Labor members of the Committee believe Australian elections should be determined by the Australian people.
Labor members also recognise legitimate concerns about the interference of foreign actors in the electoral affairs of sovereign nations; a concern which features heavily in contemporary political discourse, both in Australia and around the world.
Labor members therefore agree that foreign citizens and foreign entities should be banned from making donations to Australian registered political parties and that this ban should be extended to the associated entities of registered political parties, within the meaning of section 287(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act (Electoral Act). This is a proposal which has been, in effect, before the Parliament for nearly eight years. The case for this change has long been made out, and recent examples of interference in other electoral systems make action urgent. We note that no argument has been advanced in opposition to this proposal, nor evidence adduced contrary to the prohibition being given effect to through the mechanism of banning donations of foreign property.
However, Labor members of the Committee cannot support the Coalition proposal to extend the fundraising and financial disclosure obligations imposed by the Electoral Act to capture all third parties that are in any way involved in public campaigning.
This proposal would represent a dramatic extension of scope of the current regulatory scheme under the Act.
We acknowledge that concerns have been raised in this regard but there is scant evidence before the Committee to support any such proposal. Indeed, the rationale for it is unclear. When it comes to foreign influence on political parties, the risk to our system of government is clearly identifiable. This simply isn’t so when it comes to applying the same framework to groups whose electoral involvement may well be incidental. This is far from a level playing field.
Labor members believe this Committee has more work to do. The proper course of action would be to properly consider any further prohibitions or restrictions through a further inquiry. This would enable all considerations to be balanced, and the case for change to be tested: weighing the concerns apparently motivating Coalition members of this Committee against the interests of the full range of affected parties, considering legal and constitutional questions which might be applicable, and recognising the critical importance of an active civil society to Australian democracy.
There are, of course, other proposals to reform political donations and disclosures which are relevant to this matter. We believe these should be considered in working through a response to those concerns.
The Coalition proposal has a very wide ambit and Labor members of the Committee are concerned that it may lead to unfortunate, presumably unintended, consequences in terms of imposing wide-ranging restrictions on the capacity of not-for-profit organisations to draw attention to their causes. These causes could very well cover the field of Australian public discourse - from overseas aid, to indigenous advancement. What sort of government would seek to shut down, or monopolise, these conversations?
This is in circumstances where many such organisations would have had no idea that significant findings affecting them found have been made in this interim report.
Labor members have worked hard to deliver a consensus report and have been willing to compromise to do so – in keeping with the bipartisan practice of JSCEM and the importance of rebuilding trust and confidence in the operation of our political institutions. This challenge should go beyond partisanship.
We have not taken this step, of providing a dissenting report, lightly. But Labor will always defend the key tenets of Australian democracy. Labor believes in a robust civil society, which can speak truth to power and hold governments, parties and politicians to account. We do not believe that politics should be the sole preserve of politicians.
Today, too many Australians have little faith in politics, parties or our democratic institutions. We are committed to restoring faith: starting with a straightforward proposition, to prevent foreign interests influencing Australian electoral politics.
This is an important step, but there is more to be done. And it should be done, and seen to be done, properly.
Mr Andrew Giles MP – Deputy Chair
Senator Chris KetterSenator Carol Brown
Mr Milton Dick MP