $2 million to the Labor and Liberal parties: $1.3 million of that went to the party of government, the Liberals; and $700 000 went to the Labor Party and that is up from $1.3 million in the previous year. The money ramped up in an election year because the fossil fuel industry was investing for its very survival and we know that the money, the big spend, paid off because despite the fact Australia has gone into a COVID recession and there is a clear and pressing need for a transformation of our economy into a renewable sustainable future, the best the Morrison Government could do was offer Australians a gaslit recovery. Regrettably, because the money has also contaminated the Opposition, the other side of politics, young people had to listen to the federal Opposition Leader back in the Prime Minister on a gaslit recovery. The same thing happens over and again in this country on resource-extractive fossil fuel industries where both parties basically say exactly the same thing.

It comes home to Tasmania when you look at the Estimates schedule that I had a few words to say about this morning, where both the major parties think it is perfectly acceptable to only allocate 30 minutes to scrutiny of the Climate Change portfolio. Any scientist will tell you it is the single most important and pressing issue that any parliament or any government at any level has to deal with. We should be having Estimates scrutiny of the Climate Change portfolio that is at least as long as the Premier's four hours or Treasury's four hours. There are so many questions that need to be asked, thought about and answered in the Climate Change portfolio. The people of Tasmania have been sold short and that is in significant part because of the corrupting influence of the dark money flowing into the major parties from fossil fuel interests.

As we know, Tasmania has the most deliberately lax donation laws in the country. This was confirmed during the 2018 state election by ABC Fact Check. In fact, it is the first and only time in my political life I have been ABC Fact-Checked and it was good to get confirmation that we were correct. We are the only state without a state-based legislative framework for political donations.

At a time when public confidence and trust in politics is so low, we have the right to demand more honesty, more openness from our government, but instead what we are getting daily is more spin, more secrecy and less transparency. Central to an erosion of public confidence and trust in politics is a perception that the political process has been corrupted by the spending power of a narrow range of interests, and we know who they are. No big business hands over money out of the goodness of its heart. It is money they regard as an investment in their own self-interest and, of course, the quid pro quo expectation is implicit.

Without public disclosure, there can be no accountability and Tasmanians are unable to weigh up whether their elected representatives acted in the public interest, or in the interests of those who gave them a hefty wad of cash. With an absence of public disclosure of political donations it is no wonder there is a perception that money buys influence in Tasmania, and it has for decades. It is true that money from vested interests is buying influence in Tasmania; indeed, we put it to the House that gambling industry money bought the last election.

Tasmania's political donations laws need a radical fix to make sure the community knows who is funding elections. Fixing these broken laws is fundamental to our democracy and to restoring trust in politics. It has been so eroded because people so often see their elected representatives working against their interests, lying, fighting and not serving the community that elected them to be their representative.

I believe there is a hunger in the community for truth, decency and integrity in politics. We saw that in America over the past week. I do not know about other members of this place but when the numbers started first coming in on that night and it looked like Trump was in a good position to win, I felt incredibly despondent about the fact that at that point 68 million Americans could vote for a lying, sex-abusing criminal. But as the votes started to come in we saw something else happen. We saw the majority of American people rescue their democracy. We saw black women and young people come out in numbers never before seen to restore democracy and fend off fascism. I think what we saw in that vote is a manifestation of that yearning for an ability to trust in politics, a longing for elected representatives who are truthful, who will tell you that honour matters and they will live that way, who have integrity and who every time will work in the public interest. Unless we have a strong donations disclosure framework in Tasmania the people of Tasmania cannot have that faith.

Changes to the Electoral Act were promised in the lead-up to the 2018 state election but in dispiritingly typical fashion, the Liberals have failed to deliver on the review process of the act, thus exposing their promise, we believe, as nothing more than a stunt to quieten public debate following a pokies-flushed election win. It has now been 19 months since submissions closed for the Government's Electoral Act review interim report. A final report was due about a year ago, in 2019, but it has instead remained in the Attorney-General's inbox, or wherever it sits, since December last year.

Indeed, the Premier, Mr Gutwein, has only managed tokenistic gestures in relation to promised changes, saying in February that he would merely 'have a look at it', and six months later when we asked him about it he told the House he had not 'turned his mind to it', which of course was a crabwalk away from his predecessor's albeit lame process of reviewing Tasmania's electoral laws, with a strong suggestion that there would be some changes to legislation in this term of the parliament.

It is unsurprising the Liberals have not rushed to clean up these lax laws as they have benefited from them for years. Having not disclosed who is behind nearly $2.6 million worth of the $3.4 million in donations during the last election campaign alone, it is clear the only reason the party in government is dragging its feet on electoral donations reform is because there is something to hide and they believe it is in their best political interests for the status quo to remain. That is exactly why we need donations reform.

The Tasmanian Greens support expenditure caps, bans on corporate donations, donations from foreign interests, developers and gambling interests. Yes, we support public funding for election campaigns and it has been unedifying to see the Premier when he is cornered on this issue focus only on public funding for election campaigns which is a longstanding Greens position.

This legislation does not have public funding in it and we support this legislation. Every other Australian state and territory and the Commonwealth has a measure of public funding for election campaigns, but not Tasmania. That time will have to come. If we do not want to have corporate money and vested interests permanently able to corrode our democratic foundations we will need to have a form of public funding for campaigns in Tasmania.

Lowering the threshold for donations disclosure is also critical but they should also be seen in real time and that is what the Greens do. Obviously we do not have the capacity to elicit or accept donations from the big end of town like the Liberal and Labor parties do. The vast majority of the money that we receive in order to campaign comes from individual donors and quite a small group of people who are dedicated to making sure in this parliament there are elected representatives who will stay good and true to this island and speak up for the environment, for communities, for our parks and for action on climate change.

Labor's draft bill is a significant step forward. It requires the disclosure of all political donations to parties, candidates or members of the House of Assembly or Legislative Council over $1000, including multiple donations from a single donor that add up to over $1000 within 30 days. It prohibits anonymous donations over $1000 to individual MPs, candidates and parties. It prohibits foreign donations over $1000 to individual MPs, candidates and parties. Our view is that it should just prohibit foreign donations to political parties.

I again take this opportunity to put on the record that the Liberal Party accepted $30 000 from the Yuhu Group, the director of which is Huang Xiangmo, who has since been banished from Australia because of concern about his deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

This bill sets a limit of $100 000 for the campaign expenditure of candidates endorsed by a political party for the House of Assembly elections, increasing by CPI. I can certainly confirm that no elected Greens MP has ever had that substantial sum of money allocated to them for their campaign. I am not going to tell you how much money we had for the last state election campaign but it was not very much relative to what the Liberal and Labor parties were able to draw primarily from business donations, but also from the Labor Party's point of view from trade unions.

It sets a limit of $120 000 for the campaign expenditure of candidates not endorsed by a political party for House of Assembly elections, increasing by CPI. It sets a limit of $40 000 each candidate to a maximum of 25 candidates for the campaign expenditure of political parties for House of Assembly elections, increasing by CPI and it increases the spending limit for candidates for election to the Legislative Council to $20 000, increasing by CPI.

I have to say when Ms Ogilvie was talking about being able to run a Legislative Council election campaign successfully on that sum of money, or the $17 000, which was the limit at the time, it does tell us something about how much money goes into House of Assembly elections. It raises the question about why so much money is apparently needed for House of Assembly elections, and I share Ms Ogilvie's queries about the thresholds that have been set in this legislation. Nonetheless, it is a threshold. It is a limit, a cap, and that is exactly what we need in this state.

While Labor's bill is a step forward and in many ways reflects substantively the bill that former attorney-general, Brian Wightman, brought into this place in late-2013, which had Greens' support, it fails to deliver real-time donations disclosure. It contains the provision for a 30-day disclosure time frame. Thirty days is about your average campaign length. If Labor is serious about making sure voters know who is giving them how much to which political party, they would have drafted legislation with seven to 14-day donation disclosure thresholds. That is an amendment we would flag in the Committee stage.

The omission of a cap on donations from individuals and a ban on donations from corporate interests from developers and gambling interests is notable and we believe it weakens Labor's bill, but I do not want to take anything away from the fact that Labor and Ms Haddad have gone to the trouble of preparing this bill and bringing it to the House for debate because it is something to work on. It is a very good start.

Tasmania needs reform to bring our state in line with the rest of the country. Regardless of party politics, the public has a right to know this information. If simple commonsense ethics will not motivate change, we urge the Liberals to think of the public perception of them and their work and see that changing these laws will only improve their standing in the community. It will improve trust in politics and in our fragile but precious democracy.

Elections must be about a contest of values and policy not a battle of dark money. Political donations that are not disclosed but come from vested interests cheapen democracy. They treat voters like mugs. Not knowing who has funded the campaigns of political parties is toxically corrosive to democracy and it is untenable.

We believe that Tasmanians want strong donations disclosure laws in place. The Liberals must know that there is a perception in the community that something is rotten in the State of Tasmania, otherwise they would not have made a pledge under the previous premier to undertake a review. You do not undertake a review unless you are prepared to implement some change. We believe that came from understanding but there is real unease in the community about the lack of transparency, the opacity around money that comes into political parties before and during election campaigns.

That unease was only amplified after the 2018 state election. With the river of dark money that poured into that campaign it was hard to get a proper sense of it because the evidence of millions of dollars was everywhere you looked - in every newspaper every day on every second page, in advertising that started on Boxing Day during the cricket that was relentless, in in-kind contributions, third-party endorsements through the Love Your Local campaign, the backing of the Federal Group, one of the most poisonous corporations Tasmania has ever known. I say that because the influence of the Farrell family and the Federal Group on this parliament, on political parties Labor and Liberal, on democracy, on government over 40 years has been profound and not positive. It is because of that influence that Tasmanians are undoubtedly going to have to face legislation that embeds poker machines in pubs and clubs here until the year 2043.

The framework that will be put in place through that legislation, the policy that the Liberals changed before the election to reflect the Federal Group's position, is now as the Federal Group would wish it. So again we see the deeply worrying and corrosive influence of one Sydney-based family on this whole place over four decades. The harm that has come from that one family's capacity to tell whatever party is in government at the time how things are going to be is incalculable. The human cost is beyond imagination.

Those machines have led to suicide, homelessness, deep poverty, family violence, child abuse and neglect and addiction. That has come about because of government policy to allow the proliferation of poker machines into pubs and clubs. Both parties historically have been complicit in that because they have allowed the Farrell family to tell them how things are going to be.

I will cite a study from the University of Tasmania's Institute for the Study of Social Change which revealed only 20 per cent of the $25 million donated to Tasmanian political parties in the past decade was publicly disclosed.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, how are we to know whether powerful interests have made multiple donations under the threshold via a number of separate entities? That is the problem with the framework we have in place now. It is so muddy, so opaque and such large sums of money are moving through party accounts and so little of it is disclosed. It is impossible to know how much money is coming in and to what exact purpose.

I am sure the Attorney-General wants to make a contribution and perhaps to make some excuses for the ongoing delay to Electoral Reform -

Ms Archer - You make me so excited about jumping now. You were going so well then, being nice and peaceful.

Ms O'CONNOR - I could not help it, on my way out. I am saying it as I see it. I am pretty sure the Attorney-General is going to get up and make some excuses for why the recommendations of the already limp review of electoral laws in Tasmania has sat on her desk for a year or so, or maybe it is only 11 months.

This bill is a very good start. The House should support it. We should all have the courage to support it. There is no problem with that from the Greens point of view. Most importantly, we should all have the courage, come election time, to put ourselves before the people and have faith that they will know we are honest and open about our funding. We should be able to go to this next election and it will be about values and policy. That is how you make good government. That is how you restore trust in the community. You do not instil trust in the community, for example, by concealing a policy to weaken firearm laws which comes out one day before the election. That again is treating Tasmanian voters like mugs.

We can all do better and, with this legislation, we have an opportunity to start cleaning up politics in Tasmania. My goodness, doesn't it need a good broom through it.