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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5235

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (10:18 AM) —I thank honourable senators for their contributions. The Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 is designed to recognise community standards and limit the life gold pass entitlement, standardise the entitlement via a single legislative instrument, enhance the integrity of the arrangements and require the forfeiture of the pass if a person found guilty of a corruption offence is the subject of a superannuation order withdrawing the employer's contribution to the parliamentary superannuation scheme. The bill does this by recognising the requirements of accountability, flexibility and transparency.

In the course of the debate I think that it is fair to say that honourable senators shared the government objectives in putting the bill forward but that there is a range of views, as indeed there is in the community, as to where the right balance should be struck. There are those who see the pass as a carryover from a different time who would like to see it withdrawn altogether, and there are others who believe it should be expanded to include a wider range of people—that is, the de facto partner of a retired member or senator as well as legally married spouses. It has also been suggested that no limitation should be placed on those who have had an unlimited entitlement—that is, the persons who qualified for the entitlement prior to 1 January 1994.

The bill takes as its reference point the determination that the Remuneration Tribunal first made in 1993, and continued in subsequent determinations, that sets the upper limit for the number of trips per year at 25. That is the standard basic arrangement under the bill, with the unlimited entitlement of former prime ministers being scaled back to 40 trips per annum. The arrangements for widows have also been scaled back and, on the basis of experience, should meet their needs. In this context the government has considered expanding the entitlements to, for example, persons in a de facto relationship, but the government believes that it would be neither appropriate nor in accordance with the basic intention of the bill, which, as mentioned earlier, is to place a limit on the entitlement. The bill also establishes a clear automatic mechanism for the forfeiture of the pass if a person found guilty of a corruption offence is required by a court to forgo his or her parliamentary superannuation entitlement.

The overall arrangements are enhanced by clear definitions of key terms, clear processes for the transitional arrangements and for pro rata adjustments if a person becomes eligible during a financial year, clear processes for recovery action in the event of misuse of the entitlement, clear processes for restitution if a pass is restored to a person, and the constitutional safety net in the unlikely event that a court were to find that restriction of the entitlement impacted on the property rights of a former senator or member.

The bill has been brought forward in recognition of community concern about the entitlements provided to senators and members and former senators and members. In keeping with those concerns, it standardises and limits the entitlements and significantly enhances the integrity of the arrangements. The government has already commenced a process of increased transparency by tabling details of the usage of the entitlements each six months. This was done administratively.

I would like to respond to a few comments made by previous speakers. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate suggested that this matter would be better handled by the Remuneration Tribunal. However, the real reason for the need for this bill is that the Remuneration Tribunal does not have the power to act on those who have already retired or have already received their life gold pass. It has no power to change already granted entitlements, hence the need for the bill. The appropriate body for determining who is eligible to travel using the life gold pass is the Remuneration Tribunal and not the parliament. It has been the Remuneration Tribunal, and not parliament, which has set conditions of eligibility since 1976. This bill is not the way to do this. Should the definition of spouse be expanded, it would be my suggestion that that be done by way of application to the Remuneration Tribunal, although of course it would not reach back to those that have already retired.

Senator Ray made a suggestion that the Remuneration Tribunal should look at giving Comcar access to life gold pass holders. I can indicate to Senator Ray that that view had crossed my mind, and the appropriate communication has been had in relation to that. But the Remuneration Tribunal is of the view that the life gold pass was never meant to include Comcar services. So that is the response to that matter. I thank honourable senators for their contributions.

Before concluding, I should make some comments on the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee's report on this bill. I want to commend and thank the committee, and especially its chairman, Senator Brett Mason, for a very thoughtful report. I recognise that the issues raised are real ones and worthy of consideration. There are four issues I want to deal with. The first issue is the overall review of the entire remuneration package. The remuneration package provided to senators and members, including the post-retirement entitlements, has been developed and tailored over an extended period to recognise their unique role and responsibility in Australian society.

The committee is right, I believe, to recognise that the life gold pass entitlement should not be looked at in isolation. The fact that it was introduced 80-odd years ago does not mean that it is no longer appropriate. There is no doubt that it is a benefit not generally available to retired persons from other walks of life. Service in the Australian parliament is unique, and the fact that there is a facility available for retired senators and members to be able to continue their contact with the Australian community and community groups is appropriate. It is important, of course, that we recognise our special position of trust and that we honour that trust. The committee's view that the overall entitlements package should be reviewed by the Remuneration Tribunal has been noted. However, it is not government policy to support the end of the life gold pass.

The second issue went to expanding the definition of spouse. The bill is about limiting the entitlement and applying a more rigorous regime. It would be inconsistent with the thrust of the bill to expand the coverage to include de facto spouses and thereby increase the draw on the public purse. The third issue is the definition of commercial purpose for travel. I note the committee's conclusion that travel using the life gold pass should be confined, for all intents and purposes, to the continued provision of service to the Australian community. However, senators will know that in large measure this is the case. I believe we have to be very careful, however, that in moving to so closely specify what is an acceptable purpose the system does not become either unworkable or impossibly expensive to administer. This is, of course, a matter which could sensibly be looked at in any overall review of the entitlements framework, but it would not be appropriate to do so in isolation.

The fourth issue raised was certification and accountability. The committee has raised a number of matters for consideration under the heading `Certification and accountability'. These are matters relating to the implementation of the proposed legislation and its administration by the Department of Finance and Administration. The suggestions, as already noted, merit close consideration, and I note that Senator Murray has in fact moved those suggestions as a second reading amendment. I just flag at this stage that we would request that that amendment be put in two parts—first (a) to (d) and then (e) separately—as we as a government have no difficulty with (a) to (d) but we do have a difficulty with (e). I will not be seeking to divide the Senate on (e); we will simply record our opposition to it.

We oppose (e) because it would impose a higher standard of public disclosure on life gold pass holders than applies to current members of parliament. It seems to me that it would not be appropriate for the parliament to do that to life gold pass holders when we do not do it to ourselves. Those of us who are actually in public life should be very accountable, but often our spouses are not necessarily interested in the public notoriety that we sometimes attract. So for privacy reasons and other reasons, we as a government are of the view that (e) would be inappropriate. As the debate continues, I would invite the opposition in particular to give consideration to whether it is of benefit to agree to paragraph (e) in the amendment moved by Senator Murray. I note that the committee's report supports the passage of the bill, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Before putting Senator Murray's second reading amendment in two parts, I wish to make an interest declaration that, although I am a serving senator, I have an entitlement to a life gold pass on retirement. The question is that Senator Murray's second reading amendment paragraphs (a) to (d) be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —The question now is that paragraph (e) of the second reading amendment moved by Senator Murray be agreed to.

Question agreed to.