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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1160

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (12:48): From the outset, in a brief contribution to this debate, I have to state my distaste for retrospective legislation. I do not think it is appropriate for governments of any stripe to pursue it because it disadvantages people who go into circumstances with the expectation of certainty. However, I must say that the public demand for changes to the life gold pass is entirely appropriate. I must also add that the reason we are here dealing with this in a legislative capacity is because those who had received the benefit of the life gold pass and other post-parliamentary benefits, for service in this place or in the other place in years past, overextended the mark and sought to entrench their claims in law via the High Court. I will have a little bit more to say about that in a moment. It has made legislative amendment necessary rather than the agreement that the entitlement should be reduced to zero or one or two trips along the way.

Notwithstanding that caveat and reservations about retrospective legislation, I intend to support this. I also intend to support Senator Macdonald's amendments. That is on the principle that far too often in this place we decide that we are going to enact bills, the loss of privileges or some negative aspects of whatever we do up here, and that is always going to affect other people. We are always carving out exemptions. Sometimes we are carving them out for ourselves, which is wrong, and sometimes we are carving them out for other sections of society. If we are serious about bringing parliamentary benefits into line with public expectations, we will take steps to remove the excesses as fully and broadly as we can.

When Senator Macdonald moves his amendment to say we are going to get rid of the gold pass for all former politicians, I will be supporting that. I will also support his amendment, which is to limit the benefits of the gold pass to former Prime Ministers—should Senator Macdonald's first amendment not be successful—on the basis of the length of service, because I think that is once again a step in the right direction. However, I am also going to be moving three amendments of my own. Some of them may not be necessary depending on the success or otherwise of Senator Macdonald's amendments, but I will foreshadow them.

I believe that the office of Prime Minister has been unbelievably diminished by the activities and actions of some people in this place over the last 10 years. We have had a revolving door of Prime Ministers. I do not know anyone who thought or really would have envisaged that we could have five Prime Ministers over the course of 10 years. If we believe that the office of Prime Minister occupies a respected position in our community—and it should—and we want to ensure that it maintains its dignity and value and respect by the general public and that prime ministers do have a role to play in public life, we need to send a very clear message that they have to actually do some dignity to the office themselves. And their colleagues need to lend support to that, rather than just have what I have described as the 'hunger games' of trying to climb that big mountain, to say, 'I was Prime Minister', whether for a day, a month or a year, and then you can live off the fat of the Australian people for the remainder of your life. I think that is wrong.

Barry O'Farrell, the former premier of New South Wales, thought it was wrong. When he became premier he said of the revolving door of the Labor disease, as it was then, in New South Wales—installing premiers until their use-by date, after a few months or a couple of years—that there has to be a qualifying period for any postparliamentary entitlements accruing or affording to former premiers. He set that time I think as five years for a premier to have served, and then it was limited to one year postparliamentary. There is also a Liberal precedent, I think, in Western Australia, where current Premier Barnett—and I do not know whether this has been enacted—said that a premier had to serve a minimum period before receiving some postparliamentary benefits on the basis of being premier. He was taking away the office and staff and was reducing it to a secretarial service for a fixed period.

Our counterparts in New Zealand, who are held up as the great economic modellers, with transparency and everything else, have done a very similar thing over there. Now, they do have generous benefits for their former prime ministers. I think that is reasonable, given that there is a status of the office and they go into the annals of history, but they do have to serve a minimum qualifying period.

So, I will be moving some amendments that if a Prime Minister is to be afforded the Gold Pass they need to have served for four continuous years in that role. That means basically that every Prime Minister living up until post the Howard Prime Ministership would be included and eligible for continuing benefits in this regard. So, we will not be disadvantaging those who have served our country for a period of four years or more. But it also means that the four prime ministers we have had since then—or five, if you count the double period of Mr Rudd—would not be eligible for parliamentary Gold Pass travel, because none of them have met the four-year qualifying period. I think that is entirely in keeping with the expectations of the Australian people, because I do not know too many who think that we have been particularly well served over the past decade in politics.

The second amendment I will be moving is in relation to the other postparliamentary benefits that are afforded to former prime ministers. These of course are not legislated, to my knowledge. They are actually at the whim of the Prime Minister of the day. You can always bet that you want to treat your predecessor as you want to be treated by your successor, whenever that comes. And there is nothing more sure in this place than that you will have a successor—every single one of us will; the institution rolls on. So, why does anyone want to rock the boat? I think it is absolutely important that when considering the potential cost to the taxpayer—and it is relatively modest, I will say—the potential cost and the lifetime cost to the taxpayer of providing these benefits to former prime ministers, particularly short-serving ones, is quite extensive.

I will give you a case in point. For the two most recent prime minsters, who are no longer in parliament, in the most recent six-monthly reports it is about $150,000 per annum for each of them. So, it is $300,000 or so per year. Sometimes that gets a bit higher in busier years and sometimes it is a bit less. Nonetheless, the prime ministers we have had over the past 10 years have, with the assistance of those in this place, lumbered a debt burden of $20,000 on every man, woman and child in this country, or $90,000 for every child in this country. I think the Australian people have paid enough, quite frankly. I wonder why we have to continue paying for a very poor job. So, I will be moving an amendment, and I hope it wins support, that former prime ministers will be eligible for postparliamentary benefits only after serving a minimum of four years.

Finally, my third amendment relates to what I call the massive overreach by the former members and senators association when they took to the High Court not only this Gold Pass application but their desire to improve their own postparliamentary superannuation benefits. It is extraordinary, the self-interest attached to this. Rather than being happy with the status quo, which gave them a set level of income over a period of time, they thought they deserved more because of some changes that had happened and the incorporation of some separate parliamentary benefits into the salary package of current serving MPs—extraordinary. And the High Court made it very, very clear. It said that the Gold Pass is not a property right, and so it can be varied by the parliament. It also made it very clear that the former superannuation system, the defined benefit pension scheme, was not a property right either and could be amended.

For the people at home or anyone listening to this, the former scheme, before 2004, allowed a politician to retire on a fixed percentage of a serving backbencher's salary plus whatever additional remuneration it had for the office holder, for the rest of their natural life. And after their natural life ended, that benefit went to their defined spouse, whomever that may have been at the time. As people say, the closest thing to eternal life is a government program. Well, this is pretty much as close as you can get to it, for MPs and senators. That is completely out of step with public perspective. That is why, in 2004, it was changed so that you had to meet a minimum age before you could avail yourself of it. I think it was 55 at the time, but I will stand corrected on that, if it is wrong. Then, during the Howard-Latham election campaign, Mr Howard, the then Prime Minister, said, 'No, we're no longer doing that', and we have had what is the same as for every other public servant since then—a contribution scheme for superannuation that is on par or exactly the same as for the rest of the public service.

But that has not stopped those people who have retired from this place previously at a very early age from continuing to receive, effectively, a salary or a wage from the taxpayer simply for being retired. As I go back to it, retrospective legislation does not sit that well with me, but if we are doing it, let's do it properly. I think it is wrong that someone at 38, 39 or 40 years of age could have retired from this place and spent the next 60 or 70 years of their life, or however long they live—if they live to 110, it would be 70 years, wouldn't it?—and get paid by the Australian taxpayer for a minimum of what? Eight years service, it was then. There are examples of those who have done exactly that: they have got out of this place after serving—they are not even 40 years of age yet—and continue to be fed by the taxpayers through the parliamentary pension system. Normally that would sit with disapproval—and I know the public disapprove of it—and I would not want to touch it, but the fact is a group of those people who were receiving that benefit sought to overreach and grab even more through the High Court, and the High Court made it very clear that this is not a property right and parliament is free to make amendments to it where it is appropriate.

One of the amendments—and I think it is entirely appropriate and quite generous—is that those who are eligible for those defined benefit parliamentary pension schemes should not be able to access it until they reach the preservation age, like the rest of Australia, which I have today set at 60 years of age. Some will be impacted by that. There are some who will turn 60 this year who will not be particularly disadvantaged, but it is completely out of step to think that someone who retired at a very early age—in their late 30s or 40s, a decade or so ago, and so is my age today at 47 or 48—is still drawing a salary from the public purse for work that was done back when they were in the Senate or the House. That will be an amendment. I would like to see it supported. I will canvass that with my colleagues over the course of time, but I think that in the interests of transparency and openness we need to start to get in line with the public attitudes towards this, and that means we have to accept that we should be remunerated adequately. I believe it is much better for us to have transparency in our expenditure in relation to our office. I have pushed repeatedly over many years that every dollar we spend in our office should be disclosed in a very sensible amount of time in a searchable database so that the court of public opinion can judge us for how we are equipping ourselves or acquitting ourselves with public money.

It means that we also need to address some of the—I am going to say 'off balance sheet' items—benefits that come the way of politicians and are not part of our salary package. It is far better for us to have a single salary scale and say, 'This is what it is. Like it or lump it, that's what politicians are going to get.' If they want their spouses to travel with them then they can pay for their spouses to travel with them. If they want to bring their families to Canberra, they can pay for their families to come to Canberra. If they want to avail themselves of a whole range of other things, they can pay for them rather than looking for some mechanism by which they can take advantage of entitlements. I use the term 'entitlements' but that is not what it really is; it is about the taxpayers' money. I will be moving those amendments when we get into the committee stage, and I thank the Senate for its time.