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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 184

Senator ROBERT RAY (12:16 AM) —I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

Senator ROBERT RAY —One of the things I have followed over the life of the coalition government is the way that it staffs its ministerial offices. I well remember noting at the time of the election of the coalition government the fanfare around their announcement that they were taking less ministerial staff than the previous government. This immediately made me suspicious, and I have consistently checked the figures.

On 30 September 1996, government staff numbers, which were given as evidence at estimates committees, were 281 in all. They are now at a staggering 444.6, which is an increase of 163.6 staff. DLOs, or departmental liaison officers, have jumped to a record 71. That is 12 above standard allocation. The salaries and on-costs of DLOs alone go beyond $7 million. The salaries and on-costs of ministerial staffers are difficult to calculate. My best guesstimate is at least $45 million, making a $52 million payroll overall.

Apart from this massive and uncontrolled increase in staff, the second trend is that ministerial staffing has become very top heavy. People are being moved out of the more junior positions and into more senior positions, thus increasing the cost massively. What do we have now? We have five principal advisers, a staggering 79 senior advisers, 34 media advisers, 127 advisers, 92 assistant advisers, 58 office managers and 42 secretary-administrative assistants. I note those 42, as they come from the one area in the life of this government to decline—that is, the very bottom pay scale. In addition to this massive, top-heavy staff, we now have 36 staffers on the government side with personal classifications, 35 of whom are being paid above their normal classification into a new classification, and one poor soul—who I will never try to identify—is being paid below what they should be paid in a lower classification.

A unique category has also been created of special adviser, which is something that has never existed before. Again, it is paid at a much higher rate than a normal adviser would be paid at. As well as this, we now discover that there are 11 ministerial staffers being paid outside the salary band. We have always had salary bands. Mr President, you would know that your electoral staff always get paid within a salary band but, no, in 11 senior cases, people are paid above the salary band. This is a band that the Prime Minister approves every year and increases every year, but 11 have already galloped above that. We have a massive staff increase, which is top heavy. We have 36 people on personal classifications, 35 of whom are above what they would normally get, and another 11 being paid above the band that would normally constrain their salary.

Let us have a look at the disparity between government and opposition staffing. In 1996, there were 281 government staff and 56 opposition staff, so the gap between the government and the opposition was 225. In 2006, you have 444 government staff and 90 opposition staff. The gap between the government and the opposition is now 354. In other words, it has gone up by a further 129 in the gap between resources allocated to government and allocated to the opposition. What do we find at some of the more senior positions? The government has 79 senior advisers. Prior to the most recent formula, the opposition had five senior advisers. That is not a ratio of 21 per cent like staffing; that is a 15 to one government advantage. It is a staggering advantage. In other words, we get about six per cent of what the government gets.

There are 34 government media advisers. Remember, media advisers are a very well remunerated position. The opposition gets five. With regard to the government whips office, which basically has the same workload as the opposition whips office, the government have eight staff, the opposition have two staff, yet we are expected to contribute and help run this chamber on an equal basis. This is absolute nonsense. This can be rectified. I do believe that the staffing of the whips office should be excised out of the government and opposition numbers and funded and staffed separately. It would certainly make the government figures look better, but it would also bring a degree of equality into the chamber.

In addition to all this, we have the long notorious government members secretariat. We know all the equipment and services are provided by DOFA. But the staff now work for the chief whip of the House of Representatives, transferred out of ministerial control and away from scrutiny by the Senate estimates committee. This unit consists of 12 staff, mostly at a senior level. The reality is they are just an adjunct to the Liberal Party. They are just a secret campaign unit for the Liberal Party that are not responsible to this parliament, not scrutinized and never checked. They are hidden over in the House of Representatives.

In addition to that, some years ago we discovered the secret media monitoring. We wondered why an extra media adviser was sometimes allocated to junior ministers. Then we discovered in each state there was one extra media adviser and one extra staff assistant for those media advisers. When we asked Senator Hill and other ministers we got all the weasel words in the world. Then one sunny day Senator Parer breezed in as minister representing another minister. We asked him and he blurted out the whole truth. He told us that they were media monitors and was delighted to assist. He is president of the Queensland Liberal Party prior to the merger. He was delighted to tell us about it. It was most open and most gracious of him. He blew the whistle on all his colleagues that had obstructed the inquisitive process of the estimates committee. All this of course was done by stealth. There was no public announcement. This government had previously criticised the National Media Liaison Service. So rather than just replicate it in public they did it in private. They did it behind closed doors, all funded by the taxpayer.

Then of course we have the cabinet policy unit. This was initially listed under prime ministerial staff but it is now listed separately. You might ask why. It was because, if it was listed where it should be—the Prime Minister signs their contracts—the Prime Minister would have 47.3 staff. We could not have that appearing, because it is about 10 or 12 staffers beyond what Prime Minister Keating had. Therefore these six staffers are excised out, even though they are working directly for the Prime Minister, and put in a separate category.

As implied by its title, the cabinet policy unit should deal with cabinet issues. So I ask this question: why recently have two media advisers been appointed to the cabinet policy unit? This is not a group that seeks publicity. These are two very senior media advisers at cabinet media level appointment, so they are very expensive.

Senator Faulkner —And suspicious.

Senator ROBERT RAY —And suspicious. I do not know what they do. It may have an innocent outcome; it may not. But I would like to know why they have suddenly appointed, after 10 years, two senior media advisers.

Then we come to probably one of the more interesting changes of late. That is what I call the Boswell rort. In July last year the Prime Minister approved a staffing establishment for Senator Boswell of 10 staff. This does not include his three electorate staff or his relief budget. Senator Boswell gets 10 extra staff. He gets one senior adviser, three advisers, five assistant advisers and one secretary. I wonder what in heaven’s name these people do. Surely they do not prepare speeches for Senator Boswell—those meandering dirges that slide uphill and downhill in this chamber. You could not find these 10 people responsible for that. Are they de facto National Party campaign workers? I do not know because there has never been an explanation. Are they working full time on Senator Boswell’s preselection? I have no idea. I do not know what they do. We deserve an explanation.

Look at the relativities. You have five Nationals in this chamber and four Democrats. The four Democrats get five assistant advisers; Senator Boswell gets five assistant advisers. The Democrats do not get a senior adviser; Senator Boswell does. The Democrats do not get an adviser; Senator Boswell gets three. The Democrats do not get a secretary; Senator Boswell does. Where is the justice and relativity there? The Greens get five assistant advisers; Senator Boswell gets five assistant advisers. The Greens do not get a senior adviser; Senator Boswell does. Senator Boswell gets three advisers; the Greens get none. Senator Boswell gets a secretary; the Greens get none. In other words, he is doubly staffed compared with the two largest minority opposition parties in this Senate.

Where is the justice in that? Why was the decision made to give the Nationals an extra 10 staff seven days after the coalition got the majority in this chamber? It does not compute. At the very time Senator Joyce is threatening to rat on this and that piece of legislation and there are rumblings from the National Party, suddenly they get these 10 staff members. I say it is very suspicious. I do not see where the output and the justice are here. I hope those 10 staffers are not assisting the National Party to torpedo their Liberal colleagues in Queensland. I do not think that would be a very fair reward to the Prime Minister, who allocated those extra 10 staff.

Then you have the rather strange case of Mr Andrew Robb, a parliamentary secretary. I look to his staffing situation. As a parliamentary secretary he gets two DLOs, two senior advisers, three advisers, one assistant adviser, one office manager, one secretary/admin officer plus three electorate staff. That is better staffing than I had as Minister for Defence for six years with a budget of $10 billion a year. I only ever had one senior adviser and one DLO.

Why is it? My first suspicion is there is yet another secret campaign unit being set up, but the minister at least said, no, he thought the explanation was that Mr Robb was doing a minister’s job. Why not make him a minister? The contrast between the staffing of Mr Andrew Robb and that of every other parliamentary secretary is stark. There is an absolutely amazing difference in the staffing levels. If he is expected to do a ministerial job, remove one of the logs here and put him in. But do not have a parliamentary secretary being a de facto minister with such massive staffing if the explanation that the minister has given is honest.

Look at the staff costs, Mr President: well over $1 million a year on Mr Robb’s staff—a parliamentary secretary’s staff. It is unheard of. It is more staff than anyone on the opposition side has other than the Leader of the Opposition, far more than in Senator Evans’s office, and all for a parliamentary secretary. You do not get equality in politics if you fund in that particular way.

The person who has to take responsibility for these massive staff number blow-outs is the Prime Minister. I cannot understand why sole responsibility for these staff increases is left with the Prime Minister. He must approve all extra staff and their allocation. He has to approve all payments outside the band. He has to approve all new personal classifications. It is very hard for a Prime Minister to personally supervise these particular areas. But if anything goes wrong he is held responsible. Basically, we are now paying at least an extra $15 million a year for these extra staffers over and above those reported in September 1996. Between the estimates committee hearings on 13 February and 1 May we had a new government staffer appointed every five days. Is that going to continue for the next two years? That is about $1.5 million in extra staff costs, not just salaries but also the on-costs that go with them, in just that brief period.

What I find amazing is this: why does Senator Abetz get an extra 3.6 staff when he is doing exactly the same job as Senator Ian Macdonald before him? Is Senator Macdonald so intellectually superior that he did not require those staff or do the extra staff just happen to be doing some other duties in Tasmania? There is no explanation as to why Senator Abetz gets an extra 3.6 staff over and above his predecessor’s staff for doing exactly the same job. We do not know why there are two extra media advisers in the cabinet policy unit. We deserve an explanation.

I personally think that, if you pointed to any other area of government with such a massive staff blow-out with such massive costs, the Auditor-General would need to know why, and I would urge the Auditor-General to look at this particular area. I think we have to change the framework institutionally. I do not think it is good enough for sole responsibility to lie with the Prime Minister. He could not possibly supervise this.

It has been a long while since I read Franz Kafka’s Amerika, but I still remember that perceptive chapter he wrote about the ever-increasing circus that just grows and grows. Having read it 30 or 40 years ago, I am now suffering from a sense of deja vu about ministerial staff that just grows and grows and grows. Every time I think of the government staffing situation, I think: very Kafkaesque indeed.