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Ryan Smith MP, Member for WARRANDYTE

Roads and Infrastructure

Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018

24 May, 2018

I rise to speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018. This bill has been discussed for some time outside of this chamber, and I appreciate the discussions that I have had with the government over the last six months in order to have the bill that has come to the house, although I am hoping for some further changes between houses, but I guess that is subject to further discussions with the government. The bill basically covers off on three distinct areas. The first is electoral reform, how elections will be run — certainly at the next state election in November. There is a part about the significant donation reform that we will see if this bill is to pass the Parliament and of course a part that formalises staffing arrangements for non-government parties going forward.

The first issue I would like to canvass is electoral reform. As I said, we are facing an election. It is six months to the day in fact until Victorians will get to go to the polls and decide if they have been well served by this government and ask themselves the question, 'Am I better off today than I was four years ago?'. With congestion getting worse, with the cost of living going through the roof and with crime spiralling out of control, I think that most Victorians taking an objective view would say that things are not as good as they were four years ago. Understanding how much this government has deceived them over time, how much this government has failed to deliver in so many areas and how many promises this government has broken over the last four years, I have no doubt that the people of Victoria will make the right decision on 24 November this year. But the manner in which they make that decision will be changed somewhat through this bill. Certainly we will have a formalised pre-polling time. I know that members here were involved in the by-elections that we had down in Polwarth and South-West Coast, and in the three-week pre-polling period it was very difficult to attract volunteers to help out. I am keen to see that we are going to formalise the pre-polling period at 12 days, as the legislation puts forward.

We will also be simplifying some of the requirements for postal vote witnesses, and of significance is the decision by the government, as portrayed in the bill, to dispense with the signage that we see at polling booths throughout Victoria when we do come to election day. That signage may have some value, although I would wonder, and I think all members would wonder, how many votes it actually changes. With the argy-bargy that we get between party volunteers in getting the booth wrap up, the late nights or early mornings, depending on the case — whether we have done it before midnight or after — and in some cases security has been needed to ensure that the wrap we put on those booths is left alone, I think many members may find that that is a positive step forward, notwithstanding that there have also been a number of issues, particularly at schools where so many of the polling booths are held. They are often left with somewhat of a mess to clean up — just something small like cable ties around fences or in many cases the broader advertising material that is left when the political parties leave and when Victorians have cast their ballot. I am supportive of those particular sets of provisions which allow for just one small sign of 60 centimetres by 90 centimetres to be held for each candidate at all the official entrances. As I said, I am sure that is something that our volunteers may be well quite pleased about.

Part 2 of the bill also extends the distance from the polling booth entry where a volunteer may not engage a voter from 3 metres to 6. It is pleasing, however, that there will be an opportunity for the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) representative to change that if the weather is inclement or as was the case with my pre-polling booth back in 2014, where 6 metres probably would have put us onto Doncaster Road, being able to move a little bit further in at the VEC officer's discretion certainly is something that we are very pleased about.

Part 3, 4 and 5 of the bill talk about donation reform, but I do just want to make some final comments about election polling booth behaviour. It would be remiss of me not to talk about some of the behaviour at polling booths back in 2014 when we saw a number of instances of bullying by the Labor Party representatives, by union representatives, where candidates were bullied to the point where in one case in Narre Warren North police had to be called because the ongoing bullying, harassment and body-shaming by those people who were there to support the Labor Party got to such an extent that police had to be called and people moved on.

My friend the former member for Carrum and indeed the current Liberal candidate for Carrum was subjected to extreme bullying by people from the United Firefighters Union and those who support the Labor Party. My friend Lorraine Wreford from Mordialloc was also subjected to similar bullying, and having stood at the booths during pre-polling it was extraordinary to listen to some of the bullying and harassment that was going on. Those in this house who have benefited from that bullying should certainly hang their heads in shame and perhaps not be so mouthy in this chamber when they know that that bullying has helped put them into this place. May I also say that in Eltham Steven Briffa, the candidate there, had his badged car rammed by paramedics. Consider the ridiculousness of that situation: when he confronted the ambulance drivers a union official said that he would pay for the damage — just quite extraordinary that those extremes could happen.

We had the Victorian Trades Hall Council loudly and prominently — and proudly in fact — talking about the fake uniforms that they made for, in many cases, Labor MP electorate staff to wear, pretending that they were firefighters. This is not a secret; this is something that Trades Hall is actually very proud of. These people actually stood up and the Labor Party stood up approaching that election with an intent to deceive. You do not dress people up in fake firefighting uniforms when you are trying to tell the truth. You are actually there to deceive, and that is what the left does. They trade in deceit, and they did so in the lead-up to the 2014 election. They have done so throughout this entire term. They started as they meant to go on.

When we talk about the sky rail fiasco, when we talk about the 'no new taxes' promise coming before the sudden introduction of 12 new taxes, when we talk about budget overruns and when we talk about shovel-ready projects that three and a half years into a term we have not seen hide nor hair of, that shows us that when the Labor Party marketed their deceit in the 2014 election they intended to continue to go that way all the way. Those people, as I said, who benefited from that deceit and benefited from that bullying and harassment stand condemned for their tacit approval and acceptance of that behaviour. Certainly it is something that they learnt from their leader, the Premier, all the way down.

If we want to talk about deceit, let me continue to talk about deceit and intention to defraud the Victorian taxpayer and the now infamous red shirts rorting scandal. The member for Kew was very eloquent yesterday during his matter of public importance, where he raised several important matters in this chamber that were of material importance to the Victorian people when it came on the back of a Labor Speaker and a Labor Deputy Speaker who were removed from their positions because of their rorting, on the back of the Deputy President in the other house, who has been stood down from his position because he is under investigation by IBAC.

These issues just pile one on top of another and show the Victorian people that this government and the Labor Party broadly do not care about their custodianship of public funds but indeed would prefer to take all they can with both hands. In the words of Labor luminary former Senator Graham Richardson, I guess it is a true case of 'whatever it takes'. It does not matter if it means fraud; it does not matter if it means deceit. These people will stop at nothing to carry themselves over the election line, and here they are in government as a result. I am sure, as I said before, that on 24 November this year the Victorian people will certainly tell the Labor Party exactly what they think of them.

The red shirts rorting scandal is where the Ombudsman has shown that just under $388 000 was rorted by the Labor Party to ensure their candidates got across the line. When the Ombudsman said that she would investigate this matter, under direction from the Legislative Council, the Premier said that he would completely cooperate with the Ombudsman's investigation and then subsequently proceeded, through his Attorney-General, to try to frustrate the investigation at every single turn. Not once, through the Supreme Court, not twice, through the Court of Appeal, but three times, through the High Court following the first two attempts, did the Attorney-General try to frustrate the Ombudsman's investigation. He spent more taxpayers money — over $1 million, probably more. We do not even know how much it actually was, and we certainly do not know if the $387 842 that the Ombudsman tagged as being rorted by the Labor Party is all. We have no idea.

It is worth noting — I think we really need to name and shame — those people who were highlighted by the Ombudsman as being rorters: Jenny Mikakos still sits in the upper house as a minister; Marsha Thomson, the member for Footscray — and I am not using titles here, Acting Speaker, because I am quoting from the Ombudsman's document; and Nazih Elasmar, Gavin Jennings, Adem Somyurek, Anthony Carbines, Lily D'Ambrosio, Martin Pakula, Cesar Melhem, John Eren and Shaun Leane. Each of these people still sits in one of the two chambers of this Parliament, having rorted this money. As the Ombudsman said, the arrangement by the Labor Party to employ electorate officers as field organisers was 'an artifice to secure partial payment for the campaign out of parliamentary funds'. The prominent three words following the comma on that line are: 'and was wrong'. So do not let any of those opposite pretend that what they did was okay.

If I hear the words 'good faith' one more time, seriously, I — like others in Victoria — really do not know what I will do, because we have a group of people, not least the first law officer of this state, who the Victorian people expect to be able to navigate the complex legislation in the acts that sit on this table where I am standing but seemingly cannot understand basic guidelines that every other member of this chamber who is not a member of the Labor Party can understand. So you can understand all these acts, you can understand complex legislation, apparently, and you can put new laws into the Parliament for debate, but you cannot understand basic guidelines. It beggars belief. To hear the Treasurer on radio just a few weeks ago saying, 'I didn't partake — I was too busy — but if I had been asked, I would have done it because, effectively, I don't have a clue what the guidelines actually mean'. He takes —

 I am happy to talk about bunting, but I am more happy to talk about the rorting of the Labor Party. I am more than happy to talk about the fact that the member for Mordialloc has continued to interject over the last three and a half years, and I am sure that if the good people of Mordialloc had known what sort of representative he was going to be in here, maybe they would have thought twice. The member for Mordialloc was actually the recipient of funds funnelled to him by way of campaign staff to the tune of $5354. The member for Mordialloc sits over there, let the record show, with a grin on his face — proud, may I say, that he rorted those funds and he got a seat from it. Since the member for Mordialloc is so happy to call himself into prominence in this debate, let me also talk about the member for Sunbury and the member for Macedon, who were able to secure funding through the former member for Yuroke, Elizabeth Beattie, to the tune of $24 773.

May I also talk about a now minister, no less — the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change — who, the Ombudsman found, funnelled funds to the member for Yan Yean to the tune of $5364. The member for Lara, who is the Minister for Sport and Minister for Veterans, employed the whistleblower himself, Jake Finnegan, to work in the Bellarine electorate to the tune of $2358, and the then sitting member, now Minister for Police, seems to think that is okay. Where is the member for Carrum? When Labor members were out bullying my friend Donna Bauer at polling places and the Premier was making unsavoury comments about her and her illness, the Labor candidate for Carrum at the time was partaking in the $20 539 that was funnelled to her.

The member for Bentleigh is not here. The now member for Bentleigh had $44 732 funnelled to him. I could go on. Gee, the Deputy Premier must have been worried. Retiring upper house member Johan Scheffer funnelled over $21 000 to the member for Monbulk, now the Deputy Premier. We have seen the Deputy Premier throw away every value he ever held in this place. Getting that role as Deputy Premier was worth more to him than anything he valued in the past. The now Minister for Roads and Road Safety partook in funds that were funnelled to him. Well, I guess if you live in Fitzroy North and your seat is over in Narre Warren North, you have not got time to get over there and campaign yourself, so you probably do need to find some money to get others to campaign for you. The now member for Frankston also got money — $19 931. The now member for Eltham partook of funds from former upper house member Brian Tee. It goes on. The now Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing got some money too. He must have been in a right state about going up against our candidate Shannon Eeles, who, might I say, got 10 per cent more of the primary vote than the now minister did. He needed the money as well.

These people opposite have to, one day, be held to account for this. We will hold them to account every single day that we possibly can, and the Victorian people will do likewise. I go back to the comment I made earlier about the Treasurer saying on radio that he would have done it himself had he been asked, but he was too busy and did not know about it. Clearly these other people were not busy enough during that period. The Treasurer was too busy, but yes, definitely he would have done it, which is absolutely crazy when you think of it that way. The fact that this government tried to stop the Ombudsman from doing the investigation that she was going to do is absolutely absurd. Before coming to office the government said they wanted to rebuild the community's confidence in the accountability and openness of government. Well, as I said previously on the Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (Public Interest Disclosures, Oversight and Independence) Bill 2018 when it came into this house, I will give those opposite a tip: this is not the way to do it.

When you rort and steal money and when you pretend to be something that you are not by way of fake uniforms, that is not the way to give the community confidence about the way politicians conduct themselves. Those opposite tar every single politician in this country with the same brush when they drag us down to the bottom level. The Premier, when opposition leader, dragged his party and this Parliament into the gutter and then wallowed in that gutter during the campaign, and he continues to act in a way that is certainly far from being statesmanlike but is quite the opposite of that. His conduct filters down through the rest of his team here. While we support many proposals in this bill, I certainly feel that the next election on 24 November will be one fought on vision, ideas and ideals. If Victorians want to make this election about values, I know I will be proud of where I stand and where my colleagues on my side of the house stand. If you want to make it about values, we will beat you guys every single time — that is for sure.

Politicians use the word 'reform' in many ways. The word 'reform' is often used in a way that does not actually mean reform. Sometimes the word 'reform' is used to just talk about a new policy initiative or a new policy direction. I will give the government this: this particular bill is true reform. It will change significantly the way that parties conduct themselves with regard to donations. It will mean some significant changes in the way the parties internally deal with those changes and indeed during elections as well. The donations issue is a complex and vexed one, because we do have many people in this state and indeed across the entire country who do have concerns about corporations, businesses or even individuals that donate money to any party in this place — all parties have received and will receive such donations for some time until this bill goes through. The public are certainly within their rights to question whether that buys a policy direction or determines the way whichever party concerned is going to go. On the other hand we have heard some commentary about the public also not liking public funds to be used for campaigns, and that is what makes it such a difficult question and makes it so difficult to have an effective framework where everyone is pleased. The fact of the matter is that Victorians will have different views about the right way for campaigns to be funded and indeed the right way for parties to be funded in their administration.

I do not mean to be glib with this statement, but at the end of the day democracy costs money. It costs money to run a party organisation and it costs money to present your message to the Victorian people, and that money has to come from somewhere. It can come from membership fees, but postage and advertising are getting more expensive. There is a range of ways in which we talk to the people of Victoria with whatever message we have, be it from the Labor side, the Liberal side or The Nationals side. Whichever side you are on it is important to let people know what your values are, what your policy directions are and where your funding is going to go, and unfortunately, as I said, that does cost money. Whether it is through public money or private donations, those activities need to be funded in some way. The government has proposed to make significant reform with this bill — it will make big changes. Certainly we are happy to not oppose this bill in any way at all, but there are obviously some significant reporting responsibilities that this bill puts on us. It is fair to say that with increased use of public money comes increased responsibility to report the use of that money and to demonstrate that that public money is being used in the way that the bill proposes it be used. While the way reporting will be done is perhaps convoluted, I am not sure I could reasonably or intelligently suggest other ways whereby the reporting could be done, so I very much accept what the government has put up.

As I said, there may be further work involved in this bill. I hope the government is open-minded enough to take on some very sensible suggestions. I say again that this does involve some significant changes internally for every party that is represented in this place, but the government has through this bill promised more transparency and a better and more robust framework for political donations. Does it hit the mark? As I said, we are prepared to not oppose this particular bill at this stage, and time will tell if it actually delivers what it purports to.

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