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Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Page: 3789

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (16:27): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table the explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator SIEWERT: I table the explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This Bill amends the Governor-General Act 1974 (the Act) to stop paying standard allowances to former Governors-General, and their spouses, when they have engaged in serious misconduct. There are currently no mechanisms within the Act to end allowances when such a payment is no longer in the public interest, for instance when a former Governor-General has engaged in unconscionable or illegal behaviour.

The Bill provides two avenues for ceasing to pay allowances. Firstly, the Minister may make a declaration through a legislative instrument to end allowances to a former Governor-General, or their spouse, where they have engaged in serious misconduct. The Ministerial declaration must set out the person the declaration applies to, the reasons for making the declaration and a summary of the information considered in the process. A declaration is not affected by when the Governor-General was in office, or when or where the misconduct took place.

The second avenue permits a House of Parliament to pass a resolution declaring that a former Governor-General, or their spouse, cease to be paid an allowance because a former Governor-General have engaged in serious misconduct.

Similar provisions for ceasing entitlements to former Governors already exist in state and territory legislation. In Queensland, under the Governors (Salary and Pensions) Act 2003, a former Governor may have their entitlement ceased if a tribunal makes a finding that the Governor misbehaved in a way that justifies ending the entitlement.

For the purposes of this Bill, serious misconduct involves inappropriate, improper, wrong or unlawful conduct. Examples of serious misconduct could include corruption, harassment, abuse, theft, fraud and other criminal behaviour. The Bill outlines that serious misconduct also includes an omission to act. I think it is significant that we include an omission to act in the definition of serious misconduct because it sends a clear signal to people in power that the cover up of abuse and illegal behaviour is never acceptable.

The Governor-General is a political figurehead within our system, performing both constitutional and ceremonial duties. Under current convention, the Prime Minister is responsible for providing advice on the appointment of the Governor-General.

As we have seen in the past, there have been limited checks and balances on these appointments. Under the Act, former Governors-General are entitled to a retirement allowance for life after they cease to hold office. The retirement allowance is paid at 60% of the current salary Chief Justice of the High Court. Today, this is equivalent to $360,000 a year in retirement allowances. Following the death of a serving or retired Governor-General, their spouse is entitled to an allowance for life at five-eighths of the rate of a former Governor-General. This is a significant amount of money funded by the taxpayer.

In addition to a retirement allowance, former Governors-General are entitled to post-employment benefits including the provision of office facilities, administrative support and transport. These entitlements are administered through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In 2018, over $13 million was provided in non-cash benefits to former Governors-General on top of their retirement allowances.

Under the current legislative framework, a former Governor-General or their spouse will continue to receive retirement allowances even when they have engaged in serious misconduct. For example, they may have been convicted and imprisoned for a crime and would continue to remain eligible. This represents a clear oversight in legislation that should be rectified.

This Bill aims to introduce accountability and transparency to the expenditure of public money for the payment of pensions and allowances to former Governors-General. Our Government should not continue to pay such significant allowances, worth millions of dollars, where it is no longer in the public interest to do so. It is important that people who hold public office are held accountable. They should not be able to engage in misconduct or in unlawful activity and still continue to receive government-funded entitlements.

Our efforts to introduce accountability mechanisms to these allowances have been championed by the work of abuse survivors and their advocates. I would like to take a moment to recognise their tireless work in shining a light on this issue.

Many survivors of abuse are of the view that former Governors-General who have acted unconscionably or illegally should not receive ongoing government-funded entitlements. Survivors are calling for action from our politicians, not just words, as important as they are.

Last year, a coalition of groups wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to amend the Act to cease payment of public money to former Governors-General. This group included Bravehearts, the Blue Knot Foundation, Care Leavers Australasia Network, End Rape on Campus, Beyond Abuse and the Queensland Child Sexual Abuse Legislative Reform Council.

In the letter they wrote:

"At a time when ordinary Australians are working harder than ever, with energy, petrol and food prices constantly rising, and the tax payer bearing the burden of the enormous cost of untreated child abuse it is not in the public interest that the tax payer continue to also fund a person who has betrayed the public trust in their previous role as an institutional leader."

I would like to reiterate my admiration for the courage of survivors of institutional child sexual abuse and their strong support for survivors' ongoing pursuit of justice.

Taking action will help ensure the people and institutions who shielded abusers face the consequences of their actions. We know that the cover up of abuse in institutional settings allowed the sexual abuse of children to continue, causing further trauma and harm to children. People who held public office and played a part in covering up sexual abuse must be held accountable. This Bill is a part of ongoing efforts to achieve this. Public pressure alone won't be enough to strip former Governors-General of their generous entitlements. It is time to put legislation in place to ensure they are held accountable.

I am urging all parties to take a serious look at how we are supporting survivors of abuse in this country.

There is still significant work to be done to support abuse survivors, including implementation of all of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

There is urgent work that needs to be done on fixing the National Redress Scheme to ensure it is as extensive, functional and effective as possible. The scheme has been plagued by delays in claims being processed and difficulties getting institutions to join the scheme. The reality is that survivors of sexual abuse are passing away before their claims for redress are processed. The Government must take this seriously and do everything it can to ensure the Redress Scheme is working as intended.

Thankfully progress is being made in some areas for survivors, and I think it's also important to celebrate these legislative achievements. In October, the Queensland Parliament passed legislation that extends the definition of abuse to include serious physical and psychological abuse. The legislation also sets aside the statute of limitations for these survivors to pursue civil claims. These changes will help hold institutions accountable and improve access to justice for abuse survivors in Queensland.

This Bill represents an important step towards redress for the survivors of abuse. It sends a clear message that no one is above the law and abusers and those who protect abusers must be held accountable. I urge you to consider this Bill, not only from a public accountability perspective, but also as a way of achieving healing, closure and justice for survivors of sexual abuse.

We must continue to break the culture of secrecy and silence.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.

Senator SIEWERT: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.