Question Time – Donations to political parties

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria—Leader of the Australian Greens) (14:17): My question is for the Special Minister of State, Minister Ryan. Minister Ryan, the previous Manager of Opposition Business has stood down in relation to accepting payments from, ultimately, a commercial entity that has a strong financial interest in the way this parliament sets laws and policies. Yet, the senator did not breach any laws or contravene any regulations set by this parliament. Does the minister believe that laws governing donations, parliamentary expenditure and electoral spending should remain as they are? Or does he concede that they are in need of a serious overhaul?

 

Senator RYAN (Victoria—Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Cabinet Secretary) (14:18): Senator Di Natale, as you know I was absent from the first sitting week. But I did witness the discussions over the last fortnight. I am glad that you draw a distinction between the events of the last fortnight that led to the then Manager of Opposition Business standing down and the issue of donations, because there is, of course, a distinct difference. There is a distinct difference between any member of this place receiving a personal contribution for a personal debt and the donations that go to political parties. That has been litigated and discussed at great length. I think the public attention has been drawn to that very important distinction.

On the issue of donations, Senator Di Natale, if there is an issue with our political donations regime, I am not one of the people that says it is rife with problems. I am a believer that people who want to make a contribution to our political process should be able to do so. I am believer that that is a form of their freedom of expression and that that is partaking in democracy. But, Senator Di Natale, to stand up and ask about donations when you yourself, in a radio interview last week, were corrected by your own party when you said there should only be people making donations from the electoral roll. Your own party then corrected you by saying that you do not want to ban corporate donations. You want to ban corporate donations as long as they are for-profits. It is okay for unions to make donations and contributions; it is okay for you to have the latest single contribution in Australian history—one in which you did not live by your own rules and you did not disclose until after the 2010 election, and it was described by the donor as a great return on investment. You, Senator Di Natale, do not have a great deal of credibility when you say, ‘The people that donate to me get one set of rules, but if you are a for-profit corporation you, somehow, should have less ability to participate in our political system.’

 

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria—Leader of the Australian Greens) (14:20): Let me ask specifically. Will the government commit to working with the Greens and, indeed, with the crossbenchers and the Labor Party to allow the Joint Senate Committee on Electoral Matters to assess and, if need be, recommend laws that strictly restrict donations and campaign expenditure from all sources? And will they do that with a reporting date before the end of this year?

 

Senator RYAN (Victoria—Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Cabinet Secretary) (14:21): Far be it from me to try to direct the work of a committee of this parliament. I will say that I hope that later this afternoon—I hope I am not foreshadowing business, Mr President—the Senate will concur with the establishment of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which, I understand, is on the Notice Paper.

 

The government and I will be considering the reference—a standard measure provided to that committee after every election that occasionally specifies particular issues. That is a matter currently under consideration. But I say this again: if there is to be any movement on the issue of donations and disclosure, it cannot be to try to stack the electoral field one way, like when you come out and say, ‘Corporations can’t make a donation, but unions and non-profits can. There is no interest whatsoever in stacking the process. Until the Greens actually have a balanced position, they struggle for credibility on this matter.

 

The PRESIDENT: Senator Di Natale, a final supplementary question.

 

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria—Leader of the Australian Greens) (14:22): The Prime Minister did last week say that he was willing to change political donations laws, and I am encouraged that it is currently under consideration at the moment within government. Is the government also looking into the establishment of a national independent anti-corruption watchdog, without which we would have very limited capacity to investigate any possible breaches of donations disclosure or campaign expenditure laws?

 

Senator RYAN (Victoria—Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Cabinet Secretary) (14:22): Senator Di Natale, there have been a number of comments raised about this issue over the last couple of weeks. You correctly point to the comments of the Prime Minister, who also correctly outlined that the recent High Court decisions do have an impact on the ability of this parliament to limit donations and political contributions of other forms. So it is only appropriate that, if that is to be considered, those judgements be considered and the first test has to be creating a playing field that does not stack it on one side of politics or the other.

 

On the matter of your proposal for an independent commission, I am unaware of a change in the government’s position, which was to not support such an institution, but that is outside my portfolio area and should probably be directed to the Attorney-General.

Author: senatorryan

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