Today, I am pleased to table proposed Government amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008 in response to the advisory report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM). The Government is taking the unusual action of tabling the proposed Government amendments to this Bill well in advance of parliamentary debate. We want to ensure that there is ample opportunity for these measures to be fully scrutinised prior to the proposed commencement of the Bill, which on the advice of the AEC and for the benefit of all those affected, will not commence until 1 July 2009. This timeframe will allow the Australian Electoral Commission to implement new reporting systems, and provide an opportunity for them to educate and assist key stakeholders to adjust to the changes. The Government plans to have the substantive debate on the Bill and the proposed Government amendments as soon as practicable after the Senate resumes sitting in 2009.
The Bill implements the Government’s pre-election commitment to roll back the previous Government’s changes to disclosure provisions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) and move Australia’s electoral laws and processes towards the world’s best practice. The measures contained in this Bill introduce important and essential repairs in the area of political donations and election funding.
The measures contained in this Bill are also part of a more extensive review of electoral laws already announced by the Government. This process includes the development and publication of two Green Papers on Electoral Reform that will deal with a wide range of measures for the modernisation and harmonisation of Australia’s electoral laws. It is hoped that wide support will be given to the legislation that will implement the results of the Green Paper process.
Let me remind the Senate of the measures contained in the Bill, which deal with eight key issues including:
In responding to the JSCEM Advisory Report on the Bill, the Government has accepted the inclusion of a number of measures to address its key recommendations.
The first recommendation we are responding to related to the types of expenditure which can be included as the basis for a claim for public funding (subject to the candidate receiving sufficient votes to qualify for public funding). The JSCEM received a submission from the Democratic Audit of Australia (DAA) which noted that, as few minor parties and independents are able to afford much advertising or opinion polling, the proposed categories of electoral expenditure in the Bill would leave them able to claim only some of their expenses, such as signs and leaflets. The DAA went on to note that these minor parties and independent candidates might, however, have considerable expenditure on other items, such as office administration.
The JSCEM recommended that the definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ for this purpose should be broadened to cover a wider range of actual campaign costs. The proposed Government amendments add three further categories of ‘electoral expenditure’, which will be able to be claimed for reimbursement of public funding. These categories will only apply for expenses incurred during the ‘election period’ (which is the period between the issuing of the writs for an election and the end of polling day).
The three additional categories of claimable expenditure are:
The legislation relating to the expanded categories of ‘electoral expenditure’ will also ensure there is no potential for ‘double dipping’, where a sitting Member of Parliament claims expenditure that is already being met by the Commonwealth through the payment of existing allowances and entitlements, other than those relating to remuneration. The Bill prevents electoral expenditure being claimed if allowances or benefits received by a Member of Parliament in his or her capacity as a Member are used to incur that expenditure.
The JSCEM also recommended that there should be a $50 exception to the prohibition on the acceptance of anonymous gifts. The basis for its recommendation was to remove an onerous recordkeeping burden in relation to fundraisers, including recording the name and details of each individual donor, where only small amounts of money were donated. This would cover, for example, such traditional campaign activities as raffles, trivia nights or street stalls promoting candidates or parties.
While the Government remains concerned with the prospect that such an exception may result in the reporting regime being undermined, the Government has included amendments that allow for the receipt of anonymous donations of up to $50 in two situations. The first of these relates to a public activity, such as a fete, where people passing by might, for example, place a donation in a bucket. A second provision deals with private events, such as a trivia night, where attendees might donate small sums of money. At both public activities and private events, a gift would not be a permitted anonymous gift unless records were kept of the activity or event and of the total amount raised through anonymous donations. For private events, this total may not be more than an amount calculated by multiplying $50 by the number of people who attended the event. Any excess has to be returned, or paid to the Commonwealth.
The amendments include requirements that a range of records will need to be retained by persons who receive anonymous donations at private events, including the number of persons attending the event and details of the people that collected the money. Details of public activities must also be recorded, including details of the people who collected the money. The amendments also include a new offence of knowingly making a false or misleading record of the details required to be recorded at a private event or public activity.
There will also be a slightly amended arrangement for third parties, that is, organisations that incur specified political expenditure above the threshold in a reporting period. Where these organisations incur political expenditure above the threshold, they will also be required to report permitted anonymous donations collected for political campaign purposes. This will help ensure anonymous donations are not channelled through third parties.
The Government amendments also include a number of machinery items that are in part due to the delayed passage of the Bill, including enabling a single claim to be made by branches and related political parties, and updating the rate of public funding to $2.24851, indexed for the first half of 2009.
JSCEM also made various recommendations about subsection 327(2) of the Electoral Act and the protection of donors from discrimination. The Government notes the concerns raised by JSCEM about the operation of the existing protection in subsection 327(2). This provision was inserted by the Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures Act 1991 following the JSCEM report entitled “Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune – Minimising the Risks of Funding Political Campaigns”. The Australian Electoral Commission has advised that while they have received several allegations of such unlawful discrimination over the past 17 years, at no time have they received any actual evidence to substantiate such an allegation or been able to refer a matter to the Australian Federal Police for action. Indeed, almost all of the allegations were made by persons who had been contacted by the AEC about failing to lodge a required donor return. The Government acknowledges that the reduced disclosure threshold contained in the Bill may result in more donors being identified. The Government will ensure that any claims of discrimination in breach of the requirements of subsection 327(2) of the Electoral Act are fully and properly investigated by the appropriate authority. However, at this time, the Government sees no evidence to support the changes recommended to establish a new area within the AEC to deal with such complaints.
The Government is committed to restoring the integrity of our electoral processes and systems. I thank the JSCEM for their contribution and their suggestions which further this goal. I believe that the reforms contained in both the Bill and the proposed Government amendments will significantly enhance the transparency and accountability of the funding and donations of key political players in Australia. This is the first tranche of electoral reform measures that will restore the integrity of our electoral system and ensure that the health of our Australian democracy is maintained for future generations.
The amendments I have tabled today, in advance of any debate on the legislation, will give the AEC adequate time to develop new IT systems and train staff ahead of the changes, and inform stakeholders about their obligations. This would ensure that all those involved in election campaigning – from parties and candidates, Senate groups and associated entities, through to third parties – have sufficient notice and opportunity to amend their record-keeping, and plan their activities in line with the new rules, to come into effect on 1 July 2009.
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