The Coalition government and Labor opposition are teaming up to weaken political donations and environmental protection laws while also reducing the ability of the crossbench to hold the major parties to account.
The deal to restrict the number of motions per crossbench senator to one per week has united the independents and minor parties from the Greens to One Nation, who believe it is a blatant attempt to reduce scrutiny.
It comes as the government continues to block debate on legislation that would create a federal anti-corruption watchdog despite promising to implement one in 2018. This means federal politicians can be corrupt with no accountability.
“The Federal Government has shut down debate in the Parliament 28 times since last Wednesday. Democracy is dead,” said independent MP Andrew Wilkie (pictured top with Rebekha Sharkie from Centre Alliance and Greens MP Adam Bandt demanding enhanced integrity measures).
The major parties want to loosen federal political donations laws so that prohibited donors such as property developers can get around stricter state-based regulations.
Labor said it also supported efforts by the government to cut so-called green tape and is likely to waive through changes watering down environmental safeguards, in order to speed up approvals for mining and infrastructure projects.
There are fears the push to speed up environmental approvals will lead to an extinction crisis as the regime was already inadequate, with just 22 of 6500 projects referred for approval being knocked back in its 20 year history.
In the Senate on Thursday the Labor and Liberal parties ganged up to ram through new rules that would limit crossbench senators so they could essentially only move one motion per week each, greatly restricting the ability of minor parties to apply pressure and force disclosure of documents around issues such as robodebt and a federal integrity commission.
It is understood Labor has been embarassed by aggressive attempts from crossbenchers to establish a royal commission into the robodebt scandal and to permanently increase the rate of the dole because Labor has not yet formulated a clear position.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said motions that led to the banking royal commission and the vote on marriage equality may not be able to happen in future under the new rules. They would “restrict the senators’ ability to get documents that will shine a light on government slush funds and what is going on behind the scenes”.
“At the end of a week of rorts and scandals Labor and Liberal are teaming up to do dirty deals that will be bad for democracy and bad for the environment,” said Bandt.
“At the moment our laws are so weak that companies can blow up 46,000-year-old indigenous heritage sites and it’s not against the law, we can lose 1 million hectares of koala habitat and koalas can be pushed to be threatened in a couple of states and it’s not against the law, and now Labor and Liberal are working to weaken those laws even further.”
The changes to political donations laws would effectively blur the lines between federal and state political donations. Bandt said they would “allow a backdoor to be opened so that dodgy developer donations to state parties can funnel their way up to the federal level”.
Independent MP Zali Steggall said “there is a real case for strengthening the weak federal donation laws but the Government is doing the opposite with this bill”.
State politicians are held to much stricter anti-corruption regimes with strong integrity commissions and bans on political donations from certain industries.
Steggall said “in contrast, at federal level, we still have no national integrity and anti-corruption watchdog and no prohibition on political donations from property development, mining, tobacco or gambling industries.”
“This is the virus corrupting our democracy,” said Steggall.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie accused the major parties of “betrayals of the public’s trust” and trying to “hide big donor money from the voters”. They could take money from developers while saying they never received it.
“This is the bill that would completely undermine strict rules on political donations in states like NSW, Victoria and Queensland,” said Lambie.
“The Liberal party and the Labor party are working on a deal to waive it through; if the Australian people read the detail of this legislation and realised its potential impact they would be horrified.”
Lambie accused Labor of continually rolling “over for the government like dogs” rather than being an Opposition party.
“The public interest just doesn’t seem to play into the equation any more. It’s another big middle finger to everyone who reckons it matters who’s buying and selling our politicians,” said Lambie.
“Politicians from both major parties are allowing themselves to be bought and sold by the highest bidder, it’s appalling and it has to stop.”
Wilkie said it was “simply unfathomable that the government continues to stonewall the establishment” of a federal corruption watchdog.
A Greens bill that is significantly stronger than the version mooted by the government has the support of Labor and the crossbench – passing the Senate last year – but the government continues to block even a debate on it in the House.
“Only a couple of days ago we saw exactly what scandal looks like in Victoria and we saw a remedy straight away where ministers, who were held to account, were referred directly to IBAC, because they have such an integrity commission in Victoria,” said independent MP Helen Haines.
“Right now there are people all over this House gloating about the scandals in Victoria … because they know that there is no such commission here whereby ministers, members of Parliament, any members of the public service could be held to the same level of account.”
Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Prime Minister Scott Morrison had no interest in estabilshing an integrity commission due to the “ever-growing list of scandals surrounding this government”.
“Why is this government so scared of a National Integrity Commission? What do they have to hide?,” said Dreyfus.
Mark Butler, shadow minister for climate change and energy, referred to evidence from a state-based corruption watchdog to accuse the Liberal Party of “laundering illegal donations through the Liberal Party front organisation known as the Free Enterprise Foundation”.
Labor has also accused the government of trying to “keep an invisibility cloak over 1500 private firms (including Liberal donors), shielding them from the proper scrutiny that others face”.
Greens senator Larissa Waters said this week she would introduce a Banning Dirty Donations Bill in the Senate that would prohibit donations from “industries with a track record of seeking to influence decisions: the mining, banking, gambling, alcohol, pharmaceutical, defence, tobacco and property development industries”.
Waters, who says “the community is fed up and our democracy should not be for sale”, will also seek to cap all other donations at $3000 per parliamentary term.
“We must put a stop to the rorts and favours for mates that are rife under the Morrison Government,” said Waters.
“Since 2012, the Liberal, National and Labor parties have received over one hundred million dollars from corporate donors. And we’ve seen those donors benefit from favourable policy outcomes and project approvals.”
Waters said “big money” was running politics as evidenced by the government’s hand-picked coterie of fossil fuel interests driving the economic recovery on the National Covid Coordination Commission (NCCC).
“So it’s no surprise the NCCC is recommending a ‘gas-led recovery’ that benefits Commission members but will be toxic for the climate, our precious water supplies, and farmland,” said Waters.
“Trust in politics is at an all-time low and the best way to fix this is to stop selling our democracy to the highest bidder. The major parties should join with the Greens and help clean up politics.”
The Australia Institute has begun a campaign, supported by 29 prominent Australians, calling on parliament to pass truth-in-political advertising laws.