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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15078

Mr ANDREN (9:30 PM) —The Transport and Territories Legislation Amendment Bill 1999, with its cocktail of schedules relating to discharging of sewage in the Antarctic, industrial relations coverage for Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands employees, adjustments to meeting quorum requirements at the National Capital Authority and upgrading of parliamentary secretaries in the Northern Territory is as broad a range of schedules as you could find in one bill. I want to concentrate on the last of these amendments, relating to the proposal for parliamentary secretaries to become members of the Executive Council in the Northern Territory. The House would be well aware of my position in regard to parliamentary secretaries in this place.

We recently saw the House pass the Ministers of State and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1999, which provided for the further extension of political patronage to the parliamentary secretary system in this parliament. There was not a dissenting voice, except mine, in the House as the parliament converted the strongly arguable, unconstitutional position of parliamentary secretary into a de facto junior minister. The main problem is these junior ministers, complete with their extra payments, are not answerable to the parliament. They cannot be questioned by backbenchers on their duties—so much for their accountability. Not only does this office further separate the executive from the parliament, it increases the degree to which backbenchers on both sides are beholden to their seniors, living in hope of an executive position—albeit junior—that ensures their solidarity and meek acceptance of the party line, whatever they might privately wish to say on matters of conscience. And such matters are about us in spades in recent days.

And so to the Northern Territory. We cannot take the moral step of moving against mandatory sentencing, but we can endorse the creation of these parliamentary secretary positions in a parliament that has—wait for it—25 members. So we are attempting to legitimise the appointment of junior ministers who presumably will also not be required to answer any questions without notice from ordinary members in a parliament of just 25. At the moment, there are nine ministers in the Northern Territory, and this bill leaves open the number of parliamentary secretaries to be determined by the Administrator. There are 18 government members, and half of them are ministers. It can be assumed that maybe half of the balance of nine government members stand to be appointed as parliamentary secretaries—a job perhaps for all of them.

Mr Martin Ferguson —This is their job creation strategy!

Mr ANDREN —That is the job creation strategy in the Northern Territory. What an absurd situation—all of these extra junior ministers then able to access higher payment but, importantly, not able to respond to questions from the other side. There will be none from their own side, because they are all executive, by the look of it. This potentially leaves anything up to 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the parliament not answerable to their electorate and constituents but answerable to the executive. A 1993 independent study of the role of parliamentary secretaries concluded this office of ambiguous constitutional parentage could well be seen simply as political reward to friends and allies. There is certainly not much room for same-party enemies in the Northern Territory's parliament. With only 18 members on the government side and nine of them ministers, almost all the remaining government members are in the front line for potential candidature for a junior ministry under this bill. The rationale for appointment of parliamentary secretaries in this junior parliament is allegedly to spread the workload of government. On that argument, on a pro rata basis we should have at least 50 ministers and parliamentary secretaries in this place. We are certainly on the way. It underlines how ridiculous, how self-indulgent, this argument is.

This is about patronage and political reward. It diminishes representative government and further concentrates executive power in a parliament and administration that is largely funded by the Commonwealth. At a time when we should be amending the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act to strike out mandatory sentencing of juveniles and children, at least, and re-establishing the integrity and independence of the judiciary, we are amending the very same Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act here tonight to provide more rewards for the political elite. What a set of priorities—looking after the financial and political interests of a select few, looking after human greed, while human rights and justice go begging.

According to the Northern Territory government's home page, at the moment the Northern Territory has one parliamentary secretary, but he is not a member of the Northern Territory Executive Council and thus is unconstitutional, illegitimate—as were this parliament's parliamentary secretaries until they were elevated to the ministry without any opposition, except from here. We are all supposed to pretend that they are really not ministers. Like those parliamentary secretaries who have masqueraded as junior ministers in this place over the years, any parliamentary secretary in the Northern Territory legislature at the moment is unconstitutional. Hence the rush to get this bill through. This is the real intent of this schedule. As the minister said, currently parliamentary secretaries in the Northern Territory are not members of the Executive Council. I would say that they are therefore unconstitutional, as they pay loyalty to the executive and not their constituents. That is the key to this, and that is exactly what happens. Anybody who would like to argue otherwise about the constitutionality I am quite willing to debate.

Now they are to become members of the Executive Council, and they will inevitably receive remuneration allowances and entitlements. What a rort. If you are on the government side in the tiny Northern Territory parliament and you do not win one of these gigs, you are going to be a very lonely person, having a feed alone in the cafeteria and looking across the room at the seven opposition members while your mates are at an Executive Council meeting. You may have one person on your side who, for whatever reason, has not been able to score one of these jobs. Such is the contempt for proper detail on the so-called need for Northern Territory junior ministers, we had a two-sentence explanation in the minister's introductory speech to this bill and a meaningless explanatory memorandum. There is absolutely no justification for this move to create extra executive positions in a parliament of 25 looking after the interests of just under 200,000. This is a territory whose budget is largely met by Australian taxpayers outside the territory, a budget currently enjoying almost $1.4 billion support from Canberra—more than Tasmania, which has just under half a million residents. In the case of the ACT, there are 17 members for 300,000 residents, there is $679 million from the Commonwealth and there are no parliamentary secretaries, probably because there are a few Independents to make sure it does not happen.

This legislation is all about legitimising and expanding these junior members of the executive, closing them off from questioning by backbenchers—those who are left and who have not been rewarded, that is. It is so outrageous that even the opposition in this place, which was all too quick and happy to support the upgrading of the parliamentary secretaries in this parliament, has decided this time it is just too much, too blatant and totally inappropriate at a time when the nation's attention is focused on far more serious business in the Northern Territory.

In the climate of the most passionate public debate on abuses of basic human rights in the Territory, the Howard government, with breathtaking lack of sensitivity, finds time in this parliament to legitimise political patronage. While it will not let the people's house even debate overturning the Northern Territory's mandatory sentencing laws, it has no problem opening the door to more lurks and perks for an already overgoverned territory. The majority of Australians oppose mandatory sentencing and almost 50 per cent support the Commonwealth overthrowing these unjust, inhumane and discriminatory laws—laws that are a blight on our country's oft proclaimed but often so shallow belief in a fair go.

I totally reject this schedule of the bill. I only support those opposition amendments so far as they relate to schedule 5. Unless the government excises schedule 5 from the legislation, I really have no option but to oppose the bill in total.