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Electoral Donations Laws

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Tags: Political Donations, Electoral Reform

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Ms Ogilvie, I was simply making a point that section 196 of the Electoral Act is arcane and outdated. We will have more to say about that in the very near future.

Ms Ogilvie - I appreciate that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Madam Deputy Speaker, we support this amendment. We have spent a significant part of this week in question time asking the Premier whether there is any commitment on the part of Government to reform Tasmania's nation-leading, for all the wrong reasons, political donations laws. We propose to amend it so at least there is a time frame put on there for the minister to be required to table the review report. That is at paragraph (5) 'Calls on the Attorney-General to release this report by tabling it in parliament'.

I move -

That the motion be amended by inserting in paragraph (5) the words 'by no later than 22 September 2020' after the word 'parliament'.

That will put a time frame on the release of this review report which as we know has been with the Attorney-General since December last year.

It is very frustrating as a Tasmanian parliamentarian to feel like we are experiencing Groundhog Day. These debates about Tasmania's weak political donations laws have been a feature of the Greens' discourse in this place going back a very long time. We know that ABC Fact Check at the last state election asked the question, 'Does Tasmania have the weakest political donations laws in the country?', after I made that statement during the campaign. Their assessment is it is a fair call and RMI fact check went through all the information and found we are the worst in the country.

In many ways not only is this about transparency, accountability and a level playing field, it is also about a government having the courage to contest an election on the basis of values and ideas, the vision a party has to improve the lives and wellbeing of the people of Tasmania, hopefully a vision that a party has to chart a course for this island and its people through the coming decade, or so at least as we confront deepening climate impacts on our landscape, our communities and our economy.

We have made two submissions to the restricted review process. We have asked the Premier questions, both in early March and this week. I agree that the language the Premier is now using is discouraging at best, because it seems to me a clear intention to walk away from even the weak commitment made by his predecessor, Mr Hodgman. You should have the courage as a political party to have some constraints around political donations and be prepared to put yourself to the people without having to be bankrolled by corporate, vested and foreign interests.

We know from the last election, from Australian Electoral Commission returns that came out, that the source of about 75 per cent of the donations to the Liberal Party was not declared and is still not known. That equates to about $3 million of mystery money donated to the Liberals who were bankrolled by the gambling industry to win the last state election. The source of donations from the Labor Party for $875 000 remains unknown and should this Government not put some legislation before the parliament, or should the parliament not pass the bill that we understand is to come before it, it will be very interesting to see how Labor, for example, responds potentially to an offer of a contribution towards the campaign from, I do not know, the Federal Group.

What we know is that the principal position Labor took to the 2018 state election on pokies they walked away from three months after the election and, lo and behold, in the Tasmanian Hospitality Association magazine it said, 'Labor Leader Rebecca White is back and back in favour', and has been given two pages to write in the Tasmanian Hospitality Association's magazine. Remember, this is the same Tasmanian Hospitality Association that, after the last state election, received an extra $4 million in recurrent funding.

This is the same Labor leader who, when she was interviewed about political donations in February last year and Leon Compton raised the issue with her of the pokies policy, said:

The fact of the matter is the we didn't win, Leon. The fact of the matter is once the Liberals move on with the new licence holder arrangements we're not going to be able to continue to pursue our policy to remove poker machines from pubs and clubs because there will be a new deal struck until 2043. We didn't win the election, Leon. It has taken me a while to reconcile that fact as well, but the fact of the matter is that we can't give effect to our policy because it was a point in time, which was the point I was making throughout the campaign that we had a once-in-a-generation opportunity here to remove poker machines from clubs and pubs if we alter the deed and give effect to that. We didn't win so we can't do that.

That is what my Dad would have called a quitter, and in life you just do not want to be a quitter, but it will be interesting to see whether Federal Group, having invited the Leader of the Opposition to contribute towards the Tasmanian Hospitality Association magazine, will be chipping in for Labor's election campaign. They are probably pretty smart investors and why would you back a losing horse?

In our first submission to the Department of Justice Electoral Act review in response to the interim report, we made a number of recommendations for robust electoral reform in Tasmania. We support the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations recommendations 3 and 5 for a fixed disclosure threshold of $1000 to be calculated cumulatively over the whole party group and online, and continuous real-time disclosure to the Australian Electoral Commission donations to political parties, candidates and associated entities. We support public funding of election campaigns.

In the event that recommendations for expenditure and donation caps are adopted, consideration should be given to tying Tasmania's per vote payment rate to the federal election rate to be appropriate, however under current rules we recommend the Australian average rate of $4.15 per first preference vote in 2018-19 indexed at an appropriate rate each year.

I note that in his uncharacteristically weak responses to the questions we have asked about electoral reform, the Premier makes much of accusing us of wanting public funding for elections. Every Australian state and territory and the Commonwealth has a measure of public funding for election campaigns for precisely the reason that we need donations reform in Tasmania. That is in order to take vested interest money out of election campaigns and to make sure that electoral campaigns cannot be bankrolled by corporations who want to not only influence the outcome but have an influence on the government that is elected. It is actually an investment in democracy.

We support a cap of $81 000 for individual candidate expenditure and $810 000 for party expenditure in House of Assembly elections for the 2018-19 financial year, increasing by $1000 and $10 000 per year respectively. I note that because this process has been so long and dragged out, this submission is 19 months old.

We support corresponding regulation of the political activities of third parties and associated entities, including the same or similar rules regarding disclosure of expenditure and donations that apply to political parties.

We agree that the requirement to register with the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, and the adoption of a broad definition of electoral activity, and a definition of political campaigners, would be beneficial to such a scheme. We support the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations, recommendation 7, that a donation cap be set at $3000 aggregate per donor per parliamentary term. We support banning donations from corporate donors, and minimum donations from property developers. Tobacco, liquor and gaming industries should be banned.

We strongly support a state-based prohibition on donations from foreign interests. Madam Deputy Speaker, I will remind the House again that in 2015, after ASIO had warned federal parties not to accept money from a particular donor who was strongly connected to the Chinese Communist Party, the Yuhu Group of companies and their owner, Huang Xiangmo - who has since been banished from this country - the Tasmanian Liberals accepted a minimum of $30 000 in donations from the Yuhu Group of companies. This review process ruled out banning donations from foreign interests, even though there have been moves at the federal level to do exactly that.

So, we do not even want to meet that bar. What are we saying here? Through a review process that, through its terms of reference, ruled out any prohibitions from developers or corporate interests - which even Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have done - the review process was set up to fail from the start. It is a review process that has now been undermined to the extent that the report of the review has been sitting on the Attorney-General's desk for nine months.

I have a lot of respect for the Attorney-General on a personal level, but at the last state election I saw Ms Archer's face all over gambling venues, all over the electorate of Clark. That raises the issue of conflict - of being conflicted by the fact that your donors would be impacted by any restriction on political donations in Tasmania. We heard an argument - in fact the argument has been put by the Premier on radio, been put by the Attorney-General - that this is a freedom of speech issue, that we should not restrict entities from contributing to parties and participating in an election. This is actually about freedom from being bought. This is about the freedom of Tasmanian voters to know who is donating how much money to which political party, and potentially for what purpose.

We should have the courage to stand on our values, and our work ethic, and our commitment to this island and its people when it comes to an election. A premier who is sitting on 80 per cent to 90 per cent approval should have the courage within himself to acknowledge democracy in Tasmania needs repair. One of the most important things a government and a parliament can do to make sure the foundations of democracy are strong is to have robust political donations laws in place, that take the dark money out of politics.

Because the nexus between the gambling industry's bankrolling of the last state election, the fact that $3 million of the donations made to the Liberal Party the source of which is still unknown - the result of the election, the contribution towards the Tasmanian Hospitality Association, and the pokies legislation that we are going to see relatively imminently, the nexus between all those events is strong and undeniable.

The Attorney-General does need to release the report of the review. Many people made submissions in good faith. We made submissions. People who were revolted by the dark river of money from vested interests at the last state election made submissions to this review process in good faith, too.

It is disrespectful in the extreme not to release the report of that review. It is disingenuous for the Premier to get up in here and say 'I have been so focused on the coronavirus response I have not applied my mind to the issue of donations'. That is disingenuous and it does not pass the non-pokies pub test. It is possible for a Premier with the energy, the staff and the departmental resources at his disposal, and an Attorney-General there to work with him in Cabinet, to turn his mind to the issue of political donations.

Yesterday we had four non-COVID-19 bills on the blue, all of which went through Cabinet, so the Premier was able to turn his mind to those issues that were in the legislation we debated or started to debate yesterday.

I do not believe him when he says he has not turned his mind to this issue. We asked about it in March, Andrew Wilkie raised it in July, and we have been asking about it all week. Leon Compton, on ABC Mornings, undertook a number of interviews the week before last on the issue of political donations. The Attorney-General should go on his program to explain herself. That is part of being accountable to the people who have entrusted you with their vote, or the people you represent as, in this case, a member for Clark.

The need for donations reform in Tasmania is urgent. It is not a side issue. When you can have corporate, developer and foreign interests contributing towards a political party in order to influence a vote, and therefore outcomes for those corporations, it has a chilling and corrupting influence on democracy. Unfortunately, in Tasmania, it has ever been thus that there is an unhealthy connection between the big end of town, corporate interests and the main political parties.

It is good to see Labor coming back into this place to raise the issue of electoral reform. It is vital that one of the main parties in this place does that. I do not know what will happen at the next state election. I have a fair idea, but who can be sure. If Labor is committed to electoral reform, when they take that policy to the state election they must deliver on it after the election should they be elected to government. Should they not be elected, which is more likely, they need to stick with that policy, which they did not do on poker machines. They walked away from it in a blink after the state election. That has fatally undermined Ms White's leadership. She has never recovered from the damage done by walking away from the pokies policy. That is sad for democracy, too, but it means the Federal Group won. They won an election, and then they won an Opposition.

Let us try to avoid that kind of corrupting influence on democracy in future. First of all, let us get hold of the report of the review into the Electoral Act in Tasmania, and then, as a parliament, let us collectively have the courage to commit to reform, which is in the interests of only one group of people who have no vested interest and that is the Tasmanian people.

I commend our amendment to this motion in order to try to get that review report sooner rather than later. I note that even Paul Lennon now thinks there should be donations reform in Tasmania - even Paul Lennon. The number of times you see former public figures walk out of public life and then have an epiphany about the things they could have done is again somewhat dispiriting. I was encouraged to hear Ms Haddad say that Labor is trying to act from opposition, of course except on the issue of pokies in pubs and clubs, and that Labor is having a go. Yes, that is true and on this issue we will support Labor, even though it will nauseate them to have to vote with us.