Election Legislation Amendment

House of Representatives
16 February 2022

I rise to enter the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 and related bills and also to strongly support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Isaacs, which I will come to a little later in my remarks. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters coming up to six years, I believe the work of that committee is critical to ensuring that we see free and fair elections in this country. As a staunch supporter of democracy and someone who has always argued for the right of every person to have their vote counted, no matter what their background, where they're from or what their belief is, I think the reforms that we are dealing with today have been developed in a constructive and bipartisan manner.

I thank the committee for its work but also the minister and shadow minister. From our side of the chamber, that's Senator Don Farrell. I thank his office and his team for ensuring that, at all times, the federal opposition has been working in a bipartisan and constructive way, which is critical to ensuring the integrity of the work of the Australian Electoral Commission. I thank the commissioner and his leadership team but also the frontline workers of the Australian Electoral Commission, who have diligently been going about their work to ensure that the next general election in Australia is held with the fairest and clearest intentions. The work that they do to ensure that our elections in this country are free and fair cannot be underestimated. I thank them for their impartiality and their independence but also for their hard work. I thank all the AEC staff, particularly those who have been doing the work in preparation for an election which will be different, like no other, perhaps a once-in-a-generation election under the spectre of COVID and dealing with the fallout of COVID, for their hard work and, in anticipation, for the work that I know they will do in a matter of months.

These measures make a number of changes to our electoral laws to ensure the effective functioning of our democracy. In summary, we are introducing an electoral expenditure ban for foreign campaigners, increasing penalties for publishing material that is misleading, simplifying authorisations for electoral material and ensuring COVID-19 affected communities are given the opportunity to vote. We have had some dry runs in my home state of Queensland with two elections being conducted—the state election of 2020 and the council elections in 2020. We've also had a number of by-elections. Most recently were the elections on the weekend in the state of New South Wales.

The first of these measures serves to close a loophole, ensuring that foreign entities cannot incur electoral expenditure for the purposes of federal elections and referenda. This follows the 2018 reform, which I was proud to see spearheaded by the opposition, that banned foreign governments, citizens and entities from making donations to candidates in federal elections. This is an important shield to ensure that our democratic system is not interfered with by foreign actors. However, those amendments did not account for circumstances where a foreign entity could incur electoral expenses and make political communications. In effect, in the short term, this left our democracy open to foreign actors campaigning on behalf of a candidate or an issue during an election period. This is an election loophole that clearly needs to be closed. That is exactly what this bill will do. Foreign entities will be prevented from incurring electoral expenditure of $1,000 or engaging in fundraising for this purpose. There will be penalties for noncompliance and avoidance, similar to those that apply to a ban on foreign donations.

Additionally, this bill bans foreign actors from authorising electoral material. What does this mean? This means that the Australian elections can only be influenced by communications from people or entities associated with our nation. We know that Australia has been subject to international attempts to undermine democracy—I think that's a fairly open statement—with foreign actors targeting all sides of politics to advance their personal agenda. I want to make it clear: everyone in this chamber and myself are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Australian democratic system is shielded from foreign interference. This is a commitment that transcends personal political motivations and highlights how seriously we all must take Australia's national interest and security.

There has obviously been some debate that this is the dying days of this term and that we're seeing a government using a whole range of, I guess, dry-run messaging. We saw it last week, and we've seen it this week in question time. I want to be very clear: not only does politicising Australia's national security pose very real risk, in my opinion, it just wreaks of desperation. While we're seeing the term 'national security' bandied around by a government pretty much accepted to be running out of steam, trying to convince the Australian public to enter in its second decade of office, I don't think the Australian people need that sort of debate, and I don't think it is warranted in any way, shape or form. The Prime Minister seems to be talking about national security and the interference of foreign actors, which seems to be about the Prime Minister's political interest. I want to be clear: my colleagues and I, led by the Leader of the Opposition, are committed to making sure that we see legislation in the national interest. That is why we're supporting this bill—to ensure the continued integrity of our democratic institution.

In addition to the foreign influences provision, the bill also increases the penalty for publishing material that is misleading and relating to the casting of a vote, taking from six months to three years. This will give the AFP increased power to investigate these offences as account takeover warrants and data disruption warrants can only be sought by the AFP for crimes with a penalty for at least three years. An increased penalty for this electoral offence will prevent this sort of undermining of the electoral system that we've seen perhaps most recently in the United States. Increasing the penalty for the existing offence of publishing misleading material in relation to the casting of votes will greatly assist the AFP in investigating any breaches of this provision, particularly in the upcoming election.

As I outlined, the bill amends the law relating to the authorisation of electoral matter. Electoral matter or materials intended to influence how someone votes in the election must be properly authorised. This bill introduces measures that will allow a party to use a shortened version of their registered name. This means that names of state branches will not need to be included, and extraneous words may be omitted. Additionally, if the name includes the words 'Australia' or 'of Australia' at the end of the name, those words will be able to be omitted from the authorisation line.

I'm happy to see Labor successfully moved an amendment in the Senate to allow a party to use their registered abbreviation. In our case, on this side of the chamber, ALP. The changes in the bill will simplify and shorten the authorisation line to assist where the authorisation line is spoken in video messages and electronic or television commercials. This will allow more broadcast time to be taken up with the message rather than the authorisation line. As someone who, over the years, regularly authorised television ads, I can attest that you need more time to get your message across when it comes to political advertising. Voters will easily be able to identify the authorising identity of the electoral matter, and that's the critical key here.

The bill extends existing provisions for secure telephone voting to allow those who have been impacted by COVID-19 to cast their vote over the phone. This is critical, as I said, in dealing with the COVID pandemic and ensuring that all Australians have their say. This measure will be strictly limited to those who are COVID-positive or who are identified as close contacts and forced to quarantine. I think the member for Barker illustrated the point of someone receiving a positive test who has missed the deadline for postal voting but is unable to get to a prepoll location or to get there on election day. Telephone votes will be available to voters only if the Electoral Commissioner reasonably determines that such a measure is necessary or conducive for the conduct of the election. This determination will be made by the commissioner via a legislative instrument, and, before making the determination, the commissioner will need to notify both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Voting via telephone will only be available after 6 pm on the Wednesday before the election. So that window, where Australians may be showing symptoms and are unable to get to a polling booth, will still, in my opinion, enable them to have every opportunity at their fingertips to have their say.

I want to spend my remaining remarks on the second reading amendment. Whilst we aren't declining to give the bill a second reading, we want to make a number of points about how our electoral system can be further strengthened. The government and members of the Liberal and National parties, particularly in Queensland, have some aversion to ever wanting to lower the current threshold of $14,500 to a fixed $1,000. I'm really pleased that the Queensland government, the Palaszczuk Labor government, in my home state, has led reforms to ensure that we have some of the most transparent donation laws in the nation. I don't know why any person in this chamber would argue that $14,500 is a low enough threshold. It is nonsense to say that we shouldn't lower the threshold to $1,000 so that political donations are simply transparent for all to see.

It's the same with requiring real-time disclosure of political donations. I'm sure the member for Mackellar, in his speech, will talk about the recent coverage of large donations being cut up into different avenues. Having real-time disclosure of donations will ensure that that doesn't happen again. I'm looking forward to members of the government finally joining the broader community, who support democratic and free and fair elections and open and transparent donation laws, to make sure we lower that threshold to $1,000 and have real-time donations.

I also think having more resources allocated to the Australian Electoral Commission will not only ensure greater transparency but also help more Australians to have their say. We've seen the shocking set of circumstances in the Northern Territory, where staffing numbers have been reduced. Obviously that has an impact on remote polling booths around the Northern Territory, ensuring that fewer Australians are having their say. You have to look at the pattern here. It was only last year that we saw the outrageous proposal put forward by the government that we have voter ID laws put in. No evidence on this was ever given to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. If there was evidence provided, if there were detailed examples of multiple voting, if there were clear-cut cases of this—but there has never been any evidence of this in the reviews of the 2016 and 2019 elections, the two elections through which I've served on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In my opinion, that was just the government—the Liberal and National parties—changing the rules, or trying to change the rules, to help themselves. When you're in desperate circumstances, with the polls and community sentiment against you, the old trick is, Trump-like, to change the rules and make it harder for people to vote. I've said this in the chamber before. That tactic, or that trick, by the government was nothing more and nothing less than voter suppression, making it as hard as possible to get people to vote.

Voting isn't an obligation; it's a privilege. There are members of the Australian community who treasure and cherish the opportunity to vote. Obviously, ensuring that every Australian has their say in a fair, transparent and open way is what I'm committed to as a federal member of parliament and what I know every member of the opposition is committed to. So, when those proposals are put forward by the government, we will fight for democracy. We will fight tooth and nail to ensure that we have free and fair elections where every vote is counted. That's what today's suite of bills will also ensure, and that's why I'm pleased to be supporting the package put before us, but I yet again call on the government to make sure that they do more to improve our democracy in this country.