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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1164

Senator DI NATALE (VictoriaLeader of the Australian Greens) (13:09): I speak in support of the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. It did take quite a while to get here, but we have finally got here. We will support this legislation, but we also have some amendments that we will be putting forward. We got here because of a number of scandals—far too many—that have occurred over many years, diminishing the standing of politicians in the eyes of the public. Politicians are one of the least trusted professions in the country. When you go from being an ordinary general practitioner to being a politician you understand what it is like to take a slide down the rankings when it comes to respected professions.

It is hardly any surprise. We have members of parliament who claim to attend weddings, some MPs who actually claim for their honeymoon, MPs who scope out investment properties, some MPs catching a $5,000 helicopter flight, when a train ride costs $8 and, indeed, when you go by Comcar you would actually get there more quickly. So it is very important that we as a chamber start to make progress on this issue.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Comcar? You don't use a Comcar, do you?

Senator DI NATALE: I note the interjection from Senator Macdonald, who thinks it is okay to continue to protect the privileged life we as politicians lead. I understand he thinks that unlimited international travel is something that politicians should be entitled to. Well, we don't, Senator Macdonald. We actually think that it is about time that politicians started to act in a way that is consistent not just with what the community expects of us but is actually consistent with what is fair and decent.

This bill is an important step forward and we welcome it. We think the government has made some significant steps in the right direction. It will remove significant perks for former members of parliament but there is still a long way to go. We still have the pre-2004 pension system. So if you were elected prior to 2004 you get this incredibly generous pension system, which is a significant liability on the government budget. At a time when this government is trying to take money out of the pockets of single parents, of young people and of pensioners, they think it is okay that members of parliament, former ministers for example, can receive more than $200,000 a year in a parliamentary pension and then on top of that get paid for their 'jobs for the boys' gigs, whether it be as human rights representatives with DFAT or indeed in their ambassadorial roles. Really! If we are going to do this properly, isn't it about time we end the rort that is the pre-2004 pension system.

We have a situation in this country where ordinary people are getting squeezed, where we are seeing very little wage growth, and yet pollies' salaries are already in the top 1.6 per cent of taxpayers. On top of that we get a $32,000 electorate allowance. Only a few moments ago in this chamber we had the Labor party and Liberal Party joining together to say, 'No, we do not want any restrictions on politicians pocketing that money.' A reasonable amendment to this legislation, or indeed a reasonable motion, would be that that money, which is called an electorate allowance, actually be spent on the electorate, on politicians doing their parliamentary duties, rather than that money being pocketed as salary.

Senator Ian Macdonald: So you give yours back, do you?

Senator DI NATALE: No, Senator Macdonald. Again, I will take that interjection. We do not give ours back; we spend it on the electorate. We spend it on our parliamentary duties. You, Senator Macdonald, might choose to pocket it but we do not. We think that that money is there for an intended purpose and there should be rules in place to ensure that money cannot be taken as salary.

These perks have serious flow-on effects when it comes to the making of public policy. We have budgets like that 2014 Tony Abbott budget handed down, because they completely lose touch of what it is like for ordinary people, the great bulk of the population. They lose touch with what it is like to go out to a dinner or to a business lunch and actually have to pay for it. Yes, it is true, we work hard. Politicians do work hard—it is a tough gig—but we all chose to do it. And, guess what, so many other members of the community work bloody hard, too. My dad was an electrician. I lost count of the times he got home from work and collapsed on the couch, because he had been up at 6, inside roofs and underneath houses, wiring up in 40 degree temperatures, and then came home and collapsed on the couch at 7 o'clock that night. He worked hard and so too do the nurses who care for the injured people. They work hard. The teachers work hard looking after kids. Community lawyers are working hard for people without a voice. Counsellors who support people at women's refuges, shop assistants, farm workers, the people who make your coffee every day in this place, they all work hard. The Comcar drivers and the gardeners, they work hard, too. And guess what? They do not get the perks that we get. They do not get the pay that we get. Let us make sure that the system of entitlements that exists at the moment is actually consistent with the lives that ordinary people lead.

This bill does go some way to helping us get there, and that is why we are supporting it. We absolutely support the intent of this legislation. We have been talking now for many years about establishing an independent authority, like that being proposed by the government, as part of a broader national anticorruption watchdog. We believe that this body should sit within that framework. Having that body sit within that framework gives people confidence.

If anything, the wake-up call that parliaments right around the world have received from the election of the likes of Donald Trump in the US and, indeed, Brexit in the UK is that people are feeling unrepresented. They feel that the distance between their elected representatives and the community is now so great that they have decided that they have had a gutful, and they are looking for other options. Who can blame them?

We need to make sure that what we do in this place addresses the huge and growing democratic deficit that I think is undermining good governance in this nation. That is why it is so critical that we ensure that the parliamentary allowances system is reformed—but reformed thoroughly so that we get a root-and-branch review. We will be continuing to argue that the electorate allowance should be spent on the community, on politicians embarking on their parliamentary duties, and not taken as salary.

As my colleague Senator Rhiannon said earlier, this is regarded by many in this place as a backdoor pay increase. It should not be done that way. It should be spent on people conducting their duties. That is why the pre-2004 pension system needs to go. It is staggering that we have former ministers on pensions of over $200,000 who are in another job—usually allocated by the government of the day—and also receiving a salary for that work, earning sometimes in excess of $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000. That is completely inappropriate, and we need to end the parliamentary pensions system as it currently exists.

With reference to this bill, we have some amendments proposed by Senator Bernardi which would make a politician's superannuation available only at the age of 60, which is the preservation age available for everybody else to access super. We do not know what the budget impact of this proposal is. Most people on the Life Gold Pass system would probably be close to 60, but it is still a principle that is worthy of support. It is still a principle that is worthy of support.

The other proposed amendment that would require a PM to have served at least four years before being eligible for the gold pass is an improvement, and it should be supported, but we believe that we should have no exceptions. The gold pass should go. If you are a former Prime Minister, you are engaged in many other activities and often have speaking engagements, earning significant salary for the work that you do. You should be able to pay for your international and interstate travel. Most of the engagements that you are involved in, if they are work related, will be paid for by the people who are inviting you to participate, so why on earth do we need to continue the gold pass for former prime ministers?

Like in our proposed amendment, the Prime Minister would be aligned with other MPs under the amendment proposed by One Nation. However, there is a further amendment that would deny former PMs the ability to have offices and staff. Because this establishment of offices and staff is created by regulation, and this bill attempts to cancel out any benefit under any administrative scheme, the impacts are potentially very wide. It is for that reason that we cannot support that specific amendment.

Senator Xenophon's proposed amendments would increase penalties from the proposed loading of 25 per cent to up to 200 per cent. If there is more than one contravention within 12 months, the penalty would be lifted to 400 per cent, which is why we will consider supporting those amendments.

We have a broken system. We have a broken system that for too long has allowed politicians to be able to claim expenses for things that ordinary members of the community would not dream of claiming for. Being able to go to your own honeymoon and claim it on the taxpayer is remarkable. Being able to catch a helicopter for a flight that would take you longer in the chopper than it would to drive by car—$5,000 on the taxpayer—is remarkable. Going away to a five-star holiday resort with the family for two weeks and then claiming it as a work expense is just not on.

We need to acknowledge that we have been given a wake-up call in this parliament. We have been given a wake-up call as a result of what we have seen right around the world and certainly in our own most recent election, where people in greater numbers are looking for alternatives to the Coles and Woolies duopoly: the Labor and Liberal parties.

What we need to do is ensure that we fix this system and fix it properly. We will support this legislation, but it is important that we go further. It is important that the electorate allowance be restricted to politicians' work and not be taken as salary, and it is about time we got rid of the pension scheme that allows people who are working in other work to also claim a pension, sometimes in excess of $200,000 a year. But, having said all of that, we do welcome these changes, and we look forward to more coming down the line so that we can start to restore people's trust in what is a broken system.