Coalition must follow Labor's lead on foreign donations - Speech, House of Representatives


I rise to speak on behalf of the opposition in respect of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. It is 729 days since Senator Farrell introduced opposition legislation in the Senate to ban foreign donations from our political system. Labor believes that political donations from foreign sources are eroding our political system, and urgent attention is required to address this. If you care about foreign cybermeddling in elections, you should care about foreign donations affecting Australian election outcomes.

After the government opposed our bill in the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition sought to progress this urgent reform here, in the House. The government again refused to support this change, so Labor made the unilateral step of saying that we would voluntarily refuse foreign donations. More than a year ago, we acted to say that we would not take foreign political donations, not because the law banned us from doing so but because it is the right thing to do.

I today join with my colleague Senator Farrell in calling on the Prime Minister and every Liberal and National party member of this House to immediately—this moment—stop taking foreign donations. Don't wait for this bill to become law. The member for Mitchell just said that he believes that foreign donations are ‘inappropriate’, yet if you went to his political party right now as a foreign donor with a cheque to give to the Liberal Party of Australia, they would take that money. I say to the Liberal Party of Australia: Say no to British citizens like Lord Ashcroft. Say no to American political donors like Peter Briger. Say no to foreign political donations from any noncitizen, and say it today. Do not take another dollar in foreign donations. Do not wait for this bill to pass the parliament. Act right now, while you can.

Donations that seek to influence our political system are a threat not just to our electoral system but also to public faith in our democracy, faith which has been eroded, sadly, over recent months through the revolving door in the Prime Minister's office and through what many people see as the increasing pettiness of the way in which this government behaves. Labor believes we have an opportunity to finally stop foreign political money influencing Australian elections. We won't ignore that opportunity.

Two years after we moved to ban foreign donations, the government has finally presented this final version of the ban on foreign donations. The opposition will be supporting this bill, which incorporates the various lengthy amendments we've requested and which were supported by the Senate. I would also note that this bill is not the last word in donations reform. In the other place, Senator Farrell's second reading amendment indicated our commitment to lowering the disclosure threshold for political donations.

As Senator Farrell said:

Reducing the disclosure threshold to $1,000 is Labor policy and it has been for a long time. We understand the importance of greater financial accountability and we are going to act on that. If we form government, this is a policy we would look to implement, and we would do so with proper consultative process. We understand that there would be a range of entities that would want to have a say on how best to implement greater transparency around a lower threshold.

We have shown throughout our consultation around the current Electoral Act amendments that we value the input of many different voices, and we would undertake that process— were we to form government— in exactly the same vein.

Returning to the bill before the House today, the government's approach seeks to define and prohibit a class of foreign donors. It seeks to create an offence within the Commonwealth Electoral Act for anyone seeking to influence our elections through donations or gifts from foreign sources, and extends that offence to those wilfully receiving them. This bill aims to prohibit those who seek to influence Australian voters from doing that with the support of foreign sources of funding, including foreign states or state-owned enterprises.

While I've noted that the opposition is supporting this bill, the process of getting here has been far from easy. The original legislation caused such significant unrest within civil society that our trusted charities and not-for-profits created a new alliance. There we go: the Liberal-National Party bringing charities together -- against their ham-fisted legislation. The Hands Off Our Charities alliance was formed to combat the pernicious and problematic effects of the first draft of this bill.

The bill was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters not once but twice—once to review the bill and then to review the proposed changes—and both times the members of that committee worked diligently to engage across the parliament and with civil society to make recommendations for reform. I acknowledge, in particular, the Labor members: Senator Ketter, Senator Brown, the member for Oxley and, particularly, the deputy chair, the member for Scullin, for their vital service on those inquiries. I also acknowledge the members on the Hands Off Our Charities alliance with whom I've worked extensively in my capacity as shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits. I would note that this is the first time that either major party has had a shadow ministry for charities and not-for-profits. This process has reinforced the importance of having that position—not just for us; it's something I would urge for those on the other side of the House.

By working closely with civil society, we've secured two key commitments that give charities and not-for-profits confidence and clarity in interpreting the scope of these reforms. The first is a clearer and more concise definition of what is considered to be an electoral matter. The definition, acting as the gateway to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, won't capture legitimate public policy advocacy and should be reserved for those seeking to influence a voter or the result of an election. The second is a guaranteed review of the practical operation of the bill by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

But, over the course of the last two years, the coalition has not only moved at a snail's pace but managed to stumble in a way in which snails don't. It's a remarkable achievement that they have managed to act with such tardiness and ineptitude. The original bill didn't just ban foreign donations; it hit charities, not-for-profits, advocacy groups and churches. The coalition, it seemed to us, was trying to hijack bipartisan support for banning foreign political donations as an opportunity to shut down their critics. If they'd gotten their way, Australia's charities and not-for-profits would be reeling from yet another coalition attack; yet another front on the war on charities. Initially, when that draft bill was tabled in the Senate, the finance minister maintained that, 'Nothing in this bill prevents charities from expressing their views or advocating for or against political parties, candidates or election issues.' But the sector disagreed, unanimously, loudly and in great detail, with the minister's assessment.

Charities have learnt pretty quickly that, when it looks like an attack on the charitables sector, that's probably because it is. The initial bill had no consultation on exposure drafts. It contained no regulatory impact statement—a little strange from a government that touts its willingness to reduce red tape. It's little wonder that charities saw this as a strategy to marginalise their voices through the process, with the ultimate goal of silencing their vital role in advocacy. The Human Rights Law Centre warned of the, 'Serious risks that the legislation violates Australia’s constitutional protection of freedom of political communication.'

St Vincent De Paul said:

… the ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements. This will force many charities to divert resources away from frontline services and advocacy. For some charities, it may also have a "chilling" effect, deterring them from speaking out about injustices in order to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy would incur.

The Australian Conservation Foundation were worried that the law 'poses a significant threat to all charities engaging in issues based advocacy'. The legislation effectively conflates the advocacy activities of independent, non-partisan, civil society groups with the electioneering of political parties. They said:

It's an unprecedented restriction on advocacy and on contributions to election debates …

A spokesperson for Pew Charitable Trusts said the new rules would prevent Pew from using international donations to pay for groups of Indigenous Australians to visit Canberra and Perth to advocate to federal and state parliaments for Indigenous causes. He said:

The government clearly doesn't want to make a distinction between electioneering and advocacy … that conflation is a fundamental challenge to what is a basic function of our democracy …

RESULTS International, which receives 85 per cent of its funding from international sources, noted that the government's initial approach would have harmed their ability to advocate for improved funding for AIDS screening and tuberculosis immunisation in Australia and our region. Pew also noted the impact on organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, which, over a number of years, has been a strong advocate for Australia in our role in conserving the Antarctic. That advocacy is, in part, supported by international donors, and so the original version of this bill would have hampered that push.

As a summary of the ACF noted:

Under the proposed bills, ACF would find it much harder to amplify stakeholder voices and support communities in far west NSW in the development and implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Burnet Institute, which has lobbied the federal government to include new direct-acting antiviral drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C, said that because the work was considered advocacy, the original version of this bill could have jeopardised the Burnet Institute's efforts to have medicine subsidised for people in need.

I've noted Pew Charitable Trusts' concerns about the original bill impeding their ability to support Ngadju leaders to travel to meet with government officials and media representatives in Perth and Canberra to discuss their work on the Indigenous ranger program. Anglicare Australia network members provide emergency relief and disaster recovery that would have been put at risk by new rules on how charities can collect donations, meaning that they might have struggled to respond to events such as bushfires. WWF Australia receive funding from international philanthropy and uses that, in part, to help penguins in the Antarctic. They were concerned that their work of protecting penguins might have been caught by the initial bill.

The heart of the problem was that the definition of 'political expenditure' was too broad to support the demanding and punitive framework of reporting compliance and enforcement. Constitutional law expert Anne Twomey explained to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters the key definition at the heart of the government's scheme was:

… so extraordinarily badly drafted that it could, frankly, apply to anything.

This is one of our foremost constitutional experts describing the original bill as being 'extraordinarily badly drafted'.

Charities were concerned about the original bill's application to public advocacy work. The Benevolent Society said the definition of 'political purpose':

… is too vague to be meaningful and enforceable … In effect, it could cover comments or views on any issue at all as there is no way to determine what is likely to become an electoral issue in the future.

They also said:

… almost anything that a charity says or does publicly could be captured. Acts such as preparing a submission to a public inquiry, or participating in a public hearing, or even corresponding with a Member of Parliament could be captured by the clause …

It is extraordinary that this parliament would pass a bill that would shut down the ability of charities and not-for-profits to do what we often ask them to, which is to get engaged in the process of scrutinising bills before the House.

Academics argued the bill would effectively prevent meaningful engagement with government and with the parliament. The university sector body, the Group of Eight, said:

This definition is extraordinarily broad in scope, potentially capturing a range of common and legitimate activities routinely performed by universities and academics during the course of their required activities.

They also said:

… any issues significant enough to have become subject to a parliamentary inquiry or departmental consultation process have a strong potential to become election issues at a later date.

Arts organisations raised concerns:

It is not uncommon for works of art … to express views or to communicate and inspire public debate or insight on issues of social importance …

Determining where an artist’s artistic intent ends and political or social intent begins is not clear cut. Introducing a law that requires such a distinction is inappropriate.

Concerns were also raised by Indigenous education groups, regional aid and conservation groups around the sorts of groups which are often encouraged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to engage in cultural outreach. They were concerned that they might be caught by the draft bill. There was concern that, before handing around the collection platter to support an organisation such as an Anglicare or UnitingCare, the minister might have to tell those in the congregation: 'If you're not a citizen, don't put money in the collection plate.' That's how poorly drafted this original bill was.

So Labor stood up for free speech. We shared the sectors' concerns and fought for their interests. It wasn't the first time we had had to do this. It wasn't the first time the government had brought Australia's charities together against them. There have been two open letters to the Prime Minister complaining about attacks on charities. Indeed, under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, the current Prime Minister is the only one not to have gotten an open letter from charities complaining about the attacks on them by his government. The most recent of these open letters was signed by a plethora of community groups, including Volunteering Australia, Carers Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Community Council of Australia, Justice Connect, Philanthropy Australia and the Starlight Children's Foundation. As the Hands Off Our Charities team put it when expressing their concerns about the original version of this bill:

Most if not all charities seek to change society in some way to improve the circumstances and outcomes for the people, places or issues they represent.

Under the proposed Bill, the legitimate role of charities as advocates for their charitable purpose is fundamentally changed, with charities that seek policy and other reforms through a public process being recast as political entities engaged in the electoral process.

The problem with foreign money is it amplifies the volume of the voices who are speaking against the interests that charities seek to represent. Foreign political donations are very rarely employed in support of the little guy, in support of causes such as public health, deforestation, climate change, inequality, poverty and disadvantage. So removing foreign influence from our politics will clear the air. But, in their original iterations, these bills were far from doing that. As Hands Off Our Charities said, the proposed bills 'would weaken debate by silencing the voices' of interests that are 'typically represented by charities in the public arena, and by placing onerous restrictions on civil society groups representing the views of large numbers of Australians.' They said that, 'This will result in public debate being further dominated by those who already enjoy access and privilege.'

Whether by negligence or design, that was the coalition's vision for Australia, a place in which immigrants were told that they couldn't put money in the church collection plate, in which environmental charities were told that they couldn't work with overseas partners in dealing with the global challenge of climate change, in which consumer protection agencies told us they weren't sure they would be able to continue their campaigning on product safety, and in which international NGOs were saying, 'There's no way we'd set up our headquarters in Australia when you've got foreign donations laws which stop us working with international partners to get people around the world out of poverty'.

Labor values the work of charities and not-for-profits. For encouraging supermarkets to phase out battery-farmed eggs to demanding a royal commission into misconduct in the financial sector, our charities and not-for-profits have been at the forefront of progressive activism.

But under the coalition, they have tried to silence the views of environmental charities and they've tried to prevent legal charities from being involved in law reform debates. Social services charities have been asked to sign government contracts containing gag clauses, an issue that I know my colleagues, Senators Pratt and McAllister, have been speaking about very strongly. And I know that the member for Barton is deeply concerned about it, as was her predecessor as Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services, the member for Jagajaga.

The coalition crusaded for five full years to shut down the charities commission. From 2011 to 2016, their official stance was that Australia should have no charities commission. And when they were finally unable to get that bill through—it was introduced here and I spoke on the second reading—and pulled that bill, they appointed a charity critic as its head. There has been a survey done by Pro Bono Australia which found that two-thirds of Australian charities find it harder to be heard by the federal government now than they were five years ago. And when we look at how the coalition has spent the last five years, it's hardly surprising.

We've had six ministers over five years responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission: Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Michael McCormack, Michael Sukkar and now Zed Seselja.

Interjection by the Deputy Speaker:  I remind the Member for Fenner to use correct titles.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. After a period in which we had the initial head of the charities commission, Susan Pascoe, doing her best to keep the organisation's morale up in the face of constant coalition attacks, and enduring up to 25 per cent staff turnover—frankly, it's hard to keep your staff when the government is committed to abolishing your organisation—we saw the appointment of well-known charities critic Gary Johns to head the commission.

The coalition was so proud of this that they made that announcement at the very same time in which this House was passing its historic vote on same-sex marriage! That's not what you do when you're proud of an announcement. Appointing Gary Johns to head the charities commission is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank, or like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security or like putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of transport for politicians! Let's go through some of the things that Gary Johns has said in the past, because the minister, when appointing him, said he hadn't read his work.

Gary Johns has said that the Abbott government:

… should deny charity status to the enemies of progress, …

Who knows who the enemies of progress are?

He believes in scrapping the Charities Act 2013, which effectively throws charities law back to the 1600s. I love the 1600s! Many great things came out of the 1600s, not least of them Shakespeare. But I don't know that our charities want their laws to go back to the 1600s. Gary Johns has said, 'There is a great deal of impure altruism in the charities business.' He has attacked Recognise, calling it the 'officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian government'. He has attacked beyondblue for their work with LGBT+ people. He made the comment, 'a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right'. I'm not sure how Indigenous charities feel about the fact that a man who made that comment now heads the charities commission. I don't know how welfare charities would feel about Gary Johns' statement:

If a person's sole source of income is the taxpayer, the person, as a condition of benefit, must have contraception. No contraception, no benefit.

I'm not sure how multicultural charities feel about the fact that Gary Johns, the head of the charities commission, said:

Australia is sucking in too many of the wrong type of immigrant. This can be fixed and would be popular. There is no doubt many Australians have considerable misgivings about Muslim immigration and the ability of many to fit in.

That's Gary Johns, the head of the charities commission.

And I'm not sure how environmental charities working to boost renewable energy and get more of those solar panels on the roof that so many Australians enjoy would feel about the fact that the head of the charities commission has said, 'We know for a fact that renewable energy is the cause of the blackouts.'

Labor has engaged with charities across the country in working to boost charitable advocacy. As Welcome to Australia founder, Brad Chilcott, has said that the government's approach to charities is akin to saying, 'You can plant a tree but you can't protect the forest’. They want to put a velvet rope across the entrance to the public square. Labor is working with charities. We support the Justice Connect campaign to fix fundraising. We have held 16 Reconnected forums across Australia, with more than 1,500 charity heads discussing how to rebuild civic life in Australia—how to get around that 'disconnected' problem that Australia faces. We want to work with charities, not against them.

So, in working to redraft this bill, we endorsed the Hands Off Our Charities Red Line Principles. These principles guided the final amendments that were made to the bill. The commitment we made to support them underpinned our close and consultative work with Australian charities. We set out to fix the government's mess, and we have done just that. I want to pay particular tribute to Nick Terrell, in my office, and to Ben Rillo, in Senator Farrell's office, for their very impressive work on the details of this and engaging with the charity sector.

We have worked with charities but also with the goal of banning foreign donations. There were some on the Left of politics who said we just had to tear up the bill and start again. If we had listened to the Greens, we wouldn't be getting foreign money out of politics today. If the Greens had had their way, this bill would be dead. I don't think any reasonable person imagines that the coalition would have come to the table to get bipartisan support for a ban on foreign political donations. So Labor did what it always does: it found that sensible centrist path between the rip-it-all-up group on the Left and those who wanted to hurt charities on the Right. And, as a range of third parties have noted, we managed to get that balance right.

The CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O'Shanassy, has said:

When first introduced this bill was a draconian proposal that redefined non-partisan, independent, issues-based advocacy as political campaigning and would have subjected Australian charities to many of the restrictions in the Electoral Act that were designed and intended for political parties.

The proposal that has entered the Senate is:

… a significant improvement … addressing many of the concerns raised by charities and non-profits.

The change to the definition of 'electoral matter' in particular is a substantial improvement … and will free charities from a significant red tape burden. ACF recognises the federal Labor Party, the opposition leader, and, in particular, shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh and shadow Special Minister of State Don Farrell for their ongoing consultation with the charities sector.

Professor Tony Cunningham, president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, says:

We're pleased to see that our concerns were heard, and this Bill now strikes a much better balance between protecting the integrity of our electoral processes while allowing for charities to speak out on important matters.

They have welcomed their ability to speak out on public policy issues, while working with international partners and receiving vital international research grants. They acknowledge the work of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, as well as Senator Farrell, Senator Cormann, Senator Reynolds and myself.

Hugh de Kretser, the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, says:

The Human Rights Law Centre welcomes the electoral funding bill that is to come before the Senate today, which is vastly different from the initial proposal that would have stifled vital public advocacy by charities.

In December 2017, the Turnbull Government introduced a badly flawed bill, purportedly to address foreign influence in elections that would have stifled public advocacy by charities and other community groups. A strong campaign from the united charity sector highlighted the extensive flaws in the proposal.

Charities and community groups do vital work building a better, healthier society. Our democracy is stronger when they are free to speak up.

David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia and a tireless campaigner for the rights of charities and not-for-profits, said:

The Community Council for Australia (CCA) was very concerned about how the original Electoral Reform Bill (2017) would impact thousands of charities who would have faced quite complicated new administrative requirements and restrictions if they chose to make any public statements advocating for their cause or their community.

Since CCA first raised our concerns about the Bill, the Shadow Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh has been an active advocate for a more sensible approach that would protect issues-based advocacy by charities.

We are pleased that a more reasoned Bill is now being introduced into the Parliament …

The revised Bill is a good demonstration of how public policy can be improved when the concerns of charities are taken seriously. Our democracy is stronger when charities are able to actively represent their causes and ensure the least powerful in our communities are represented.

Misha Coleman, the executive director of Global Health Alliance Melbourne, says:

Global Health Alliance Melbourne welcomes the bipartisan and crossbench support for this version of the Bill, which is a drastically improved version from the original draft …

… investments from foreign donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to vital health and medical research—in areas from paediatrics to malaria—will now not be jeopardised.

Barry Traill, the Australian director of Pew Charitable Trusts, said:

It is vital for democracy and society that charities can speak up and advocate on issues of public importance. We welcome the changes made to this Bill that will allow this to continue. We congratulate the MPs from all parties that listened to concerns from charities and worked hard to make this legislation work for Australia and for Australians.

We need to get foreign money out of politics and we have done just that. The influence of foreign donations has been in the news in Australia. It was in the news last month in New Zealand with the Jami-Lee Ross scandal involving foreign political donations.

It is vital we get foreign money out of politics, and I return to where I began. The Liberals and Nationals have said they are supporting this bill. They must, therefore, instruct their party machines never to accept another dollar of foreign political donations, starting right now.


Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.

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