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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 863

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (19:34): My contribution will be short, perhaps not quite as short as Senator Ryan's or Senator Rhiannon's, but I think it is important that we put a few things in context, and I have an amendment that I will move in the committee stage of this bill. I understood, when I spoke to the Special Minister of State's office, that the government was not inclined to support the amendment, but I believe in miracles. Who knows? Senator Feeney may have some different news for me, although I doubt it.

We need to put this in context. This bill relates to consequential amendment. It relates to recommendations made arising out of the Belcher review, and that was a very useful process. I would like to commend the work done by former Special Ministers of State Faulkner and Ludwig, and I would particularly like to thank the current Special Minister of State, the Hon. Gary Gray, for the work his office has done to bring about some reforms to the system.

When we dealt with the issue of the independence of the Remuneration Tribunal, I raised some concerns about issues of transparency and openness, and I will discuss that further in the context of the amendment I will be moving. I think it is very important when we consider legislation such as this that it should not be not about us; it should be about the people who voted for us. The people of Australia are our employers. Their taxes pay our salaries, their votes give us our jobs and their confidence or otherwise, and they determine our futures. Like any employer, the Australian people deserve to have some say in what they pay their employees. There has been a long-time argument that politicians deserve to be paid on an equal footing with other industries—wages relativity, if you like. I think that what the Remuneration Tribunal has done by speaking to a number of MPs—and I was one of those—was a very useful and good exercise. I was impressed with the forensic nature of what they did, and I think that the secretariat of the Remuneration Tribunal should also be commended for their professionalism and the way they tackled the task in their discussions with MPs and senators. I think that was a very good exercise.

While I accept that if you pay peanuts you are most likely to get monkeys, we cannot forget that our sole purpose in being here is to represent our constituents. Schemes like the Life Gold Pass might not raise an eyebrow in another industry but they erode the faith that Australians have in their representatives. People believe fairly enough that, after we retire, we are not here to enjoy business class flights and comfy pension packages. I can understand why there is significant public opprobrium in relation to the gold pass scheme. I think there is one exception: we need to make sure that our former prime ministers are treated differently. My understanding is that they are, and I do not think we will ever go to the stage—nor should we—of the way they treat former presidents of the United States. It is fair to say that if you have been a Prime Minister of this nation then you have something to offer. You are in demand from the community from all over to discuss and be requested to open an art exhibition or speak on issues of public policy. It is quite reasonable that those gold pass entitlements ought to continue for former prime ministers if they are travelling for the purpose of public duties arising from the fact that they are a former Prime Minister.

I support the government's intentions in this bill and, even though they have been a long time coming, there have been some welcome reforms. I think we need to go further. I propose some amendments to this bill that will require the Remuneration Tribunal to hold public consultations before making a determination into politicians' pay or entitlements, and I will expand on this during the committee stage. I note that the government has previously made changes to the Remuneration Tribunal's operations and their powers. Having true independence is a good thing but it ought to be coupled with greater transparency. I believe those changes need to go further. One of the Australian Labor Party's founding principles is 'a fair day's work for a fair day's wage', and there are not too many who would disagree with that. It should apply to those who make the rules as much as to those who are required to obey them. There needs to be a transparent process for evaluating politicians' pay and entitlements, a process that takes into account the positions of the general public, of interest groups and of politicians themselves. In the real world there are not many people who would get to decide whether they should get a pay rise, and I think that is why it is good that there is now independence on the part of the tribunal.

It is important to strengthen confidence in the process of politicians' pay and their entitlements and to have a process that is much more transparent, where there is a public hearing process and where public submissions are called for. I note that the Remuneration Tribunal did that in previous years, but mandating that the tribunal do this does not fetter their independence; it is a question of ensuring some essential processes to ensure that occurs. Whether we like it or not there is a higher standard on politicians to be transparent, particularly in respect of the processes that relate to their pay and conditions being altered. It is an honour to serve Australia in this place but it does not make me or anyone here deserving of special treatment, and that is why it is important that this legislation ought to be strengthened.

I will have some questions at the committee stage about the issue of the decoupling of politicians' superannuation, those who were elected prior to the changes in 2004 and these changes. They will be genuine questions as to how this will work and what formula will apply to ensure that there is not an unnecessary windfall, which is the intention of this bill. I want to ask some technical questions in relation to how this will actually work. I would like to hear from my colleagues on all sides as to whether or not they support some greater transparency and why the Remuneration Tribunal, which I think is made up of honourable and capable people, along with its secretariat, would not be able to accommodate these amendments to have a much better system of determining politicians' pay and entitlements.