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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6640

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (7:37 PM) —We had an extraordinary circumstance in the House of Representatives at the end of the last sitting week, where proper debate on important bills was up-ended and overturned in order for the message on the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 to be dealt with in the House of Representatives. There has been a lot of log rolling, of course, going on in the government about this issue. You might recall, Mr Temporary Chairman, that this debate has been about an opposition proposal in relation to the definition of `spouse'. The opposition proposed that this definition be used:

... spouse in relation to a person includes another person who, although not legally married to the person, lives with the person on a bona fide domestic basis as the husband or wife of the person.

This is a definition that applies in a raft of other Commonwealth legislation, including legislation that deals with parliamentary entitlements. Of course, the minister responsible, Senator Abetz, has decided that he can act in this matter like some sort of latter-day moral policeman, and he certainly wants to make sure that we do not have the same entitlements flowing through to de facto spouses as do to de jure spouses. The minister has made perfectly clear what his concerns are. On page 5194 of the Senate Proof Hansard of 16 October 2002, no less an authority—if it is possible to have a lesser authority—than Senator Abetz himself said:

Can I also draw the attention of honourable senators to a defect which I believe is contained in both Senator Murray's and Senator Faulkner's amendments. Where the amendment says `spouse in relation to a person, includes' it must be considering the possibility of other definitions or possibilities. It is not trying to cover the field; therefore, potentially under both Senator Murray's and Senator Faulkner's amendments you could have the possibility of somebody being legally married still and having a de facto spouse, and both of them benefiting from the amendments that are being put forward today.

That is the sort of logic that you deal with from ministers of this government like Senator Abetz. It is the menage a trois argument that is being propounded here by Senator Abetz. He is somehow suggesting that you bring your legally married spouse and, apparently, your mistress on trips and you try to ensure that gold pass travel entitlements apply to both of them. This is just absurd. This really is absurd. I did say the last time we debated this matter that Senator Abetz ought to see if he can claw his way out of the 19th century and perhaps park himself somewhere in the 20th century or, heaven forbid, perhaps even in the 21st century and we ought to get on with it.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians live in de facto relationships, recognised by most in our community with the exception of the minister at the table. It seems to me that there is no problem at all in having the definition of spouse applying to benefits that would flow to a gold pass holder applying to the definition of spouse applying under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act. It would be an absolute anomaly if we were to apply Senator Abetz's antiquated and Victorian definition to the life gold pass legislation. That is what we are now facing in this debate. Of course, the government saw this as such a high priority that important debate in the House of Representatives at the end of the last sitting week, with division after division, was up-ended so that the House could pass judgment on the message of the Senate in this important matter.

It is important to say that this is not the most significant issue that this chamber is going to deal with. However, I think it is an important matter of principle to recognise that not all Australians, and not even all members of parliament, have decided to walk down the aisle of a church or go to a registry office, as Senator Abetz is insisting they do if entitlements are to flow through to spouses or partners of members of parliament.

You really do have to wonder why on earth the government would bother. This is an extraordinary proposition from the government and from Senator Abetz. It is quite remarkable that the government cannot see the good sense of what has been proposed by the opposition. It makes good sense in a modern society. I have absolute confidence that the Department of Finance and Administration, as they currently do in relation to their administration of parliamentary entitlements, would be able to deal with this matter absolutely adequately. We have had a preposterous position put forward by the minister. It is absurd. It is ludicrous. It is so hidebound. It is so judgmental and reactionary. It is archaic. It is so nonsensical that, honestly, only Senator Abetz could have come up with it. There would not be another minister, not even in the Howard government, who would put this preposterous position to the parliament in relation to de facto spouses.

At the end of the day, I think we have argued this case effectively; I think we have made a very strong case indeed. I have indicated that, in the broad, the Labor Party support the legislation before the chamber. We support capping gold pass entitlements for both gold pass holders and their legally married spouses. We certainly support removing the entitlement from corrupt parliamentarians and former parliamentarians. We have no argument with the broad thrust of the legislation. We would like to see the legislation modernised. We would like to see the legislation conform with the definition of `spouse' that exists in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act. We would like to see the legislation with an up-to-date definition of `spouse'; but, because of the minister's prejudice, because of the minister's hidebound and moralistic opinions, that is not going to be the case.

We would have liked to have seen the government give priority to a raft of other legislation over this one. I think there will be many in the community—including, I am sure, many who have seen fit to vote for conservative parties—who have not signed a marriage certificate or been `churched' if you prefer the terminology that Senator Abetz prefers to use. This is a most demeaning performance from Senator Abetz and the government. It shows how out of touch they are with modern Australian lifestyles and the practice of so many in our community. But it is, of course, the sort of view that you would expect from someone who wears his prejudices on his sleeve, as Senator Abetz does.

I do not think it is worth taking this any further. It is certainly not worth asking those in the government whose minds are clearly made up, even though a number of members of the government have talked to me privately and have said how outrageous they think this is and how appalled they are by Senator Abetz's behaviour. Senior members of the government came and said that they expected the government would not proceed with this decision. But obviously the government has made the decision to bat on. I am sorry that is the case. It reflects very poorly on the government and it reflects even more poorly on Senator Abetz, but I suppose it is standard operating procedure for him. All those parliamentarians who are not in possession of a marriage certificate and those upon whom he did cast a slur who are legally married and who intended to use their gold pass entitlements for both their legally married spouse, according to him, and their de facto spouse, whether that is possible or not, and I assume it is your legally married spouse and your mistress—all these sorts of fantasies Senator Abetz has had about the sorts of arrangements that allegedly would be entered into by life gold pass holders; God knows what Senator Abetz does with his time back in his office to be involved in all this creative and fanciful dreaming about the behaviour of members of parliament and, more particularly, former members of parliament—can all be so thankful.

I think the suggestion that the legislation might lead to a menage a trois—this sort of nonsense—is exposed as the view of a very distorted mind, the view of someone who really does not have any understanding of the way in which modern society works and the tolerance and the decency required in modern Australia. But so be it, such is Senator Abetz's attitude, and at this stage he finds a temporary majority in the government on this issue. That is a pity as far as the Labor Party are concerned. There are bigger fish to fry and there are more important priorities, so we will just get on with them.