I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to these reports, both because I am a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and because I do believe that both of these reports go to matters that are important to our democracy. They go to how people perceive our electoral process, how they regard their elected representatives and how much trust they place in our system of democracy. As elected representatives, these are issues that we should all be concerned about, because, without trust in our actions, we struggle to be able to effect change. We’re actually in a position at the moment where, as a result of the recent pandemic and people looking to us for support through a time of crisis, trust in politics is at a much higher level than it has been in a long time. That’s something we should build on, not something we should squander. It’s why these reports are particularly important.
Firstly, the report on the International Grand Committee meeting looked at the business model of social media and search platforms such as Facebook and Google, the data-collection process, the disinformation and the electoral interference. We know that the way people get information has changed drastically with the rise of social media. Indeed, with recent trends, many people have no choice but to rely on social media for their information. With the rate of closure of local, regional and other news organisations during this pandemic, and journalists’ jobs being slashed, we’re actually forced to go to social media because there’s very little traditional media remaining. But social media isn’t regulated in the same way as traditional media—there isn’t an editor. Therefore, it is very difficult for people to assess where their information is coming from, and it is very easy for other people to manipulate that information with malicious intent.
The report from the International Grand Committee meeting highlights a number of these issues. The experts who reported that meeting included reports of how the business model of social media and search platforms rely on monetising personal data, while encouraging users to engage addictively with the platforms, creating a vicious but highly lucrative circle in which click-bait material of hate, outrage, conspiracy and tribalism proves the most engaging. They reported how there’s a capacity for both state and non-state actors to run disinformation operations, and that there was evidence of this occurring in international election contexts, including the French presidential election in 2017. They reported how this is a global issue, and that there is a need for governments to work together on possible solutions.
I want to be very clear that, here in Australia, we are not exempt from this problem. We only have to look at the previous election and the spread of information around Labor apparently introducing a death tax—completely false material, completely false reports, but that information spread. Reports and investigations since the federal election have shown how that information spread across Facebook, and it spread across Facebook without being tracked. My experience as a candidate in that election was that I was completely unaware of these reports, because they were untrue, until I was standing in a pre-poll line a couple of weeks before the election and someone came up to me and said, ‘But what about death taxes?’ I said, ‘What death taxes?’ They said to me, ‘You know; the death taxes Labor is going to put in,’ and I said, ‘That is completely untrue.’
It is really scary that this information can spread without being seen, without it being clear who is sharing it and without us knowing that it is out there. It is really open to manipulation, not just by political parties but also by foreign state actors and by people with malicious intent to undermine our democracy. It’s a problem that we have to consider very seriously.
Concerningly, we know that Facebook itself and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have shown little interest in addressing the spread of misinformation on that platform. We’ve seen this most recently in the US in the past few weeks with the protests and civil unrest there. But, again, as I’ve said, we’ve seen it in the Australian electoral experience. In fact, Facebook haven’t even done Australia the courtesy of setting up an election library, which they’ve set up for many other countries and which would allow us to track election ads at least during an election period. But they don’t think that we’re worthy of having that system of tracking this information. I am concerned that it’s an issue that Facebook is not taking seriously.
It is an issue that governments, including the Australian government, have to get serious about. They need to take this report seriously. They need to look to work from like-minded parliaments overseas and think about which of those measures we may also be able to adopt here. Without that, we run the risk of continuing to conduct conversations in extreme bubbles—conversations that are open to manipulation and to misinformation.
The other report that’s before us goes to electoral donation reform—and what a missed opportunity we have in this government’s response to this issue. Electoral donation reform is something that Labor has been pushing for for a long time now. The submissions to this inquiry made it clear that the influence of big money on our politics is something that many people and organisations are very unimpressed with. Unions would certainly be part of these regulations. Again, this is an issue of trust. If people believe our politics is being operated and manipulated by the influence of donations that don’t have to be reported, why should they trust what we have to say? Why should they back us when we ask for reform or back us on restrictions or trust in our system? We have to earn that trust. One of the ways that we earn it is through being transparent about where the money is coming from and when it’s received.
Our current laws leave enormous gaps in requirements for reporting donations, in terms of both the amount that can be donated without disclosure and the time it takes for donations to have to be declared. Donations of up to $14,000 don’t have to be reported, and it can be up to 19 months before voters know that a donation has been made—19 months! There is no transparency in that. Indeed, the Centre for Public Integrity estimates that these rules mean that around $1 billion in party income has not been disclosed since 1999, or almost 30 per cent of the funding parties have received, because of these loose requirements. That’s not democracy. That’s an opportunity for unseen influence.
Labor currently has two bills before the Senate that seek to reform this area. One would lower the donation threshold from the current $14,000 to a fixed $1,000. The other provides for real-time disclosure, which would require donations above the threshold to be disclosed within seven days. Of course for these reforms to be successful we’ll need to support organisations and the AEC with the funding and the systems to make them work. But that is certainly not beyond our capacity. Indeed, many states across our country have already introduced similar reforms. Yet this government is continuing to block any efforts for reform in this space.
The recent increase in public trust and support for democracy shows that a good chunk of the Australian public actually want us to do better. They want us to succeed. Yet all we keep serving them up, time after time, is more of the same. When the opportunity comes before us to do better, to say that we will be transparent, to say that we will show where the money comes from and we’ll tell them when it comes in, we pass on it. We’re better than that. We can all be better than that. Even the government can be better than that. This is in all of our interests. If we don’t take these opportunities now at this time of change, when are we going to? Are we going to be having this same argument in another decade? Is the next me, a newly elected MP, here for a year, still keen on reform? Is she going to be standing here calling for reforms that allow for trust in our democracy? Or will our systems be so eroded by then that what happens in this chamber and this place will be largely irrelevant, because people will no longer trust what we say or have an interest in thinking that we might follow through on some of the things that are happening here? Perhaps people will be so cynical, because they will think, ‘Well, you are just being operated by money I can’t see, by big organisations, big companies, people with deep pockets.’ That’s not in any of our interests. We can do better. I urge everyone in this place to stand up for these reforms. Labor is doing that. We’ve got these bills before the Senate. I urge the government to get on board. I know the Independents have also been on board. I do want to thank all the people and organisations who took the time to make a submission to this inquiry. It was really important. It is time for us to make change in these spaces.