Zali Steggall welcomes JSCEM review and recommendations

22 June 2023

I welcome the interim report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2022 federal election. I would note that such reports and investigations have occurred after every federal election and it has been rare that recommendations in such reports have been implemented. So it will be interesting to see, with the change of government in this term, just which of the recommendations get picked up.

I welcome the increase in transparency around donations that has been recommended in this report—in particular, the reduction in the disclosure threshold and the introduction of real-time disclosure of donations. There is no doubt that these recommendations will improve the transparency of the funding behind elections and have strong support within the community, who want to know who is funding political campaigns. However, I do have concerns about the potential impact of some of the broader campaign finance reforms that have been touted, in particular around campaign caps and donation caps, because unless these are unilaterally imposed and are done carefully they are ultimately embedding and entrenching incumbents' advantage and major parties' advantage.

Some of the recommendations in the report will be counterproductive from the democratic point of view of broadening communities' choice at elections, because we know the major parties have an ability to collude around these types of reforms to make it more difficult for Independent and non-aligned members to mount successful campaign challenges. I was here in the last parliament when I saw that, when the coalition and Labor colluded to change legislation around donations, for example, and around transparency to create an advantage and embed the status quo of the major parties' duopoly. So I support the additional comments made by my fellow crossbencher the member for Curtin in relation to the need to ensure that reforms do not amplify incumbent and major party advantage. Of course, it means the government will need to come to these reforms with clean hands and a real good-faith and genuine desire to improve democracy and not just to embed their own advantage.

I support the need for review of probity requirements and a consideration of enhancement of the scope of prohibited donations. The Australian public are absolutely outraged at the impact of big money, especially vested-interest money, when it comes to Australian politics. Benefactors of significant government spending, such as the big four consultancies—PwC, EY, KPMG and Deloitte—should be prohibited from making donations. We only have to look at the scandals and the allegations of the last month in relation to that incredibly wrong relationship between some of those consultancies and government—contracts for huge amounts of money and then this vicious pool of influence that is reinforced with donations. I note with pleasure that we have the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which will be commencing shortly, mostly from the push and the work of Independent and crossbench members to really push the major parties on such measures. These are the areas that must be looked at, the areas of that really vexatious link between interest and influence.

There is always a risk that donations will influence policy. Where the source of donations is at odds with broader community values, the barrier to donations and influence needs to be strong. The influence of industries responsible for significant social harm needs to be restricted. The tobacco, liquor and gambling industries, minerals councils and mining cause significant social harm for profit and are areas that benefit from huge amounts of public spending. New South Wales, for example, already prohibits donations from the tobacco, liquor and gaming industries. We should be looking at having some restrictions at the federal level but, in fact, we saw in the last parliament major parties collude to make it easier to circumvent federal rules to have the benefit of state rules when it came to Queensland.

Large corporations and registered unions should also be prohibited from making donations to political parties without member approval. Again, there is an influence and a benefit for access that is gained. We still do not have, in a timely way, access to ministers' diaries, for example, or the Prime Minister's diary, for that matter, which has been the subject of freedom of information attempts. The Australian people are entitled to know what link there is between donations and influence, whether it be from the private sector or unions, and decision-making and ministers who are making decisions when it comes to large spending. Large corporations and registered unions should therefore be prohibited without member approval, and member approval requirements should be developed similar to those in place in the United Kingdom.

I do welcome in this report the focus on the progress made in relation to misleading and deceptive political advertising. I must say that when I came into politics in 2019 it was a shock to discover that whilst we have protections for consumers when it comes to misleading and deceptive advertising when it comes to goods and services, there is nothing, no protection, when it comes to citizens exercising the most important right they have during elections. The report recommends that the Australian government develop legislation or seek to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act to provide for the introduction of measures to govern truth in political advertising, giving consideration to the provisions of the South Australian Electoral Act 1985.

I'd like to remind the government that the work has been done to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act, and I have proposed a private members' bill which is still on the Notice Paper, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Stop the Lies) Bill 2022. The bill is heavily informed by the South Australian Electoral Act. I have consulted widely with eminent experts across academic and think tank communities. It's seen as a responsible and proportionate response to the threat of misinformation and disinformation that is increasingly pervading elections in Australia. It also attempts to cover referendum advertising, but sadly the government voted with the coalition against debating the bill prior to the referendum advertising kicking in.

Almost three-quarters of Australians came across false political advertisements during the 2022 federal elections. Australians were relentlessly targeted with SMS advertising making all sorts of wild claims. A sceptic might claim that lies have always and will always be part of politics, but research shows that the sheer quantity of false political advertising is going. Nine in 10 Australians want truth in political advertising laws legislated before the next federal election, according to the nationally representative polling from the Australia Institute. Importantly, the bill that I proposed also seeks to capture disinformation and misinformation spread in referendum campaigns.

In his review of every Australian referendum, Scott Bennett concluded that a great deal of exaggeration and distortion is standard fare. Already, baseless claims that the Voice would constitute a third chamber have polluted the public debate. For this reason, Professors Gabrielle Appleby and Lisa Hill recently recommended enacting truth in political advertising laws to protect the legitimacy of the referendum. Adopting the bill already on the Notice Paper could, I respectfully suggest, quickly ensure a more respectful and honest debate in the upcoming referendum.

Recommendation 12 of the report recommends that the government establish a division with the Australian Electoral Commission to administer such legislation. I think that is a sensible recommendation. In the bill that I've proposed, the Australian Electoral Commission is responsible for the receipt and initial assessment of complaints, with the ultimate recourse to the courts. This approach is consistent with the South Australian approach. The key concerns raised are resourcing the Electoral Commission, and that can certainly be taken care of; recommendation 12 addresses it.

Similarly, restriction of the bill to matters pertaining to statements of fact will restrict the ability of parties to prosecute concerns around political bias. Any legal remedy to address misinformation and disinformation must not violate the implied freedom of political communication guaranteed under the Australian Constitution. Freedom of political speech and expression is the lifeblood of a thriving democracy, but that does not give carte blanche to provide misleading and deceptive facts. There is a vast difference between opinion and fact. This must be legislated to protect the Australian people as soon as possible.