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Wednesday, 16 August 1989
Page: 195

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(7.06) —I have been listening from my office to the discussion on this report and I can understand the concerns of Opposition senators about the circular that they have received. I have listened carefully to your rulings, Mr President, with respect to the issue of relevance at this moment. I have some sympathy with you, Mr President, even though I have none with the Government, in light of the circular we have received from Minister West. Rather than put you in this position, I move:

That so much of the Standing Orders be suspended as would prevent Senators in debate on the motion referring to the circular letter from the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr West) relating to the postage allowances for Members of the House of Representatives.

We are all interested in getting the report of the Department of the Senate printed, and it is quite clear from the comments which have been made by senators in this debate that there is a high level of concern about the Government's attitude to the Senate as an institution. I heard Senator Crichton-Browne contributing and I was thinking, as he was talking, of the experience of you, Mr President, of me, of Senator Crichton-Browne, and of a number of other people-including, one would have hoped, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, but he is more distinguished by his absence than his presence-on the Senate Appropriations and Staffing Committee. Mr President, you would be aware of the very significant difficulties that that Committee has faced because of Government non-cooperation. I have been pleased, Mr President, that you, as the President of the Senate, have seen fit to raise with the Government the attitude which has been shown by the Government over a period now of a number of Budgets and which has been contemptuous of the Senate resolution of, I think, 1985, which suggested that there should be a proper degree of negotiation between the Senate and the Government on the vital question of appropriations, which was the main subject of Senator Crichton-Browne's comments. I think it is fair to say that Opposition senators generally have seen that as simply one of the straws in the wind with respect to the Government's attitude to this institution and its preparedness to choke off the activities of this institution against the national interest. Today we have received a circular that most people would regard as extraordinary. It is open to two interpretations.

Senator Hill —There is only one I can think of.

Senator CHANEY —No, I think there are actually two interpretations. One interpretation is that, since the Government has a majority in the House of Representatives by definition, a grant of a very extensive addition to the stamp allowance of members of the House of Representatives-an increase from something like $9,000 to $30,000 a year-gives the Government a considerable advantage in terms of its approach to electors over the coming election period. I do not think it requires a high degree of political cynicism to see that that could be the Government's motivation. I make that comment because that is a quite separate motivation from the motivation which has been discussed so far by honourable senators contributing, who, as one would expect, have been directing their attention to the apparent slight to senators and the differential treatment which has been meted out to senators as against members of the House of Representatives. I want to put on the public record that I think that the public are likely to see this as a cynical use of taxpayers' money by the Government to try to gain an electoral advantage at a time when it is in electoral peril.

The second interpretation is, however, the one which has been focused on by Senator Bishop, Senator Crichton-Browne, Senator Walters, Senator Michael Baume and others who have spoken, namely, that this is another turning of the screw against the Senate. The second interpretation is, however, the one about which I think there could be no matter of greater concern to honourable senators and, therefore, it warrants the suspension of Standing Orders to enable this matter to be discussed now and not at some later time.

What we have is a situation where some senators represent four or five million electors-I am not sure of the maximum number in any State; perhaps four million electors in New South Wales, perhaps more. I think all honourable senators here would claim that the requirements being put on them by their electorates are increasing steadily year by year. Members of the House of Representatives represent 70,000 electors. The proposal is that a member of the House of Representatives should be able to communicate with each of his or her electors once a year by mail.

Senator Tambling —What about a Territory senator?

Senator CHANEY —Of course, the cynicism of this is best borne out by looking at a Territory. In the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory we have the greatest example of the political advantage-but that is going back to the first interpretation that I would place on this whole move.

Senator Tambling —It is also going back to Labor House of Representatives seats.

Senator CHANEY —Well, that is the whole point, I agree. But we have a situation in those Territories where nobody in the Opposition has this stamp or taxpayer funded benefit; the benefit is available only to members of the Australian Labor Party. That is a glaring example of the first concern that I have expressed.

The second area of concern is the denigration of the role of the Senate. Some of these matters are not matters for the Government. The Senate might well address the Remuneration Tribunal on the extraordinary difference between the charter and other allowances available to members of the House of Representatives in larger seats, but that is an issue for another day.

I simply say, in moving this motion, Mr President, that I think you will find that a significant number of honourable senators on this side-in fact, all of them-will join with me in saying that it is appropriate that we should suspend Standing Orders. Indeed, the debate on this suspension enables them to put that view. I hope that you, Mr President, will think about it in light of the leadership you have given on the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing issue. You might even vote with us on this suspension so that we can follow through in a proper manner.

Senator Harradine —Mr President, I wonder whether the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) or you would be able to read to us the motion? It says something about a letter, and, to be quite frank, I am not sure what this letter is all about.

Senator CHANEY —My motion was that so much of the Standing Orders be suspended as would prevent the Senate from debating, in conjunction with the motion before us, the circular received from the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr West) dated 16 August 1989 relating to the stamp allowance which is to be made available to members of the House of Representatives. I would be happy if the Senate would give me leave to read that letter into the record so that all honourable senators are clear on what it is that we are discussing. I seek leave to do that.

Leave granted.

Senator CHANEY —I thank the Senate. The circular is on the letterhead of the Minister for Administrative Services, the Hon. Stewart West, MP, and is addressed to all senators and members. It reads:


In its 1988 Review, the Remuneration Tribunal determined that Members of the Parliament be provided with access to the full range of postal services provided by Australia Post subject to an annual limit of $9,000. This facility is seen as an essential cost of operating Senators' and Members' offices rather than a remuneration issue and, accordingly, the Government has decided the entitlement is more appropriately one for consideration by Government. This is in line with the arrangement whereby entitlements and facilities necessary for Senators and Members to establish and maintain an office in their State or electorate are determined by Government.

In this context the Government has decided that the existing postage entitlement limit applying to Members of the House of Representatives will, with immediate effects, be increased so as to significantly improve their capacity to communicate directly with their constituents. The limit on the entitlement has been increased by the equivalent cost of sending a letter once each year at the bulk mailing rate applying from 1 September to each constituent in an average sized electorate (ie 70,000 in the electorate). The new postal entitlement of $30,525 will be indexed to movements in the mailing rate.

The existing entitlement available to Senators will also be indexed to the mailing rate.

I interpolate my comment that the existing entitlement available to honourable senators will also be indexed to the mailing rate. The letter goes on:

The postage entitlements available to senators and Members are to be used for material relating to parliamentary and electorate business but not for commercial purposes. Consistent with longstanding practice, amounts not expended in a financial year may not be carried forward.

I thank the Senate for the leave to give that information. I simply add while I am on my feet that this follows the change of the former quarterly provision of postage to an annual provision of postage. I think this is another indication of the Government's desire to use this, not for the purpose of servicing the electorate but for the purpose of seducing it.