Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 Second Reading

24 May 2018

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I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018. This bill has been a long time coming, and I am going to particularly focus on the donations reform part of this bill. It has not been canvassed that much by previous speakers, but I am sure I will be able to make up for that in my contribution, because donations reform comes after a long time over which the Greens have been calling for reform, particularly in Victoria, where we have some of the weakest laws in the country. In fact one could almost say we have no laws, given that we have simply been relying on the weak federal donations laws.

This reform is really important because it goes to the heart of the integrity of our political system, the integrity of our democracy and the core principle that we should be here acting in the public interest and for the public good and should not be seen to have conflicts of interest where there are favours or special deals for vested interests or for those who fund our political campaigns — that is, where there is a blatant conflict of interest between politicians or a political party and the donations they receive, which are often from highly regulated industries. I am referring specifically to property developers, to the gambling industry and to energy companies, where often with just the stroke of a pen the government can make a decision that affects their profits.

This goes to access, influence and whether you can separate donations from lobbying; where lobbyists, an individual, an industry or an organisation on one hand puts their case to a government or opposition member of Parliament — who should be making decisions based on merit, the public interest or their values — and on the other hand there is also a donation involved funding their political campaigns and helping them get elected. This goes to access to power and then influence over what decisions are made, particularly where there is a clear conflict of interest. You have just got to look at Labor’s Progressive Business, where the day after the budget the Treasurer was out there fundraising off the back of the budget, or in the last term of government when you had the unseemly spectacle of that government holding a fundraiser attended by the same companies that were benefiting from their infrastructure projects. It is unacceptable, it is unseemly and it is right that we have donations law reform now to change that.

Specifically around donations, this bill puts a cap on donations of $4000 over four years where currently there is no cap. It lowers the disclosure threshold to $1000. That is down around $14 000 from the current figure, and it reduces those reporting times down to around 28 days. It is not exactly real-time disclosure — I think in Queensland it is seven days — but it certainly is an improvement on what we have had previously, where the public did not even know until, often, a year and a half after an election who had donated to political parties. There are reforms that increase public funding provided to political parties and place administrative requirements on those parties to administer this scheme. There are changes in terms of associated entities and third parties, and there are also a number of changes to the Electoral Act 2002.

This is something the Greens have been pushing for years and it is an absolutely essential reform to clean up politics and help restore trust. When we look at who has donated to political parties, these are people from highly regulated industries that are seeking to influence government where governments are making decisions that affect their profits. You just have to look at Crown Casino and the Australian Hotels Association, which are lobbyists on behalf of the gambling, alcohol and the tobacco industry. You have got Transurban and Tabcorp. It is made all the more unseemly by some of these sweetheart deals that successive governments have done for these companies where there is a clear conflict of interest.

You have just got to look at Crown Casino, seemingly a favoured client of the state. We have had their extraordinary licence extension to 2050, which includes the provision that the state has to pay up if measures are enacted to address problem gambling that could affect their profits. It is extraordinary. In this term, we have seen them be exempted from the planning scheme on what is, I think, the tallest building in Australia, slashing the public benefit contribution. We have got today’s news, where they are clearly breaching what should be appropriate action around pokies, but we know that they have got exemptions from the law that other pokies operators do not have.

Look at what is happening with Transurban now. Essentially they have been put in charge of planning, designing, building and operating transport infrastructure in this state. With the West Gate tunnel, what started out as $500 million of off-ramps to the port from the West Gate Bridge has turned — morphed — into this $6.7 billion project, with off-ramps now going straight into the CBD. It is funnelling thousands of cars into the CBD, paid for by toll extensions on CityLink, an incredible sweetheart deal. It is hard to see how anyone looking at this objectively could not see anything but a cash cow for Transurban.

We have got some great deals done for property developers. The one I am probably most familiar with is what has happened in South Yarra at 661 Chapel Street, where we had a tower. The Leader of the Opposition, when he was the Minister for Planning, stepped in and changed local planning laws to allow a building that was more than double in height what the planning laws allowed. This was after, mind you, he told councillors face to face that he did not do planning scheme amendments on individual sites — that was in regard to Orrong Towers. This was on behalf of a property developer who was a donor to the Liberal Party, a clear conflict of interest.

Just to conclude these remarks, what we found out was that this developer eventually — immediately — sold that land for a massive profit of $36 million. I mean, this is just one of those examples where there is a clear conflict of interest with governments making decisions and people donating to political parties. It shows why this reform is absolutely necessary.

Now, as I said, the Greens have a long history of calling for this reform, probably from when we first entered this place over 10 years ago. In 2008 we succeeded in getting an inquiry into Victoria’s donation laws established, and in setting up that inquiry the same points that were made then are still relevant today: the fact that we rely on weak federal laws, the fact that it takes a year and a half after an election to find out who donated to political parties, unless of course they choose to disclose earlier like ourselves, and the fact that there are very few restrictions on who can actually donate to political parties. I think in Victoria only Tabcorp and Tatts have caps of around $50 000, but there is nothing in other highly regulated industries. These problems have not changed in 10 years.

In 2014, in the next Parliament, we moved motions calling on parties to refrain from accepting political donations from property developers and highly regulated organisations and for legislation to be introduced. This was a motion that, again, both the Labor and Liberal parties spoke out against. In the current term of Parliament, the member for Melbourne introduced a private members bill to ban political donations from property developers, which importantly would have covered local government as well. The newly elected Lord Mayor of Melbourne, as a member of the Property Council of Australia, declared that she would not accept donations from property developers at the start of her campaign. It was a good declaration, but it should not be up to candidates to decide that. It should be against the law. Unfortunately that bill, again, was voted down on the first reading in this place by both the government and the opposition. On top of that, I have asked the Premier four times during question time in this term to reform political donations laws. It is worth going over those answers to show just how far the government seems to have moved on this issue. In first —

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr HIBBINS — Well, I would make the point — I agree with you. I would make the point, and I am glad the member has raised this — that it is the political pressure that the Greens have brought to bear that has played a very significant role in bringing about this reform.

In June 2015 the Premier was not interested. They had already made some integrity announcements, and he was not interested in any further reform. In August 2015 a Fairfax investigation found a link between a number of Australian politicians from local and federal governments and alleged Australian Calabrian mafia figures. It found — I am quoting from an article by reporters Stephen Bennetts and Anna Sergi:

Australia’s flawed political donations system, which can mask the real source of money pouring into politics, is vulnerable to influence by this highly determined criminal organisation.

At the time, even the federal Labor leader was prepared to say we needed to reform donations laws, but again the Premier was not interested and in one of his usual responses called us ‘commentators’ and said they were ‘delivering’ — not on donations reform, just ‘delivering’.

We then heard that they were interested in pursuing this at the national level, through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Again I asked the Premier, was he going to ask this at COAG? No, he was not going to raise this at COAG. We found out later that it was actually stymied at COAG because of the Victorian government. And again, another article came out, saying:

A push for a national overhaul of political donation laws appears to have stalled, with the Andrews government showing no interest in campaign funding reform or even greater transparency.

It went on to say that Labor in Victoria had repeatedly sought to block reform.

In 2016 the Ombudsman, in a report regarding a complaint regarding a councillor — who was absolved of that complaint, I understand — remarked in the foreword:

Victoria, along with the Commonwealth, is amongst the least regulated jurisdictions in the western world in terms of political finance law.

She went on to recommend in the report that the government should consider:

a.     whether there should be restrictions on donations to candidates and political parties by property developers

b.     whether details of all donations to a candidate or political party should be required to be published on a publicly available register within 30 days of the relevant election.

Again, this was raised with the Premier, but he saw no need. In fact he said:

All of us will have lots of different views. I believe that the current arrangements are adequate. That is not to say that they could not be improved at some point in the future.

We then had late last year the allegation regarding the Leader of the Opposition. It was revealed that the Leader of the Opposition had had dinner with the alleged head of Melbourne’s Mafia. While I think a lot has been made of the dinner and the ‘lobster with the mobster’ saying, what really goes to the heart of why this was a problem is that it was essentially alleged that this was part of a plot to funnel money into the Liberal Party, potentially from the proceeds of crime. It was actually raised. A reminder of the recording which was found just happened to come out in the paper again today. Mr Macmillan says on the recording:

You can’t associate Matthew with money and I would have to be the intermediary. But I’m talking about a swag of money that they’re prepared to give for them —

the Leader of the Opposition’s campaign.

We’re probably talking hundreds [of thousands of dollars in donations] …

The article stated:

… caught him plotting to split the promised donations into smaller amounts to avoid disclosing the source of the funds to authorities.

Clearly we have had over years reasons to see why the current disclosure and donations system is incredibly broken. It undermined the integrity of our political system, and there was the need for change, but this government and governments preceding it had resisted calls for change until two months out from the Northcote by-election, when they announced that they were going to strengthen donations laws to be the toughest in the country.

I am sure Labor members would like to believe that the Premier and the cabinet just woke up one day and decided suddenly that after all this, after all that has happened over the years — despite the scandals, the resistance, the recommendations and the work by committees and academics — donations reform was a good idea. I have got a different view. I would put it that the political pressure that the Greens brought to bear on this issue over years — over a decade — has brought this result. Make no mistake: this is a Greens achievement.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr HIBBINS — I think the message is loud and clear: Greens in Parliament fighting for change, sometimes for years, get results. This gets results, even more so when you have a political contest that pits the Greens against the Labor and Liberal parties. There is absolutely no doubt.

Just touching on the other parts of this bill, obviously there is the increased public funding to go along with donations law reform. I think it is at $6 per lower house vote and $3 per upper house vote as well as some administration funding for parties — $40 000 per annum. Certainly with these figures I cannot imagine political parties would be crying poor, but I would hope that the taxpayer, in return for the increased funding, can now get a political system and a democracy with far more integrity than we previously had.

I will touch on one of the final changes, and that is to the elections, around bunting. I certainly know the local Prahran RSL is going to be very happy that their RSL is no longer going to be covered in bunting during election time.

Ms D’Ambrosio interjected.

Mr HIBBINS — I would love to think that this was because of their care about the environment. The Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change is at the table and is, I am sure, a strong advocate for getting rid of bunting, but really this is because the Labor Party cannot control Bill Shorten’s mates — it cannot control former ministers from tearing down other parties’ bunting. It is very unfortunate, and unfortunately it is now time that the bunting wars are over. We started winning the bunting laws, and now they are suing for peace. We are the party of peace, so we will go in for this one.

We are really pleased to finally see donations law reform in this state. This has been a long time coming. It is a credit to my colleagues who have fought for this since well before I came here. It is a change that is absolutely needed, and more than ever given the ongoing series of scandals that have overshadowed this Parliament and the previous Parliament. Now more than ever we need to clean up politics in this state. We need to clean up this Parliament. It is absolutely needed. That is what the Greens are fighting for, and that is what the Greens are achieving in this bill.

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