Dissenting Report from Coalition Senators

Introduction
The Liberal and National Senators on this committee are very concerned about the implications of this report and its recommendations for Australia’s open and transparent democracy. Our electoral system should promote the consistent treatment of all political groups and individuals, and this report instead seeks to place inequity at the forefront of its recommendations.
Recommendation 1 is built upon chapter three, which assumes that political donations can have no purpose other than to achieve a corrupting influence.
Moreover, the case studies it uses to support its argument imply that any donation to a political party is automatically evidence of corruption. Such a view does not allow for legitimate public participation in policy making and free elections. Moreover, it also suggests that the political parties involved are simply operators-for-hire, and do not have the ability to make their own decisions in the national interest.
The recommendation seems to be politically motivated. The discussion and case studies utilised within chapter 3 focus on the major parties, while undertaking no discussion of minor parties – such as the significant, record-making donations received by the Greens. As such, this recommendation is framed in a way that targets events run by the major parties, without discussing minor party fundraising methods. As such, we reject this recommendation.
Recommendation 2, by advocating special treatment or exemptions for certain political actors, creates a loophole which undermines the committees other recommendations.
This irregularity creates further inequality in the treatment of certain entities, and as such we reject this recommendation.
These recommendations continue to imply a conspiratorial lack of accountability from political parties, while proposing to create administrative nightmares in attempting to resolve them. Political parties – mostly volunteer-run organisations – are already subject to extensive regulation and transparency under the Electoral Act.
The practical effect of these recommendations would be to create new and demanding administrative burdens for anyone wishing to participate in the political process as a donor, candidate or political party, while ignoring other political actors like third party campaign groups. As such, we reject these recommendations.
This recommendation proposes to entrench a funding model that works to the advantage of the Greens and organisations such as GetUp, while similarly damaging the ability of Australians to participate in free elections.
Moreover, it recommends severe restrictions on political parties, while ignoring the growing influence of third party campaign groups. Election campaigns are no longer solely fought between political parties and candidates. A range of interest groups, unions, activist groups like GetUp and politically-active charities seek to influence election outcomes through advertising, how-to-vote material and grassroots political campaigning. In the last election year, 55 third party campaigners reported almost $40 million worth of “political expenditure” to the Australian Electoral Commission.
These third parties are subject to significantly less transparency and scrutiny than political parties. Whereas political parties are currently required to publicly disclose all donations above the disclosure threshold, this is not true of third party campaign groups. Similarly, while donors must disclose donations above the disclosure threshold made to political parties, this is not true of third party campaign groups. By limiting donations to some political actors – but not others – the effect of this recommendation would be to encourage unrestricted donations to less-transparent third party campaigners as opposed to political parties, thus reducing the effectiveness of political donation laws and eroding transparency in the funding of election campaigns. As such, we reject this recommendation.
While we support a ban on foreign political donations, we would also like to note the chair has criticised the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, which bans foreign political donations to political parties and other relevant political actors.
Like Recommendation 7, this recommendation ignores the significant role third party campaign groups play in Australian elections, creating a significant loophole for foreign interests to seek to influence Australian elections by funding third parties’ political campaigning.
This recommendation is a blatant targeting of particular groups which do not suit the agenda of the chair and submissions by sympathetic special-interest groups, and thus continues the trend within this report of advocating unequal treatment of political actors. This recommendation takes limited evidence, and applies it unquestioningly to industry groups which the chair does not agree with or personally opposes, such as the defence, banking, mining and pharmaceutical industries. Such undemocratic and unequal treatment would undermine the fairness and openness of our political system, and we thus reject this recommendation.
Furthermore, we also note the hypocrisy of the argument of this report and the chair, given that the Tasmanian Greens reportedly received significant donations from a leading gambler as well as a casino proponent in the lead-up to the 2018 Tasmanian election. Having willingly accepted this money, the Greens now claim donations from such industries are so corrupting they must be banned.
This recommendation does not consider the role of third parties in Australian politics. In conjunction with Recommendation 7, the effect of this recommendation would be to divert donations to less-transparent third party campaign groups. In contrast to political parties, these groups would have an unlimited capacity to spend money campaigning in elections. Candidates – subject to spending limits – would be unable to answer the various claims and assertions made about them by third party campaigners. In this environment, political parties and candidates would play a relatively minor role in elections that would come to be dominated by politically-active special interest groups that are less transparent and less accountable than political parties. As such, we reject this recommendation.
These recommendations argue for significant changes to the powers of the Australian Electoral Commission in line with the other recommendations in this report, as well as the establishing of a federal integrity commission. The powers proposed for the AEC would not be necessary without the report’s substantive recommendations, and as we do not see the need for those recommendations, we reject this recommendation.
Furthermore, when considering an anti-corruption commission, Liberal and National Senators would like to note that the existing multi-faceted approach to combatting corruption has proven to be effective. Transparency International currently ranks Australia at 13th on its Corruption Perception Index, and only two nations higher than Australia on that index have a national anti-corruption body. However, we believe that the Government should always look at how we can strengthen our approach to combatting corruption, and as such we note this recommendation.
This recommendation argues for the increase of public funding to political parties, but in conjunction with other aspects of this report will still dilute the role of political parties relative to third party organisations. This will further damage the transparency of our political processes and drive donations away from political parties towards less accountable third parties.

Additional Objections

The Liberal and National Senators on this committee would also like to note more broadly the cynical political attack which has been undertaken under the guise of a committee report as published.
The report has no qualms about quoting the Australian Greens as a legitimate submitter and pushing their own submission and actions in the Australian Parliament, while failing to quote the views of other parties. In particular, this report quotes the Greens’ Submission 7 eight times throughout this report, while failing to even acknowledge some of the recommendations and arguments from the submission by the Liberal Party of Australia in Submission 35. Given that the arguments within were both pertinent to and engaged in ongoing issues nationally around changes to electoral donations, it is staggering that a report published under the guise of a committee would be so blatantly partisan in its targeting and interests.

Conclusion

Liberal and National Senators believe that this report’s recommendations would place significant burdens on political parties and Australians, as well as creating an extremely unequal political donation system. The recommendations would significantly restrict the ability of individuals to participate in the political system, through further regulation and burdensome demands on the administration of donations made to certain political actors but not others. While restricting legitimate democratic participation by political parties and individuals, the recommendations largely exempt third party political activists and campaigners – some of which already spend more money influencing elections than political parties.
Furthermore, the proposed unequal donation system would risk undermining transparency by driving donations to less-transparent third-party organisations which are not subject to the same transparency requirements as political parties under the Electoral Act.
As such, we reject almost all recommendations in this flawed, partisan report. We also note that the Government currently has legislation before the Senate to ensure all relevant political actors are subject to the same transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements and subject to the same ban on foreign political donations.
Senator Jim Molan Senator Barry O'Sullivan
Senator for NSWSenator for QLD

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