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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1156


Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (12:33): The Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 is all about stopping something that I believe should never have occurred in the first place. The gold pass scheme has always been an overly generous and, frankly, poorly justified use of taxpayer funds. It should never have been introduced, and once it became apparent that it was not always being used in the spirit that was intended, it should have been immediately axed. My colleague Nick Xenophon has been opposing the gold pass for some time. Like him, I agree that there is no valid reason for having it, and it needs to go.

I get that some already retired and soon-to-retire MPs are angry that the prized gold pass will be snatched from their grasp. But all need to remember we are here for the people, and the people expect us to pull our weight as much as the next person and do the right thing with what is their—the taxpayers—money. Expecting ongoing largesse at the taxpayers' expense and kicking up a stink when you do not get it is symptomatic of the sense of entitlement that must end. It does nothing for our credibility in the public's eye and has only served to help erode the public's faith in politicians.

The gold pass scheme most certainly does not pass the 'pub test'. There have been way too many instances of abuse, where former MPs have used their gold pass to go on holidays and to advance their own interests or lobbying businesses, rather than using it for travel that serves the public interest. And let's face it, the general public does not feel beholden to MPs once they have retired from politics, so there should not be any expectation of ongoing benefits. While it is not our preferred position, this bill means the gold pass will now only be available to former and future prime ministers and their spouses when their travel passes a public benefit test. That is fair enough.

This small reform will free up a lazy $1 million or so per year, which could be used towards more deserving programs that can better serve the community. For example, $1 million a year could be put towards gambling addiction services, community broadcasting, regional infrastructure or rural counselling services. There is a lot of good that can be done with that money. But we should not stop there. Why don't all MPs on short flights book economy airline seats instead of business? That alone would save many millions of taxpayer dollars and give MPs the opportunity to mix with the very people who voted for them. It is all about doing the right thing and reining in waste.

While I am on this topic, there most certainly needs to be a thorough rethink of the parliamentary entitlements system. The current system is confusing, complex and contradictory. It is no wonder many MPs fall foul of the rules, especially if they neglect to consider what the person on the street might make of their claim, legitimately made or not. 'Choppergate' should have been the last straw but it was not. We need to simplify the system and we need to have greater scrutiny and more deterrents to prevent the temptation to fudge claims. That is why, in 2015, my colleague Senator Xenophon introduced a bill that would have subjected travel claims to independent oversight, and that would have compelled MPs to disclose their expenses on a monthly basis and pay much higher penalties for transgressions. While those reforms failed to win support at the time, it is pleasing to see the government is finally moving in this same direction and adopting some of the same measures. There is still a lot more to do, but this bill to end the gold pass free ride is at least a step in the right direction. The government's move to set up an independent body to oversee travel expense claims is another big positive.

The independent parliamentary expenses authority, which is to be established through a separate bill, will advise on and audit travel expenses of parliamentarians and their staff. NXT will be scrutinising the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority Bill closely to ensure it has the scope required to do its job effectively. The authority is ostensibly modelled on the UK's Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has substantial investigative powers, and this is what we need. The UK's authority publishes claims so that they are open to public scrutiny and regularly subjects each MP's claiming patterns to data analysis to detect any red flags. Speaking on the ABC last month, the authority's chief executive acknowledged that it was not only a 'powerful regulatory tool' but that it was also a 'really, really powerful preventative tool'. It is not a perfect beast but it appears to be doing its intended job of acting as a deterrent to misuse.

We welcome the government's speedy work to get these two bills into parliament as they will go some way towards improving accountability. However, if the Prime Minister is serious about truly reforming the travel entitlements system and getting snouts out of the trough, he will also fully implement the recommendations made in last year's review of parliamentary entitlements and go further by doubling the penalties for breaches and quadrupling the penalties for repeat offenders, as my colleague Senator Xenophon and NXT has advocated. These measures, combined, would hopefully encourage MPs to be much more conservative and cautious about how they spend the public's money. To that end, we urge the Prime Minister to continue on this path and reign in the scope of entitlements, as he has indicated he intends to do, and to introduce tough legislation to make this happen sooner rather than later.

We want to see a clamp down that means MPs will no longer be able to use the reunion travel provisions for interstate family holidays. We would also expect that MPs would no longer be able to disguise personal travel as parliamentary business by tacking on a meeting during the trip—a loophole that has caught out a number of senior MPs and ministers who should have known better and who no doubt now regret their oversight. These much needed reforms would go a long way to preventing the type of circus we saw in early January, where the former health minister quit the front bench over her travel claims to the Gold Coast. Whilst she maintaining she had done nothing wrong, it is likely the system is what really let her down.

Work travel expenses are not gifts. We in the Nick Xenophon Team will continue to push for reforms that meet community expectations, reduce waste and hold those who flout the rules to account. We will continue to push for an entitlements system where transparency and accountability are paramount. To use a term coined by my colleague Senator Xenophon, the 'gravy plane' is circling the runway; it is now time to bring it in to land.