Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston

Mr WILKIE (Clark) (11:00): I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.

Australians’ trust in politicians and the political process is at an all-time low and for good reason, because due to this country’s weak political donation laws, voters don’t even know who they are voting for. Indeed millions of dollars in political donations remain undisclosed each year, and Australians are routinely left in the dark about who’s bankrolling their current and prospective elected representatives.

To restore this dwindling trust, we urgently need significant reform, starting today with a deep overhaul of our political donations framework. We also need an independent federal integrity commission with teeth, more comprehensive media freedom laws and better protections for whistleblowers. This is what the community demands, and it should be something that receives bipartisan support.

The current disclosure threshold for political donations is $14,500, and obviously that is way too high. Moreover the current legislation also doesn’t require donors to disclose if they donate just below the threshold multiple times. So, in practice this means that, for example, a mining company can donate $14,499 multiple times without the public ever knowing about it.

Indeed a report released this month by the Centre for Public Integrity showed that almost 30 per cent—or $1.38 billion—of donations received by the major parties since 1998 came from unknown sources. The recent figures released by the Australian Electoral Commission paint a similar picture because, in the last financial year alone, more than $68 million of unexplained money flooded into the political parties, making up almost 40 per cent of all donations.

Making matters worse is that donation disclosures are only required once a year, meaning that up to 19 months can pass between a political entity receiving a donation and the public becoming aware of the donation. How on earth is the community expected to make informed decisions at the ballot box if they have no idea who is bankrolling candidates and parties? They can’t.

I would add that the situation is even worse in Tasmania where we also have to endure the weakest state political donation laws in the country. Indeed, despite promises from the Tasmanian Liberal government to legislate for stronger transparency in political donations, both the Liberal and Labor parties went to the Tasmanian election last year backed by hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars of dark money. Indeed in the last financial year the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party only disclosed the source of $260,000 out of $3.4 million—a startling 7.6 per cent. The Tasmanian branch of the Labor Party was not much better, only disclosing where 15½ per cent of its funding came from.

This brings me to the bill before the House today—the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning up Political Donations) Bill 2022—that would strengthen the transparency and accountability of political donations; starting with the lowering of the disclosure threshold to $1,000 and requiring aggregation so that multiple donations received from the same donor must be disclosed if the sum of all donations meets this threshold. The bill also requires real-time reporting of donations to the AEC and, in particular, that political entities must provide a return to the AEC within two business days of receiving a donation over $1,000. The AEC is then required to publish this on their website as soon as reasonably practical, which is not a new concept, because several states already require real-time reporting of donations. Indeed if we debated this bill right now and it received bipartisan support, we could see such disclosure at the upcoming federal election.

Surely voters have a right to know who’s bankrolled a candidate or party before casting their vote, because the reality is that government policy is shaped by political donations.

In other words when someone hands over many tens of thousands—or hundreds of thousands or millions—of dollars in donations, it comes with an expectation of a return on that investment. And very often in Australia these days, the return on such investments is pretty good, to say the least.

Not irrelevant is that Pratt Industries donated a thumping $1.3 million to the Liberal Party during the last financial year, and afterwards the company was awarded a $10 million grant from the federal government from the Bushfire Recovery Fund. Make of that what you will.

Moreover, donations from certain industrial sectors continue to severely impact policy and decision-making. For instance, I have no doubt that the reluctance of both major parties to implement meaningful gambling reform is a direct result of the huge money that they receive from that industry. In the last financial year alone, the coalition received over $540,000 from pro-gambling stakeholders and Labor received $516,000. And, again, this is just the money we know about.

It’s also hardly surprising that fossil fuel companies, backing large gas projects across Australia, gave nearly $1 million in political donations to the three major parties last financial year, a fact that came to light the same week the opposition committed to opening a new taxpayer funded gas-fired power station, a policy opposed by energy experts across the board.

Politicians should be serving their communities, but instead they’re bending over backwards to please the big donors. And big money in politics is a huge problem. Indeed, the Centre for Public Integrity reported that just 10 donors accounted for more than $4.2 million, or 23 per cent, of all political donations in the last financial year. That’s why this bill implements a cap of $50,000 on the total amount any one donor can donate during an electoral cycle.

The bill also places a cap on the total amount that candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns, because parliamentarians should be elected on their policies, their values and what it is they can offer their community. Instead, our current system facilitates elections based on who has the biggest war chest.

Australians would remember that Clive Palmer spent an absurd $80 million on the last federal election, and it has been reported that he intends to surpass this at this year’s election. This blatant threat to attempt to buy the outcome of an election is something that all of us should be taking very seriously.

Moreover, politicians and parties should not be accepting donations from sectors whose business causes direct harm to Australians. That’s why my bill prohibits donations from fossil fuel entities, gambling companies, liquor companies and the tobacco industry. It also increases the penalties for corporations who breach electoral laws. And finally, my bill expands the definition of a gift to include any expenditure that benefits a party, such as the ‘Love Your Local’ campaign we saw from the poker machine industry during the 2018 Tasmanian state election. It also captures money spent to attend political fundraisers and functions to minimise payment for access to politicians.

In closing, I urge all members to support this bill because the community is crying out for reform, and it’s way beyond time politicians focused on the public interest, not their self-interest.

I would also like to acknowledge my member of staff Millie von Stieglitz for the remarkable job she has done preparing what is quite a complex bill.

In my remaining time, I invite the member for Indi, who is seconding the bill, to comment on the bill.

The Bill

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning up Political Donations) Bill 2022

Related: Helen Haines seconds Andrew Wilkie’s Bill to ‘clean up political donations’ #IndependentsDay