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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4760

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (5:35 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This bill is designed to put the entitlements of former Senators and Members on a standardised basis, to enhance the integrity of the scheme, to apply limits to those entitlements which have previously been uncapped and to provide that a former Senator or Member who, because of a conviction for a corruption offence, is required to forfeit his or her superannuation benefits must also forego the entitlement to travel at taxpayers' expense.

To fully appreciate the desirability for a bill of this nature it is important to recognise that the Life Gold Pass entitlement, including the entitlement for widows and widowers to travel at Commonwealth expense, has in the past been provided under different authorities, including under different determinations of the Remuneration Tribunal. As a result differing arrangements apply for entitlees depending on when they retired from the Parliament or when they first met the qualifying periods to establish eligibility for the Pass.

The bill sets forward an overall systematic framework to sensibly and fairly accommodate the various classes of entitlees and the entitlements which have applied to them up to this time.

That said the basic arrangements put forward in the bill are those set out by the Prime Minister in his statement of 27 September 2001 on Parliamentary entitlements. In that statement, in which the Prime Minister foreshadowed this legislation, he said that the Government had decided that the unlimited access to domestic travel at Commonwealth expense by former Prime Ministers and other former Senators and Members was not consistent with community standards. In future there would be limits on the number of trips which could be undertaken by entitlees, and that those limits would in general be 40 trips per year for former Prime Ministers and 25 trips per year for former Senators and Members.

The bill also limits the travel entitlement of spouses in the same way as for Life Gold Pass holders and makes a provision for widows and widowers, which is more sympathetic to the circumstances of bereavement.

In future it is intended that widows and widowers instead of being provided with unlimited travel for one year following the death of the Life Gold Pass holder will be entitled to two years of travel. However, consistent with the intention to apply appropriate constraints there will be limits on such travel—10 return trips in the first year and 5 return tips in the second year.

The bill also provides a sensible flexibility which has not applied under the uncapped arrangements. In future a spouse may travel with or to join the Life Gold Pass holder even when the holder has travelled without using the entitlement. For example, the Pass holder may privately drive to a destination and then the spouse may fly or travel by train to join the Pass holder. This would be a count against the fixed limit entitlement of 25 trips per annum for the spouse. There is a range of other situations which may arise, including when a Pass holder travels at Commonwealth expense to serve on a Government body and the travel costs are met by that body. Under the new scheme, in such circumstances, the spouses could travel with the Life Gold Pass holder.

There is a small group of widows of members who retired from the Parliament prior to 1 June 1976—the date of effect of the first determination of the Remuneration Tribunal which dealt with the Life Gold Pass issue. Those widows have been provided with unlimited travel indefinitely. It is intended that in future a limit (10 return trips per year for five years and 5 return trips per year thereafter) be placed on that travel. This is the same entitlement that will apply to the widows of all former and future Prime Ministers.

The bill clarifies or puts beyond doubt a number of aspects of the scheme which have led to questions in the past, e.g. travel may not be undertaken for commercial purposes and these are defined. Similarly rules are provided for handling trips involving multiple destinations.

The bill contains numerous machinery measures—e.g. pro rata adjustments for a person who becomes entitled to travel part way through a financial year—this covers not just retirement from the Parliament, but when a sitting member meets the qualifying period (for spouse travel to Canberra) or on marriage or indeed on the death of the Pass holder for the widow or widower.

The bill also includes a substantial section covering the transitional period, which will be from 28 days after Royal Assent to the end of the financial year. As would be anticipated by my opening comments on the variety of existing arrangements in place at present the transitional arrangements need to be especially tailored to meet all possible individual circumstances.

As recent unhappy events have made plain, a major gap in the current scheme is that there is no mechanism which allows the Government to withdraw a benefit to travel at Commonwealth expense from a person convicted of a `corruption offence' within the meaning of the Crimes (Superannuation Benefits) Act 1989. It is quite anomalous that a person who, in the course of carrying out his or her duties as a member of the Parliament, commits an offence which results in the forfeiture of the superannuation benefits provided by the Commonwealth should be able to retain, on release from imprisonment, the benefit of travel at taxpayers' expense.

Consequently, the bill contains forfeiture provisions in relation to both Life Gold Pass and severance travel benefits. These provisions will have effect from the day the bill receives Royal Assent. Essentially, if a court issues an order under the Crimes (Superannuation Benefits) Act 1989 that withdraws the superannuation benefit then withdrawal of the Life Gold Pass and severance travel benefits will follow automatically. There are, of course, provisions which provide for the restoration of the benefit in the event of the revocation of the superannuation order (e.g. because the original corruption conviction was quashed on appeal).

The bill recognises the important role played by the Remuneration Tribunal, as an independent body, in setting the entitlements of Senators and Members. The Tribunal will continue to be responsible for setting the qualifying periods for establishing eligibility for the Life Gold Pass.

It is only, however, by legislation that an overall comprehensive framework applying to all entitlees may be established. With the passing of the bill, that will be in place.

I commend the bill to the Chamber.

Debate (on motion by Senator Crossin) adjourned.