Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008
Consideration of Senate Message
Bill received from the Senate.
As members will know, this issue has been the subject of considerable discussion for several days. I present a copy of advice I have received from the Clerk of the House on the issues involved. Copies of this advice have been provided to the Leader of the House and to the Leader of the Opposition. The bill transmitted by the Senate does give rise to some important issues in terms of the role and responsibilities of the House of Representatives. The advice I have presented goes into the interpretation and application of the constitutional provisions, particularly those set out in sections 53 and 56 of the Constitution, and the practice of the House in these matters. As I understand it, this bill provides for increases in payments that are funded by means of standing appropriations in the Social Security Administration Act and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. I understand further that the practice has been that such bills originate in the House and that they require a message from the Governor-General in accordance with section 56 of the Constitution.
That this House:
- notes the statement of the Speaker concerning the constitutional issues associated with this bill;
- is of the opinion that a bill which is intended to have the effect, and which would, if enacted, have the effect of increasing expenditure under a standing appropriation:
- should be introduced in the House of Representatives; and
- would require a message from the Governor-General in accordance with section 56 of the Constitution; and
- believes that it is not in accordance with the constitutional provisions concerning the powers of the houses in respect of legislation as they have been applied in the House for such a measure to have originated in the Senate, and therefore declines to consider the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill transmitted from the Senate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We actually see in that trivial move how little those opposite have any respect for, in this case, three important documents. One of those documents is House of Representatives Practice, the second is the standing orders and the third—and most important in this case—is something called the Australian Constitution. That is the basis on which this motion rests, particularly sections 53 and 56 of the Constitution and the principle of the financial initiative of the executive. Section 53 of the Constitution is very clear, and it states:
Proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys, or imposing taxation, shall not originate in the Senate.
Advice which I have received considers the bill from the Senate to be a proposed law appropriating moneys, very clearly. Section 56 of the Constitution states:
A vote, resolution, or proposed law for the appropriation of revenue or moneys shall not be passed unless the purpose of the appropriation has in the same session been recommended by message of the Governor-General to the House in which the proposal originated.
The financial initiative of the executive is enshrined not just in the Constitution, of course, but in House of Representatives Practice and in standing orders. House of Representatives Practice has been used in this chamber since Federation, for 108 years. Page 408 of House of Representatives Practice states:
It is a long established and strictly observed rule which expresses a principle of the highest constitutional importance that no public charge can be incurred except on the initiative of the Executive Government.
The Executive Government demands money, the House grants it, but the House does not vote money unless required by the Government …
Page 567 of House of Representatives Practice states:
A private Member may not initiate a bill imposing or varying a tax or requiring the appropriation of revenue or moneys. This would be contrary to the constitutional and parliamentary principle of the financial initiative of the Executive—that is, that no public charge can be incurred except on the initiative of the Government.
Then we come to the standing orders. Standing order 180 clearly spells out the principle again:
- All proposals for the appropriation of revenue or moneys require a message to the House from the Governor-General recommending the purpose of the appropriation in accordance with section 56 of the Constitution.
- For an Appropriation or Supply Bill, the message must be announced before the bill is introduced.
- For other bills appropriating revenue or moneys, a Minister may introduce the bill and the bill may be proceeded with before the message is announced and standing order 147 (message recommending appropriation) applies.
Page 568 of House of Representatives Practice says the following:
It would not be possible for a private Member to obtain the Governor-General’s recommendation for an appropriation. Furthermore, of those bills requiring a Governor-General’s message, only those brought in by a Minister may be introduced and proceeded with before the message is announced. Therefore, only a Minister may bring in a bill which appropriates public moneys.
Page 431 of House of Representatives Practice deals with section 53 of the Constitution and limitations on Senate powers of amendment. It states:
Section 53 of the Constitution, as well as limiting the rights of the Senate in the initiation of legislation, provides that the Senate may not amend proposed laws imposing taxation, or proposed laws appropriating revenue for the ordinary annual services of the Government.
So the position is very clear. The bill proposed by the opposition amends the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to change pension entitlements. These entitlements are funded by a standing appropriation, and the effect of the amendments proposed in the bill would be to increase the actual amount of money appropriated from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Indeed, the explanatory memorandum of the bill states that the financial impact is $1.45 billion a year. Notwithstanding the fact that Treasury has questioned the figures done by those opposite, it is clear on the basis of legal advice that the bill can only originate in the House.
It can only be introduced into the House by a minister and it cannot be passed by the House without a message from the Governor-General. It is very clear that this bill cannot be considered by the House. We do not actually have an option on that. That actually is not a political decision by either side of parliament. It has something to do with a responsibility by us as members of the House of Representatives to act in accordance with the Constitution. But, of course, those opposite know that that is the case because they are not serious. That is why they did nothing about the base rate for 12 long years in office. Just last year when Mal Brough put forward—
I know that the members of the Queensland Liberal-National Party are upset at the mention of Mal Brough’s name. When Mal Brough took the position to the cabinet, asking for an increase in pensions, they chose not to do anything when they were in a position to do something about it. They rejected the position Mal Brough put forward to the cabinet just last year.
But, of course, the opposition have floundered around looking for an issue. There is no real concern for pensioners, because, if they were really concerned about pensioners, they would not be putting forward a bill which ignored two million pensioners—married pensioners, carers, people with a disability—including half a million single carers and disability pensioners living on the same $281 a week as single age pensioners. The $30 a week payment is not even indexed, so its value will erode over time—another mean and tricky Liberal policy.
There is no mechanism in the bill to ensure that increased payments are not taken up by increased rents, and that is because they have not taken this issue seriously. In the Senate yesterday, they could not even get a second speaker on this bill. The shadow minister responsible for this portfolio cannot be bothered to be in the chamber for this debate. They have a shadow minister who regards the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio as not being the main game. He is not interested in the portfolio that he has been given. I am sure there are a few disappointed people opposite who would not have minded being given that portfolio.
This is all about playing politics. Indeed, when the member for Bradfield led the opposition, he stated that he was going to introduce the bill into the House. In a press release on 10 September 2008, he stated:
I will move to introduce legislation when parliament sits next week to give Mr Rudd the opportunity to deliver an extra $30 a week to around 860,000 Australians …
He said he would do that, but of course he did not because you cannot submit to the House private members’ bills which have an impact on revenue. That is why it was rejected when the opposition attempted to move this bill in the House. What this comes down to is the born-to-rule mentality that those opposite have. They refuse to accept that they are not the executive government of the day. When they were the executive government, they chose to do nothing. Now they are the opposition, they choose to engage in politics, not in policy development.
The opposition would have been given the same advice that the bill was unconstitutional, that it was contrary to House of Representatives Practice, that it was contrary to standing orders. But they say that that just does not matter. They say we should just forget about that and forget about the Australian Constitution. Unfortunately for the opposition, they did get some good advice from Laurie Oakes—often a source of good advice. In a question to the member for North Sydney, Laurie Oakes stated:
… you can’t increase the pension by $30 a week without appropriating moneys and Section 56 of the Constitution says that you require a message from the Governor-General, and the Governor-General acts on the advice of ministers. Parliamentary Standing Orders say that a private member cannot introduce a bill to appropriate moneys, so Dr Nelson was obviously quite ignorant of this when he made that proposal last week, wasn’t he?
The Manager of Opposition Business said:
No, that’s not right, Laurie.
You have the Manager of Opposition Business, the person who is responsible for standing orders and House of Representatives Practice in this House, being like all those opposite—completely ignorant about the basic processes that occur in this parliament. That is why the promised bill never appeared. They said it would appear but, of course, they were more worried about knocking off the member for Bradfield than they were worried about pensioners. That was their priority on the day that they said—they gave a commitment—that they would be introducing legislation about pensioners. Their sole concern was knocking over the member for Bradfield so that people such as the member for Sturt and others could climb over Dr Nelson and get a few places further up the front bench as one of the 32 gondoliers in the merchant of Venice’s team that sits opposite the government in the chamber at this stage.
You cannot actually produce a bill that has $1.45 billion a year in it, that is in breach of the Constitution, that is in breach of standing orders and that is in breach of House of Representatives Practice, and hope that nobody notices. But it does say something about the psychology of where they are at. We have seen a number of therapy sessions conducted—one on a Friday and one the first sitting night, until the very early hours of the morning. No political party that sees itself as a future government would try this on. No serious political party that is concerned with executive government would simply argue that the Constitution and the processes of this House do not matter. This is a sign from them that they are more interested in fighting over the spoils of opposition—which is the context in which this bill arose—than they are in fighting seriously to get back on the treasury bench so that they can put in place whatever policy they like as the government.
It is a fact that I, as a member of the opposition, put forward a number of private members’ bills. One of those was the Superannuation (Entitlements of same sex couples) Bill—which is now government policy, I am pleased to say, thanks to the Attorney-General and, I would hope, with some bipartisan support from those across the chamber. At the time when I introduced that bill, it was contentious. It had to specifically exclude Commonwealth public servants. Why was that the case? It was not because I thought Commonwealth public servants should continue to be discriminated against but because I was given advice that a private member, through a private member’s bill, could not seek to appropriate funds and that that was the role of ministers. Hence the bill was framed in that way. It is unfortunate that nothing happened throughout the years, right up to 2007, but now—thanks to the Attorney-General and the Rudd government’s commitment—we are resolving the issue of discrimination against same-sex couples. I acknowledge that there are many opposite who also support that position and who supported it when they were in government, but they could not get it past those narrow-minded people in their party room who were prepared to play politics with people’s lives.
Last week they had to amend their own bill—before it had even been discussed or talked about by anyone—to add a group. They were amending their own bill before it had even gone to the House—quite extraordinary. This government is actually acting. The fact is that this very fortnight all pensioners will receive the third quarterly instalment of the utilities allowance of $128 to help with their bills. Why is it $128 rather than $125, which is a quarter of $500? It is because it is subject to indexation, and the indexation is already kicking in. They have got a bill before the House in which they have forgotten about indexation, because it is a sloppy, badly and hastily-put-together bill. This is not real work; this is meaningless politics from those opposite. Of course, we extended the utilities allowance—unlike ever before—to carers payments and the disability support pension. But the opposition continue to play low-rent politics with this.
It is clear that the opposition gave themselves up earlier today. They did not actually move anything today. People have got to understand that. They just tried to suspend standing orders. They did not move their bill. They did not seek leave. They sought to suspend standing orders.
The member opposite says that they would like us to take their bill up. We are not going to take up inadequate, hopeless work that leaves out two million Australians. We are engaged in immediate assistance for pensioners, right now. But we are also engaged in a comprehensive review to make sure that we actually deliver real reform—unlike those opposite who were unable to do it. It is extraordinary that, in their suspension of standing orders motion today, they actually called upon the government to introduce their legislation. I will tell you what: this government is about introducing our legislation—our agenda that understands that people who are doing it tough need to be looked after.
Labor has a proud history of looking after pensioners and the less well off in our society. Unlike those representatives of privilege opposite, we will act in accordance with our proud history of some 117 years. That is why this pathetic attempt should be and will be rejected. The problem with those opposite is that they do not understand that the role of opposition is actually to put up a constructive proposition and, instead of that, they just engage in this political activity at the expense of pensioners. (Time expired)
The question is that the motion moved by the Leader of the House be agreed to.
That all words after that be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:The House—
- affirms the justice of the measure in this bill in proposing to:
- increase the single age pension, the single age service pension and the widow B pension—
Order! The member for Sturt will resume his seat.
That the question be now put.
Hang on! That’s outrageous, Mr Speaker.
Order! The question is that the question be now put.
Mr Speaker, I was in the middle of moving my amendment. This is jackboot democracy!
Order! The member for Sturt will resume his seat.
Mr Pyne interjecting
Order! The member for Sturt will resume his seat.
A division having been called and the bells being rung—
Mr Speaker, on a point of order: I drew your attention earlier today to standing order 150, which records the rights of members to move amendments. I do not see anything there that says that they can be cut off halfway through that by a motion of the government or the opposition. The amendment should be concluded and then—
Order! I refer the member for O’Connor to standing order 81.
Mr Speaker, on a further point of order: did you put the question because standing order 81 says:
After a question has been proposed from the Chair, a Member may move without notice, and whether or not any other Member is speaking—
That the question be now put.
I am not aware, from my listening, that you proposed the question. There was a speech made—
Order! I would just remind the honourable member for O’Connor that, if I had not proposed the question, I could not have given the member for Sturt the call. He was very keenly waiting at the dispatch box and he politely waited until I read the motion. I am willing to give him credit on some occasions.
That the motion (Mr Albanese’s) be agreed to.
No. The member for Sturt can prattle on all he likes, but he will resume his seat. He will resume his seat and sit quietly for at least 30 seconds. The only motion that had been put to the chamber was the motion that was moved by the Leader of the House. The member for Sturt rose to move an amendment. The Leader of the House moved that the question be put. That has been agreed to.
Before we get too carried away, we will clearly go through this. The chamber knows that on several occasions I said that the question—which we have just dealt with—was that the question be now put. The member for O’Connor, thankfully now, raised two points of order with me, and I referred to standing order 81—Closure of question.
Original question put:
That the motion (Mr Albanese’s) be agreed to.