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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17327

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (5:25 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to address the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2003. In doing so I, like others, welcome the appointment of Governor-General designate Major General Jeffery and wish him well in his new endeavours. I simply say that I think he has a huge job ahead of him because of the damage done to the office of Governor-General by the previous occupant. It is now the responsibility of the Governor-General designate, on taking office, to do his best—as he has undertaken—to repair the damage and to clearly prove that he is a person of the people.

Having said that, I thoroughly support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Barton and seconded by the member for Grayndler. I think it is fair to say that there has been a debate in Australia for some time, heightened in more recent times by our experience with respect to the previous Governor-General, about the nature of the post and the method of appointment of the Governor-General. It is for that reason that the opposition in this second reading amendment has again sought to point to our requirement as a nation to give some serious thought to the method of appointing governors-general in the future. This has obviously been part of ongoing consideration by the opposition. As a republican, I must say that, whilst this amendment falls short of my eventual objective, it is a step forward in terms of trying to guarantee that there is proper public scrutiny and accountability with respect to the selection and appointment of the Governor-General.

It is for that reason that I support the second reading amendment, which not only goes to the interim suggestions raised by the Leader of the Opposition on the resignation of the previous Governor-General, Mr Hollingworth, but also suggests some ongoing processes which should be embraced by the current government for the purposes of trying to take some of the politics out of the appointment of the Governor-General in the future. Doing so would garner the maximum public support for the person appointed to such a post and guarantee that his or her appointment had widespread public approval.

I want to deal with some of the history of the current bill and some very important issues of principle which have been raised by previous speakers, including the member for Chifley, and which go to the issues of salary and superannuation arrangements. I do not do this as a criticism of the Governor-General designate; I take this opportunity to raise major weaknesses in the salary and remuneration arrangements that exist in Australia for a range of public appointments, including politicians.

The current act goes to the entitlements of the Governor-General. We all know that the office of Governor-General was created by the Commonwealth Constitution at Federation. In terms of the current operation of Australia, the Governor-General is the Queen's representative in the Commonwealth of Australia. In occupying that position, the Governor-General has a range of powers and functions conferred by the Constitution, most notably the executive power of government. More by convention than constitutional text, the Governor-General is required to act on the advice of his or her Australian ministers in the exercise of these powers, other than in the exceptional circumstance covered by the so-called reserve powers, on which there has been considerable debate over time.

Having dealt in a brief way with the history of the post of Governor-General, I want to deal with some of the provisions of the current act. Prior to 1974 the office of Governor-General was regulated only by the Constitution. Section 3 of the Constitution stated:

There shall be payable ... for the salary of the Governor-General, an annual sum which, until the Parliament otherwise provides, shall be ten thousand pounds.

In April 1974 the incumbent was accordingly being paid $20,000 in Australian decimal currency. At that time, in order to modernise the terms and conditions of appointment to the position of Governor-General, the parliament enacted the Governor-General Act 1974, the principal act. That act provided, for the first time since Federation, a salary increase by parliament. On that occasion, it was increased to $30,000.

It is also interesting to note—and this goes to issues raised by the member for Chifley, some of which he is seeking answers from the Leader of the House on—that up until that time there was no legislative pension scheme for retired governors-general or their widowed spouses. As the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, told the House of Representatives:

Consequently, in a number of cases, it has been necessary for the Government to make ex gratia payments to former Governors-General or to their widows.

Accordingly, in 1974 the parliament legislated to introduce a pension scheme whereby a retired Governor-General was entitled to a pension equivalent to that paid to a retired Chief Justice of the High Court, which was 60 per cent of the Chief Justice's salary. It is better known as the Kerr amendment. Moreover, a widowed spouse of a Governor-General was entitled to a pension rate five-eighths of that payable to a Governor-General. It is also interesting to note that the pension was reduced by the amount of any government pension payable to the recipient.

On that note, I will briefly refer to some of the questions posed by the member for Chifley. I would like these questions answered and the issues raised by them clarified and put beyond any doubt. Firstly, I will go to the issue of the duration of time someone must actually be in office in order to earn an entitlement to a Governor-General's pension. On my reading and understanding of the act, the Governor-General's pension entitlement—as is the case with the judicial pension—is non-contributory. I also understand that the entitlement to a Governor-General's pension is not linked to the duration of the Governor-General's time in office. There is also no provision, as now exists in parliamentary superannuation entitlements, to deny a pension to a person appointed to the post of Governor-General if that person, for example, commits a criminal act. This matter needs to be considered by the government in the same way in which it considered and amended the way pensions of members of parliament are treated in those circumstances.

I seek clarification as to whether my reading of the act is correct in leading me to understand that the Governor-General has no requirement to serve a minimum period to earn an entitlement to the Governor-General's pension.

I also raise a question as to whether the pension is reduced by the amount of any other government pension payable to the recipient. I welcome the decision of the Governor-General designate, Major General Jeffery, to forgo his entitlement to his military pension and to donate it to appropriate charities. On that note, I would indicate that this is in accord with previous decisions made by a range of public office holders. This goes to issues that I believe need to be more thoroughly considered in regard to the operation of pension entitlements—not only the pension entitlements contained in the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2002 but also the pension entitlements of public office holders generally.

With respect to actually forgoing an entitlement, while I give credit to the Governor-General designate, I believe it is in accord with previous decisions made by other people appointed to very important public office positions. I note that Gough Whitlam, a former Prime Minister of Australia, when appointed to the post of Australia's permanent delegate to UNESCO and offered a very generous salary, gave up part of his retirement allowance so that the total salary paid to him for that position was no greater than an ambassador's salary. Governor-General Designate Jeffery joins a rather illustrious class.

With respect to the appointment of a former politician, Mr Bill Hayden, to the office of Governor-General, I also note that he was required—and appropriately so—to forgo his parliamentary entitlement to a pension while occupying that post. That is in accord with the general requirement with respect to the superannuation entitlements of a person appointed as a Governor-General that, on retiring and being entitled to a pension, that pension is reduced by the amount of any other publicly funded pension or retirement allowance payable to the recipient.

I seek clarification from the Leader of the House today as to whether the Governor-General designate—who will, on retirement, be entitled to a Governor-General's pension—will therefore be required in accordance with that principle to forgo an alternative publicly funded pension, his military pension, which I think is entirely in accordance with previous practice with respect to these matters.

I raise these issues because they are very important issues of principle. They do not reflect on Governor-General Designate Jeffery. They are issues of principle which I believe have been long overdue for consideration by this parliament on both sides of the House. My personal view is that we need to clean up our act with respect to parliamentary entitlements to all public office holders. There have been previous offenders from a parliamentary point of view, and there are also offenders who have occupied and occupy a high judicial office at both the state and federal level, who I believe can potentially double-dip when it comes to publicly funded pensions. I raise these issues because I think consideration of these matters by the Australian community is long overdue.

That takes me to the Governor-General Amendment Bill 2003, which correctly raises the issue of entitlements—including salary and pension—and, by reference to the issues that I have raised this evening with respect to the eventual entitlement of a pension, clearly and expressly seeks to rule out any double dipping. For that reason, I seek to define what is properly regarded as double dipping. Double dipping effectively means that a person or spouse receives more than one pension concurrently from public funds, or that they receive a publicly funded pension while they are in receipt of a publicly funded salary. Double dipping can also arise when all or part of a pension is commuted to a lump sum and an MP or their beneficiary, having enjoyed the financial benefits of the lump sum, subsequently regain public office or employment and so accrue further entitlements without financial penalty.

There are a range of opportunities for people to double dip. The issue goes to the capacity of members of parliament to serve in state and federal parliament and vice versa. It also goes to the capacity of members of parliament to not only gain an entitlement to a parliamentary pension but also, on retirement from parliament, be appointed to judicial posts. They then have a capacity on retirement to not only retain their parliamentary pension, but also potentially draw on a non-contributory judicial pension. We also have a range of circumstances, especially with more and more partners choosing to pursue parliamentary or judicial careers, by which both partners can gain an entitlement to a pension.

For an ordinary person in my electorate entitled to the old age pension, when a partner passes on—after a very short period of, if I remember correctly, six weeks—that ordinary person in the Australian community loses his or her entitlement to the old age pension of the spouse or partner. However, with respect to a number of people in public office, when their partner passes on, they maintain the right to continue to receive that publicly funded pension in addition to their own publicly funded pension. We should work towards a system in which, when two people are entitled to a publicly funded pension and one partner passes on, the other has the right to choose which pension they will retain, while the other publicly funded pension disappears. That would be in accordance with the rules applied by this parliament to ordinary wage earners in the Australian community.

Time does not permit me to give a range of examples which go to the issues that I have raised this afternoon. I raised them in a practical way to try and get all of us in this parliament to front up to some of our responsibilities on this front. I do not raise them in an endeavour to embarrass or criticise the Governor-General designate. I wish him well in his new post. But I think, especially in the light of other issues raised by the member for Chifley, that answers ought to be given to some of these issues by the Leader of the House this evening, because they are issues that are frequently raised with me in my work as a local member of parliament and as a shadow minister, especially because many people that I represent in regional Australia are doing it very tough at the moment.

Finally, I go to one other issue raised in the second reading amendment, the application of standing order 74 and the private member's bill moved by the member for Grayndler. This week in this House, we will debate a proposal by the Leader of the House to, I believe correctly, give ordinary citizens a right of reply if they have been wronged in the parliament. But, in the same way, because it goes to an issue of principle, I believe that we in this House in the 21st century ought to have the capacity to criticise the Governor-General if we believe he or she has done wrong, and I also believe, against the provisions of standing order 75, that we ought to have the capacity to criticise members of the judiciary if they have done wrong. I say that because I noted comments by the Governor-General designate in the media today that he desires to be a Governor-General of the people. He also said that he has opinions and that they will be aired—though I note `with a certain discipline'. I quote him from the Australian of today:

But of course one will raise issues, no doubt, in a general sense, because you make an awful lot of speeches and talk to an awful lot of organisations. And you've got to say something other than `it's just nice to be here'. I think I will be able to talk on issues and principles and values and standards, and that sort of thing, quite comfortably as governor-general.

If that is the view of the Governor-General—that he wants to involve himself in public debates on issues of importance to the Australian community—then I, as a representative of the Australian community elected to this House to consider public policy, have the view that, if those comments go to public policy issues before the House, we should have a right to answer issues raised in the public debate by the Governor-General.

It is not only about freedom of speech for the Governor-General; it is also about full and proper debate. I therefore support the second reading amendment moved by the members for Barton and Grayndler and in doing so suggest that it goes to issues of substance and importance. I also raise, in a very serious way as a result of this debate, the fact that it is about time that we got our own house in order with respect to major double-dipping issues for publicly funded pension entitlements, not only for ourselves but also for members of the judiciary and members of state houses of parliament. I commend the second reading amendment to the House.