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Electoral Disclosure and Funding Bill 2022

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 10 November 2022

Tags: Legislation, Electoral Reform, Democracy

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, the Greens will be supporting the two bills, the Electoral Disclosure and Funding Bill and the miscellaneous amendment bill. We have a number of amendments because we want to make sure Tasmania has amongst the strongest electoral and donation disclosure laws in the country rather than remain at the bottom of the table, which is what will happen even when this bill passes if it passes unamended.

I thank and congratulate the Attorney-General for getting us this far. It is something. It goes back to a promise that was made by former premier Will Hodgman in 2018 after an election about which everyone will have their different view or perspective on and the wash of money that came from vested interests towards the outcome. Whatever your perspective, there was within the community as sense of unease because people could see that more than any other state election in the state's history, and certainly any I have observed or participated in. The investment by vested interests was at a level we had not seen previously, so there was a feeling in the community after 2018 that we needed to do better and the then premier, Will Hodgman, made a commitment that there would be electoral law reform. Even he got sick of the questions about us having the weakest donations disclosure and electoral laws in the country. It was disappointing when he retired and went to Singapore. We had a new premier and the new premier was tepid on the need for electoral reform. In fact, when asked about it in the lead-up to the 2021 state election said to journalists, 'I believe the current system works well', and as we said at the time, 'Works well for who?'.

It works well for maybe the Liberal Party and occasionally for the Labor Party but it does not work well for democracy and good governance, and making sure that when you go to an election, people are judging you on your ideas and your policies rather than how much money you can spend on advertising and attack-ads. That is what happened in 2018. Also in 2018, the ABC Fact Check, checking a statement that I had made as Greens leader, found Tasmania's donation laws would become the weakest in the country after the Victorian Government embarked on a reform agenda.

In the years since, Victoria has reformed its laws. New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory also passed reforms enhancing their political donations and expenditure framework and this is in line with community expectations. People want elections to be clean. Tasmania has dropped even further behind the rest of the country than when it was declared to have the weakest donation laws four years ago.

The Government's proposed reforms would still leave us with the weakest laws in the country so they are a step ahead but they are not enough steps ahead. For example, the proposed donation disclosure threshold of $5000 would leave us with the second-highest threshold of any state or territory, only marginally ahead of South Australia at a current indexed threshold of $5576. We also will remain one of only two states or territories alongside Victoria with no expenditure limits which means, of course, that cashed-up parties can buy seats. The extension of that is that cashed-up parties can buy executive government.

While this bill will bring us in line with three other jurisdictions that have a ban on foreign donations - and let us not forget the Commonwealth Government banned foreign donations about three years ago and we are only now here in Tasmania just catching up so it brings us into line with federal law - the bill still fails to adopt bans on other potentially corrupting donations from the property, tobacco and gambling industries. What we want to see is that donations do not come from vested interests of corporations but that they come from natural persons.

This bill also does not bring Tasmania into line with jurisdictions like Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland by introducing caps on political donations. The proposed disclosure time frames are ahead of many jurisdictions. However, even this the Government fails to bring us into best practice by not including 24 hour disclosure within seven days of polling day. In short, this bill does not introduce a single measure that is nation-leading. It is another missed opportunity but we are equal or near-equal to last in three of the most important areas: donation caps, disclosure thresholds, and electoral expenditure caps. I will go to each of those issues shortly.

When I was looking through my massive manila folder file on this issue that goes back many years, I found the Liberal Party of Australia (Tasmania Division) submission to the interim report into the review of the Tasmanian Electoral Act and it makes quite the read. The author of this is apparently Sam McQuestin, state director. It is fair to say that the Liberal Party at that time certainly agreed with the premier at that time, Mr Gutwein, and was not persuaded of the need for any changes.

Mr SPEAKER - Ms O'Connor, sorry to interrupt you and I know it is a warm day, but the air-conditioner and the fan that is going beside the microphone is upsetting Hansard's ability to -

Ms O'CONNOR - Has Hansard said something?

Mr SPEAKER - Yes -

Ms O'CONNOR - When?

Mr SPEAKER - They have. The fan noise is coming through the microphone.

Ms O'CONNOR - For the Hansard record, this is an air-filter because we have been made to work in a Chamber with unmasked people during a global pandemic.

Mr Speaker, thank you, I will put it on the floor but I use this air-filter to try to keep myself safe from my colleagues who refuse to wear a mask and who cough and sneeze in this Chamber, unmasked.

It is fair to say that the Liberal Party was not supportive of the need for change. We see the phrase in this submission constantly: 'At this stage, the Liberal Party is not persuaded of the need for change'. (TBC) Another statement:

If you regulate the private funding of political parties you require public funding. If you regulate the private funding of political parties you must regulate the private funding of third parties. (TBC)

Yes, if you regulate the spending of political parties, you must regulate the spending of third parties.

As a matter of philosophy and policy principle, the Liberal Party does not support unnecessary increased regulation. The Liberal Party did not take a policy to the last election to make changes to the regulatory system surrounding political finance. There is no mandate for such change. (TBC)

I suggest, that Sam McQuestin remains as out of touch as ever. It says:

Let us not regulate our healthy democracy out of existence. (TBC)

That is comedy gold. It is not a healthy democracy when vested interests, gambling companies, mining companies, big fish farming can pour tens of thousands of dollars into parties of government because what that leads to is policy and legislation that works for the corporate interest and against the public interest.

Here we go, in the submission again:

The current debate about political finance in Tasmania stems from various conspiracy theories surrounding the last state election. (TBC)

The Liberal Party claims that in fact - even including the small number of gaming-related contributions that fell below the disclosure threshold - more than 85 per cent of contributions received by the Liberal Party had nothing to do with gaming-related interests. The corollary of that is that 15 per cent did, and that would have come from organisations like the Federal Group and 'Love Your Local'. We have here:

Changing the rules by lowering donation thresholds will make almost zero difference to the transparency of this funding as the funding will simply not occur.

The Liberal Party of Australia, Tasmania division strongly opposes the introduction of state-based disclosure rules in Tasmania. (TBC)

No wonder it has taken so long for us to even get here today. The submission goes on:

We have already a federal system of disclosure rules that operate satisfactorily and we should not be trying to fix something that isn't broken. (TBC)

Again, it was clearly broken in 2018 and it is always broken when vested interests with no clear line of sight, no transparency to the community, can pour tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars into political parties in order to get themselves policy outcomes. The submission goes on, just a couple of more pearlers:

Introducing state-based draconian disclosure rules would be an unnecessary duplication of regulation and be a considerable expense to Tasmanian taxpayers. (TBC)

Again, no understanding of a democracy untainted by corporate interest, but it is towards the end of the submission that things start to get quite hysterical. We have:

There is no evidence that the current system is broken. The Liberal Party of Australia, Tasmania Division does not support state-based disclosure rules being introduced.

The Liberal Party of Australia, Tasmania Division does not support state based disclosure rules being introduced.

The Liberal Party of Australia, Tasmania Division does not support public funding of political parties in Tasmania which would cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

The Liberal Party of Australia, Tasmania Division does not support a new state-based disclosure regime (TBC)

And on it goes. That statement is repeated 15 or 16 times in this submission.

Ms Archer - That's his view.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, that is his view, but he made that view on behalf of the Liberal Party of Tasmania. It is quite wrong-headed but it is also bordering on hysterical in the true meaning of the word.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the lack of the inclusion of donation caps in this bill is a significant disappointment. The argument for a limit on the value of donations is simple; money buys influence and the larger the sum, the larger the influence. The 2018 senate committee into the political influence of donations noted that:

Although proving that donations buy political outcomes is difficult, the anecdotal evidence of this link is compelling.

The relevance of the sum of money donated is well summarised by the comments of an anonymous politician in a 2018 study, and I think we have all heard this one before:

If someone donates $1000, they support you. If they donate $100 000, they've bought you.

Although the influence of smaller donations should not be discounted as they can contribute to long-term relationship building that influences policy in more subtle ways, it is much more serious when we are talking about donations that run into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course, the Greens do not have the capacity to secure this sort of donation because we do not seek corporate favour because, other than having integrity in this place and standing up for this beautiful island and its people, we have nothing to offer those corporations. We cannot do them any special deals and, as a matter of principle throughout our history, we have never taken that kind of money. Our fundraising is through raffles, dinners, community events, members of parliament have a tithe taken out of their pay and we willingly pay it to help the party tick along. We do not take dirty money and we do not take money that has greasy strings attached.

In 2018 a former Liberal party treasurer, Michael Yabsley, described habitual soft corruption in the donations process, where donations are tied to a commitment to meet with particular ministers or political leaders. Yabsley called for a cap of $500. The Senate committee recognised any donations cap is relatively arbitrary and, on balance, have recommended a donation cap of $3000 per term per donor.

Various jurisdictions in Australia have banned donations from foreign actors, property, tobacco, and gambling industries. Canadian donation laws go further allowing only natural persons who are citizens or permanent residents to donate to political parties. This is the Greens' preferred model, as we made clear in our submission to the Electoral Disclosure and Funding Bill 2021 and Electoral Matters (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2021 in September of last year, more than a year ago.

To confine donations to natural persons who are citizens or permanent residents eliminates so many of the issues associated with taking money from corporate or foreign entities. None of us in here will forget - and we will certainly not let you forget - that the Hodgman Liberal government took donations from Huang Xiangmo, who was identified as a bit of a security issue by the Australia Security and Intelligence Organisation back in 2015-16 and the Liberals took $30 000 from Mr Xiangmo's Yuhu Group of companies regardless, even though their federal colleagues had been told more than a year before that to look out for Mr Huang Xiangmo because of his ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Still, the state Liberals took that money and the record needs to reflect that.

If you have it confined to natural persons it reduces the prospects of gaming the system by using shell corporations, for example, or other shadowy structures to avoid the donation cap threshold. While a range of corporate interests have the potential to corrupt politicians and governments, property, tobacco, and gambling are some of the more notorious and harmful industries that influence policy through donations. They get what they pay for by the major parties in government. You only have to look at this country's absolute retrograde approach to real climate action because neither of the major parties can get off the teat of fossil fuel donations. It is literally destroying this country, destroying our children's futures and cooking the planet. That is because we have weak donation laws that allow vested interests that are raping and plundering this planet to pour money into the major parties, knowing they will get an outcome.

The Albanese government, for all its talk on climate, are opening up the Beetaloo Basin, gas over in Western Australia, tens of thousands of square kilometres of the ocean floor are given out for exploration to fossil fuel companies. That is how you see dirty money, corrupting good outcomes and worse in this case, dirty money being the antithesis of life. It is very disappointing this bill has not included bans from these industries, which would be a big step in the right direction.

Tasmania's donation disclosure framework is currently only covered by inadequate federal law. Federal laws require reporting by February on the previous financial year's donations. This means donations can take up to 18 months to be revealed and even then, we do not know the full story. There was general agreement amongst submitters to the 2018 Senate inquiry that disclosure in real time was the most desirable approach to donation disclosure. Real-time disclosure means setting a relatively brief timeframe from the time of receipt to the public disclosure of a donation. Under the current system disclosure is at a fixed date, which could well be after an election when a report of all donations required to be disclosed must be submitted.

Queensland requires donations to be disclosed seven business days after being received, except in the seven days before polling day when donations must be disclosed within 24 hours. This ensures virtually all donations received before an election are publicly available for scrutiny, and of course they should be. When voters go to the polls, they should know which corporations, companies and vested interests are pouring how much money into which political party in the hope of what policy outcome.

While the Government's proposal for donations to be disclosed seven business days after being received during an election period is welcome, the Queensland model is much better at improving transparency in the last seven days of a campaign, and I can indicate we have some amendments here as well. The proposal in this bill is for a donation disclosure threshold of $5000. Perhaps the Attorney General could explain to the House how that very high disclosure threshold was arrived at, given that it is second in the country only to South Australia, which is a bit over $5500 indexed. This is well short of the recommendation of $1000 from the 2018 Senate committee.

It is also relevant that federal Labor have foreshadowed changing the federal donation disclosure threshold to $1000. This would mean every candidate and party registered to run candidates in a federal election would be required to comply with the new $1000 donation disclosure threshold. That is the federal law that is coming into effect. That was the recommendation of the Senate inquiry, so why are we in here debating a disclosure threshold of $5000, which is very high? It is only $600 more than the $4400 private donors and corporate interests paid to have dinner with the Premier last week in which he promised the Brazilian butchers from JBS and Cooke that he would do their bidding against the wishes of Tasmanian coastal communities and certainly against the interests of our beautiful marine environment.

If the federal government changes their donation disclosure threshold, you would have one disclosure threshold there and the state would want candidates or parties registered for state elections to only have to comply with the state threshold of $5000 and that is just ridiculous. This means it is feasible there will be an uneven playing field before the next election, with some candidates declaring donations above $1000 and some only declaring over $5000.

Tasmania and Victoria are the only Australian sub-national jurisdictions without expenditure caps for lower House elections. Federal elections also do not have expenditure caps although the Albanese Government has flagged its intent to move for expenditure caps. Most jurisdictions impose a cap on spending for independent candidates and caps on parties. This cap can often be distributed across electorates in excess of a candidate's electorate cap.

The Liberal Party staunchly opposes expenditure caps. I read out some of the submission before, nominally on the basis that they may have a distortionary effect. The reality is the opposition is based on the fact that the Liberal Party routinely spends more on elections than other parties and often more than other parties combined.

In Australia, public funding of election campaigns operates as a reimbursement of electoral expenditure based on the lower value of a dollar figure per first preference vote or total electoral expenditure. The intent of public funding is to level the playing field for candidates and reduce the reliance on and influence from private donations. Every Australian jurisdiction other than Tasmania and the Northern Territory has public funding of elections. It is good policy.

Progress has been made in the Northern Territory, with a 2018 inquiry recommending public funding. The Northern Territory Government accepted this recommendation in principle but has not yet enacted it. It is worth noting that the 2011 inquiry into the funding of political parties and election campaigns by the federal parliament, JSC, on electoral matters found that public funding scheme at the time had not been effective at curbing the increase of election spending. Our assessment of expenditure since then suggests this is still the case.

This suggests that in a vacuum public funding has done little to curb the influence of political donations, but the federal scheme has not operated in an environment with strict expenditure and donation caps or with bans on donations from corporate interests. It is therefore quite cynical that the Liberals would pump for one of the highest public funding rates in the country but not move for spending caps.

In a system where there is public funding and expenditure caps there is no motivation to chase excessive levels of political donations because there is a guaranteed funding stream and a ceiling on how much can be spent. Under the Liberal's proposal its party will still, no doubt, chase down every cent of questionable donations. No doubt, so too will Labor, given its history, in a bid to outspend the competition to the greatest extent possible.

While the Greens do support public funding of election campaigns, the purpose of public funding is to reduce reliance on donations, not to top up a party's corporate funding war chest with public funds. Without expenditure caps public funding does not achieve one of its purposes. That is why we have a number of amendments to move in this regard. Each jurisdiction where public funding for elections occurs requires a minimum of 4 per cent of the primary vote for eligibility with the exception of 6 per cent in Queensland. The four per cent minimum vote threshold was criticised by the federal parliament joint standing committee on electoral matters which noted:

Minor parties and independent candidates can attract significant electoral support without passing the four per cent threshold for receiving public funding. The only rationale for a threshold canvassed by the committee was for cost saving purposes and the cost savings here are likely to be minimal.

The Liberals' choice is to include a 4 per cent threshold and that is counterproductive. It has also been noted by respected psephologist Kevin Bonham that this is likely to have a distortionary effect on elections.

As I flagged earlier, we have a range of amendments on donation disclosure thresholds, the level of public funding, caps on expenditure, caps on donations, restrictions on who can donate, real time disclosure. It has been a revolving chair today, Mr Deputy Speaker. You are the third person who has been in there since I have been standing.

In our submission to Government we put forward a series of recommendations, every one of which was ignored. Kevin Bonham, a very respected psephologist, has made a number of submissions to the Government about electoral reform also on restoration of the numbers in the House of Assembly. All of his proposals, as we understand it, have been ignored too. You want to start listening to the experts rather than people like Sam McQuestin.

We proposed in our submission that the draft bill be amended to include a cap of $3000 on aggregate political donations from the same source, per electoral term, in line with the recommendations of the Senate committee. That the draft bill should be amended to only political donations from natural persons who are citizens or permanent residents. That it should be amended to reflect Queensland's real time disclosure framework, requiring donation disclosure seven business days after receipt and within 24 hours during the seven days before polling day. That the draft bill should be amended to include an expenditure cap for House of Assembly elections of $81 000 for individual candidates, $810 000 for political parties in 2020, indexed by $1000 and $10 000 respectively a year. That is a lot of money. If you spent $810 000 on an election campaign, that is a huge amount of money. The Greens have never spent anywhere near that.

We recommended that public funding in the draft bill be linked to an expenditure cap and the draft bill be amended to reduce the public funding rate per first preference vote to the commonwealth rate. That the requirement that a candidate or party receive 4 per cent of the primary vote in order to be eligible for reimbursement be removed from the draft bill. We have an amendment. The draft bill needs to be amended to introduce truth in political advertising laws and that they should be modelled on the South Australian legislation, which would only require the commissioner to be satisfied that the advertisement is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent.

Consideration should be given to establishing a political advertising commissioner, along with specific funding for this role.

It looks like we are going to have a bit of a late night. I will take a guide from the Attorney-General on this.

Ms Archer - I have no idea how long it will take or if we come back to finish the Committee.

Ms O'CONNOR - Let us have a crack at getting through the amendments.

Ms Archer - We have one more speaker.

Ms O'CONNOR - Tonight? We have one more speaker? Okay. In closing, I thank the Attorney-General for finally bringing this legislation forward. It has been a tussle and it has been three years since it was promised. It has been much longer than we have needed to reform electoral laws in Tasmania. This is a step forward but we need to take stronger steps forward to make sure we have a robust democracy, a level playing field in election campaigns. It is not about money. It is about ideas, values and policy. We look forward to working through our amendments.