By Michael Danby
With the publication the Government’s Second Electoral Reform Green Paper, I expect the Government will soon turn its focus back to its bill on political donations which the Coalition rejected in the Senate earlier this year. That bill was introduced subsequent to the First Electoral Reform Green Paper (which had a different focus to the current green paper, addressing donations, funding and expenditure), and I hope that this time the Coalition will do the right thing and pass it.
Let me explain why I think this bill is so important for the health of our democracy.
Australia has a very clean election system by world standards. We don’t hear complaints in Australia that elections have been rigged. But one area that does cause concern is the secret donation of large sums of money to political parties. This raises the possibility of influence-buying and corruption.
That’s why in 1984 the Hawke government brought in laws that required all donations to political parties, whether by individuals, companies or organisations such as trade unions, to be promptly declared to the public if they exceeded $1,500. At the same time, public funding was made available to political parties so that they would not be so dependent on donations.
This system worked well for 20 years. But in 2004 the Howard government gained control of the Senate, and one of the first things they did was to change the laws on political donations. They lifted the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to more than $10,000.
This allowed large amounts of money to be donated to the Liberal Party without being disclosed. It was possible to make separate donations to each of the eight state and territory divisions of the Liberal Party, which meant that donations of up to $80,000 could be made without disclosure.
The Liberals always get more money from corporate donors and wealthy individuals than Labor does, so these changes were clearly in their interest. Labor, on the other hand, gets more money from trade unions – but donations from unions to the Labor Party have always been made public, so Labor gained much less benefit from the new laws.
Our bill will do a number of things. It will reduce the disclosure threshold from more than $10,000 to $1,000. It will require people who donate to political parties during election campaigns to report the donation within eight weeks of polling day. It will close the loophole which allows people to donate to each state branch of the Liberal Party and claim each donation as a separate donation.
The Liberals also made other changes, such as requiring people to produce photo ID when enrolling to vote, or when casting a provisional vote at elections. They also abolished the seven-day “period of grace” during which people could enrol to vote or change their enrolment details after an election was called. All this was designed to make it harder for groups of people the Liberals thought likely to be Labor voters, such as itinerant workers, or new citizens, to enrol and vote.
Labor opposed all these changes when we were in opposition, and we said we would reverse them in government. Leading election experts such as Malcolm Mackerras and Professor Brian Costar agreed with us that these laws were partisan and unfair, and bad for our democracy. So no-one can say we don’t have a mandate for our legislation.
The Rudd government is also committed to reversing the other changes made by the Coalition. There is no evidence at all that Australia has a problem with fraudulent enrolments, which was their excuse for these changes. We should make it as easy as possible for Australians to enrol and to vote – particularly since we have compulsory voting. I hope we will soon see legislation reversing the Howard government’s undemocratic changes.
What is Mr Turnbull’s attitude to political donations? Having blocked our bill once in the Senate, he now says he is favour of banning all donations to parties, from individuals and organisations! This would leave political parties totally dependent on public funding. Mr Turnbull thinks the taxpayer should have to foot the bill for the whole cost of all election campaigning – hundreds of millions of dollars, every three years.
This is a ridiculous position. There’s nothing wrong with people, companies or organisations giving money to parties or candidates they support. That’s an essential part of our democracy. What’s important is that all significant donations are disclosed. That means that everyone knows who is giving money, and removes any chance of influence-buying or election bribery. If, for example, the Liberals take money from tobacco companies (as they do), the public has a right to know that.
The Howard government’s legislation made it easier for interest groups to buy influence by secretly giving money to parties and to members of Parliament. The Rudd government’s legislation will make it harder for them to do so. I think I know which approach the Australian people will support. Mr Turnbull should recognise that Labor has a mandate for this bill, and he should tell his Senators to pass it.
Member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, is a longstanding member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.