Podcast Interview - The Conversation


Senator The Hon Don Farrell
Special Minister of State

E & OE
Electoral reform, Voice referendum, Housing.

MICHELLE GRATTAN, HOST: The Labor Party is committed to extensively reforming federal electoral laws with the objective of improving transparency, accountability and fairness. Now, the parliamentary committee that examines each election has put forward a set of sweeping recommendations for change. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in its Majority Report, has recommended there should be caps on campaigning, donations and spending, a much lower threshold for declaring donations and reporting of donations in real time. It also urges that caps on donations and spending should apply to third parties, which would restrict the scope of, for instance, Climate 200 to have as much influence as it did at the last election. Today, we are joined by Special Minister of State Don Farrell to discuss the electoral report and what the government plans to do about it. Please excuse the division bells which rang inconveniently. Don Farrell, can we start with how you see what's currently wrong with our federal laws relating to donations and election spending?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE, DON FARRELL: Look, I think the big problem with our current system is the lack of transparency. There are two aspects of this which the committee has considered. One is the level of donation disclosure. The moment it's $15,000, the committee recommends reducing that to $1,000. The Labor Party supports that, and that gives obviously the voters a much better idea about who's supporting a particular candidate. Associated with that is the issue of real time disclosure. At the moment, you might donate $15,000 to a candidate, but it's twelve months or so before the voters find out who actually donated that money. So, a combination of reducing the threshold and real time disclosures will allow voters to know who it is that's also backing that particular candidate. I think that will significantly improve the transparency of Australian elections.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: And what about the caps on spending and donations? Are you in general in favour of those? Labor is committed in broad terms to such caps.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I am broadly in favour. What we saw at the last election was that one individual spending $117,000,000 on the election. We knew that particular individual was Clive Palmer. We knew he was spending plenty of money because everywhere you looked there was a billboard or a poster or a radio or a TV ad. What we didn't know was just how much he's spending.

The Australian electoral system shouldn't be just open to people with lots of money. Australian elections are about ideas and policies, not the wealth of the political backers. So, I think we've now reached the point, and I'm hoping that there'll be broad consensus on this across the political parties, that we've got to do something to firstly restrict the amount of money that individuals can spend, but also ensure that combination of transparency so that ordinary people can run campaigns.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Your critics would say a union that wanted, for example, to influence an election could spend a huge amount and quite a lot of them spend quite a lot of money, or a company could spend a large amount. What would be your reply? It's not just potentially an individual.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Well, I think we've got to look at the totality of the people that are spending money. I don't say that unions or companies should be exempt from that process. I think that a serious attempt to reform our electoral system means that we've got to apply limits to all of the people who participate in the process. But what I'm concerned about, is that the expenditure by wealthy people to buy essentially by election results is now completely out of control, and we've got to do something about it.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Now, the report talks about caps also being on third parties and associated entities. Of course, in the last election we saw Homes of Courts Climate 200 spend a lot of money. Nothing like Clive Palmer, I might add, but a lot of money. We saw the teals benefiting not only from that money, but other donations, obviously, and spending a great deal of money in those individual seats. And yet, if third parties are covered by these caps, the argument is that other people unknown candidates will have a lot more trouble in the future getting in, because you have to spend quite a lot to be known if you're not associated with a party or already have a big name. So, how do you weigh up those things? And do you agree with caps applying to third parties?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: To answer that last question first, yes, we do believe in caps applying to third parties, because you can't have a system which simply says, if you're not a union, not a business or so forth, that you don't have to comply with the rules. It's got to be a level playing field. We will have discussions with all of these groups. In fact, I've already had some discussions with some of these groups that you've just mentioned. I think there's a balance whereby we increase this transparency, and we restrict the ability of rich people simply to buy election results, but at the end of the day, we improve access to our democracy. I think there is a balance there. My job in the next six months before the final report will be to try and find that balance.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Now, you said that reform should be bipartisan, but the interim report had a dissenting report from the Coalition. So, are you willing to go it alone, not to wait for bipartisanship?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: My preferred position with all electoral reform is that it should be bipartisan. When I was the Shadow Special Minister of State, I worked closely with Senator Cormann, who was then the Special Minister of State and then his successors - there was a couple of them - to try and get this consensus position. I think Australian democracy works best when the Parliament works together to get the best result for the community. I haven't given up hope that we can get consensus on this occasion. I think it must have dawned on all of the political parties that there's a problem with transparency and there's a problem with who can participate successfully in Australian election results. I think there is a balance there and it's my intention to start those discussions now that the report has been handed down, to try and achieve that.


MICHELLE GRATTAN: Even before the final report?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Even before the final report. I think the problem will be that if we were, for instance, to leave it to the final report, and the final report comes down in December, you're probably not going to get into meaningful negotiations into February. And then you're running against the timetable for the next election. I'd like to see a consensus outcome before the end of the year and that implemented either this year or early next year, so that the Australian Electoral Commission has got plenty of time to implement whatever changes we agree upon.

MICHELLE GRATTAN. So, you want them for the next election, and you want a total package, not just some of these things, but all these things that we've canvassed?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Yeah. Look, I think all of the recommendations are worth giving consideration to. As I said, I am keen to get consensus and that'll be my objective over the next six months.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: The report also favours legislation for truth in advertising. How difficult is this? Because, for example, we're seeing in the referendum campaign that some claims are said to be misinformation by some people, but they're also said to be legitimate arguments and facts by others.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Yeah, look, I agree with you, Michelle, it's not easy to find the right balance there, because what one person might consider a fact, another person might consider to be to be a furphy. But I think some claims are simply so agrarious that they need to be dispelled and dispelled by an authoritative source. I don't have any fixed ideas on how to resolve this, but I note that the South Australian Government did introduce some legislation to this effect and that might –

MICHELLE GRATTAN: You come from South Australia.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I do come from South Australia, the great state of South Australia. So, it is possible to introduce legislation along these lines.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: And you think it works there?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Look, I think it has resolved some of the issues that relate to those very obvious claims of misinformation. But, look, I don't have a fixed view on it. I do think the more we can put voters minds to rest, that statements are not misleading, then the better. But I'm happy to look at any suggestions as to how we might do that.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: But that wouldn't be part of the package that we were talking about.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: That would be part of the package if we can get consensus on it in the lead up to the next election.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Can I just ask you about the referendum from the point of view of how it's run and the electoral system. What do you see as the big challenges?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: The big challenges in terms of -

MICHELLE GRATTAN: How it's conducted and getting the vote out, these sorts of issues.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I don’t see it being any more or less difficult than a federal election. In some ways, it's a simpler process because you don't have six or seven candidates, or fifty Senate candidates to select from. You've got a simple choice, either yes or no. So, I think in one sense, it's a simpler process, although the experience that you're going to get as a result of some legislation that we introduced earlier in the year will be identical to what goes on in a federal election. Everything will be identical to what you'd expect to get.

I'm hopeful that the debate will be a respectful debate. We're already starting the process on the Labor side of working out the yes case, and I imagine other people are dealing with the no case. I am a supporter of recognition of Indigenous Australians through a Voice to Parliament, so I'll certainly be advocating for a yes vote. But look, it's a democracy, it's a big hurdle to achieve, and I suppose this goes to your point - not only do you have to get a majority of Australians voting for it, but you've got to get a majority of states. So at least four of the six states have to vote in favour. It's a difficult task, and as we know from past experience, it has been quite difficult to get referenda up. But I think with some goodwill in this debate and some sensible discussion about what this means, we can achieve an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Obviously, it's very important that the vote be got out in remote communities. Now, this is a challenge at every election, but is it a special challenge at this election for the Electoral Commission?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Look, it's a challenge in every election getting into Indigenous communities, and of course, the later in the year that you go, then the more difficult it can be with storms and so forth. What we've done –

MICHELLE GRATTAN: This is in the north?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: In the north. In the north of Australia, and of course, that's where large numbers of Indigenous Australians live. I'm pleased to report that since this government came to office, we've lifted Indigenous enrolment from roughly 81% that it was at the last election, up to 84 and a half percent. We're expecting to get some more figures next month, which I'm confident will show an even greater participation.

So, there's two aspects to this. Firstly, we have to get more Indigenous Australians on the roll because they are underrepresented. I mean, remember that at the next election, something in excess of 98% of all Australians will be on the roll. I mean, this is this is actually quite an incredible result in in any democracy. But we're not there yet with Indigenous Australians, and of course, some of the reports out of the recommendations were, how do we increase the level of indigenous voting?

I made it a little bit easier a few weeks ago by allowing your Medicare card to be one of the evidences for enrolment on the electoral roll. So, yes it's a challenge, but I think we have devoted more resources to getting more indigenous Australians on the roll and I think you'll find more indigenous Australians will vote on this issue in the referendum.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Just in terms of your point on the weather in the north, this is an argument for having the referendum in October rather than late November, say, or December.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: You're absolutely right there, Michelle. Under the Referendum Act, you've got to call the election no sooner than two months and no longer than six months after the legislation has passed. The legislation has now passed. I think that when the Prime Minister gives consideration to this issue, obviously the fact that it's more difficult to get out, and for the Electoral Commission to get into a lot of these indigenous communities in the wet season, we'll see the vote being sooner rather than later.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Why not go in September?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Well, it's entirely in the hands of the Prime Minister.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Would you like to see it in September? For the electoral commission's convenience.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I'm happy to adopt whatever date that the Prime Minister selects, because either way, whatever day it's going to be, I'll be voting yes.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: All right. One last question. You suggested this week that the legislation, which has been deferred again for Labor's planned housing fund, could become a double dissolution bill if it's defeated at a later stage. Would a double dissolution at some point be advantageous to Labor? Or would you just get a larger salad on the crossbench in the Senate, which is probably a difficulty for either party once in government?

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: No, I'm not advocating a double dissolution. What I am advocating is for the Greens political party to come to their senses. They say they want more spending on housing, particularly social and affordable housing. At the moment, they're lining up with the Coalition to block $10 billion worth of spending on affordable and social housing. This doesn't make any sense at all.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Well, they did get a couple of billion.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: The Labor Party announced a couple of billion. They're claiming credit for it. But look, that was a decision by the Labor Party in response to a whole suite of things that we're doing to try and improve the circumstances for particularly affordable and social housing.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: I'm sure it had the bill in mind, though.

SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I'm sure the Prime Minister was thinking about all of those people who currently don't have access to a roof over their head, and how a Labor government might best improve the situation for those people. The principal point is this - if the Greens are serious about improving the circumstances for social and affordable housing - there's only one offer on the table. That's the Labor Party's offer. It was the offer that we took to the last election. We didn't beat around the bush here. We didn't say we were going to do one thing and doing something else. We're doing exactly what the Australian people or what we told the Australian people we were going to do before the last election.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Well, there's probably a bit of blinking ahead somewhere in the system in the coming weeks. Don Farrell, thank you very much for talking with the Conversation’s Politics podcast today. Hopefully, we'll catch up again before the referendum vote. That's all for today's podcast. Thank you to my producer, Mikey Burnett. We'll be back with another interview soon, but goodbye for now.


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