Thank you for inviting me to address the International CEO Forum.
I hope to give you a better understanding of the Democrats policy agenda and priorities, and the role we play in the Senate.
The Party was formed in 1977. In the same year Democrats were first elected to the Senate and we have been there ever since.
Australia has a long history of minor political parties that appear in a blaze of publicity and then disappear. The Democrats however have been in the Senate for more than a quarter of a century and are unarguably the most successful third party in Australian political history.
For more than two decades the Democrats have had enough elected representatives to be a parliamentary party and play a role in the balance of power in the Federal Parliament. Yet for more than two decades there have been regular predictions of the Democrats imminent demise, as we saw again last year.
The Democrats continue to hold the effective balance of power. When Labor and the Coalition disagree, it will continue to be the Democrats, as the third force in Australian politics, who decide the outcome.
And it is actually in your interests for us to play the role we do.
The Democrats are different not just in terms of our policies but the way we practice politics. We support participatory democracy. All our members vote on policies, preselection, even the choice of leader. More broadly we support an ethos of opening up politics and maximising the involvement of people in politics.
While all our members vote on policies that guide the senators, most decisions on legislation are made in Party Room with the advice of the portfolio holder.
Each Senator holds several portfolios. With this sort of workload – of course we support maximum participation of a broad range of people in politics! We obviously draw on the expertise of the community, academia, and business, when we look at legislation.
We often initiate and participate in inquiries into legislation where Australians can make submissions and have their say.
The Australian Democrats are not beholden to organised labour, big business or the environment lobby. However, this does not mean that we are not interested in their issues or we do not want to hear their views – just that we are not captured by one particular sector.
We judge legislation on its merits and where possible make improvements. And to do that we are prepared to work with Government or Opposition.
Unlike some other minor parties, we don’t just protest, we won’t block the Budget and we don’t want to dismantle the state.
We work hard to negotiate successful outcomes that are principled, progressive and responsible.
We use our balance of power role in the Senate wisely and are constructive in our approaches to amending legislation.
The Government has recently ramped up the rhetoric about the supposedly ‘obstructive’ Senate.
The fact that the Coalition does not control the Senate is a source of great frustration for them and prompts regular calls for reform of the system so that the ruling party can either bypass it or easily control it.
When the ALP was in power Coalition members, including John Howard, were full of praise for the important role played by the Senate. And let’s not forget that the only party that has blocked supply in the Senate and brought down a Government was the Liberal Party.
Nearly one in four Australians do not vote for the major parties and many vote differently for each House. The House of Representatives is just an echo-chamber for the Prime Minister. The Senate is where legislation is productively debated, often clause by clause, where expert and community input into that legislation is invited by the Senate's committee system, and where it is possible to make the Government of the day accountable.
If the Australian people really wanted the Senate to rubber stamp unfair dismissal laws, the further sale of Telstra, a rise in the cost of medicine’s under the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme and whatever else the Government has up its sleeve, then they could have voted to give the Government a majority in the Senate.
The Senate is not obstructive. Since this Government came to power in 1996, the Senate has passed 98% of Government legislation Only 23 of the 1251 Government Bills dealt with by the Senate have been defeated.
In the current Parliament from February this year, 242 bills have passed the Senate and only 7 Bills have not been passed by the Senate.
During this Parliament, the Democrats have:
§ Moved 316 amendments to 64 bills (about one in four of the bills considered)
§ And successfully amended 30 bills (which is almost half of all bills amended in the Senate).
§ 17 bills of those bills became law.
So we make a difference and I will mention some specific outcomes we have achieved later.
Particularly those of you who have heard from my predecessors in recent years, will understand that the Democrats are not anti-business or anti-globalisation.
We believe in the triple bottom line and we recognise that many businesses increasingly do as well.
It was pleasing whilst browsing through the CEO forum website to see that your wealth management focus is on ‘Ethical and socially responsible investing’. This is an area that, I believe, will receive increasing focus over the next few years.
The Democrats’ Senator Murray had a major win in 2001 with successful amendments to the Financial Services Reform Bill to require disclosure of ethical, environmental, or social considerations which are taken into account when the fund manager uses an investor's funds, with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission developing guidelines for compliance.
The disclosure requirement applies to statements for superannuation funds, managed investments schemes and life insurance products that have an investment component.
This is a very positive move for ethics and the environment because it encourages the managers of large sums of money to invest responsibly. And it is a positive move for investors because they will have greater information to make choices when they want to invest in socially and environmentally responsible investments.
This is the second time that the Democrats have succeeded in having environmental considerations included in the Corporations Act. The Democrats were successful in changing corporation law in 1999 to require companies to include environmental reporting in annual reports.
The Democrats care about accountability and transparency and we have raised the bar in government, the public service and in business.
We have been successful in significantly increasing transparency and accountability in government contracts. There is now a requirement that public servants must indicate what clauses in contracts are confidential and then justify the need for confidentiality. They must also provide the Senate with a list of contracts that exceed $100,000.
We continue to pursue legislation that allows investors to understand better whether ethical standards are being considered by fund managers.
The reputation of CEO’s has taken a battering in recent years. The public debate about CEO remuneration and the highly visible corporate collapses that have occurred in the last few years provide a wake up call.
The Democrats have made a strong stand against poor corporate disclosure standards. Last year’s Corporations Amendment (Repayment of Directors Bonuses) Bill aimed to permit liquidators to reclaim unreasonable payments made to the directors of insolvent companies.
The Democrats supported that but believed it should have gone further. Stronger disclosure and compliance standards are needed concerning director pay and performance and shareholders’ should have more power to veto directors’ retirement payouts.
Industry Policy/Corporate Welfare
The Australian Democrats are strong advocates of industry policy. We believe that sometimes sunrise industries need a hand. Some industries should be boosted so that they can sustain communities, provide jobs and provide inputs to a range of downstream industries.
For example last year Democrats Senator John Cherry successfully negotiated major changes to the Sugar Industry Assistance package to ensure that the sugar industry is economically and environmentally sustainable, providing programs and funds to improve water quality in Great Barrier Reef waters, with up to $31 million set aside for wetlands and a revision of regional development grants to place more emphasis on best practice sustainable development.
The Democrats worked constructively with the Federal and State Governments to achieve a good outcome for both the environment and the sugar industry which had had an incredibly tough year.
Government has an important role for this sort of strategic engagement, however, the Democrats would like to see better accountability in the way that support is delivered.
Compared to welfare, industry assistance comes with few strings attached.
The Democrats have always led the call for greater transparency, and better checks and balances and we will continue to do so.
I now want to focus now on the up coming Parliamentary agenda.
From the Democrats perspective the top three items are, firstly, the Government’s campaign to discredit the Senate through proposing ways of bypassing it, which I have already mentioned.
And second and third, the proposed Higher Education and Health Care reforms announced in the Budget. Neither of which the Democrats will support in their present form.
The health debate follows the deadlock that occurred last year over the Government’s proposed changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Democrat Senator Stott Despoja has made clear we will not support the Higher Education package – the Nelson Review - as it stands. And neither should you. Investment in Higher Education is an investment in the future, it’s an investment in your future employees. Allowing bank balance not brains to determine who enters high demand courses is not in the interests of anyone except those ideologically fanatical about users pays.
That legislation should enter the Senate in about a fortnight. It is a debate I urge you to take an interest in.
An area I know you will take an interest in, is
International Tax laws
The Democrats face an upcoming balance of power situation as a result of proposed changes to international tax laws.
The ALP have stated that the estimated $270m over 4 years is too high a cost for them to support these measures, however, these are essentially measures to eliminate double taxation and simplify compliance. The greater cost is estimated to come from a review of the UK and Singapore Double tax agreements, over which the Senate has no control.
We do not believe that international tax should be a ‘race to the bottom’. Low tax rates will not necessarily bring international corporations like yours to Australia. More importantly we need a stable political and economic environment.
We will support legislation that improves the simplicity and efficiency of the Australian tax system. This has been a complaint of international business but we will be vigilant towards any part of the new legislation if it could result in increased tax avoidance or a reduction in Australia’s fair share of revenue generated by multinationals.
As you know, business must be focussed on being good corporate citizens if it is to survive and prosper. We are in a globalising world where Australian companies are increasingly required to develop competitive advantage. It is my belief that one of our great competitive strengths can be the way in which Australian companies conduct their business – both at home and overseas.
We want to encourage Australian companies to venture offshore responsibly.
The Democrats will re- introduce a Corporate Code of Conduct Bill 2000 designed to regulate the activities of Australian companies overseas in the areas of human rights, environment, labour and occupational health and safety. Private Members Bills do not have a lot of opportunity to get up – but it does happen. It was a Democrats Private Bill that ended tobacco advertising in this country.
The Democrats are aware of the realities of Australian companies investing into foreign markets, however, we think that tax relief and concessions should be accompanied by an increased obligation by Australian companies to operate with integrity in foreign markets.
This will guide our approach to the upcoming International tax law negotiations.
On a broader review, the Australian economy has been performing strongly by international standards. The ALP have criticised this Government for being the highest taxing of all-time. Actually by OECD standards, Australia is not a high tax country.
The Australian Democrats believe that Commonwealth revenue is currently insufficient. The Government still needs to find more money for health, education, and the environment.
This does not necessarily mean higher taxes. The Government wastes money on much welfare for the wealthy. We support means-testing the private health insurance rebate, a crackdown of trust tax avoidance and indexation of the fuel excise. Such measures could raise $1 billion a year each.
Our superannuation system is the focus of considerable debate both inside and outside the Parliament. Superannuation legislative changes have been deadlocked for the past year.
The Democrats priority is for the co-contribution to ensure adequate savings and retirement incomes for all Australians. Originally, the Government was seeking to give twice the benefit towards reducing the surcharge for the wealthy. We believe, at the very least, the cost to the Government should be shared between the wealthy and those on lower incomes.
For some time the Democrats have been negotiating with the Government to support a genuine Government co-contribution scheme for low and middle income earners.
This will encourage those who are most likely to rely on a Government pension in retirement to save more during their working life. Australia currently has a zero savings rate, the lowest of OECD countries.
In fact, our compromise proposal, providing a $1 billion boost to superannuation retirement savings, over the next three years, provides 72% of the benefit towards the low to middle income earners co-contribution.
This Government has done a fair bit for higher income earner. It has provided a rebate on private health insurance, introduced cuts to the superannuation surcharge for those earning more than $85,000, and grants for the first homebuyers scheme which are not means tested whether you earn $20,000 or $200,000.
The Democrats see protecting those on low-incomes as one of our key roles.
There is obviously other issues we are working on.
We are very interested in the issue of work and family balance. A priority the Democrats have identified is paid maternity leave. And it is a priority we expect Corporations to share. Australia is one of only two countries in the OECD without a general system of paid maternity leave. Only around a third of working women have some paid maternity leave.
Last year Senator Stott Despoja introduced Australia’s first legislation to establish a Government-funded Maternity Payment.
We estimate the cost of this program to Government at around $352 million a year.
This is much less than the poorly targeted Baby Bonus.
This Bill should end scare-mongering about maternity leave. The Democrats’ scheme does not make employers pay – except through their normal tax payments, and existing maternity leave where they provide it.
Other Democrat interests
The Democrats are involved in many other issues including housing security, refugees, and the protection of children just to name some of my own portfolios.
I am happy to take questions on those areas or :
- Infrastructure Development
- Community and Business Partnerships
- Genetically modified foods
- Open Source software
- Free Trade.
- The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
- Company tax
- Industrial Relations
- or any other issue.