Electoral Matters Joint Committee Interim Report

09 November 2023

At the beginning I want to associate myself in the strongest terms with my good friend Senator Karen Grogan's extensive contribution to this debate, particularly her comments regarding the electoral system reforms made in South Australia and the impact of those reforms on transparency, truth in our political process and strengthening the great democracy that does exist in our home state of South Australia. It has been a privilege to work with you on this committee, Senator Grogan.

As a proud member of the federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters I'm really pleased to be speaking on the interim report and, indeed, on the tabled government response to it. I kick off my comments by acknowledging the fantastic work of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the member for Jagajaga, Kate Thwaites MP. She has shown tremendous leadership in our committee inquiry. She has spent many hours fine-tuning what I think is a very good interim report. Our inquiry received nearly 1,500 submissions and to date the committee has held 12 public hearings around Australia. I also take this opportunity to thank everyone who took the time to engage and participate in our committee's work. Everyone who contributed has helped inform the report and helped inform the resulting 15 recommendations made by our committee in the interim report.

The interim report came from a request in July 2022 from the Special Minister of State, who asked us to commence an inquiry into the election and related matters and into our electoral system. The terms of reference were extensive. We were asked to look at reforms to political donation laws, reforms to funding of elections, truth in political advertising, encouraging increased electoral participation and enfranchisement of First Nations people, the potential for the creation of a single national electoral roll, other ways to increase electoral participation and enfranchisement more generally, and proportional representation of the states and territories in the parliament in the context of the democratic principle of one vote, one value.

The interim report doesn't go to all of those terms of reference. Indeed, we looked at only terms of reference (a) to (d)—considering reforms to donation laws and the funding of elections, truth in political advertising laws, and encouraging increased electoral participation and lifting the enfranchisement of First Nations people. Whilst our final report will revisit many of these matters, it will also provide more detailed consideration of terms of reference (e) to (g).

There has been much debate in recent months—and, indeed, in recent years—about the state of our democracy. Whether it comes to political donations, truth in political advertising or the need for modernisation in our electoral system, it is clear that there is significant and substantial work to do to strengthen both our democracy and the institutions within it. These debates of course aren't just limited to here in Australia. These are debates being had right across the world, right across our globe. We in Australia are lucky to live in a democracy like we do here, but our democracy was never intended to be static. We must always be concerned with the business of strengthening it and we must always be concerned with the business of defending it when it comes under attack from those who don't share our democratic values and ideas. I will say that transparency is absolutely one of those values.

In the great Australian Labor Party we have a proud history of electoral reform, and we have a strong commitment to transparency and accountability across our democratic system. It was the Hawke Labor government that was the first to introduce a donations disclosure regime in the 1980s, ensuring that Australians could see who was donating to their elected representatives. It was a really important measure to make our democracy more transparent and to make that information more transparent to the Australian people within that democracy. But then we saw the coalition, under John Howard, seek to diminish this transparency. They lifted the threshold for disclosure so that only larger donations were disclosed. I remember when they did this. I was a student at the Australian National University studying political science. I remember what a significant change to the very value of transparency within our democracy this was and the many papers written on this across that university and other institutions, because it really did represent such a significant change and a significant lowering of transparency, with no clear value to the democratic process.

But Labor is committed to electoral reform. We believe in improving transparency. We believe in increased accountability, and, of course, we believe in fairness in our democracy and across all other levels of government and public policy. Over the course of six years in opposition, the now Special Minister of State—another good South Australian—Senator Don Farrell, introduced several bills into the Senate to improve our electoral system, including increased transparency of political donations. The Special Minister of State has been clear about his intention to pursue long-overdue reforms in this term of the Albanese Labor government.

As I noted earlier, this report puts forward a set of 15 broad recommendations for change. These recommendations include caps on campaigning, donations and spending. I think it's really important to note that, in relation to political donations and electoral expenditure, we heard from the many submitters to our inquiry the importance of examining key issues around transparency and integrity. We heard about the influence of big money and what submitters saw as an electoral arms race. Submitters broadly called for donation reform, including by way of caps, and suggested that there has been general public acceptance for a number of years which warranted change at the federal level. In that, I refer to the debates that have been going on for many, many years about the need to increase transparency and strengthen our institutions, and I'm very proud that our committee report has gone to these issues.

Our committee has recommended a much lower threshold for declaring donations and reporting of donations in real time. It's an important step forward after the coalition's significant step back. Specifically, that recommendation reads:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government lower the donation disclosure threshold to $1,000.

Our committee was of the view that this amount would ensure a robust level of transparency without discouraging the participation of members of the public in local activities, and it would also broadly align Commonwealth laws. Importantly, these donations and spending caps are as applicable to political parties as they are to third parties, because we have seen in recent times the influence of big donors and big money in elections not just here in Australia but also overseas. Knowing who is bankrolling campaigns and political candidates is absolutely fundamental to our democracy and fundamental to transparency—that absolutely critical value at the heart of our democracy and our institutions. Lowering that threshold, returning it to $1,000, would give voters a much better idea about who's supporting a political candidate, and combining reducing that threshold with real-time disclosures would allow voters to know who is backing candidates and would significantly improve transparency in our democracy and in our elections. It's a really important principle.

When it comes to real-time disclosure, the committee recommended that the Australian government introduce real-time disclosure requirements for donations to political parties and candidates.

The report noted that this would require additional administrative time and resources. However, many submitters recognised that reducing the disclosure period would represent a really important development for improving transparency within our democracy. We know that participation in our democracy shouldn't depend on your own personal wealth or the wealth of your backers and your donors. It should be about your ideas, it should be about your policies and it should be about your values. As a minimum, we should all be able to agree that Australians, regardless of their own financial background, should be able to stand for our parliaments and stand for high office. What we don't want to see an electoral system where expenditure by certain individuals can unduly influence our election results. (Time expired)

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.