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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5548

Senator ROBERT RAY (8:52 PM) —I will not speak for terribly long on the House of Representative's message relating to the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002. Also, I apologise to the other speakers in this debate because, as I have been at a committee meeting, I have missed their contributions. I find the government's attitude on this a little strange. The definition of spouse as it currently applies to gold pass holders is completely different to the definition that is in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act. It seems to me to be absolute commonsense to bring them in line. As I understand it, at the moment if you are a member of parliament and you are in a de facto relationship, your partner can be your nominee for travel to Canberra, for interstate travel and possibly even for overseas travel. If that is the case, why would you want to draw the distinction just for the gold pass use?

We know that there will always be anomalies in the system. We know that there are problems in the way that parliamentary entitlements are currently administered because they are administered partly by the Remuneration Tribunal, the Senate and the Department of Finance and Administration. No-one is particularly happy with these divisions because there tend to be overlaps and differences in definitions et cetera. I notice that the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee did consider this issue at some length and came down with a unanimous view that we should take up the definition of spouse that is in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990. I do not hold any member of parliament to the views that are in this report as to the views that they put in this chamber. We all go to party meetings, and in the mix of debate there they are entitled to accept a majority view. But this committee did come down with that as a recommendation and a considered position.

What are the arguments put against this? The only ones I know of are those that I have read about in the paper. It is argued that in this legislation we are increasing an entitlement. But the legislation is basically about reducing entitlements. To clean up this anomaly now rather than hope that maybe the Remuneration Tribunal will get around to doing it in one or two years time seems too obvious an opportunity to miss at this stage. I do not know what extra expenditure would be involved—I cannot give a calculation to the chamber—but it would not be much. I am the third gold pass holder to speak in this debate from the Labor Party side of the chamber and, as far as we know, none of us are going to trouble the starters with this new definition. We are all married. I make no further comment as to the status of our marriages, but it is almost certain that we will be taking our de jure—

Senator ROBERT RAY —I thought you might! We would be taking our de jure wives with us if we ever accessed the gold pass. Therefore there is absolutely no self-interest at all. I assume that is the same with esteemed Temporary Chairman Watson in the chair here tonight. Not everyone is in our position; that has to be acknowledged. Not everyone is in the same circumstances. Life, its variations and its ducking and weaving mean that some people end up in a de facto relationship rather than a de jure relationship. I do not want to pass judgment on them here tonight. This particular amendment, if it does not get up, sees a judgment being passed in some form on them. It is not necessarily a moralistic judgment, but I do not see why we should try to distinguish between the two here when we do not distinguish between them in a whole range of other legislation. If we were coming in here tonight and asking for special treatment, we would be entitled to be knocked back. Some people have mounted a very strong argument that same sex couples should be included here, but they are not included, in general, in the Parliamentary Entitlements Act, and therefore we do not seek to have it as a special case included in this piece of legislation.

I take the government at its face value: I assume there are no other agendas here. Its one objection is that it might increase expenditure. Expenditure is expenditure—I understand that. But if the department is looking for some savings, we could all make some suggestions in relation to parliamentary entitlements. For instance, the House of Representatives printing entitlement is $18 million a year. I do not blame this government for that, by the way. This is as much a Labor scheme as a Liberal scheme; there is no question about that. If we are looking to make big savings, stopping the output of $18 million or $19 million worth of self-serving propaganda—and that is about all it is these days—will fund a lot of de facto travel. In fact, it will fund it 20 times over in all probability. So I do not accept the argument that in some ways we are trying to—and I do not think it is alleged that we are tyring to do it through a backdoor or any other method— increase expenditure. That has never been the intention. None of us could calculate the actual amount of increased expenditure because we do not know the marital status or otherwise of our former colleagues. In fact, I do not even know it of some of my current colleagues; I never ask them. But, in my guesstimate, it is not going to be a large amount of expenditure.

I believe the opposition and other parties in this chamber are right to press this particular amendment to the bill, and I hope the government can accept that. Also, I hope they think we are approaching this in good faith rather than just as some sort of snout in the trough approach, which I really do not think it is. And I do not think the all-party committee approached it in that particular way. They saw it as a perfect chance to rationalise. Normally we would not legislate on things such as the gold pass. But the government have seen fit to do so for the proper reason of wanting to bring it into line, especially in terms of corruption, with community standards and the superannuation bill of 1989. They are also taking the opportunity to cap the entitlement at a reasonably generous level. We all agree with that. We are so close to agreement on these matters, it is a pity that this particular issue cannot be resolved. But we do persist because we believe it is justice for all partners.

Why have partner travel at all? It has always been regarded as one of the supporting factors in either current or post political life. As you know, spouses, partners, are allowed nine trips to Canberra a year and three interstate trips. But we go further. For ministers we allow spouses unlimited travel with their husbands or wives who are ministers, because we recognise the valuable role these people play—in an unpaid capacity, I might add. How often do you hear a minister's wife thanked or praised for the selfless work that they put into community projects and to supporting their wife or husband in their political career? You never hear any praise at all. Many partners make enormous sacrifices. To say afterwards, `The former minister or member of parliament can travel and you can't,' just because there is a de facto rather than a de jure relationship, does not make sense to me. I do hope that, at some stage, anyway, the government will take those views into consideration.