HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.07 pm]: I move —
(1) That this house acknowledges the increasing public concern about the role large corporations play in influencing public policy, recognises the urgent need for donations reform at both the state and federal level, and calls on the government to urgently increase the transparency of political funding by —
(a) abolishing third party donations;
(b) instituting real-time reporting of gifts and donations; and
(c) banning foreign donations.
(2) That this house further calls on the government to work through the Council of Australian Governments’ processes to ensure that financial disclosures to both federal and state bodies uniformly reflect the highest standards of transparency.
I moved this motion today because I think the issue of transparency around electoral donations is particularly important and it is very much at the forefront of people’s minds as we move into a likely federal election to be called any day. Many of us are familiar with the concern raised by members of the public that parties do not represent average people anymore; instead, parties have allowed themselves to become beholden to what we term “the big end of town”. Transparency International, in commenting on the issue of political donations, stated —
Donations to political parties and campaigns are a way for the public to participate in politics. However, donations are also tools used by vested interests—including illicit, private and international interests— to exert undue influence over the agendas of political parties and candidates. This can lead to policy that reflects the narrow interests of donors at the expense of the wider ... interest that parties purport to represent.
I am particularly interested today in unpicking that issue of undue influence. In recent years we have seen some of these concerns come to a head in the eastern states, where a number of governments have introduced a range of measures to address this concern. The sorts of measures implemented in other state jurisdictions include things like banning donations from certain industry sectors. The Greens have a strong position on that. We are particularly concerned about developers, tobacco companies, the gambling industry and the gun lobby. Some states have introduced uniform caps on donations, and something that is very close to real-time reporting, which I will speak further about later, and have severely limited or even entirely banned donations from foreign entities, which I think is a very important reform that needs to be considered in this state. Unfortunately, Western Australia has most certainly not been leading the charge in ensuring that our systems and processes are as transparent as they can be and as immune as they can be from undue influence. There is a genuine need for reform in this space in this state, and there remains a desperate need for reform in the federal space as well.
There is a general perception that the government and particularly the older political parties are held in thrall to the big end of town. It is easy to see why. There is a mismatch between the priorities that we know we are facing locally and globally and the policies that are subsequently pursued. We are consistently seeing long-term concerns shunted aside for the pursuit of short-term profits. For example, we are starting to see very clearly the effects of climate change in Western Australia. We have once again had the hottest summer on record—2.5 degrees Celsius above average across the state—and, as a result, our agencies are starting to respond to this. Our Water Corporation is begging us to save water, overtly due to climate change. Our agriculture department is advising people about what to grow and how to diversify to deal with the impact of climate change. Even the Minister for Health recently announced an inquiry into how the health system will manage the impacts of climate change. We can see, through the actions of government, that we all know climate change is real and that it is being caused by our actions, and yet we are seeing efforts by our environmental agencies to genuinely impact the big polluters being immediately undercut by the government frantically, and with unseemly haste, declaring that it will not make decisions based on Environmental Protection Authority guidelines. We see the announcement, instead, of millions of public dollars being put towards expanding those polluting industries rather than growing the industries that are doing substantially less harm. The global rethink that we need is not occurring.
The High Court of Australia has identified the real risks of corporate donors influencing decision-making based on a reliance on their patronage. The court said that, unlike straight cash-for-votes transactions, such corruption is neither easily detected nor practical to criminalise. It may not be practical to criminalise, but I assure members that Western Australians can sniff out dodgy conduct when they smell it. Anyone who believes that people cannot draw a line between large corporate donations and the policies that are subsequently espoused by the major parties is delusional. Legislation and policy is deadly serious business, with massive impacts on people’s lives. It is one of the reasons I pay such close attention to what occurs in this place. The feeling around the nation is that the profit-making concerns of large corporate donors are far more to the forefront of government decision-making processes than the real issues of everyday citizens.
I turn to an examination of the current situation. One of the big challenges of our current system is that it is surprisingly easy, unfortunately, to obscure where money is coming from. Part of this is because we are, in large part, reporting under the federal scheme, which has a much higher disclosure floor for donations. To give members an idea of the difference in the disclosure floor, in 2017–18, federally it was $13 500, as opposed to the state level of $2 300; and in 2018–19, the federal floor is $13 800, as opposed to $2 500 at the state level. State parties must effectively report to the Australian Electoral Commission, and the Western Australian Electoral Commission will accept an AEC form as sufficient, even though it falls very far short of what is desired by Western Australia. There is also a fantastic loophole in the commonwealth law that allows parties to simply not declare donations if they come in multiple chunks that are under the disclosure threshold. We see this in the differences between what the political parties report and what the donors report. For example, in the 2017–18 annual returns, accounting and consulting firms say that they have donated $131 485 to the WA Liberal and Labor Parties, yet only $48 488 shows up in the information reported by the WA Labor and Liberal Parties to the AEC. Within that information, even the amounts recorded by the parties and the donors do not match each other. We have one substantial chunk of $46 061, labelled as a donation by one single corporation, that does not appear in the reporting by the receiving party at all. This very clearly demonstrates that the existing rules simply do not provide anything remotely like the transparency that people are entitled to expect.
There is no requirement to not disclose a smaller amount if parties so wish. Parties could make the choice to be substantially more transparent. The gap between what we know about and the total income of political parties is currently called grey money. A proportion—we do not know how much—of that grey money is paid to parties and associated entities by corporations as cash for access to ministers. I already have before this chamber a bill calling for the banning of these sorts of programs—they are what I refer to as “ministers for sale”—but unless and until that bill is passed, funds from cash-for-access activities should be disclosed. There have been repeated calls for that, particularly from the Greens, but also, I note, from sections of the media. That has not been forthcoming. The public deserves to know who is buying time with their ministers and elected representatives.
I will talk a bit more on the current situation between the commonwealth and the state. It is significant, which is why it has been overtly referred to in the motion before the house. There is a massive gap between the federal and state reporting regimes. An annual report to the commonwealth lodged by 20 October 2018 is publicly available on the first working day in February following year, and the annual report to the WAEC by 30 November is publicly available on the website from the first working day after 28 December. Likewise, gifts to political parties, whether they be for elections or more general purposes, are reported only once a year, and gifts to candidates, whether grouped or ungrouped, are required to be reported 15 weeks after polling day. That is far, far too late for electors, when making their vote, to assess whether they believe that there is a link between the election platforms with which they have been presented and donations. The WA laws are substantially more restrictive in the amounts of money that conveniently cannot be counted. However, there is no requirement for donor disclosure, which is one of the ways that we have been able to unpick where funding is coming from.
I particularly point out the lack of transparency in the operations of the 500 Club as an example. We simply do not know who is donating, so we are unable to find out subsequently who is effectively trying to influence. If we are to have any sorts of caps or limitations on donations, we will need transparency so that people know what on earth is going on. It would be less of a concern if parties disclosed to the Western Australian Electoral Commission standards, rather than simply choosing to follow the Australian Electoral Commission rules. Clearly, there is a desire to circumvent any transparency rules that appear to be simply too strict.
The federal Parliamentary Library has put out a quick guide that summarises the differences in political disclosure laws around the country. I am happy to table this later if members wish, although, of course, they are able to access it quite readily themselves. Some of the key things to note are that, universally, the states have set much, much lower reporting thresholds than the feds and New South Wales and Victoria have imposed donation caps across the board.
New South Wales and Queensland have banned donations from certain industries and, importantly, people who are closely associated with those industries. If we look at what we are able to see about which industries are funnelling money into political parties and associated entities, it makes for interesting reading. We can see that the property development industry, despite being banned from donating in Queensland and New South Wales, is still one of the largest groups providing money across Australia.
Of the states, only WA, South Australia and Tasmania have not already banned foreign donations. A ban on foreign donations is one of the most common regulatory measures around the world. We know that foreign donations increase the risk of undue influence or loss of self-determination of Australians and, of course, they weaken the ties between the parties that are the recipient of those foreign donations and regular Australians. Despite the federal legislation, which has restricted foreign donations, WA state parties are still allowed to accept foreign donations for the purposes of state elections. We have just seen Pauline Hanson’s One Nation officials at a federal level caught, outrageously, making promises to potential foreign donors to campaign on gun control issues in exchange for donations. That was an absolutely disgraceful turn of events. Literally nothing in our laws stops a party from picking a state issue of similar significance and selling out the people of Western Australia for foreign money. We need to change this legislation in Western Australia as soon as possible.
At the very minimum, people should be able to see as close to real-time as possible who is donating money to political campaigns and to political parties. In 2011, the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended moving towards contemporaneous disclosure. Ihope that this will be picked up here in Western Australia, but it also needs to be picked up at the Council of Australian Governments level. The Schott report reviewed the New South Wales electoral funding and disclosure laws in 2014, and also recommended real-time reporting of donations. Queensland has come the closest to achieving this. It has brought in a system that enables and requires reporting within seven days. Those reports are immediately then made public and this is absolutely, in my opinion, the sort of textbook play that we should be following and need to look at introducing here in this state.
Beyond donations, there are numerous other areas of inconsistency in our political and electoral disclosure laws across the country. It is very complex. Unfortunately, these inconsistencies across jurisdictions are simply enabling loopholes to be created, even though we should all be striving to ensure that we are as transparent as possible. Frankly, the system is a mess. It has very, very little transparency. We can solve some of the issues around the disjointed systems across jurisdictions ourselves. We can ban or cap foreign donations. I personally would be very strongly in support of banning foreign donations in their entirety for all political parties and all associated entities within Western Australia. However, some issues can be resolved only if we are doing it in conjunction with those other jurisdictions. Unfortunately, if there is a desire to work around the disclosures, those differences are facilitating that. That is why I am calling on the government to raise the issue of donations through the COAG process and ensure that it is working towards creating transparency in political financing and restoring the public’s faith in people participating within the political realm. Harmonising and tightening political funding disclosure laws is one way to demonstrate that we are acknowledging this real problem and actively working to resolve it. There is an opportunity here for Western Australia to collaborate with the other states and the commonwealth government to really make an effort to implement reform, and this absolutely needs to be prioritised. Reporting time frames as short as a week are already in place in states such as Queensland. We can replicate that working model here within Western Australia and I think that we can make it easy for political parties to report against both the Western Australian and the federal government’s standards.
I note that the McGowan government made a range of electoral promises about how it would change our donations laws. I am interested to hear from the minister responsible what progress has been made, if any. Hopefully, the minister might be able to give some indication of which areas are in particular need of being prioritised and whether there will be reform in that space. I am also really interested in hearing from the minister about whether there is an appetite to have those future discussions at the COAG level as well. I think transparency in donations reporting is a critical area in which we should all be taking a very keen interest. I, for one, am constantly discouraged by the malaise that seems to be felt towards all political parties and the lack of faith that the people in this place are working in the best interests of the community as a whole and not simply for vested interests. The reality is the system is set up so we receive donations and I think that we need to firmly limit that. At the very least, full transparency should be at the forefront of a reform process, and I hope that we will see some progress on that very soon.
Comments and speeches from various members
Amendment to Motion
Hon RICK MAZZA: I move —
To delete “large corporations” and substitute —
The PRESIDENT: Members, Hon Rick Mazza has moved an amendment to the motion. The amendment is that the words “large corporations” be deleted and the words “interest groups” be inserted. So the first question is that the words proposed to be deleted be deleted.
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.38 pm]: I rise to indicate that the Greens will not be supporting the amendment. Our specific concern is the influence of large profit-making machines on governments of all persuasions. The reality is that we are talking about an environment in which governments are responsible for making the regulations and laws that often determine how these large entities carry out their business. Much ministerial discretion is afforded to the ministers who make these decisions. The Greens hold grave concerns about these corporations. This was never about trying to preclude regular people from being able to participate in the process, although I completely concur with the idea—it is useful—to place caps on individual donations. Indeed, it is Greens policy, recognising that the Greens have been the recipient of very large individual donations. We support the reform of the type that has been described. The influence of large corporations specifically is of particular concern, which is why the motion has been worded in that particular way. This amendment would effectively take away from precisely the point that we are trying to make.
Comments and speeches from various members
Amendment (deletion of words) put and a division taken with the following result —
Amendment thus passed.
Amendment (insertion of words) put and passed.
Motion, as Amended
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [3.02 pm] — in reply: I am very glad to have the opportunity to reply. I want to pick up on a couple of things. A number of the contributors to the debate raised the issue of why we want to talk with the federal government about this matter. As I outlined in my original contribution, the problem is that because of the different threshold disclosure levels and rules that apply, people are effectively able to pick their jurisdiction to avoid any sort of transparency. The clear answer to the question of why we want to have discussions at the state level with the federal government and our state counterparts is precisely because we want to remove those inconsistencies across jurisdictions. That seems fairly self-evident. I will not touch on the concerns that were raised by Hon Simon O’Brien about the capacity of the current government to undertake that in a way that would ensure transparency. Nevertheless, that is a very important discussion to have. I am glad the Minister for Environment has given an indication that there is a preparedness to have those discussions. I will be following that up, and I hope we will be able to report back favourably about the attempts to have those discussions.
Members, I point out that under our current system, not everyone who has an interest in the decisions of government is able to donate. I will spell this out. I am focused particularly on corporations for a reason. Corporations have a lot of money, and they are very interested in the environment that is created by government to enable them to undertake their business. However, that is not the case for many other groups. As members would know, I have a deep interest in the non–government organisation sector, particularly those organisations involved with mental health, suicide prevention, disability, child protection and the community legal sector. These organisations are dealing with often the most vulnerable people in our community who need to have a voice and whose lives can be directly adversely affected by the decisions of government, yet the organisations that represent those groups are prohibited by law, particularly if they have charitable status, from being able to donate to our political system. Therefore, inbuilt within our system is a disproportionate level of access to be able to influence what happens at our elections. That is already there, members. A corporation that is seeking to make a profit can go hell for leather. However, an organisation that has no money to start with, but in any event is legally prohibited from being able to donate, has no voice within that political process. Therefore, when people talk about trying to create an even playing field, I will point out that we do not have that now. An entire section of our community is prohibited by law from being able to have their voice heard when it comes to elections. What a very different landscape it would be if the most vulnerable people in our community were able to have the same access as corporations that have so much money.
I want to mention a couple of other things. The question was asked around the issue of transparency: do we really need to know who our donors are? The answer is: yes, of course. I think the average Australian expects that. People want to know who is donating to our political parties. People can know who donates to the Greens, because it is all spelt out. People have already talked about it. People are able to talk about it because it is transparent. People know exactly who is donating to the Greens. Real-time donations are a way of ensuring that people have an idea about donations before elections. The question was asked: what happens if someone donates the day before election day? The answer is: that money clearly would not be of much help to the election, would it? The reality is that if we had the same rule that applies under the Victorian model—namely, 28 days—people at the polling booth would have some idea about who has donated to the political parties that are on the ballot paper in front of them. The issue was raised that people may be able to circumvent the laws around foreign donations by making third party donations. That is all the more reason to get smarter about how we do this. I do not accept that simply because something is hard to do, we should not bother.
Finally, I want to make some comments about the issue of corruption. Of course people who inherently set out to corrupt the system will not go through this process. However, there is a fundamental difference between people who overtly engage in corrupt behaviour and ensuring the system is transparent so that we know what is going on.
Question put and a division taken, the Acting President (Hon Matthew Swinbourn) casting his vote with the noes, with the following result —
Question (motion, as amended) thus negatived.