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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5549


Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (9:00 PM) —The House of Representatives has considered the request of the Senate to amend the definition of `spouse' in the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 and has not made the requested amendment. It is important, the request having been considered, that the Senate now conclude its deliberations and pass the bill without further delay. The bill seeks to limit the expenditure from the public purse by life gold pass travel. It has numerous provisions to enhance the integrity of the arrangements to increase transparency and accountability and, importantly, to require forfeiture of the pass in the event of a conviction of a corruption offence.

Further delays in the passage of this legislation will mean that these significant improvements are delayed or even put at risk. It seems that those opposite are willing to block forfeiture of the life gold pass on corruption conviction for the sake of increasing the cost to the public purse. It is very important in considering the definition of `spouse' to recognise—and I would invite those opposite who have made what I kindly describe as uncharitable comments—that travel on the pass has only ever been available to holders, their legally wedded spouses and widows, so all this talk about winding back the clock is false and is being used to make a personal attack on the basis of someone's alleged religious beliefs.

The thrust of the bill is the recognition of community concerns to limit the benefits available under the pass, not to expand them. Labor's amendment would include both a de jure and a de facto spouse. It follows that it would also include both a widow who had been the de jure spouse and a widow who had been the de facto spouse, and it raises issues of definition of what constitutes a genuine domestic relationship and duration. Given the current amendment, those issues are not resolved. It is for Labor to prosecute their amendment or their request. The various problems associated with the definition could be resolved if Labor were genuinely interested, but their existence points to the inappropriateness of debating the acceptability or non-acceptability of de facto relationships in the context of the consideration of this bill. Can I simply repeat: the life gold pass has never extended to de facto relationships, and it is the government's view that it is not the time to move to do so. It is not the time because, as explained earlier, the bill is about capping and limiting the entitlement, not about expanding it.

It is interesting that this definition of `spouse' for the life gold pass has been in place since 1976. So much for Senator Bolkus's quite outrageous contribution earlier this evening! He presided as minister over this regime. He told us proudly how he had amended certain legislation, but for some reason he never felt motivated to change this definition. I put it to you that was for very good reason, because it was a decision of the Remuneration Tribunal, now standing since 1976. In the 13 years of Labor government, did Labor once seek to move to change that definition? No, they did not. Since being in opposition, have they written to the Remuneration Tribunal asking for a change? As I understand it, no, they have not. Yet all this affected righteous indignation, that was personally directed at me, just falls flat and is exposed as so shallow and hollow when you understand what the true facts are. The definition has stood since 1976; Labor never did anything about it in 13 years in government and, in six years in opposition, never approached the Remuneration Tribunal to change its own definition. Indeed, legal advice was received in 1992— whilst Labor were still in government— which pointed to the distinction made by the tribunal between the definition in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act and the life gold pass where no such reference to the definition of spouse is made.

The Labor government got that advice, but they did not move. Was that because some mad religious zealot was controlling the Australian Labor Party, or somebody who professes the Christian faith? I do not think so. Those quite ill-considered attacks earlier and later on this evening were, I believe, unjustified. More importantly, they just do not stack up when you are actually apprised of the history and have some knowledge about the matter. Can I say to my friends in the Democrats and the Greens that it is somewhat amazing that they beat their chests and say, `The life gold pass should be abolished—but just in case you do not abolish it, we want to ramp up the entitlements under it.' That really is a bit of a conflict. It is very two-faced. You go out to the public and say, `We champion the cause of abolishing the life gold pass. Damn those nasty big parties; they kept it—but now we will help support ramping up the benefits that come from it.'

I suggest to Senator Cook that it is time for him to consider another career. If he honestly believes that a double dissolution would be something that would excite the people of Australia on the issue of ramping up the life gold pass entitlement, it is a case par excellence of where the Labor Party and a leading luminary such as Senator Cook have simply lost touch with reality. If the Senate continues to insist on this request, it will be telling the Australian people that increasing the benefits under the life gold pass is more important to them than taking it from those people that have been convicted of corruption offences. That is what the Labor Party vote, the Democrats vote and the Greens vote will undoubtedly do.

Mr Temporary Chairman, you were fortunate not to have been in the chamber earlier when senators opposite conveniently used the debate around this bill for a personal attack on me based on what they believe are my religious views. If they are genuinely interested in knowing what my religious views are, I would be happy to have a cup of coffee with them and discuss the subject. For the benefit of Senator Faulkner, Senator Cook and Senator Bolkus, I will not be screaming at them, pointing with my finger and using the sort of intolerant and intolerable language that they used. It is a bizarre thing that those who preach tolerance are so often the most intolerant within our community. They know in their hearts that they twisted and distorted the debate on this matter to enable the vilification of what they think may be my Christian beliefs.

As you would know, Mr Temporary Chairman, we all bring our views. It was very interesting to observe one of the honourable senators opposite, finger waving, saying, `Don't you impose your morality on me!' Of course, what they were doing was seeking to impose their morality into the discussion. We in the Liberal Party are a broad church. We have atheists; we have those of the Christian faith; we have people of other faiths. As honourable senators opposite know, when you have government legislation it goes through all the systems of the backbench committee, the party room, cabinet et cetera.

As for the suggestion that I could somehow intimidate my leader, the Prime Minister, and others, I must say I was truly humbled. I confess to nearly being flattered that those opposite should believe that I have so much power and sway. I was always warned about sweet-talkers so I do not really believe them. I was truly humbled also that those opposite believe my faith informs so many of my decisions and so much of my behaviour. Sometimes I wish it were so but, unfortunately, the reality is something less than what I think honourable senators opposite sought to portray.

Senator Bolkus made a contribution. The simple question is: whilst he was minister, why didn't he seek to change the definition of the 1976 interpretation by the Remuneration Tribunal when he introduced the Parliamentary Entitlements Act? It will be interesting to hear what he says. Senator Bolkus accused me of `blind morality', `prejudice' and finger pointing. He made attacks on my religion and said I had a `distorted mind' and was a `lunatic'. Then there was this fanciful notion that I talked about menage a trois. No, I did not. What I did point out was that under the Labor Party definition you could potentially have both the married spouse and the de facto spouse gaining an entitlement. I thought that was a flaw in their amendment. It was a Labor amendment. They need to prosecute it. They have failed in its definition. The interesting thing is that not one of them attacked the legal point that I made that it would allow for this possibility.

I said during the second reading debate that it would take a braver man than I to try to pull such a stunt. That is what I indicated at the time, but I pointed out the legal flaw. It has not been addressed and the Australian Labor Party instead seek to avoid that fundamental issue of the legal drafting by pouring scorn on what they believe my religious beliefs may be. We were told that we were pressing the rewind button on social engineering. Well, excuse me, but this definition has been in place since 1976. The bill incorporates the definition as it has stood—no winding back of the clock, just a faithful transportation of the definition into the legislation, because this bill is not about increasing entitlements, it is about reducing them.

Senator Cook behaved in a similar manner to Senator Bolkus. I think they both got their lead from Senator Faulkner. I have in fact asked Hansard for a copy of that tape. I will review it and chances are I will be circulating it around many communities within Australia so that people can see the behaviour of the Leader of the Opposition in this place towards people who he believes or suspects have certain religious views. I will then allow him to go out on his soapbox, put his hand on his heart and say, `I am against racial and religious vilification. I am against discrimination of any sort whatsoever.' His behaviour in this chamber earlier tonight portrayed his true character and I will be interested to see what the Australian community's reaction is to such outrageous behaviour. We have Senator Cook in a great dilemma. He said, `The government thinks it is on a winner,' and then in the next breath he told us that this is some right wing reactionary approach, all the time attacking me personally and then saying, `We need a sensitive approach to our fellow citizens.' Senator Cook, your actions speak a lot louder than your words; in this case, your actions were in fact your words in this place.

A lot of other senators made contributions. In relation to Senator Ludwig, I had real ambitions for him as one day possibly being a judge, but his legal capacities unfortunately let him down this evening. There was no winding back of definitions, just a straight importing of the definition from the Remuneration Tribunal. As for the section 53 situation, I say to him that greater legal minds than mine were at work on that. There was solid and very strong advice from the Australian Government Solicitor; I had not even thought of the flaw and, of course, Senator Faulkner changed his amendment to a request, which is the way that it ought to go. The fact that the Labor Party picked it up would suggest that I was right in the first place.

In the few moments remaining, I invite the leadership group of the Labor Party in the Senate to have a look at how Senator Webber and Senator Ray approached this debate. They clearly disagreed with the government but they did it with integrity, without the need for personal attack. They played the issue, not the personality. (Time expired)


The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Watson)—The question is that the Senate does not press its request for an amendment.

Question put.