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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5228

Senator MURRAY (9:40 AM) —The Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002 has as its purpose the establishment of a uniform set of arrangements for all life gold pass holders, their spouses, the widows or widowers of deceased pass holders and spouses of sitting members who have qualified for a life gold pass. The bill proposes annual limits to travel entitlements for all eligible pass holders for the first time. The government's view, as put out in a press release by the Prime Minister on 27 September 2001, was that the previous entitlement to unlimited travel was beyond community standards. The bill does not, however, impose a financial cap on individual entitlements or to the overall cost to the Commonwealth of retirement travel entitlements, which presently runs at about $2 million per annum.

The bill removes the responsibility for determining the level of entitlements available under the life gold pass from the Remuneration Tribunal, but it makes clear that the responsibility for determining eligibility for life gold pass entitlements remains with the Remuneration Tribunal. The bill proposes instead that the entitlements be the subject of determination by the parliament through the act. The legislation proposes a regime of entitlements for former members who are eligible for the life gold pass, their spouses and/or widows and widowers; reduced entitlements for those presently qualifying for uncapped retirement travel entitlements, that is, former members, their spouses and the widows or widowers of former members who qualified for life gold passes prior to 1994 when the law was changed; transition arrangements, taking account of all possible individual circumstances to apply during 2002-03; penalties for noncompliance or misuse of entitlements; and disqualification from entitlements linked to forfeiture of superannuation benefits for persons convicted of a corruption offence, which I think the Leader of the Opposition quite rightly refers to as the `Theophanous provision'.

This bill is an improvement on the current retirement travel entitlement system for federal parliamentarians and their spouses, and it will be improved further if the administrative suggestions proposed by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee are accepted. For that reason, the Australian Democrats support the bill. However, the bill is built on a premise and a practice that is fundamentally wrong. There is no justification at all for retirement travel benefits being provided to former parliamentarians and their spouses or partners. Accordingly, in the committee stage, the Australian Democrats will move amendments to do away with the life gold pass, but only prospectively. We recognise the difficulties of addressing this matter retrospectively, and indeed even for affecting the entitlements of existing senators and members. My best estimate is that there are around 54 current senators and members who will be eligible for life gold passes.

The introduction of this bill provides an opportunity to end retirement travel entitlements and address one of the most inequitable aspects of the remuneration package available to members of parliament. Over time the Australian Democrats, along with other senators and members, have called for a number of major changes to parliamentarians' entitlements. These have included calling for a reduction in parliamentarians' superannuation to more closely match community standards and the cessation of parliamentarians' retirement travel benefits. The Senate has consistently expressed reluctance to take a policy position on these matters, claiming that these are the province of the Remuneration Tribunal, and the Leader of the Opposition was making reference to that view. I think the last time we dealt with this was in March 2002.

I am sympathetic to that view. I think the Remuneration Tribunal does need to take account of these matters in a holistic manner. I note that the committee formed the same view. It really said that it was appropriate for the Remuneration Tribunal to go away and— in my words—look at parliamentarians' salary packages, what they need to do their job and their retirement package as a whole, and come to a view as to what that should be. The salary package includes salary, fringe benefits, car and other benefits. What we need to do our job includes things like electorate allowances, office expenses and staff allocations. The retirement package includes superannuation and retirement travel benefits, including entitlements available under the life gold pass. It is an area in which it is difficult for parliamentarians to win. Apart from the difficulty of being objective—and the Leader of the Opposition outlined the obvious difficulties of parliamentarians in dealing with their own benefits—there is, for some, a sensitivity and defensiveness because of some public clamour from both the public and the media concerning these matters. Indeed, that was a feature of the inquiry into the proposed bill, with submitters overwhelmingly opposed to travel entitlements as perks that have no place in modern Australia.

The entitlements are also out of step with benefits that are available to Australian government officials and former members of parliament in other countries. The Australian National Audit Office advised the committee that entitlements similar to the life gold pass retirement travel benefits had never been available to public servants, either past or present. They confirmed—and that is in the Hansard—that retirement benefits for bureaucrats were comprised solely of superannuation. The Department of Finance and Administration told the committee that it understood that life gold pass entitlements were ahead of the field with regard to retirement benefits available to former members of parliament internationally. Given these precedents within the public sector, those who support the continuation of these perks do need to justify their retention. Based on the evidence before the committee, my party and I continue to judge their defence of these entitlements as weak and unconvincing.

Many submissions referred to the generous superannuation benefits already received by former members of parliament, arguing that these were excessive and out of step with community standards. Additional benefits, such as life gold pass travel entitlements, were considered completely unjustified. I agree with submitters that there is no justification for the existing post-retirement travel entitlements. I note that, apparently, apart from retired members of some private sector air or rail corporations, equivalent perks are simply not a feature of normal retirement. The Australian Democrats consider post-parliamentary travel benefits a justifiable source of public resentment and consider that the life gold pass in particular is an indulgent, unjustified and anachronistic waste of taxpayers' money.

However, we do believe there should be one exception. Former prime ministers do have justifiable official engagements post-retirement and continued travel entitlements for them are appropriate. However, they are expenses that we believe should be funded as an executive cost and not as a parliamentarian's benefit. We think the argument that the continuation of these retirement travel benefits is necessary to fund pro bono community or charity work is self-serving. Why, I would ask, is it acceptable for a former parliamentarian or spouse to select his or her own worthy cause on unknown criteria, to be funded at public cost? Either the organisations themselves should fund such travel or the government should decide in the public interest to make grants to charities for such services. One of the good principles followed by both this coalition government and the previous Labor government is that hidden subsidies should be transparent.

In summary, the retirement package should be significantly reduced in scope. Whether there would need to be an appropriate compensation as a result to at least retain parity may need consideration. But if retrospectivity is avoided, which I have sought to do with my amendments, the necessity for that mostly falls away, especially if the Remuneration Tribunal conducts a holistic review on the grounds that both the committee and I recommend. I think that cessation can and should only apply from the next new parliament commencement date. For members of the House of Representatives, that would be the date of the confirmation of their election. For new senators it would be from 1 July 2005, assuming there would be no double dissolution before that. I obviously have views on how the three entitlement categories that I have outlined should be configured. This is not the place to advocate them or put them in detail, but I have said on the record elsewhere that I do think that, in certain respects and particularly for the ministerial rank, parliamentarians are under-rewarded. I think their salary is far lower than it should be.

The committee had some interesting witnesses. One of them was Mr Brian Moore, who had been with the WA Salaries and Allowances Tribunal. Current members also gave us some evidence. They advised the committee that that body had undertaken a review of the overall remuneration of Western Australian state members of parliament and they advised that the tribunal had taken the view that it was more appropriate for a person to be remunerated appropriately while giving service than afterwards. Therefore, on the basis of work value studies, it had awarded a salary increase to state members in return for reducing and finally phasing out the retirement travel benefits to which former members had previously been entitled. Some submitters, including the Association of Former Members of Parliament, argued that retirement travel benefits are legitimate compensation for the lower rates of salary that sitting members receive while in office and for the difficulties and stresses associated with being a member of parliament. The arguments presented by the Western Australian Salaries and Allowances Tribunal and the Association of Former Members of Parliament should be weighed up by the independent tribunal if it conducts a holistic review on the basis that I have outlined.

The introduction of this bill provides an opportunity to address more than the excessively generous retirement package available to some former members through the life gold pass. I agree with the committee that it also provides an opportunity for that holistic re-examination of parliamentarians' salary packages and entitlements on an objective basis. Crucially, this should provide an opportunity to also bring superannuation entitlements into line with community standards. My amendment to the motion that the bill be read a second time encapsulates the recommendations of the committee. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate recommends that the Special Minister of State ensure that with respect to Life Gold Pass and retirement travel entitlements:

(a) all former members of the Federal Parliament in future be required to certify that their use is within entitlements;

(b) information conditions and guidelines given to former members be reviewed for accuracy and comprehensiveness;

(c) procedures for monitoring the use of these entitlements be reviewed with a view to obtaining faster and more accurate certification, and to allow prompt action to recover expenses where travel is not within entitlements;

(d) administrative arrangements be reviewed to ensure that all expenditure is captured in the monitoring and reporting arrangements; and

(e) spouse travel be separately reported”.