Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks about the need for integrity, donation reform and the Annual Disclosure Equality Bill

1 December 2021


It's a little hard to even focus on what I intended to say after having listened to the rubbish that has just come out of the member for Sturt, as he claims that this is the hard work of the government in ensuring transparency and accountability. Could I just point out for the member for Sturt—and the minister will confirm—this loophole was brought to the attention of the government by the independent member for Indi? This was no sleuth work or great legislative work coming from the government. So could we just pause a little on the inference that the member just made to the House that, somehow, this loophole has been used by independent members to accept donations from foreign donors or in ways that would be contrary to the disclosure requirements of members of the major parties. The irony that the government and the member for Sturt and whatever members speak on this after have the gall to come into this place and talk about transparency and accountability with respect to donations is just breathtaking.

Let's talk about what this is. This is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Annual Disclosure Equality) Bill 2021. I have no issues with it, because it is a loophole that we have identified and has been brought to the government's attention. It closes a loophole with respect to a sitting member, prior to announcing as a candidate for the next election, receiving a donation of over $1,000. Donations are made to a party, so, for members of parliament that are members of a party, donations are typically made to the party rather than the individual. The party will disclose donations received each year. I'll come to that in a moment, because we know the full disclosure doesn't occur.

Whilst a party member is caught, essentially, by the obligation to lodge a return, in most cases they don't have anything to disclose, because it's simply wrapped up in the party return. But, obviously, in situations of individual MPs, they still have to include all gifts or donations received for federal purposes, regardless of value. This introduces the disclosure of the source of the donation if it is above the $14,500 disclosure threshold. But what this is actually introducing is an additional disclosure requirement on independents that is not imposed on members of a party.

It does go well beyond that requirement of reporting. Part 3 of this bill clarifies that candidates will be subject to obligations under the act, even if they haven't announced their candidacy. So they're deemed to be a candidate for six months before they announce or nominate. In this situation, the government is quite happy to be retrospective. But the irony is how often it is not willing to be retrospective in looking at its own house. The irony is there's just no justification for backdating all obligations to six months before a candidate announces. It's to cover up a time when the candidate potentially has no idea they're even going to be a candidate, particularly when laws applying to a precandidate entity are being tightened in the political campaigner bill that passed this place last week, which require disclosure of donations received and foreign donor bans for that announcement period.

There's no doubt the government and the coalition are scared of the independent movement. All these legislations are little pieces of a puzzle to try and stifle democracy. They are trying to preserve their status quo and limit competition. The irony is that that goes so against liberal principles they're so happy to espouse in any other situation.

What are the practical implications of this bill? It will have very little material impact because independents have been based on integrity. We have been calling, time and time again, for transparency measures, integrity measures, lowering of the donation threshold and real-time donation reporting. On all those measures, this bill is silent. We wouldn't want to be increasing any requirement on ourselves, would we, government members?

Anyway, this is the campaign that they are choosing to make. I see the member for Mackellar is here; obviously, he is here because he knows he will face a concerted campaign from his community, because they are dissatisfied with the transparency and integrity shown in this place.

All states and territories have more transparent donation regimes with lower donation thresholds than the federal government. Last year both parties worked together to reduce the transparency of political donations further, in avoidance of the High Court ruling. Independents were the only ones in this place to oppose that change, and proposed amendments to increase transparency. This bill and the political campaigner bill debated last year are an obvious assault trying to minimise competition in this place.

It is so hypocritical for members of the coalition to come into this place and talk of transparency and accountability when we have situations of blind trusts and the defence of blind trusts that come forward, when we have a refusal to stop lying in political advertising, when we have an unexplained delay in introducing a federal integrity commission and when every attempt at increasing accountability and transparency in this place is opposed. But, of course, they will come in here and grandstand about their call for equality and transparency.

If the government truly wanted to improve equity and disclosure, it would make the reporting time frames consistent across parties and Independents. After the last election Independents had to disclose their donations by October and they were made public in November, whereas all parties did not have their donations made public until the following February. I don't see any measure to amend those provisions in this legislation.

Also, an Independent only campaigns in their seat, and so it is very clear for their community when they see what moneys have been raised and what has been spent in that campaign. But, for the major parties, there is no breakdown per electorate. No party MP needs to disclose how much they have spent or how much they have raised. They hide under the cloak of the party banner. It's one large malaise dumped in a spreadsheet without any fidelity as to which electorate raised the funds or on which electorate funds were spent. By contrast, the Independents campaign on integrity and are transparent. They represent single seats. They provide fidelity at every election, and it's disclosed in a more timely manner.

Last month I seconded the bill introduced by my colleague the member for Indi which would increase the transparency of political donations. It would reduce the threshold for disclosure of political donations from $14,500 to $1,000. It would increase to quarterly the reporting frequency for $1,000 and to within five days for donations above $14,500. This is the type of donation reform this parliament needs.

For too long, money has been hidden from view and public scrutiny. Our democracy has been for sale. The incumbents are doing all they can to hold onto the status quo as hard as they can. We do not know who is paying for access to politicians and to government and what influence that is having over decisions. The Big Deal documentary recently aired by the ABC last month has shocked so many people around Australia, and it certainly has been noted by constituents. It revealed that over 55 per cent of donations to the ALP and 65 per cent of donations to the coalition were undisclosed. You didn't hear that in the member for Sturt's speech, and I'm pretty confident we won't hear that in any later speeches. The unashamed portrayal of cash for access and influence was horrifying.

Transparency is essential to good governance and public trust in democracy. The gall of the government to increase transparency requirements under the pretence that we must have been trying to hide something, ignoring that we brought it to their attention, especially in circumstances where so many independents voluntarily overreport and espouse transparency! At the same time, we have this unanswered question of a blind trust of significant amounts of money having been donated to the former Attorney-General for his personal use, yet there is no disclosure of who made those donations or where they came from. Were they from foreign donors? There is nothing on the record. The gall of this positioning! I'm quite comfortable because I know the Australian people can see through this. They've had this time and time again, and they see through it.

The coalition are so busy looking at those challenging them that they completely fail to recognise the challenge and why the challenge has emerged. The Independent movement that the government is so desperate to squash exists because people are fed up with what happens in this place. They're fed up with the lack of integrity and the lack of transparency and accountability of the major parties and their lack of action on key issues when it comes to women, when it comes to integrity and when it comes to climate. At the last election only 25 per cent of Australians said they have trust in the federal government, and I can't imagine that will have risen any for the coming election. I have no doubt that the lack of transparency counts heavily towards that feeling.

I support this legislation—this is great!—but if you really want to come to the Australian people on a platform of wanting equality and accountability, bring forward some measures that clean up your house. Seriously, it is time to improve the transparency and accountability measures. I support consistency and improvements, so let's bring in some reform around political donations. Let's make sure that we actually bring in and support legislation around truth in political advertising. I note the member for Mackellar, who is going to come in, I am sure, and talk about the nerve of the Independent movement, not being held to the same standards of accountability. Yet whilst supporting the idea that there should be truth in political advertising, he has not come in here to talk about that increase in standards I am sure. Then we have transparency of donations. How can we talk about accountability without talking about a federal integrity commission? It is so overdue. The model the government is proposing is a model that creates a double standard. It is trying to hold MPs in this place to a lower standard than anyone else. That cannot be acceptable.

Transparency and integrity are really important issues in Warringah and, I believe, around Australia. People have had enough, and that's why they are turning to alternatives. It's really important for people to understand. This is your democracy. This place is to represent you. The people you put in this place are here only because you put them here. It's absolutely time to engage in your democracy. At the end of the day, if you are a bystander decisions will be made about you that impact your lives, so I call to communities: get engaged; get involved; be onto the issues; demand accountability from your members; from us, from me as an Independent, but from all your members of parliament, demand accountability. Hold them to account on their voting record, on what they say to you and on what they say in this place. The Australian people and I have really had enough.