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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5231

Senator ROBERT RAY (9:54 AM) —The purpose of the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 is to codify the entitlements of former members of parliament who are eligible to use the life gold pass. It is true that these entitlements have recently been looked at by the Auditor-General. A further imperative to legislate is a community concern that MPs convicted of corruption offences could use the gold pass once they have served their sentence in prison. In 1989, the Hawke government successfully promoted the Crimes (Superannuation Benefits) Act. This legislation was intended to deal with public servants who were convicted of corruption. Under its terms, their superannuation could in future be docked. The bill also defined being a Commonwealth employee as including being a member of parliament. This was so that we did not have one law for public servants and a separate law for parliamentarians. Put simply, this legislation allowed the Commonwealth to strip an MP of all but their own contribution to their superannuation entitlements if they had been convicted of a corruption offence and sentenced to a term of imprisonment in excess of 12 months.

Prior to this, a problem existed. If a conviction occurred when an MP was still in parliament, they would not only forfeit their seat because of the provision in the Constitution but they would also forfeit their superannuation. It is conventional wisdom that any MP so charged would stay an MP whilst charged but, from the moment that a guilty verdict came down, they would resign and therefore not imperil their superannuation. Using resignation as a device to retain superannuation would have caused enormous public discomfiture—just imagine the field day the tabloids would have had if that had ever occurred.

There is a major inconsistency in all of this. The 1989 act refers to a sentence in excess of 12 months, whereas the disqualification from parliament dictated by the Constitution requires being convicted of an offence that carries a penalty of more than 24 months imprisonment, even though no term of imprisonment may in fact be awarded. So we do have that inconsistency. I tend to think the 1989 act got it right. In any event, we cannot amend the Constitution, so we are stuck with it. In general, legislators try to avoid double jeopardy. In relation to this legislation, that means that your good old child-molesting MP can get their superannuation and their gold pass, but the mug who is silly enough to cheat on their travel allowance or the idiot who takes the odd bribe will get punished twice. That could well embarrass us in future, I have to say. Again, it is this problem of double jeopardy. Clearly, in relation to superannuation and now in relation to the gold pass, this is a warning to all MPs that corruption carries more penalties than just a court case. They are all warned of this in advance.

The first test case of the 1989 legislation should have been former Senator Colston, the greatest travel allowance rorter this parliament has ever seen. My view is that, had he been charged and convicted, he would almost certainly have resigned before sentence had been issued. He would have escaped the provisions of the Constitution but he would not have escaped the provisions of the 1989 act. But of course, because of the absolute stupidity of the Director of Public Prosecutions, we will never know. So now we have former Senator Colston using his gold pass and living off his superannuation just because the DPP did not prosecute him. Mention has been made of a former MP who has recently been convicted of corruption and whose case could well be covered by this piece of legislation but, as that matter is under appeal, I do not want to comment on it any further.

One worrying aspect of this legislation— and it especially applies to the 1989 legislation—is that it leaves to the Attorney-General the question of whether action should be taken. This sometimes leads to a difficult situation. Attorneys-General are always members of parliament and they tend to know fellow parliamentarians. That sometimes puts them in a very awkward position as to whether they should take action against someone they know so closely. We all know that, in the judiciary and elsewhere, people debar themselves from this sort of decision making when they know, or are close to, the person concerned. That could be a long-term difficulty with the 1989 legislation especially. You would normally expect such a person to act on the advice of his own department or the DPP. We have already been through the DPP's judgment. I do not particularly want the Attorney-General relying on their judgment in these cases.

Of course, over the years people have relied on advice. We talked about former Senator Colston before. There was a lot of controversy about the way he was treated by the then Attorney-General, Senator Evans, in 1983 but, as it turned out, Senator Evans was acting on advice. You would not know this, of course, because when the government of the day, the Howard government, sought all the documents on this, the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, generously said, `Yes, you can have access to the documents provided we as an opposition are provided with them.' So a great search was done in the Attorney-General's Department. All these documents were turned up and were released to us. The Prime Minister then alleged that Senator Evans and Mr Beazley were perverters of the course of justice because they failed to pursue Senator Colston and were not acting on independent advice.

It was only later that we found out that the two crucial documents went missing, and they were the two documents that indicated that Senator Evans acted on advice. How they went missing, this government, to this day, will not answer. We know the Attorney-General saw them because he had to sight all original documents and sign them off. So, at some point in the journey from the Attorney-General's office to the Prime Minister's office to Mr Beazley's office, these two critical documents went missing. That highlights not leaving these sorts of political matters in the hands of an Attorney-General. We do not know where they disappeared. We have asked questions at estimates time and time again and all we have on this issue is fudging. We have no answer whatsoever as to how these two critical documents disappeared, but I tell you one thing: it is interesting that not once since we raised that issue has the Prime Minister accused Mr Beazley or Mr Evans of being perverters of the course of justice. No, that line has been dropped; that line has been dismissed. But regardless of who was responsible for the disappearance of the documents—and I am sure it was not the Prime Minister; I am positive of that; it was some eager beaver staffer somewhere—no action has ever been taken. I do not blame staff generally, but I am sure the Prime Minister would not have been involved in the disappearance of these documents. In terms of plausible denial, I daresay we will never know.

This bill also rationalises and limits the use of a gold pass. It is careful not to alter the qualifying period, and at no point does it extend benefits. It tries to make them common and, in some cases, lessens access to the gold pass. The bill proposes to limit the use of the gold pass to 25 trips per year. It continues to make clear that it cannot be used for commercial purposes. Further, the bill limits former prime ministers to 40 domestic trips per year. `Keep 'em on the move'—that's what I say. There is nothing more useless than an ex-MP, so keep them travelling; keep them out of our hair. We are not like the UK. We cannot use the Chiltern hundreds; we cannot move them up to the House of Lords and find a role for them. So keep them on the move continuously, if we can.

One aspect that has come out of this is that, in his report, the Auditor-General indicated that the use of Comcar as part of the gold pass entitlement has no basis in law. It was merely a grant from a previous minister in, I think, a Labor government and was never able to be justified via reference to the Remuneration Tribunal or anyone else. I do not think it was ever the intention of the Remuneration Tribunal that gold pass holders should have to walk to the airport. The current minister has cancelled that, quite properly. He has to act on the advice of what the Auditor-General has said, and he has acted totally appropriately. This problem, I do not think, can be rectified in this legislation. What we will need to do is go to the Remuneration Tribunal for a resolution of the matter.

It is not as though Comcar rights have been rorted in the past by former MPs. In the first six months of 2001, the total bill was under $100,000. Just remember that each member of the House of Representatives, in one of the worst rorts ever in the history of this parliament, is given a $125,000 printing allowance. Multiply that by 150 and you will find they are given $18 million to waste on propaganda. It has been in excess of that in the past, and this is the fault of past Labor and Liberal governments. There is no blame to be attached here in a partisan way. It is not through Senate envy that I attack this particular entitlement; it is meant to assist incumbency whether it be on the Labor or Liberal side. That is $18 million a year, yet we are quibbling over $100,000 to get ex MPs to and from an airport. Whether you agree or disagree with a gold pass, I do not think you expect them to walk to the airport. It is not an unreasonable thing to be looked at, and I hope the Remuneration Tribunal can have a look at this in the near future.

One aspect of the legislation that is of concern is the definition of `spouse'. It differs in this legislation from other entitlements legislation. I have not seen an explanation justifying a different definition. I am pleased that the committee picked it up in its report and I understand there are at least two amendments that hope to rectify that in this legislation. Today and at other times I have heard some senators argue that the gold pass should be scrapped. Democrats, in particular, have been vocal on this matter. Of course, so far, only one of them has ever qualified for a gold pass. For the rest, they are quite welcome never to use it. No-one is going to compel Senator Murray, if he gets a gold pass, ever to use it. But, given the internecine warfare that exists in the Democrats, is it a credible argument that any of them will ever qualify? That is very unlikely, I have to say. Frankly, I would amend this legislation, Senator Murray. If you serve six years in the Democrat party room, you should be entitled to a gold pass.

Government senators interjecting

Senator ROBERT RAY —Exactly—on a weight-for-age system. But Senator Murray made a few points in his speech and I would like to address some of them. Firstly, he says that this is not available to public servants. That is true. He goes on to say that he does not think all ministers were properly remunerated. It is an anomaly that, as Minister for Defence, I used to sit in a room with 10 public servants whom I employed, and all of them were paid much more than I was paid. In some cases they were paid double what I was earning, yet I was responsible for the whole lot. So, in some ways, that may explain why it does not go to public servants and why it goes to MPs. Senator Murray said that some of the arguments put up in favour of the gold pass were ridiculous, including those about pro bono. He described those arguments as self-serving. Hear, hear, Senator Murray—I can't agree with you more. They are self-serving. They are meant as a disguise argument and, as you say, they have no weight and no merit whatsoever.

Senator Murray also says he will later move that he would like to grandfather the exclusion clause in. We will debate that at another stage. He asks, `Do post travel benefits ever have any usefulness?' I want to go to a historical precedent, and that was the abolition of the Queensland upper house. I do not know whether Senator Murray knows how that was achieved. For years bills were put up to abolish the upper house and were rejected in the upper house in Queensland until finally someone got a great idea. They offered each member of the upper house a life gold pass for rail travel. Within 24 hours we got rid of the Queensland upper house, and think how much money we have saved ever since—cheap at half the price!

Seriously, though, the gold pass is part of a salary package and has to be looked at in those terms. It is really deferred income for those who have served a long while. In effect, this comes out of historical reasons. Remuneration tribunals and others have been very loath to up parliamentary or ministerial salaries. They have been much more amenable to compensate in terms of entitlements. I think what Senator Murray is really saying is that he would like to see this whole area restructured, a lot more money go in up front and less money taken behind. I am sure he would also concede that you would not want to be in a position where you leave this place after 20 years, have had no money up front and then get it all taken away from you. That is why he seeks to grandfather it in. What he does not tell us is what compensatory methods he would put in once that clause comes in. That is complex; I understand that. That is difficult, but I think that is his intention.

I just want to say for the record that I have never earned any money outside my parliamentary salary, I have always tried to claim within entitlements and I have never put my spouse on the payroll. Some of the parliamentary critics of this legislation seem to go to water when I suggest that maybe what we should do in terms of superannuation and gold passes and everything else is means test them. Maybe we ought to come in here and put all our assets on the table. Those with the least can take their superannuation and their gold pass, and those that have got oodles of money—those that have made money out of poker machines or selling booze, who have got their own separate superannuation entitlements—well, they can take less or take nothing. You have got to have some justice in this particular thing. We might also disqualify those senators that use their electorate offices as campaign headquarters every federal election. Maybe we will make the savings in that particular way. In conclusion, the iron law of politics tells you: never take on a sleazy opportunist trying to make themselves popular by attacking parliamentary entitlements—they will beat you every time.