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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6648

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (8:25 PM) —This debate is about a very narrow element of the legislation. It is about a definition, and it is up to the government to give consideration to what the definition of `spouse' should be for the purposes of the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002. The government have proposed a definition of `spouse' being those who are legally married. The Labor Party have argued that a more up-to-date, modern and contemporary definition—the definition that is used in a raft of other legislation—be used in relation to this legislation, such as the one I outlined earlier, which states:

spouse ... includes another person who, although not legally married to the person, lives with the person on a bona fide domestic basis as the husband or wife of the person.

That is what this whole argument is about, and it is entirely within the capacity of the government, if they saw fit, to change the definition or to have brought the legislation in with a more modern and up-to-date definition of `spouse', as they have in other legislation—including other legislation that deals with parliamentary entitlements.

The minister makes the point that the Parliamentary Entitlements Act defines `spouse' in the same way as the Labor Party would propose to define `spouse', which means certain entitlements flow to de facto spouses as well as to legally married spouses. That is true. What the minister does not understand is that he argues against himself. It is perfectly competent for the government to propose such a course of action here. It is a more equitable and reasonable way of dealing with these sorts of issues—but, of course, reason and equity have got nothing to do with it. The fact is that this is driven by prejudice. There is no other reason for this not to be supported. It has amazed very many people that in the original legislation the antiquated and archaic definition of `spouse' was used. It is outdated and outmoded and, apart from this legislation, I cannot recall when it was last used. I think senators in this chamber would struggle to recall when such an outmoded definition was used. This definition is discriminatory, it is outmoded, it is out of date, it is archaic and, in the view of the opposition, it is not appropriate.

We need to understand what this debate is about. It is simply about the definition of `spouse'. Certain entitlements accrue to a spouse under this legislation, so how do you define `spouse'? Is it just those people who are legally married, or is it those people who are not legally married but who live in a bona fide de facto domestic relationship as husband and wife? Senator Brown makes the valid point that this definition does not even include people who are living in the same sort of bona fide relationship but who happen to be same sex partners. I do not think anyone could argue this is very radical. It is not very radical. In fact, some would argue it goes nowhere near far enough. That may be a reasonable point to make, but it is certainly the way that this parliament has dealt with these definitional issues now for a long time. That is the issue. That is what we are debating and that is what the government has seen fit not to support on this occasion, which is disappointing to many, including a range of parliamentarians and former parliamentarians on the conservative side of politics.

We in the Labor Party have always accepted that these matters are best not dealt with in the parliament. We have always accepted that principle, and it was very reluctantly that we even got into this debate. It is best that an independent tribunal—in this case the Remuneration Tribunal—look at these entitlements and make a judgment about how they should be applied. I accept that point. It is much better that that is the case, but in this particular situation we have legislation before the parliament. This matter is not before the Remuneration Tribunal; it is before the parliament and is being debated here in this chamber.

Part of the legislation includes this outmoded, inappropriate and unacceptable definition—in modern Australia—of `spouse'. That is why we are having the debate. That is what the debate is about. I do not think anyone ought to be misled about the other issues. There is no argument that I have heard from anyone at all in this chamber—Labor, Liberal, minor party or Independent—against the principle that if the life gold pass entitlement is to remain in existence the entitlement should be capped. No-one has argued against the principle that no life gold pass entitlements should flow to a disgraced, corrupt parliamentarian or a disgraced, corrupt former parliamentarian. That is also accepted, I think, across the chamber—and I have listened intently to all the speeches that have been made from government and opposition senators and from the crossbenches.

The issue is about a definition. How long do you go on debating and arguing a question about a definition? That is what my own colleagues have given consideration to. How many speeches can you make about the definition of `spouse'? How much time of the Australian parliament should be lost on debates of this nature—although the principle is important and although the archaic definition of `spouse' in this legislation is the exception not the rule. At some stage you have to say, `The government is wrong about this, but the other principles in relation to the legislation are important.' That is the difficult balance.

The government tries to say that the Labor Party or the Senate would see a massive blow-out in the use of this entitlement. That is not the case at all. This legislation will cap the entitlement. The change to the definition of `spouse' will not affect huge numbers of life gold pass holders but it will affect some, so there is an issue of equity. I have been honest enough in this debate to say—and I will say it again—that it certainly will have an impact on me personally, not that I am yet, as was reported at the Senate committee, an entitlee. I am not a life gold pass holder at this stage. If I last a bit longer in this place, I will become one—as we all do if we can last long enough. I have always been aware that these issues impact on all individuals—in this chamber and outside; some legally married, some not legally married but with a de facto spouse—who are holders of a life gold pass.

All these matters are taken into account as one considers an appropriate and balanced response on legislation of this sort. I do not think the government is being balanced, reasonable, modern, decent or consistent. I do not think the government has covered itself in honour or glory. Nevertheless, it is going to insist on a certain course of action, and the balance is the other benefits in relation to capping this entitlement and dealing with those few parliamentarians or former parliamentarians who have acted corruptly.

What is the balance in all this? The government has got the balance wrong. It could easily change this definition. It does not intend to change the definition. I have outlined what a sensible response would be. Of course, the Remuneration Tribunal can have a look at this if it wants to, but the fact is that this is legislation currently being dealt with by the parliament and this is something the parliament could determine if it saw fit. It has determined a whole range of other things, not only in this legislation but in relation to the definition of `spouse' in a raft of other Commonwealth legislation. It is extraordinary for anyone to suggest that it would not be competent for us to do so in relation to this bill.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Ian Campbell's) be agreed to.