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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6645

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (8:10 PM) —Those listening to this broadcast would be forgiven for thinking that they were listening to a debate on another matter, as opposed to a debate on the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002. In that bill, we as a government have sought to restrict the use of the life gold pass and also to ensure that those who are convicted of certain offences and have had their superannuation entitlement stripped from them should also have their life gold pass stripped from them. We have heard a personal, vitriolic attack, yet again from Senator Faulkner. It seems that the Australian Labor Party—especially Senator Faulkner—think that there are certain points to be gained by misrepresenting. That is for the Labor Party to live with. They can decide what their attitude to this matter is.

The simple fact is that we as a government announced that we would restrict the life gold pass. The definition of `spouse' is not a matter that the government has determined on its own. It is in fact the definition that has applied since 1976. Since 1976 there have been many years—13 years—of Labor government; in fact, there have been too many. Did they ever seek to change the definition of `spouse' in relation to life gold passes? The answer is no. Was that because of their moralistic stance? Was that for all the reasons that Senator Faulkner tried to ascribe to me?

Since they lost government, quite deservedly, in 1996 there has been six years of opposition for the Australian Labor Party. If they were so motivated, so committed to this issue of equity, they could have brought to the Remuneration Tribunal their proposition that we are debating today. Did they? The answer is a resounding no. Between 1976 and when they won government in 1983 did they seek to change the definition of `spouse'? No, they did not. Was it, as a result, that they were committed to all of these moralistic reasons that are now allegedly being ascribed to me? Of course it was not. They know it, and therefore they know that the matters that they are trying to visit upon me tonight are false, fallacious and full of hyperbole. What would motivate somebody to make those sorts of attacks is beyond me.

I can understand the principle of the argument that there is now within the community a wide acceptance of de facto relationships. But this bill is designed to limit the life gold pass benefit. We as a government were not about to take on the one hand and give with the other whilst the Remuneration Tribunal had not made its determination. Moral outrage has been expressed by the Australian Labor Party this evening, but since 1976 they have not tried to change the bill. In recent times they have tried to pass an amendment to the bill, but it goes against everything that the government wants in relation to this—that is, limiting the burden to the taxpayer of the life gold pass.

It was interesting to hear from the Greens and the Democrats, in particular, who so moralistically said: `We do not like the life gold pass—it should be abolished. But if you do keep it we want you to ramp it up so that it costs taxpayers even more money.' That is a duplicitous argument, with due respect. My good friend Senator Murray says, `This is indicative of a government that has lost its touch.' Representing the Australian Democrats, Senator Murray, I would not be talking too much about losing touch. Senator Brown—and I welcome him back from his sickbed, and I trust he will make a full and speedy recovery—sees that the majority of Australians would not agree with our attitude to this bill. I doubt, quite frankly, that the majority of Australians would say that the life gold pass entitlement should be ramped up—that there ought to be a greater burden on the Australian taxpayer.

Senator Ray was quite right—and Senator Faulkner himself knows—that I, from time to time, sign off on entitlements for people in this place and their de facto spouses. Senator Faulkner knows that, yet he has the audacity to come into this chamber and make all sorts of assertions against me personally, which he knows are simply false—they are untrue.

Senator Faulkner —But they're all true.

Senator ABETZ —Senator Faulkner says that they are all true. That is the disappointing thing about the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate: he never displays any good grace. At least Senator Ray can show some good grace in a debate like this. He can disagree on the principles and suggest that things could be finessed et cetera without stooping to the sort of personal vitriolic attack that the people who listen to this debate—and it does not worry me—have to endure hearing from someone who would be the alternative Leader of the Government in the Senate in the event that the Labor Party were ever elected.

Senator Faulkner —That's a revelation.

Senator ABETZ —It is a revelation that the Labor Party might be elected, Senator Faulkner, given the current circumstances. As I have indicated, since 1976 the eligibility criteria for life gold pass travel have been set exclusively by the Remuneration Tribunal. So for the last 26 years or so—for over a quarter of a century—this definition has stood without the Australian Labor Party amending it while in government or making a submission about it to the Remuneration Tribunal. If Labor feel so strongly about it, I suggest to them that they should go about things in the proper way—that is, they should go to the Remuneration Tribunal, convince it of their argument and let our entitlements be enhanced through that process, as opposed to us legislating increased entitlements for ourselves.

That is the big differentiation in this debate—and the people of Australia should remember this when they decide at the next election, whenever that might be, who would be the better steward of their funds. We as a government have drawn a line in the sand and said that what the Remuneration Tribunal has done in the past has been overgenerous and we believe it ought to be limited. The Australian Labor Party have rushed into this debate and it is indicative of their attitude—and I accept and am thankful that they will not press for it anymore—that, if given the chance, they would in fact enhance parliamentarian entitlements against the definition provided by the Remuneration Tribunal.

When we talk about what the majority of Australians feel and think, I am sure that the majority would say that the enhancement of parliamentarian entitlements, especially in retirement, is not something that they would necessarily identify with. In fact, I believe there is still comment and argument in the community that, even with our limitations, these entitlements are still too generous. But the people of Australia need to understand that the Australian Labor Party were of the view that, while things were being limited in one area, they should in fact be enhanced in another.

I am delighted that the Australian Labor Party will now allow this legislation to go through. I can understand the situation that we do not want this to go backwards and forwards between the House and the Senate. I welcome the Australian Labor Party's agreement to allow this legislation to go through. The importance of it is in fact what Senator Ray indicated—it is important that we as a parliament ensure that any parliamentarian convicted of corruption who is stripped of their superannuation entitlement is also stripped of their life gold pass entitlement. There is debate about whether a de facto partner should be acknowledged in this bill, but should that take precedence over or be more important than ensuring that those convicted of corruption do not get their entitlement? It is interesting that the Green approach appears to be: yes, this argument about de facto partners is more important than ensuring that those convicted of corruption do not benefit from any life gold pass entitlements that otherwise would have accrued to them. I commend the bill to the committee.