Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations
That Schedules 1 and 3 to the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2006 (No. 1), as contained in Select Legislative Instrument 2006 No. 211 and made under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990, be disallowed.
This is a government that cheats. Government members parade and strut around here like winners, but they do not believe in a fair contest. When they are not using steroids, they are tampering with the ball. Here they are on steroids—taxpayer funded steroids. These regulations should be disallowed because they give incumbent MPs an unfair advantage over challengers. Presently, all House of Representatives MPs have an annual printing allowance of $125,000. It is a lot of money. No MP can seriously claim that it is not enough to communicate regularly with their electorate. I write to my electorate four times a year. The cost of doing that is significantly less than $100,000. No case has been made out as to why an increase is needed or warranted, yet the government propose to increase the allowance to $150,000. This is extravagant and wasteful. It will lead to glossy publications and gimmicks like fridge magnets rather than any more serious communication endeavours. It encourages a cavalier and spendthrift attitude to taxpayers’ money, and taxpayers are entitled to expect that their dollars will be used in a wise and frugal way and that politicians will take the lead and set a good example in these matters.
If all this regulation did was to increase the entitlement from $125,000 to $150,000 a year, I would not support it. Labor opposed the government’s previous attempt to lift the cap to $150,000 and did so successfully prior to the government’s gaining control of the Senate. But this regulation is not merely wasteful of taxpayers’ money; it is sinister. It allows MPs to roll over up to 45 per cent, or $67½ thousand, of unspent funds from their printing entitlements into the next year’s entitlement. At present, if you do not spend your full $125,000, that money stays in consolidated revenue. The taxpayer keeps it. But MPs can now build up a war chest for election campaigns. Next year, for example, MPs could have an entitlement of anything up to $217½ thousand, and they could spend all of it during an election campaign—the whole lot. This is what this regulation is all about: building a moat around incumbent MPs, turning each electorate into an impregnable fortress and using taxpayers’ dollars to do it. Anyone who wants to challenge a sitting MP starts out anything up to $200,000 behind. It is not a fair contest. The government does not believe in a fair contest.
This comes at the same time as the government has made clear that there are basically no constraints on the capacity of MPs to use the allowance for campaigning purposes, for themselves and indeed for others. This has progressively been creeping into the system. In years gone by, printing allowances were not supposed to be used for campaigning for your own re-election. In the various states rules like that can still be found. In my own state of Victoria MPs are not allowed to use their taxpayer funded printing entitlement—which, by the way, is far more modest than the Commonwealth one—during the forthcoming state election campaign period. But here there is no such restriction, and this regulation expressly sets out that MPs can use their printing entitlement to print postal vote applications and how-to-vote cards. It is open slather on campaigning. Anything goes.
The government does not even restrict members to using their entitlement to campaign for themselves. Federal Liberal Party members use it to campaign during state elections. A couple of days before the Queensland state election, many Queensland voters received correspondence. You might expect that they would receive correspondence from state MPs and candidates just a sleep or two out from a state election, but it in fact the correspondence was not from their state MPs or candidates; it was from their federal MP. What issue were they writing about and why did they choose to write at this time, you might ask. I am glad that the Liberal member for Dickson is at the table, because I have a piece of correspondence which came from him. He commences as follows:
Having lived in Queensland all my life and now raising a young family, I am deeply concerned at how Peter Beattie has allowed our health system to reach breaking point.
The member for Dickson goes on to mention Peter Beattie on no fewer than six occasions—none of them flattering. The member for Dickson goes on to say:
After 8 years, Labor still has not done the hard work to develop a credible plan to fix their health mess. Residents in Pine Rivers deserve better.
Now, just in case the message is not clear enough already as to what the member for Dickson is on about, he then says:
I have been working with James Petterson, local candidate for Ferny Grove, on health issues in our area for some time now. I know that James Petterson understands the real health needs for Ferny Grove and will work hard to get things done.
Now, if that letter is not all about the Queensland state election, urging a vote for Mr Petterson, I’ll go he for tiggy!
The government says there is a 70-30 rule whereby you can talk about candidates for election apart from yourself provided that does not involve more than 30 per cent of the publication. The truth is that touting for the election of Mr Petterson was 100 per cent of what the member for Dickson’s letter was about. The member for Dickson was not the only Queensland federal Liberal MP to get the writing bug during the last week of the Queensland state election campaign.
I rise on a point of order. I want to draw your attention to the way in which the House is being misled by a person who is trying to protect a premier in Queensland who has ripped the people off in relation to the health system—
The minister was not the only Queensland federal Liberal MP to get the writing bug during the last week of the Queensland state election campaign. The member for Leichhardt opened up to constituents in Brinsmead:
I am asking you after eight years of Mr Beattie and Labor if our health system has improved, if our roads are better, if education standards have increased and if power and water supplies are more reliable?
His letter goes on to attack what he sees as the various sins and shortcomings of the Beattie government, and finishes off:
In our area, Stephen Welsh is a real leader who cares about the community and understands the local priorities. Together we are working hard to make sure our community gets the representation it needs and deserves.
He wrote an identical letter to residents of Clifton Beach, except the glowing tribute at the finish was for a different candidate. He wrote:
In our area, Peter Scott is a real leader who lives in the electorate and understands the local priorities. Together we are working hard to make sure our community gets the representation it needs and deserves.
That was a form letter from a federal Liberal trying to get a state National over the line.
It was the same with the member for Herbert, writing to constituents just before the state election to attack the Beattie government; and the member for McPherson, who produced a leaflet with numerous photographs of, and references to, her state colleague Jann Stuckey, attacks on the Labor candidate for Currumbin, and a large print conclusion:
Residents can be assured that I shall continue to work closely with Jann to keep the pressure on the Queensland Government.
For the government to allow this material to be printed at taxpayer expense shows we have now entered an age where anything goes. The leaflets were totally about the Queensland state election. To claim otherwise is laughable, absurd. Pull the other leg—it plays Jingle Bells! The so-called 70-30 rule has become a joke.
Now, what is all this going to cost taxpayers? Of course it depends on whether MPs spend all their printing entitlements or not, but we are engaged in a political contest here, and it is not reasonable to expect Labor MPs not to make use of the entitlement when Liberal and National MPs clearly do. We already have one arm tied behind our back, in terms of the resources available to oppositions, without engaging in the kind of self-denial which would only make it easier for the Howard government to get re-elected. We have not come here to cooperate and meekly go along with that venture.
For 2005-06, the total possible expenditure on the printing entitlement by all members of the House of Representatives is $18.875 million. With this regulation it rises to $22.2 million—an increased cost to taxpayers of $3.325 million. Last financial year, the printing entitlement advantage held by the government over Labor was $3.325 million. With this change it will rise to $4.05 million. So the government will say that Labor MPs have the printing entitlement as well, but the truth is the size of the entitlement gives the government and its MPs a $4 million head start. And that is what this is all about. They are not interested in a fair contest.
The 2007 election will see a rerun of You’ve Got Mail, only this time it will not be starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan; it will be starring a Howard government MP in a marginal seat near you. They will have so many leaflets they will probably call out the RAAF to do an aerial leaflet drop! This is extravagant and excessive.
And, speaking of leaflet drops, the communications allowance—which we use for postage and the like—has been upped from $27,500 to $45,000 per year. Back in 1990, under the Hawke government, it was $9,000. But not content with increasing the printing entitlement and the communications allowance, the government has introduced a backdoor increase in communications allowance for MPs whose electorates exceed 10,000 square kilometres.
Clauses 11.1, 11.2 and 11.3 of the latest Remuneration Tribunal determination—No. 18 of 2006—introduce, for the first time, the capacity for members representing an electorate of 10,000 square kilometres or more to aggregate their charter and communications allowances.
Now, I have no problem with the charter allowance. It is quite reasonable that MPs with large electorates—and Australia has quite a few of them—travel around those electorates, and have an allowance to meet their costs if they do so. But if they do not do the travel there is no reason why they should be able to hang onto that money and use it to distribute still more taxpayer funded leaflets. There is no need for that. If they do not spend the charter allowance on travel it should come back to the taxpayer. It is just another rort for incumbent government MPs.
Indeed! When you do the research on electorates of over 10,000 square kilometres you find that there are 33 of them: Labor has four, the Independents have three, and the government has 26. Surprise, surprise—another little advantage for government MPs! Labor opposes this little rort as well.
The increase in the printing allowance, the rollover provisions for it and the amalgamation of the charter allowance and the communications allowance are far from the only steps the government has been taking to give itself an electoral advantage at taxpayer expense. There are the government advertising campaigns. It has spent a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money on government advertising since coming to office, with notorious campaigns such as the GST ‘unchain my heart’ ads, Strengthening Medicare, and Work Choices, for which $55 million was spent. After the ‘unchain my heart’ campaign, the Auditor-General produced a set of guidelines designed to draw the line between bona fide government advertising and political advertising, which the Liberal Party ought to be paying for, not taxpayers. The government never adopted those guidelines.
And they are still at it. In this year’s budget they allocated a further $230 million for government advertising programs such as those for private health insurance, $52 million, and the smartcard, $47 million. They did not allocate anything for the sale of Telstra, but that has not stopped them. They are out there, at it again, with another $20 million of taxpayers’ dollars to talk up the Telstra sale and try to undo some of the damage they have done with their interference in the management of Telstra, particularly in seeking to impose Mr Geoffrey Cousins on the board.
And then there are the changes to election campaign disclosure laws and the increase in tax deductibility for campaign donations. Tax deductibility used to be $100; now it is $1,500. Why should campaign donations be tax deductible? Here, as with the printing entitlement, the government is seeking to use taxpayers’ funds for electoral advantage. If this were happening in East Timor or the Solomons, Australia—and particularly our patronising Minister for Foreign Affairs—would be giving them a lecture about democratic practice and culture. The abuse of taxpayers’ funds for political advantage is a blot on Australian democracy.
So the House should disallow these regulations, which increase the printing entitlement by 20 per cent, allow up to 45 per cent of it to be rolled over into an election year and extend the entitlement beyond information leaflets and letters to include magnetic calendars, postal vote applications, how-to-vote cards, certificates and Christmas cards.
When the government is not cheating, using taxpayer funded steroids, it is tampering with the ball. Back on 17 August, the Special Minister of State, who is also at the table, came into the House on the adjournment debate to speak about the issue of printing entitlements. In the course of his contribution, he set out for the House the printing expenditure of the member for Griffith, the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Prospect. In doing so, he behaved quite improperly. So too did the member for Indi, who earlier that same day purported to reveal the printing allowance expenditure of the member for Richmond.
If journalists ask for details of MPs’ printing allowance expenditure, they are told to go away. It is not public information and it will not be revealed without the consent of the MP. All members of parliament are entitled to be treated in the same way. Either all printing expenditures should be revealed or none should be. By releasing Labor MPs’ expenditure but not coalition MPs’ expenditure, the minister is guilty of partisan abuse of his office. The minister should restore some decency to this matter by now revealing the expenditure of the printing entitlement of all House of Representative members. While he is at it, he should provide details of the year-by-year total cost of MPs’ spending of their printing entitlement. He said Labor has no caps. I think we will find that the reality is that MPs’ spending on printing has risen greatly since the Liberals came to power.
The behaviour of the minister is all too reminiscent of the smear campaign conducted in 2001 against the former Labor member for Paterson Bob Horne, who was attacked for his printing allowance expenditure. Figures suddenly appeared in a newspaper regarding one member of parliament, Bob Horne, much to his political disadvantage, because the local Liberal machine campaigned successfully against him on this particular basis. He was highly criticised in the press. But when we got access to all the figures, we found that in that year Mr Horne came 14th on a league table of spenders. Who were bigger spenders than him? That would be 13 coalition members of parliament, but Bob Horne was the only one outed.
I note that in the papers today were reports that Mr Des Kelly has been acquitted of charges of leaking information in his capacity as a public servant in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This case is related to charges against two Herald Sun journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, for refusing to disclose their sources. The government claims that in this case no witch hunt was involved and that Mr Harvey and Mr McManus were simply caught up in the government going through the normal process of investigating leaks. Why is it, then, that no investigation was ever launched into the leaking of Mr Horne’s printing expenditure in 2001? Could the reason be that the government knew perfectly well who had leaked that information and that the last thing it wanted was an AFP investigation? How is it that the member for Indi is apparently in possession of the member for Richmond’s printing allowance expenditure? Has the AFP been asked to do an investigation of this? I dare say it has not. That is because there is a double standard from a government which cheats. Every time it thinks it can get away with it, it cheats, and this regulation is just another classic example of that and it ought to be disallowed. The Sydney Morning Herald got it exactly right a few weeks ago when it said:
... there needs to be tighter rules on MPs’ various entitlements ... And such rules need to be policed independently. Otherwise, even the robust flower of democracy will wilt from overfeeding.
I second the motion. I hope the opposition’s change of heart on allowances survives the next election. Incumbents will now be able to spend up to 20 per cent more on printed material, thanks to this increase in the printing entitlement, which could see MPs storing a war chest of up to $217,500, taxpayer funded, in time for next year’s election. Under the arrangement, MPs can now spend $150,000 a year, up from $125,000. As the member for Wills has just said, that $125,000—which I found absolutely amazing at the time, for its largesse—was brought in in 2001 after the former MP Mr Horne was caught out. Embarrassingly, it seemed that an individual had spent so much more than his entitlement. Of course, it was later revealed, as the member for Wills just pointed out, that 13 other members of the parliament at the time had spent way in excess of that amount. The double standards and the hypocrisy of that process were obvious to all and particularly the electorate, I must say.
Sitting MPs are able to have postal vote applications and how-to-vote cards printed under the entitlement, which basically means they have a couple of hundred thousand dollars advantage over other candidates, especially independents and minor party candidates. While I was listening to the start of this debate, I was completing a speech for an independent association conference in Canberra tomorrow, in which I was pointing out some of the important roles that non major party members of parliament can and should play in the system. But it is getting very hard for anybody to step up to the plate when there is $40 million worth of public funding. In addition, there are many millions, now, of undisclosed dollars and many millions of dollars of taxpayer provided allowances. They are called entitlements; I suggest they should be called privileges and we would then have this whole thing in the right sort of perspective. The barrier to anybody taking on this formidable process and having a go in our parliamentary system is beyond the means of ordinary people to overcome.
The printing entitlement is supposed to provide for the production of things such as newsletters, stationery and other items such as calendars for MPs to communicate their work to their electorates, not the production of party propaganda or election material. There are no enforceable regulations to ensure that the printing entitlement is not abused. There is only a convention that says that newsletters, for example, must deal with parliamentary or electorate business and not party business; but it cannot be enforced.
As an independent MP, I have no party business. The only thing I need to communicate to my constituents is the work I do in representing them. In the last financial year I spent about $45,000. Add to that $5,000 for letterheads, envelopes and calendars, and I am spending around $50,000 to $60,000 each year. What do party MPs do with the extra $100,000? They produce total party propaganda designed to blitz electorates, including areas with newly redrawn boundaries, where no sitting MP should be allowed to campaign before the dissolution of parliament and the abolition of the current boundaries.
The Labor Party, while opposing this regulation, is not so pure. There have been deals such as the allowance to print how-to-vote cards prior to the last election, which was part of a nudge-wink deal between the major parties that slipped out. I was alerted to the fact that it was happening. I had no indication that it was going to be available—and nor should it in any sense be available for the production of material that should be the responsibility of the parties, which now have many millions of undisclosed dollars; the limit is now $10,000 before a declaration of where the money comes from must be made.
And here we have the use of the lurks and perks of office to further try to cement and shore up the incumbency of the major parties. It comes with the use of staff during elections to help the members and senators up for election. It again highlights the need for a cap on the spend in campaigns, and for the spend of every individual candidate to be fully audited, so that the playing field can, marginally, be levelled to give people an opportunity to run for parliament without the massive advantage that endorsement by the party system provides.
Before I respond to this motion I will explain, in case people reading the Hansard might be a bit perplexed, that there is an unusual sequence of events in the case of this motion. I, on the government side, have facilitated the raising of this private members business motion. Obviously, we will be opposing it. Some might find that a bit strange, but that is how the system works with disallowable instruments. If we did not facilitate the process, the regulations would be disallowed. So there is a little bit of instruction for the people reading Hansard.
The government will not support this disallowance motion. It really is simply a piece of cheap populism from the Labor Party, which does not have any policies. I have to say, it is a real stunt. The member for Wills has come in here and done his bit and disappeared. It is hypocrisy of the first order, and I will explain why. But, before I do, I might, while the member for Calare is here, just mention something for his benefit. The member for Calare talked about the lack of enforcement for newsletters and things that are printed. That is not the case. There are rules about how the entitlement can be used. In fact, if it is used incorrectly members are asked to repay the cost of what they have sent out. And it has happened. As Special Minister of State I am aware of a number of circumstances where members on both sides of the House have sent out material inappropriately. They have had material in their newsletters not in accordance with the rules or have sent material out to the wrong locations and have had to repay the cost of that to the Commonwealth. So there is enforcement, absolutely, on what you can and cannot do.
The printing allowance was introduced by the Labor government in 1990 as part of the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990. The printing allowance was not capped by Labor. It was unlimited. There was no restriction. It was an absolutely unlimited entitlement. So, from 1990, the Labor Party put in place an unlimited entitlement. Some members were spending huge amounts of money—anything up to $400,000 a year—on printing.
In September 2001 the Prime Minister announced that, as of 1 January 2002, the entitlement would be capped at $125,000 per annum as part of a comprehensive package of entitlement reforms. So it was this government that actually put a cap on it.
and that was put in place by the previous, Labor government. The original decision is now more than five years old and there is a need to maintain the real value of the entitlement. Thus the cap has been increased to $150,000. We believe that MPs should keep the public informed of major issues in their electorates, as well as their rights and responsibilities. In the case of my electorate, the new cap of $150,000, if I were to use it all, would amount to $1.60 per constituent per year for me to correspond with my electorate. I do not think that is unreasonable at all.
I note that this disallowance motion by the member for Wills, who took off after he spoke, is also disallowing the change for senators. The member for Wills did not mention the senators’ printing allowance at all. He talked about government advertising—I did not interrupt him, like the member for Oxley has been trying to interrupt me—because he got way off the mark. He was talking about a motion for disallowance of printing, but he went off and talked about government advertising and all sorts of other extraneous things. But he did not talk about the senators, whose printing this motion is attempting to disallow as well.
Let us deal with senators. Senators previously had an allowance of 5,000 printed sheets per month which was administered by the Department of the Senate, which in turn vetted all material. This was administratively inefficient and on a bipartisan basis it was decided to extend to senators the same rules that applied to members. I say ‘bipartisan’ because it is. Let me quote some of the things that were said by senators in relation to this. In Senate estimates on 26 May 2004, Senator Robert Ray said:
…the difficulty here is that, whilst you are limited to 5,000 a month and 60,000 a year, you may have only one large print run a year but you cannot do it. You have to have it spread over all that time. Don’t you think it would be much better to move all these things to come under one administration? You have already moved travel allowance. This is just an anomaly sitting there.
That was Senator Robert Ray in 2004. Black Rod, who has to administer this, said:
The only other stress that we have with it is this ongoing ‘censoring’ role that the Black Rod and the Deputy Black Rod perform that some senators are not very happy with.
Again, Senator Robert Ray said on 24 May 2004:
Why don’t you just dump this out of the Senate department? It has been there for 30 or 40 years. It has become a joke. Why don’t you just cut and run on this—no Senate printing allowance, leave it up to DOFA to do or Senator Abetz to do what he wants to do with it to make it equal and just get out of it. You are always going to be put in a position where you are making Black Rod the censor. It is never going to be very popular with senators and it puts you in a totally invidious position. Why don’t you just cut and run?
In response to suggestions that the regulations be changed to transfer it to DOFA, I have always said that we have no objection to that. It is not a function that we want to desperately hang on to—
He went on to say:
Take it away! I am not fussed about whether it goes or does not go.
On 14 February 2005, Senator Faulkner said to Black Rod:
I think you are in the awful situation of having to be the chief censor, aren’t you?
Black Rod responded:
Yes, and my deputy.
So that is the bipartisan support for the changes in the Senate—the changes that the member for Wills wants to disallow. In the 20 minutes he spoke, he said nothing about senators, only members. Given the different nature of the jobs, however, senators have an entitlement of $20,000 per annum.
I mentioned the hypocrisy in this motion—the fact that under Labor the allowance was unlimited—and that is why this is really just a stunt. I recall that Labor and the minor parties carried out this same sort of stunt in August 2003. They joined with the Democrats and Greens to disallow an increase to the printing allowance which would have been of assistance to all members. What Labor would like us to forget, though, is that at the same time they could not quite find it in their hearts to disallow a range of entitlements that were specifically designed to help Labor and the minor parties—entitlements such as enhanced transport arrangements for opposition and minor party MPs, including new charter transport arrangements for them, business-class travel for their staff, more computers for them and more mobile phones for their staff. They did not disallow those things but they disallowed the printing allowance. So it is hypocrisy to the nth degree, absolute hypocrisy.
The ‘shadow minister for entitlements’, the member for Wills, has shown himself not to be too smart on this issue. On ABC Radio in Perth on 17 August 2006, he said ‘$125,000 is already too high’. As I said before—and as the member for Wills acknowledged earlier—the member for Griffith spent $124,999.99 of his allowance in the last financial year. So maybe the 1c is the difference between not too much and too much! On another occasion, the member for Wills said, ‘I think people ought to be able to do their communications with a budget of under $100,000.’ Well, the Leader of the Opposition spent $110,000, so they are in conflict there.
Then he went on to say that the previous cap was in the order of $62,000. It was not. That is completely false. There was an unlimited cap, as I have said a number of times. The Howard government are the only ones that have put a cap on printing. Under Labor it was uncapped. He then said:
The willingness to use taxpayers’ money for your own political advantage is something that we would not tolerate.
My goodness, put the hand on the heart when you hear that from the member for Wills! He certainly spent more than the $62,000 that he claimed was a cap, which was not a cap anyway, so he broke his own cap. And on it goes. We do not know whether it is unlimited or $125,000, $100,000, $75,000, $62,000—they are all over the shop and they do not really know what is going on. It is always ‘do as I say, not as I do’ when you look at the record.
We obviously do not support this motion. Many of the members of the Labor Party have been right up there against the cap of $125,000 that was put in place over five years ago. Change is appropriate. As I said, it relates to about $1.60 per constituent per year in my electorate and, having the very large electorate that you have, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you would know full well the need to communicate right throughout your very large electorate. You cannot drive around it in half an hour. People expect you to answer their correspondence and provide them with the information they are looking for and at $1.60 per constituent per year I do not believe that is unreasonable at all. This process today has just been another stunt to divert attention from the fact that the Labor Party do not have any policies at all. We will be opposing the disallowance motion.
That the motion (That the motion (Mr Kelvin Thomson’s) be agreed to.) be agreed to.