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Pomposity and political donations

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 15 Jun 2017

I ask that the Senate take note of the question that I put to Senator Brandis a short time ago and the complete vacuous absence of an answer. A little bit earlier in question time, I asked about the ASIO Director-General's generals warnings to major political parties about receiving offshore donations, which could be perceived in the minds of any reasonable person as raising the potential for cash for foreign policy commitments. Personally I think every senator in here is used to being addressed by Senator Brandis as though they were lesser beings, beneath the contempt of his formidable intellect. It is like the Dunning-Kruger effect took human form and shared his presence with us today, and dropped his little bundle of condescension on us. We are well used to it but today, I think, was something of a special case.

Donations to political parties is a deadly serious issue. This is a question of whether fairly senior and exceptionally well resourced people, in this instance with links to the Chinese Communist Party, are dropping enormous amounts of money on Liberal, National and Labor Party serving MPs. I think you could quite reasonably ask about what they would expect in return. The revelations I am going to focus on a little bit in the purpose of asking the question today were outlined in a fairly recent Fairfax Four Corners report, which sparked the government into a certain amount of action on donations reform.

We saw a vote a little bit earlier today, and some of these matters are going to be returned to the closed shop known as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. It is fascinating that it is the major parties who are receiving these donations, who have flicked this question to a joint committee with no crossbench representation. Mr Andrew Wilkie served, I would argue, with distinction on that committee for a couple of years before the government incoming Abbott government wiped out crossbench representation. The major parties in this closed shop are going to effectively be adjudicating themselves.

Billionaire Chinese property developers Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing and their associates have made nearly $6.7 million in political donations to the government and to the opposition. What do you get in exchange for transactions of that magnitude? I know Senator Dastyari is in the spotlight again this week for his now infamous comments regarding the South China Sea dispute. Shortly after, Mr Huang reportedly threatened to withdraw a proposed donation of $400,000 to the Australian Labor Party if then defence spokesperson, Senator Conroy, continued to criticise China's militarisation of the South China Sea.

I happen to think Senator Dastyari got it right and I was surprised at the time that the Labor Party was taking such a hard-line and inflammatory approach to questions of the South China Sea and I never quite understood exactly where Senator Conroy was coming from. But the fact that this about-face on a really significant and important area of foreign policy was being made on the back of a $400,000 donation, I think, calls into question really whether this kind of practice should be banned, should be allowed at all. Because, irrespective of what you think of those making those comments or the various policy positions being put forward, the very fact that they are coming straight off the back of these inordinately large donations is cause for enormous concern.

Former Liberal trade minister Andrew Robb won a $880,000-a-year contract the day before the 2016 election while he was still the member for Goldstein. A part-time consulting fee was offered by another Chinese government linked billionaire, Ye Cheng, who purchased the 99-year lease on the port of Darwin—something that United States security agencies called the Australian government into question on.

Equally alarming, obviously, was Mr Huang's donation of $100,000 to Mr Robb's Bayside Forum, which is his campaign donations vehicle, on the day of the signing of the free trade agreement in 2014.

The focus this week, obviously, is on donations from offshore, but the Greens believe that while major parties continue to accept donations which buy influence they inspire distrust in the people that elect them. Whether they are coming from foreign governments, like China, or the United States' foundations that write cheques for Senator Bernardi, in my view domestic donations are also poisoning not just the political process but certainly the perception of whether people think that their politicians and the policies that come out of this building are being bought and paid for. We need to do better.

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