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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5227


Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (9:31 AM) —The Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 establishes a uniform set of arrangements for all life gold pass holders, their spouses, the widows or widowers of deceased pass holders and spouses of sitting members who have qualified for a life gold pass. The bill proposes annual limits to travel entitlements for all eligible pass holders for the first time. It also includes a forfeiture provision linked to the forfeiture of superannuation benefits in the case of a conviction for a corruption offence as defined in the Crimes (Superannuation Benefits) Act 1989. This provision—the so-called Theophanous provision—will apply to all life gold pass holders and former parliamentarians who qualify for severance travel benefits.

The limits imposed by the bill are as follows: for eligible former prime ministers and their spouses, up to 40 return trips per annum; for widows or widowers of eligible former prime ministers, up to 10 trips per annum for the first five years, commencing on the death of the former Prime Minister, and five trips per annum thereafter; for all eligible former members and their spouses, up to 25 return trips per annum; for spouses of eligible sitting members, a spouse of the Prime Minister is entitled to 40 domestic return trips per annum and all other members' spouses are entitled to 25 domestic return trips per annum to join or accompany their spouses; and for widows or widowers of eligible former members who died after the commencement of the act, up to 10 domestic return trips in the first year following the member's death and up to five domestic return trips in the next year, after which the entitlement ceases.

The bill also includes a range of provisions aimed at clarifying and enhancing the arrangements relating to life gold pass travel. These include clear statements concerning the type of travel that may be undertaken, definitions—for example, a definition of a return trip—how to treat stopovers and what constitutes a commercial purpose. The measures setting limits to entitlements were foreshadowed in the Prime Minister's statement on parliamentary entitlements of 27 September 2001 and flowed from the findings of the Auditor-General's report No. 5 2001-02: Performance audit: parliamentarians' entitlements: 1999-2000.

The opposition welcomes the government's proposal to correct the anomaly which permits members or senators who are found guilty of a corruption offence to continue to travel at taxpayers' expense. Under the Crimes (Superannuation Benefits) Act 1989, a court may issue an order that withdraws the superannuation benefit, other than personal contributions, from a person who, in the course of carrying out his or her duties as a member of parliament, commits a corruption offence within the meaning of the act. This bill will have the effect that in such circumstances the withdrawal of the life gold pass travel entitlement will follow automatically. As I say, this is welcome. The opposition concurs with the government's view that the current life gold pass entitlements are overly generous and out of step with community views. The new limits proposed by this bill are justified and have the opposition's support. The opposition's preferred approach on this, as with other entitlements, would have been for the Remuneration Tribunal to have responsibility for determining both the appropriate quantum and the conditions of eligibility. However, given the government has brought forward legislation to entrench these limits on the life gold pass travel entitlement, that is what we must deal with, and we have determined on the basis of the substance of this legislation not to oppose it.

One concern the opposition does have with the bill is its use of the antiquated definition of spouse as legally married. We consider it more appropriate that the definition of spouse include de facto spouses and note that this has been the accepted definition in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act since its passage in 1990. Accordingly, and I must say somewhat reluctantly because of the principle I outlined that the Remuneration Tribunal should have responsibility for determining these matters, the opposition will be moving an amendment to change the definition of spouse used in this bill to that used in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act.

I also note that the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, in its report on this bill, which was tabled in the Senate on 18 September, has made a number of recommendations which would further tighten the use and monitoring of the life gold pass entitlement. These recommendations should be examined carefully by the Department of Finance and Administration and the Remuneration Tribunal, and I am pleased that there is a second reading amendment from Senator Murray that goes to that point and which will have the strong support of the opposition.

I am well aware there are many members of the public—many of whom have drawn their views to the attention of the Senate committee—who believe that parliament is not going far enough with this bill. Most submissions in fact say the life gold pass should be abolished. I believe that those matters are much more appropriately dealt with by an independent body such as the Remuneration Tribunal. I always think it is difficult for parliamentarians to make decisions about these entitlements issues. It is much better if it can be done by others independent of the parliamentarians to whom these entitlements apply or may apply. I also consider that any future restrictions or changes to this entitlement, which in one form or another has formed part of the total remuneration package for members of parliament since 1918, should be considered in the context of a review of the full remuneration package. I endorse the Senate committee's recommendation that the Remuneration Tribunal undertake such a review. I commend the opposition's approach on this bill to the Senate.