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Speech on Electoral and Other Legislation (Accountability, Integrity and Other Matters) Amendment Bill 2019

On Wednesday 17 June, I spoke on the Electoral and Other Legislation (Accountability, Integrity and Other Matters) Amendment Bill 2019.

You can read the speech below or in the official Queensland Parliament Record of Proceedings (Hansard), or watch it HERE.

Mr BERKMAN (Maiwar—Grn) (6.32 pm): I rise to speak on the long-awaited Electoral and Other Legislation (Accountability, Integrity and Other Matters) Amendment Bill 2019. This bill largely reflects long-held Greens policy and, to that extent, I am in full support. The Greens have called for donations reform, including donation and spending caps, since the very inception of the party. It was only months prior to the introduction of this bill that I wrote to the Premier and the Attorney-General urging them to introduce this reform and indicating my intention to do just that if they failed to act. The bill sets out some vital and long-overdue reforms. Limits on political donations and election spending will go some way towards limiting the huge influence that donors and lobbyists have had on our democracy. Right now, corporate influence is getting in the way of progress on some of the biggest issues affecting Queenslanders’ lives, from fair wages and affordable housing to tackling climate change.

It is no secret that the LNP and Labor take millions of dollars in donations from corporations, host secretive fundraising functions they call business forums and organise cushy lobbyist jobs for ex-politicians with no transparency or accountability. Big corporations donate for a reason. In return for their money, the big banks, gambling corporations and mining giants have received billions of dollars worth of favourable policy decisions from LNP and Labor governments alike. While the major parties continue to accept this money, they will never be completely focused on what is good for our communities. It is lawful corruption and it does need to end. There are some good steps towards that in this bill, but the Greens also want to see the end of all corporate donations and no cash-for-access meetings with government ministers and to close the revolving door between major party politics and the lobbying industry. I broadly support this reform, but I have to say it is really poor form on the part of the government to introduce such extensive amendments at this late stage—229 amendments over 100 pages makes a farce of the committee system. I would urge the government to stop this practice so that we as legislators and interested stakeholders have enough time to properly understand, consider and scrutinise legislation, other than in the most urgent circumstances.

While I generally support the bill, I will be moving an amendment that I believe will better level the playing field and further enhance integrity in the political process. My amendment would reduce the spending cap for third parties from $1 million to $200,000 to ensure that this bill does not increase the relative power and electoral influence of corporations, industry associations and high net worth individuals who have so much income or assets that their electoral expenditure is not constrained. These are the people whose interests are already over-represented in our political system. They are already advantaged with much less constrained funds. By comparison, other organisations or individuals who are reliant on donations received under the new donation caps are at a significant disadvantage. It is incredibly unlikely that they will be able to raise funds of this magnitude for campaigning purposes. As the Human Rights Law Centre pointed out in its submission, election spending by third parties in Queensland is not currently tracked so we do not know for certain who the biggest spenders are. At the federal level, it is clear that industry associations like the Minerals Council of Australia and the Business Council of Australia are among the biggest spenders. Given the activity of these groups already in Queensland politics, it is no stretch to imagine them playing a significant role in future Queensland elections, especially if they are no longer able to donate large sums directly to political parties. While community groups and charities rely on donations, industry associations and corporations receive substantial membership fees, subscriptions and levies. Corporations have commercial revenue streams. Even unions receive membership fees from workers that add up quickly. In this sense, this bill will disproportionately restrict the ability of charities to do election related advocacy, far less than it will impact corporations and industry associations. Reducing the spending cap to $200,000 ensures that the disproportionate influence that big companies already have is kept in check in relation to spending. It does so without undermining the ability of any third party to effectively participate in election campaigning. The community and non-government sector, where I worked before being elected to this place, have been clear about the risks posed in this bill in its original form. Advocacy is a critical part of their job. In many cases, it is impossible for them to focus on discrete issues on a case-by-case basis without engaging in the broader structural context in which these issues arise. The devastating attacks on the community sector’s advocacy and independence during the LNP government led by Campbell Newman are not far behind us. Charities and NGOs have been clear: the bill in its original form threatened to stifle this advocacy. There are many examples of where it is unclear whether common expenditure of these groups meets the definition of electoral expenditure, like distributing scorecards of the parties’ policy positions, paying for advertising on election issues or even distributing newsletters to members about local political issues. The Gladstone Conservation Council submitted how this bill would have prevented them from organising a small, nonpartisan election candidates’ forum. Where the law is uncertain, given the limited budgets these groups have to work with, they simply could not afford to risk a fine for breaching the new law. The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre outlined the vital role that community organisations play in elevating the voices of community members who are not otherwise able to have their views heard by decision-makers. Some of the ways these organisations currently do this did not have a clear status under the law as originally posed. The Human Rights Law Centre was blunt in its submission—the bill would have shut down election advocacy by community groups and charities. They recommended that the definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ be limited for small community groups and charities. The government has introduced late amendments to address this, which I understand will be welcomed by the sector as being better than the originally drafted provisions. I would have preferred to adopt a more limited definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ for third parties that are charities registered under the ACNC Act or groups with an annual taxable income of less than $50,000. With these changes, a relevant third party would only incur electoral expenditure for the broadcast, publication or distribution of advertising or other election material that refers to both the name of a political party or candidate and how to vote at an election. As the Human Rights Law Centre pointed out, charities are, according to the Charities Act 2013, the federal act, required to work in the public interest and are prevented from having a purpose of promoting or opposing candidates and political parties—that is, charities are both legally required to ensure that all their activities serve their charitable purpose and legally prevented from engaging in partisan work or acting as a conduit for political donations. I welcome the government’s ongoing engagement with the CCC. I appreciate where they have landed in terms of the integrity reforms. In closing, I would say this: For too long, the big end of town has had the run of this state. The fossil fuel lobby, the gambling lobby, the big banks and others get huge returns on these shady investments. The fossil fuel lobby is calculated to gain $2,000 in subsidies for every $1 that they donate. We have seen the effects of this lobbying firsthand in Queensland, with Labor waving through new coal and gas projects and countless other government favours for major donors.

Confidence in politics is at an all-time low, and that is not surprising. News of politicians doing fundraising activities on the public dollar barely ripples because people’s faith in politicians is completely trashed. Scandal after scandal has shown that politicians from the big parties are representing the big end of town, not the community. The reforms in this bill, as I have said already, are long overdue, and I support this reform. With my amendment, and with a better definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ for third parties, this bill could truly enhance integrity in Queensland’s political system, but it is an enormous step forward from where we are at the moment. I commend the bill to the House.

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