Parliamentary speeches

Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2018

November 27, 2018

I will start my contribution where my colleague and friend the member for Fenner, the shadow minister, left off. The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2018 is about restoring trust and integrity to our political processes. That isn't all about the contents of this bill or, indeed, any piece of legislation. There is nothing stopping Liberal and National parties and, indeed, some other parties from abiding by its spirit now as the Australian Labor Party has been doing for quite some time. So I make that invitation. I join the member for Fenner in extending that invitation to our conservative opponents to act now and not wait for the enactment of this piece of legislation. They can show that they are genuinely committed to the principles this bill seeks to set out.

These principles are very important. I think the biggest challenge facing our politics is the erosion of trust and confidence in our politics and our political institutions. I think also that maybe the biggest failing of this parliament in recent years—although in the past five years there have been many spectacular failings—has been our inability across the aisle to address this challenge. I am pleased to be supporting this bill and, hopefully, to see it enacted into law, because it would represent the biggest step forward in electoral reform and campaign finance reform in well over a decade. It completes a journey that our party, the Australian Labor Party, embarked upon over a decade ago. I think this is worth reflecting on. I will also reflect on the journey this piece of legislation has been on, because I think that is instructive as well. But I think all members should be mindful of the fact that very similar proposals—adopting different mechanisms, it's true—have been, effectively, before this parliament for more than a decade. Indeed, the Australian Labor Party has had private members' bills and private senators' bills attending to this very issue in this parliament.

I think that, in reflecting on that, there's another matter that needs to be touched upon, and that is to ensure that when we seek to make progress in this area—as, indeed, in any area of reform—we cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of good. I think it is fair to say that this also goes to these questions about trust in politics and frustration with our political system. We have seen in the course of this debate members and senators taking the path of grandstanding rather than seeking to effectively make change. It's very easy to commentate, but I would submit and suggest to those in this place who choose to do so that there are plenty of places outside of our legislature from which they can do so. The choice that was presented to Labor members and senators when this bill arrived in the parliament was whether or not we could fix it or simply seek to reject it on its terms, which were manifestly inadequate, as we said. We chose the path of seeking to advance reform in this critical area and chose to seek to lift up this place, this parliament, as a place which can achieve meaningful reform, responding to a deep sense of frustration right across the community. I'm very pleased to say that our interventions along with civil society have resulted in a piece of legislation which does achieve a critical political objective.

If it's said that this piece of legislation does not resolve all the outstanding issues around campaign finance and donations reform, of course that's true, but it's just completely irrelevant. The bottom line here is that we have taken a step forward as a parliament and we will take a step forward as a polity, as a nation, because we have chosen not to allow perfect to be the enemy of good, because we have chosen to engage respectfully with one another as parliamentarians and, indeed, with affected stakeholders to take a big step forward. That's not to say there isn't more to be done—of course there is—but let us focus on the bill at hand.

Let's also focus on the journey this piece of legislation has been on. I mentioned earlier that proposals to effectively ban foreign donations to political parties have been put before this place for over a decade. This legislation was originally introduced over a year ago and its terms were manifestly unsatisfactory, as the member for Fenner has said. He was of course correct to cite one of our most eminent constitutional scholars, Professor Anne Twomey, noting her assessment that the original bill was 'extraordinarily badly drafted'. He has quite effectively set out the consequences or the potential consequences of allowing the bill as it was originally introduced to be enacted into law.

What that bill did do was enable an important conversation, a very important democratic conversation, in this place and in the wider Australian community. It reminded us that there are important considerations to be balanced here. A critical one that has been of great concern to me and all my Labor colleagues has been to get the balance right between preserving our political institutions from improper foreign interference through the mechanism of foreign donations and not stifling the legitimate operations of a robust civil society, not least as a check on people in this place and, in particular, in executive government. It is extraordinary—we should reflect on this—that the bill as originally introduced achieves something that many, including me, would have thought was impossible: it brought together the IPA, the Human Rights Law Centre and myself in opposition to a proposition. It unified almost the entirety of Australian civil society, including groups which have very diverse ideological and programmatic objectives, in opposition to a bill which, on the face of it, was dealing with foreign interference with our formal politics but would have had an extraordinary effect.

Of course there are considerations to be balanced here. I think all of us in this place understand there is political activity that is conducted by organisations and entities that are not registered political parties. That is something we need to be mindful of, but we need to be mindful of that in a considered and measured way, not simply in terms of formal legal consequences but in terms of having regard to the shape of our democracy and whether or not we believe it is imperative to retain a robust civil society that can hold all of us to account. I pay tribute to those civil society organisations who campaigned and engaged so effectively over the duration of the journey to this bill being debated in this place today—those groups that came together in the Hands Off Our Charities alliance. They came together and reconciled their own positions, as well as grappling with significant first principle concerns, to establish a set of red line principles that informed my consideration of the provisions before us and, I think, shaped ultimately the disposition of senators in considering this bill too. They enabled us to address whether the measures were proportionate to the broad societal and political interests we were seeking to advance. They enabled us to come together with a package of amendments before us today which do justice to the twin objectives: dealing with the question of removing the influence, real and perceived, of foreign donations on our politics whilst recognising the legitimate interests of many civil society organisations and ensuring that they are not unduly fettered by any such law being introduced, as would have been the case with the original bill.

I'm very pleased to have served in this parliament as the Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I'm pleased to have worked with a number of colleagues on that committee from across the parliament. I think the work of that committee in considering the original bill—the bill as originally presented to the parliament—was important and perhaps another marker of the way in which we can work together to rebuild a sense of trust and confidence in this institution. I think it is striking that a government bill was considered by this multipartisan committee, which was able to then reach agreement in terms which recommended a radical reshaping of the bill and which drew attention to its fundamental antidemocratic deficiencies. I would like to acknowledge once more the work done by the former chair of the committee, Senator Reynolds, who managed a challenging process professionally, courteously and with an eye to her very clear sense of the wider objective that ought to unite all of us in this place: to uphold the quality of our democracy so we can play out the important policy and ideological debates in this place. I think, but for the contribution of Senator Reynolds, we would not be standing here making such a statement, such a step forward, when it comes to reform of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

I'd also like to acknowledge another former member of the committee, former Senator Lee Rhiannon from the Greens party. I think, again, Senator Rhiannon showed herself to be an incredibly effective presence on the committee in dealing with this piece of legislation and, indeed, other issues, recognising that this was an issue where we should try to bring the parliament together—and we did through the committee. The Greens, the Australian Labor Party and the government came together with a series of recommendations that substantially took us to the place we are today. I note Senator Rhiannon's contribution because I think it does deal with the issue I touched on earlier. This question of us living up to the expectations of our constituents and the Australian public requires we who are given the privilege to be lawmakers to engage principally with the act of lawmaking—not with grandstanding, not with commentary and not with indulging ourselves from the position of the sidelines, but by getting in and seeing if we can reconcile issues by having the debates that certainly Lee Rhiannon and I would have when it came to questions of policy. So I pay tribute to her very significant contribution.

I also acknowledge all my colleagues on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, because that initial report did not dispose of this. The government came back with a redrafted bill. We had another look at it. On this occasion, the parties represented on that committee were unable to reach unanimity, but Labor members—me, the member for Oxley, Senator Ketter and Senator Brown—put forward another series of suggestions. I'm very pleased that the substance of those concerns we expressed have, in the second advisory report on the bill, substantially been addressed.

I join the shadow minister, the member for Fenner, in acknowledging the work of staff in assisting us in this. I note that we have in the advisers' box Ben Rillo from Senator Farrell's office and also Nick Terrell from the member for Fenner's office. I am personally indebted to their contributions. I also acknowledge that Don Farrell, as the senior shadow minister, has done a wonderful job in progressing an issue that has been on the Notice Paper in one way or another for a very long time. If not for Senator Farrell's efforts, working in collaboration with Senator Cormann, we would not be in the place we are now.

Members and senators have made the choice to act on this issue of foreign donations. We made the choice not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. I hope that is a choice that members in this place will also embrace—that people will not give in to the temptation to talk about what is not in the bill rather than what it is in it. Of course, there are many aspects which are fundamental to improving our democracy and our politics which are not contained in this bill. I would have thought that was self-evident. That's not to say that they should be introduced into the bill.

In many contributions I know that both the shadow minister and I have talked about Labor's bold vision for democratic reform. It would be remiss not to mention the resolution in this place yesterday in that regard, where this place and the other place have called for the establishment of a national integrity commission—a call which it appears government members regard as a fringe matter, although sufficiently 'unfringe', I may say, for them to vote for it in Australia's House of Representatives.

There's more to be done, of course, when it comes to real-time donations, lowering the donation threshold and many other matters that really go to the heart of taking money out of politics and all improper influence out of Australian democracy. These are important matters. They are so important that they should be debated properly, not used as cheap debating points in the context of this bill. We should continue—and we on this side of the House will continue—to make the case for our vision of tidying up Australian democracy and for our vision to ensure that Australians can have confidence that decisions in this place are made on their merits, not on the basis of undue influences, be they foreign or otherwise. But these are distinct debates and they should be treated with the respect they deserve. Legislation should be introduced, and I certainly hope the government will enable us to debate either the private senator's bill or the private member's bill that have been introduced, or legislation in similar terms.

Labor continue to be committed to our wide-ranging vision for restoring Australian democracy, but today we are here to debate a big step forward. It deserves to be discussed in its own terms, because those terms are important. They're important because the goal of banning foreign donations is one that, I think, is genuinely shared by every member of this place, and, equally importantly, because the issue of democratic reform has been a question that has bedevilled this parliament for decades. Today we take a major step forward. Let us celebrate that step forward, and let us then move on to furthering the work. I'm pleased to support this bill.