Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
PETA CREDLIN: I am joined now by Mathias Cormann, he is the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, also the Minister for Finance, but has carriage of a lot of the legislation that has come before the Parliament announced today. So Mathias Cormann, thank you for joining me. I know that you are going to tell me that you are not the Attorney-General, so you will not deal necessarily with two parts of the legislation regarding foreign interference and espionage, but you are a member of the NSC, the National Security Committee so you will have at least a broad brush to take us through those announcements today. So there was those two components and then there is foreign donations reform, that was announced today. That is squarely in your portfolio.
We have got Senator Cormann back, thank you Senator Cormann. In relation to foreign political donations, you have moved today to ban them in relation to political parties, but also to extend that law in relation to activist third party groups such as GetUp. Take us through those changes.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Essentially what we want to ensure is that only Australians, that is Australian citizens, Australian voters, Australian businesses and Australian organisations can seek to influence Australian elections by making donations to political parties, candidates, Senate groups or the new category of campaigning groups. There is a range of political actors in our system. Political parties are the established ones and they have to comply with appropriate transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements and various other safeguards when it comes to donations. But organisations like GetUp, and GetUp in the lead up to the 2016 Election spent more than $10 million on political expenditure, they distributed about one million how to vote cards seeking to influence the outcome of elections at about 500 odd polling booths. So what we are saying is that an organisation like GetUp, if they want to be a political actor, first they have to comply with the same transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements as political parties. But what we have also announced today is a ban on foreign political donations to political parties, to individual candidates but also to these campaign groups if they are involved in material political campaigning activity.
PETA CREDLIN: So the issue in relation to third party activists like GetUp! has long been discussed at JSCEM, which is the electoral matters, it is a committee that is formed in the Parliament as you know to look into the conduct of the previous election. It has often looked at the issue of GetUp!. No one has yet done anything about it, so I have to say I commend you and I comment the Government for putting this issue on the table. What has been the early reaction from the Labor Party? Do you think this will get support in the Senate from the Labor Party or will you have to cobble together some sort of deal with the minor parties?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Labor Party and the Greens have previously stated that they were in favour of a ban of foreign political donations. Labor put forward a proposal which we believe had too many loopholes. Labor’s proposal to ban foreign political donations was limited to donations from foreign bank accounts. We have taken it quite a bit further than that. So essentially as well as banning donations from foreign bank accounts, what we have said is, well only if you are an Australian citizen who is on the Australian electoral roll or an Australian business or organisation, can you make a donations above $250 to political parties, candidates or campaign organisations. That is part of the package that we have released today. Now I am hopeful that Labor will see the merit of what we have announced, but I do not ever take anything for granted when it comes to the Senate. I believe that Labor and the Greens should be supporting this as an important transparency, an important integrity measure, to ensure the Australian people can have confidence that Australian elections are not unduly influenced by foreign interests.
PETA CREDLIN: I understand and I think that is a very good point, if Labor says it does not want foreign donations in the system, it has got to be consistent across the board. I also wanted to look at another issue too. You created a register, basically, for, let us call them foreign lobbyists, parties, individuals, organisations that are lobbying the Australian Government or politicians in relation to the activities of a foreign company or a foreign government and seeking to influence the system. Now, there already is a lobbyist register for anyone lobbying politicians, but this will be a new register in relation to foreign lobbying. Why is this important, Mathias?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is part of the Attorney-General’s part of the package, but let me say, traditionally, what we have sought to prevent and pursue with appropriate penalties and offences and the like is the traditional activity of espionage. Espionage is activity related to obtaining secret or confidential information related to our national security. But when it comes to foreign interference, it goes much broader than that. You have increasing levels, as the Prime Minister said, of covert foreign intelligence activity targeting the political system, targeting commercial activity, targeting expat communities in Australia from their original country. We want to ensure that any activity where there is representation to the Australian Government on behalf of a foreign government, that it is entirely transparent, that it is overt, not covert, and that people can form appropriate judgements in the context of clear and transparent information about who is representing whom and in relation to what issue.
PETA CREDLIN: So let me just be clear for viewers, you are not saying that it will not be allowed, but is must be transparently disclosed and available on a public register, is that correct?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is right. Representations to the Australian Government by appropriate representatives of foreign governments are not wrong per se, but it has to be overt, not covert. Really what we are doing through this package, which mostly is the Attorney-General’s responsibility, is to introduce offences in areas where there were previously no adequate offences, dealing with foreign interference, but also to establish this transparency register to ensure that where people are representing foreign Governments, that that is appropriately disclosed and appropriately transparent.
PETA CREDLIN: So this is a modernisation of these laws, because many of these laws are, second world war type of definitions. Just on that point, you will recall, Senator Cormann, that when Tony Abbott came into power, when the Coalition was elected in 2013, it made a rule that members of the Federal Executive of the Liberal Party could not be on the lobbyist register. You are a member of the Executive, do you think it is likely that the Executive which banned lobbyists sitting on the Federal Executive, will now also go and ban Foreign Lobbyists sitting on the Federal Executive? Will this change now extend do you think?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well I would have thought that a lobbyist, is a lobbyist, is a lobbyist. We have put forward legislation which will apply to interactions with Government. To what extend this is now going to be a matter for either the Liberal Party or other political parties to consider …interrupted.
PETA CREDLIN: It will be a decision for the Prime Minister, because when the Prime Minister last time banned lobbyists, I guess it would be up to the Prime Minister this time to ban foreign lobbyists, I presume.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It was a decision by the Federal Executive and I comply with the rules of the Liberal Party which is not to discuss internal Liberal Party matters in my capacity as a Minister.
PETA CREDLIN: So, I will have to ask the Prime Minister that one won’t I? Thank you for your time today Mathias, let us just see how that all goes. Oh before you go, I want to ask you about David Feeney. We have seen that breaking news. This has to make a mockery of Bill Shorten’s comments, repeated over the last few month, ad nauseam, that Labor Party processes where in compliance with the rules of Section 44, doesn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Bill Shorten tonight has been exposed as a dishonest, sanctimonious, hypocrite. He has been lecturing all of us for months now about how the processes of the Labor Party are so much better than anybody else’s processes. Well we now have David Feeney, who a few years ago, he forgot that he owned a house, now he forgot citizenships. He clearly is someone who is very bad with his paperwork and whatever the vetting processes of the Labor Party, clearly, nobody picked up the fact that for years now David Feeney did not do his paperwork properly. You cannot tell me that Bill Shorten only found out tonight that that was the case. You have to assume that Bill Shorten has known for some time that David Feeney had this problem and really it just completely exposes his dishonesty and his hypocrisy when it comes to this issue.
PETA CREDLIN: Well thank you Senator Cormann, I know that the Senate is still sitting, so I will let you go. Thank you for your time tonight.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Thank you.