I thank the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for this comprehensive interim report on the conduct of the 2022 federal election and other matters. As the member for Gippsland has noted, there is much to be admired about the Australian electoral system, and I agree with the member regarding the level of trust and general perceived fairness of the Australian system compared to other countries, specifically the US, where, as a journalist, I’ve covered elections and politics extensively and where the 2020 poll was disputed.
Compulsory voting ensures greater engagement by voters, although we need to do more to encourage people to, once they turn 18, get on the electoral roll, and we need to find ways of making sure First Nations voters, particularly in remote Australia, are able to exercise their democratic rights. In the year of the Voice referendum, this is particularly important. As the Northern Land Council submitted to the inquiry, it is imperative that all eligible Aboriginal people have the opportunity to have their say. It is disturbing that, despite continuing efforts by the Australian Electoral Commission, it’s estimated that less than 80 per cent of eligible First Nations citizens were on the roll prior to last year’s election compared with the overall total of above 96 per cent.
I’m pleased that the committee has considered this issue and will have further hearings and seek further advice as it moves towards its final report. The interim report notes the importance of adequate funding for the AEC to make sure electoral enfranchisement and participation are maximised for First Nations citizens. I trust that the government will act to ensure that the AEC has the money and resources needed to fill the gaps the committee has identified. More broadly, the committee pointed to absence of transparency in our electoral laws as a significant deficiency.
Voters should know who is behind the candidates vying for their vote. At the moment they do not. Too little is required to be disclosed, too late. So, I support the recommendation of the majority report for real-time disclosure on all donations above $1,000. As the member for Curtin, who is on the committee, noted, this is a no-brainer, is simple to implement and is a measure to improve public confidence in the integrity of our democracy. The majority report also recommends the introduction of donation and expenditure caps. On the surface, this sounds attractive, but, again, as the member for Curtin says in her additional comments in this report, the devil is in the detail, especially if caps become a further barrier for entry by non-party candidates, making the playing field even less even. It’s worth noting that in Victoria, where there are caps, the Melbourne Age reports Labor sources as saying that, as the ALP contemplates running a candidate in the forthcoming state by-election in Warrandyte, it would still cost half a million dollars to run a credible campaign. In Victoria, candidates are nominally limited to a donations cap of $4,320, but, because of other administrative and legal arrangements to major parties, have an additional $100 million to deploy to support their election campaigns. In effect, as the Age put it in September last year, it’s: a $100 million, taxpayer-funded wall that protects those already represented in parliament against those seeking to get in.
At the federal level, we know that the major parties enjoy significant financial advantages even though at the last election more than a third of voters did not vote for either of them. As the recipient of donations from Climate 200, funded by 11,000 donors, I acknowledge that community-raised funding helped me and others get elected. I’m grateful for this and so, I believe, are Australians who want a more diverse parliament. Having voluntarily declared my own election donations, I would argue we need more transparency about the sources of major parties’ income. Loopholes in the current law mean that $90 million in donations to the ALP and the coalition went undisclosed in 2021-2022.
Deputy Speaker, I would gently rebut the member for Gippsland’s comments in regard to the teals, which is a media construct. You will note that only yesterday I voted the opposite way to the rest of the so-called teals on a legislative vote in the chamber, which I think puts paid to any suggestion that the so-called teals are a party. I would say much has been made of Climate 200, which is fine. However, the major parties are able to hide much of their funding, receiving tens of thousands of dollars from corporate interests through cash-for-access dinners and business forum memberships. What we also know is that the major parties receive substantial money from the gambling industry.
Companies like Tabcorp and Crown have donated $23.9 million to the major parties over the last two decades through associated entities. This creates serious questions about why the major parties have resisted meaningful restrictions on gambling and gambling advertising for so long. Again, having covered Donald Trump’s election in the United States, I’m always ready to discuss ways in which we can reduce the amount of money committed to political campaigns and the implications of it, but transparency and levelling the political playing field must be the first step. As the misinformation and disinformation surrounding the debate about the Voice referendum is again demonstrating, we must legislate for truth in political advertising, as we should for truth in media more generally.
The committee recommends the Commonwealth adopt the model being used with some success in South Australia. As the South Australian Electoral Commission advised the inquiry: the effectiveness of its handling of complaints during election campaign periods depended on ready access to experienced legal counsel and adequate resources. These are factors the government must keep in mind if it keeps its commitment to act on truth in political advertising, and I acknowledge and support the work of the member for Warringah in this regard. More broadly, given that there appears to be more consensus on improving transparency than other matters raised in the report, I would argue that is where the initial focus should be. We need to take care at a time when support for and trust in democracy is fragile and close to a third of voters no longer support a major party that we do not take steps that inadvertently or otherwise further tilt the playing field away from candidates who have demonstrated support within the communities that they aspire to represent.