Australia’s election system is strong, and our democracy and our democratic institutions are highly regarded around the world. But we cannot be complacent. Here in Australia, as is the case across the Western world, we find there is a drift from democracy. There are people losing faith in democracy—losing faith in electoral systems and those they elect. We saw what can happen when people lose faith in democratic institutions play out most dramatically in the United States on 6 January.

Through the evidence the committee heard through this inquiry, we heard the need for reform to ensure we can continue to hold Australians’ trust in our electoral system. This includes providing for more transparency around where election donations come from. It includes reducing the potentially corrupting influence of big money and the risk of an electoral arms race where election campaigns continue to cost more and more. And it includes assuring the community that they can trust what they hear from their politicians during election campaigns in an age of rising misinformation and disinformation.

Evidence put to the committee demonstrated that we are seeing increasingly large amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, including from individuals with deep pockets. At the 2022 election, Clive Palmer spent more than $100 million to try and have a disproportionately large influence over the outcome. Our elections must remain a contest of ideas rather than a contest of who can spend the most. They must remain a contest of ideas rather than a contest of those who can spend big on advertising spreading untruths.

So, in our interim report, the committee made a series of recommendations to tackle these issues. These include: lowering the donation disclosure threshold to $1,000 and introducing real-time disclosure; introducing donation and spending caps for elections; and introducing truth-in-political-advertising laws. These recommendations are for substantial reform. They’re based on the evidence the committee heard from constitutional and legal experts, from integrity groups and civil society organisations, and from the general public. While they are substantial, in the main they are not untested. Many of our states and territories have been ahead of us at a Commonwealth level to introduce reforms to provide for more transparency and to limit the influence of big money on elections. I do want to thank the Special Minister of State for giving the committee terms of reference that allowed us to do this substantial, much-needed piece of work to recommend reform that’s been put in the too-hard basket for too long.

Building on our interim report, in our final report the committee looked more closely at issues around improving representation and encouraging participation and enfranchisement. On improving representation, the committee has recommended increased Senate representation for the two territories. The ACT and the Northern Territory should be appropriately represented in parliament. It’s clear both are very different from what they were when the representation for the original states was put into our Constitution at Federation, and they are still different from when they were granted territory representation in 1973. Hence, the committee has recommended an increase to their number of senators from two to four.

The committee is also requesting a specific inquiry reference into increasing the size of the House of Representatives. The evidence presented to the committee showed us that, by international standards, Australians are underrepresented in their national parliament, and our country’s geography compounds the distance between many Australians and their elected representatives. However, given the many big issues the committee were grappling with during this inquiry, we didn’t feel like this topic attracted the breadth and depth of submissions and evidence we would have liked, and hence we have requested a referral for further work on this issue.

On encouraging participation and enfranchisement, the committee has a series of recommendations to ensure that all Australians can vote in ways appropriate to their needs, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disabilities, older Australians and Australians living overseas. We’ve also recommended that the AEC be resourced to continue to deliver the independent, secure and well-run elections that Australians can rightly be proud of.

Returning to some of our earlier themes, the committee has also recommended that the government clarify and modernise the definitions of key terms in the Electoral Act, including ‘electoral matter’, ‘electoral expenditure’ and ‘third party’; that, contingent on truth in political advertising laws being introduced, the government also remove the media blackout period in the lead-up to each election; and that the government amend the process for distributing postal vote applications in line with community expectations.

Proposing changes to electoral laws is something many people in this place feel strongly about. It is tempting for all of us to retreat to our bunkers about how reforms might affect us and, once again, put change in the too-hard basket. But all of us in this parliament need our community to have trust in us, in our elections and in our democratic systems to allow us to do the work that we are sent here to do. So I urge every parliamentarian to consider the evidence the committee has gathered through more than 1,500 submissions and 11 public hearings and the recommendations we have made as a result of that work.

I say thanks to all the committee members for their efforts and the committee secretariat for their hard work over the past 15 months on both this report and the interim report. With a record number of submissions on a wide range of topics, I am grateful for all the help they brought to the inquiry, particularly Joel Bateman, our committee secretary, who steered this inquiry through to its completion.

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