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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12283


Mr GRAY (Brand) (16:29): The opposition will be supporting the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. The bill adjusts entitlements for serving parliamentarians and the bill attends to issues that affect retired parliamentarians. The bill also abolishes the gold pass.

Although the opposition will be supporting this bill through this place and will support the bill when it gets to the Senate, there are issues attached to this bill and the bill should be improved. It should be improved for its content, its purpose and its practical operability. That is why I have referred it to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. I hope that in that committee process we can improve the poor structure and purpose of the bill and that can be attended to in an effective and efficient manner.

The government's purpose here is good. Abolishing the gold pass is a good thing to do. We had closed the gold pass in 2012. We believed that that was both a safe course of action and a prudent course of action. The government's choice to abolish the gold pass is an action that is supported by the opposition and an action that is contained in this bill.

I am concerned that other changes in the bill have not been driven by or even properly considered by the Remuneration Tribunal. They should have been. Any matter affecting the entitlements and remuneration—certainly the salary and conditions—of MPs should only ever get into this place after it has been thoroughly considered by the Remuneration Tribunal and recommended by the Remuneration Tribunal. Not to have the Remuneration Tribunal fully considering and recommending is a weakness. I accept that the Remuneration Tribunal has been consulted in part on these measures, but these measures do not arise organically out of the consideration by the Remuneration Tribunal.

The reason the Remuneration Tribunal is structured as it is is to simply separate decisions about MPs' entitlements and conditions from us the parliamentarians. We carefully select the Remuneration Tribunal members. Some have been members for in excess of a decade. They have in mind why decisions were made in 2008 and why they were made in 2012 and how they might relate to decisions that get made in 2014. That body of wisdom and that consideration has not been brought to bear on this bill. Politicians should not be writing their own entitlement arrangements even though on this occasion what this bill does is abolish a significant entitlement and create new entitlements in other areas.

Let us go through it in some detail. It cuts travel for dependent children. I can see no good purpose, at a time when our work and lifestyle in this place are hard enough on families, to make that change for the travel of dependent children, albeit for children aged over 18 and under 25. They are still in the category of dependent children. No parliament has ever done that.

It cuts the entitlement to travel for former prime ministers. We have never in this chamber cut an entitlement for a former Prime Minister. I was asked to do it once by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and I refused to do it. We should refuse to do it this time too. Our former prime ministers do immense good work. Even when that immense good work is in a partisan way and even when that immense good work is to support their political parties, they are still functioning in our community as former prime ministers.

I can tell you quite honestly that John Howard coming down to campaign in my electorate would be a good thing for visibility in the city of Rockingham, Kwinana or Mandurah, as it was when Bob Hawke came to Kwinana, Rockingham and Mandurah. These are good things for former prime ministers to be doing. But more important than that our former prime ministers travel our country bringing exposure to issues and communities in ways that only add to the service that they have already committed to in this place. I would not cut one single entitlement of a former Prime Minister.

The bill imposes cost-recovery onto ministers for errors made by others. The ministers may not even know of, or even reasonably be expected to know about, these errors that may have occurred by the minister's staff. The bill creates a cost-recovery process that the minister may not understand that comes from a future travel entitlement payment to that minister. This is not transparency. This is not effective governance.

No-one is standing in this place arguing in support of loosening our system, but it has to be practical and it has to be workable. The measures in this bill take it beyond the workability stage. It is not wise legislation and I would replace it if I were the minister at no additional cost to the taxpayer. I would seek advice and publish the advice from the Remuneration Tribunal. There are unwise measures in this bill and they can be fixed at no additional cost to the taxpayer and they will produce, I am convinced, better outcomes, better transparency, better management systems and hold not just members and senators accountable but also those people in the Department of Finance who sign off on travel and travel allowances for members. It was my experience as a former minister that there were occasions when my then department got things wrong. Embarrassment was created for members of parliament when the department got things wrong. I used to ask the department to apologise directly to the members and senators who had been the victims of the errors made by the department. I think that is an important point of accountability too.

I understand some retired members will challenge this legislation in the High Court. I disassociate myself from that. I am enthusiastic to support the parts of this bill that abolish the gold pass and previous legislation under my time as minister that may also be challenged in the High Court. Labor supports this bill but thinks it can be improved. It will not be improved in the High Court. In government I worked with the opposition minor parties and even the crossbenchers to introduce measures that were proposed, always proposed, by the Remuneration Tribunal. They addressed areas of salaries. They addressed areas of entitlement use. They addressed areas of accountability, and they were always agreed on the basis of the independence of the Remuneration Tribunal and, dare I say it, the integrity that was brought to the table by a genuinely bipartisan approach to resolving these issues. I congratulate the now Speaker of this place on the terrific role that she played when shadow minister.

In 2012, one measure that we changed was to remove the non-gold passed, post-service travel from 25 return trips, which is what it was from 2004—25 return trips at business class to anywhere in Australia, and that applied for five years. We replaced it with five trips to Canberra in the six months after leaving parliament. That may have been an extreme cut, but I do not think any of us could genuinely justify 25 return trips at the conclusion of parliamentary service. Those five fares in six months have changed in this bill to 10 trips per year over six years. That seems excessive when the Remuneration Tribunal had been asked to consider cost-less measures—measures that did not cost the taxpayer anything, such as making the resettlement payment a redundancy payment, a measure that would not have cost the taxpayer.

Currently, when a member or senator ceases their term of duty and are thrown out by the people—they lose an election—there is a resettlement allowance paid if you have served more than one term in the parliament, or two terms or three. Because that is paid as salary it is taxed as salary. It should be a redundancy payment. It is a cost-less measure that could be attended to that is about fairness and is about the proper equal treatment of parliamentarians as with other classes of employees, albeit employed by the parliament. I regret that I did not get an opportunity to attend to that measure; I simply did not know it existed as a problem until after the last election.

I have had raised with me since the last election the possibility of self-managed superannuation funds also being available to receive parliamentary superannuation payments. It never occurred to me that that was not the case. That is a cost-less measure. I would have done that in a blink of an eye if I had been asked. There are measures that can be done that support, enhance and assist parliamentarians that literally do not cost a cent.

Other measures that are needed could be funded through winding back the 60 post-service travel trips, and they include occupational health and safety sickness benefit insurance. It is missing for MPs and senators. An MP or a senator who is injured at work is entirely at risk for that cost themselves. I know that because I enjoyed the hospitality of the Western Australian hospital system as a consequence of a cardiac event that I sustained in the north of Western Australia in 2011 on the duty of a parliamentarian.

It should be the case that from the point of election to the point of not being a parliamentarian, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, we in this place are covered for simple occupational health and safety benefit insurance. It is a cheap thing to do, especially for a class of people such as parliamentarians and senators whereas individually the cost of carrying that insurance is quite high—on occasions for an individual as high as $6,000. We have seen former MPs and senators leave their service having been harmed. Our resettlement provisions are not adequate and should be considered by the Remuneration Tribunal in light of modern employment practices. Any changes should be funded by reconsideration of the 10 trips per year as allocated in my earlier reference.

The measures in this bill do not build upon the processes that had been created throughout what we used to call the Minchin protocol or the high-level Department of Finance processes for considering when an MP or a senator has got something wrong or has deliberately made a mistake. The process right now is under the Minchin protocol—so called because former Special Minister of State, Nick Minchin, in the late 1990s designed it. Should any of us—any of the 226 members or senators—have even a reference made in a newspaper or on a website about potential entitlement abuse, the Department of Finance looks at it. They consider it, they look at it and they make a decision as to whether or not they need to carry out a further level of investigation. It is a good system. The member is not informed until such time as the member or senator needs to be informed. The minister is not informed. It is a good process. It protects the integrity of our system and it allows all of us to know that, should a question be raised about the behaviour of any of us, there is a very good system that has survived 15 years, designed by former minister Nick Minchin in order to protect not only the taxpayer but also the integrity of parliamentarians.

The measures in this bill, unless amended, will cause ministers great concern, and that is not productive. It is not useful, and in my view it is not probity. The opposition will support the government to pass this bill. When governments wish to attend to matters such as the gold pass in this way, they deserve to have the complete support of our parliament and they will have that. We would prefer to improve the bill. As I have said, at the first opportunity I will support a full reconsideration of the measures funded by the unnecessary expenses created by this bill and on the advice of recommendation of the Remuneration Tribunal will present an amending bill.

We believe better processes exist to deal with incorrect payments. I am not here referring to the 25 per cent surcharge for any incorrect claims; that is fine. I am dealing here with the processes for investigating and then allocating that decision. Transparency should also include the Department of Finance documenting the advice it gives to MPs and senators. It should provide advice and it should keep that advice on file for consistent advice's purpose. Consistent advice is important to parliamentarians. For instance, the bill requires that all travel post-service be for public benefit. It sounds good, but I do not think it would include travel to attend Gough Whitlam's funeral—and I think it should. And I am not even prepared to advise any of my friends who are former parliamentarians to seek advice from the department on whether or not they could utilise their travel to attend the funeral of the former Prime Minister; it is just too risky, and this bill makes it unnecessarily risky.

Because we cannot get the advice that helps parliamentarians and senators do their job well, sometimes there are things that we just cannot do. The bill cuts the ability of former Prime Ministers to function. We have never thought this dignified or useful. We should not be cutting the ability or capability of our former Prime Minister's, even to campaign. I know that if any us or if any journalists contact a former Prime Minister, any of our former Prime Minister's would say: take it away. They are decent people. They deserve to be protected by us. They do not deserve to be cut by us.

I would like to see our former Prime Ministers travel. I would like to see Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Paul Keating, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd all active and travelling our country. Let's not cut the ability of our former MPs to function in our community or in our political community. Let's make their travel and their ability to function unlimited, as annoying as that would be to all of us on occasions. But enjoyable it would be to the fabric of our political community and our broader community to see these men and women continuing to do their work in our community and for our community. The bill introduces even more bureaucracy, paperwork and cost. It does nothing to make the work of MPs or ministers or officers of the parliament more effective.

In conclusion, I want to work with the government to fix this bill. By all means pass it if you need to but let's do better than that. Let's improve its effect upon MPs and senators, fix some of the problems and save some money. Get the gold pass abolished and do some good, and do it on the advice of the Remuneration Tribunal not on the thoughts and the whims that have come to us in the form of this bill. When this bill is put to a vote, the opposition will support it and support it to a person. I tell the government: we can do better, we should do better and we are prepared to do better. Through the Senate committee, I hope that is one very good way that we can make this bill do better.