Labor members of the Committee support passage of the Bill, provided amendments are made to ensure certainty for election participants and provide greater transparency of political donations.
Labor recognises the concerns raised by many submissions to this Inquiry in relation to the proposed amendments to sections 302CA and 314B. However, the Commonwealth Parliament should be able to make laws with respect to Commonwealth elections – without the threat of those laws being overridden by the states. Our priority is for a uniform, transparent federal system which applies equally to federal parties and candidates regardless of which state they live in.
Recognising that the Bill will affect funding and disclosure arrangements in place in the various States, and in particular Queensland, Labor members of the Committee are of the firm view that the commencement date of the Bill should be postponed until after the Queensland state election on 31 October this year. This will provide parties and candidates, as well as the Queensland Electoral Commission, certainty in the lead-up to their upcoming election.
There is also the need for parties to be required to maintain separate federal and state campaign accounts, as highlighted in the submission by the Queensland branch of the ALP. This will facilitate more effective and accountable administration of differing state and territory laws with Commonwealth law and provide an added protection against the funnelling of prohibited donations between jurisdictions.
Provided these two amendments are made, Labor members support passage of the Bill.
Many of the submissions to the inquiry into this Bill argued for comprehensive donations reform at the federal level. Labor believes that donations reform and improving transparency is paramount to a healthy democracy and addressing the declining levels of faith in our political institutions.
Labor is proud to have continually fought for reform of political donations and improved transparency throughout our political system.
At the 2016 election, Labor committed to introducing a ban on foreign donations and linking public funding to campaign expenditure, preventing candidates and parties from profiting from the electoral system. We have succeeded in securing both of those reforms.
It was the Hawke Labor Government that introduced the first donations disclosure scheme in 1983, with a disclosure threshold of $1,000. The Liberals and Nationals, under John Howard, changed the rules in 2006 to hide who was giving them money raising the threshold to $10,000 and linking it to CPI. That indexation has resulted in the threshold blowing out to the staggering and unacceptable level of $14,300.
Under the current system, donations to political parties, candidates and associated entities can go weeks and months without being disclosed to the public. Annual returns are not published until the first working day in February, meaning it can be up to 19 months before voters know who has made a political donation. This loophole was used to hide Malcolm Turnbull’s record-breaking $1.75 million donation to the Liberal party before the 2016 election for nearly 500 days.
Labor has already introduced two bills for donation disclosure reforms into the Senate: the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Transparency Measures—Lowering the Disclosure Threshold) Bill 2019 and the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Transparency Measures—Real Time Disclosure) Bill 2019.
These Bills will deliver on Labor’s longstanding commitments to lower the donations threshold from the current $14,300 to a fixed $1,000 and introduce a system of real time disclosure. Labor members of the Committee call on the Government and the Parliament to support these Bills.
It is our further belief that caps on both donations and expenditure should be implemented at a federal level to enhance transparency, fairness, and accountability in our democratic processes. To support these measures, and to reduce the reliance of candidates and parties on fundraising, there needs to be an increase in the rate of public funding of elections. Political fundraising has contributed significantly to an erosion of public trust in the integrity of our system of governance and the political framework it operates in. Increasing the rate of public funding reduces the reliance on individual fundraising and prevents the perception that candidates and parties are beholden to vested interests, while ensuring that our democracy is appropriately funded.
In order to further reduce the reliance on fundraising to fund operational activities for political parties and elected independents, Labor members of the Committee also believe the Government should consider the introduction of administrative funding for parties and elected independents to cover ordinary operating expenses. Administrative funding is paid in several state jurisdictions and this is yet another area of electoral law in which the Commonwealth lags behind the states.
We must also ensure that the Australian Electoral Commission, our independent regulator, is properly funded to carry out its role, not just on election day, but also as the regulator of our donations framework, through the provision of a transparent and easy to navigate donations disclosure system. With a global erosion of faith in systems amongst democratic countries, Australia’s parliament must do all it can to reverse the trend and bolster accountability at home.
Labor members support the technical amendments contained in the Bill, many of which were recommended by JSCEM in its review of the 2016 Federal Election, and others which have been recommended by the Australian Electoral Commission. We do, however, note the concerns raised in some submissions regarding the potential for a polling official to request identification from a voter. Labor members of the committee have grave concerns with so-called Voter ID laws and any move towards their implementation in Australia. Overseas experience consistently demonstrates the enactment and enforcement of such laws has the effect of reducing voter participation, particularly for marginalised members of the community. Labor will not support any measures which disenfranchise voters and undermine our compulsory system of voting. We recognise that the current provisions in the Electoral Act are overly prescriptive and that increased flexibility in the form and order of the questions a voter is asked to determine their eligibility is required in circumstances where a voter has a hearing disability or is from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. If the Parliament passes these amendments, it is essential that AEC staff are appropriately and adequately trained to ensure that no voters are asked for identification at a polling place.
Labor members of the Committee wish to thank everyone who took time to make a submission to the Inquiry.
Senator Carol BrownMr Milton Dick MP
Senator Marielle SmithMs Kate Thwaites MP