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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6643

Senator ROBERT RAY (7:57 PM) —For those of us who were here last Thursday, we saw a very unseemly thing happen in the House of Representatives when word reached us that the government was determined to resolve its attitude to the proposed request from the Senate by Thursday night. What followed was 12 divisions, basically gagging through crucial environment bills without debate simply so the government could get on and debate this particular bill, the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002. When I say `debate' I mean `resolve'—because the government gagged all debate in that two-hour period. There were something like 15 divisions needed before it could get to a position to send the message back to us. Obviously, the government puts a very high priority on this issue and certainly did not want any debate or any discussion to occur in the House of Representatives. Virtually none was allowed.

There might be some argument that this bill is urgent. Certainly trying to rule a line under the use of the gold pass by politicians convicted of corruption is a matter of urgency, and it is the reason that we need legislation rather than action by a Remuneration Tribunal which simply does not have the power to deal with these matters. It is also a useful thing, I think, to limit the use of the gold pass. This was done in the 1990s. I cannot remember exactly when the first limits were brought in, but it was from 1994 onwards. We had better be honest about why that was done. At least one member of the Liberal Party, one member of the Labor Party and one member of the Democrats—so it is very bipartisan—were using their gold passes when they were on the speakers circuit. The lurk was that they would get a $3,000 fee plus expenses. What was happening of course was they would say that they would travel under their own volition; therefore they were paid $4,000 or whatever it was for doing the speaking gig on the night. I do not want to mention the individuals, but you can go back and look at the disproportionate amount of travel those particular people were doing. That was at a time when (a) the gold pass was limited for future holders and (b) you were not allowed to use it for commercial purposes—and that had a pretty solitary effect at that time.

Putting this into legislation now—actually making it common for everyone—is a fair thing to do. There is an element of retrospectivity in this. But, let us face it, everyone is a hypocrite on retrospectivity: they always argue against it when it serves their own purpose and then they embrace it when it is either the pragmatic thing to do or the useful thing to do. I, fortunately, have never, ever been guilty of hypocrisy on retrospectivity because I really have never cared less about it as a principle.

Last week when I was in the kitchen and PM was on, I am sure—and I could be wrong here—that Senator Ellison was being interviewed about a great achievement at a ministerial council where they all got together and agreed on the treatment of de factos. Maybe I was dreaming this, but I am sure that happened last week. In contrast, the government's attitude on this bill is completely incompatible with what Senator Ellison was saying. Again, maybe I was dreaming about it; maybe I was drifting in that hour just before I was about to hoe into my dinner!

The argument that mostly runs against this is that it adds to entitlements. Frankly, I do not think it is going to add much, and therefore I do not think it is a very important principle on this particular occasion. It is going to add very little. Let us look at what has been added to the DOFA budget, none of which has been unreasonable: a printing allowance of $125,000 per member in the House of Representatives—potentially worth $18 million or $19 million—laptops provided to officers, personal organisers that you can get to work after a few months and mobile phones. I do not criticise any of this because you have to resource parliamentarians to do their job. I sometimes find the priorities strange—for example, the staff travel budget does not seem to alter much whereas some of the others do—nevertheless, that is a matter of judgment for any minister at any particular time. But I really do not think this adds much to entitlements.

I think it does reflect a narrow philosophy. I know the Special Minister of State, who is at the table, will not accept that some of his coalition colleagues do not agree with this. They have certainly talked to me about it— not impassionedly—and indicated that they are uncomfortable with this. If they do not have the ticker to come in here and express their views, I suppose we can dismiss them. I do not expect people to break party solidarity, but there is a degree of unease at the contradiction between what is in this particular section of entitlements and what exists for all other entitlements. I bet any money you like that, in the next few weeks, Senator Abetz, the minister in charge of MAPS, will be required to sign off approval for overseas travel for an MP and a de facto spouse. It will not happen very often, but I bet it happens in the next few weeks and over the next year. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a de facto spouse travelling with and accompanying an MP. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that, and I think the minister probably would agree with that; otherwise he is signing it off because either it is his duty to do so or he does not disagree with it.

We have indicated that we are not going to bat on forever on this matter. It will now go to the Remuneration Tribunal. If it is to be resolved, the Remuneration Tribunal will have to deal with this matter. I will certainly be urging the Remuneration Tribunal to support a change. After all, I do not want ex-parliamentarians travelling unaccompanied around the country. Heaven knows what mischief they might get up to by themselves! I would have thought that it would be much better for their partner to be with them to keep them on the straight and narrow. So I am going to out-moral Senator Abetz on this. This is a very strong argument. We should be protecting the moral integrity of former MPs by insisting that their partners—whether they be church or registry acknowledged or whether they just be de facto—travel with them, and by doing so we would be doing a lot to enhance morality. I am sure that is going to appeal to Senator McGauran, sitting in the chamber, when it comes to a vote on this matter.

Finally, some of the critics have said that what we have here might reflect the personal or religious philosophy of the minister at the table. Of course, that is nonsense. What we have here is something that reflects the Prime Minister's views. That is something that Senator Brown has got absolutely right. I welcome him from his deathbed to come along and fight the good fight on this. It is good to see him back in the chamber. I probably will not say that again, Senator Brown, so enjoy it while I say it! This is basically the view of the Prime Minister. It would be a pretty game minister these days who went against the Prime Minister's views. I am not going to put it all on the shoulders of Senator Abetz; I am going to put it to John Howard. This is his responsibility. He was probably au fait with the tactics of ramming this through the House of Representatives last Thursday night. He can bear the responsibility for the inconsistency in government policy. At a state and federal ministers meeting it was agreed to basically take all restrictions and, if you like, biases against de facto relationships out of our legal system, yet here we are in the 21st century debating in this chamber whether they should apply to gold pass travel. I do not believe they should. I do not believe that adding de factos is too big an increase and burden on the state; it is virtually nothing.

We should be willing to take the necessary action to resolve this matter here tonight. The government remains intransigent. Are we going to bat this backwards and forwards between the Senate and the House of Representatives and waste everyone's time if the government is not going to change its mind? No, we are not. It will have to go to the Remuneration Tribunal, which does, if necessary, have the power to resolve these matters. It is always reluctant to do so, but certainly we will be arguing that the government should have a consistent application across all entitlements.