Senate debates

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Schedules 1 and 3 to the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2006 (No. 1)

Motion for Disallowance

11:28 am

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I am in continuation after being rudely interrupted the other day. Unfortunately, this debate has dragged on over about four days as a result of changes to the order of business. We are debating a disallowance motion moved by Senator Brown, Senator Murray and I concerning the government’s regulation which seeks to increase members’ printing entitlement by $25,000 to $150,000 a year and to alter the Senate printing arrangements.

Our main concern is that the government is motivated by partisan political interests rather than the interests of serving the public. I think it has become a sort of a metaphor for the government’s approach this term. It seems it is governing for its interests rather than the interests of the Australian public. These measures make a serious contribution to entrenching members in power. They provide extra resources way beyond what is reasonable to allow a member to defend themselves politically in the next election. It is using taxpayers’ money to resist the forces that are poised to drive members of the government from office and it is a measure that allows all current members a huge advantage over other candidates in the election. I think it shows that the government’s priorities are wrong and that they are focused on their interests and not the interests of the Australian public. This range of measures introduced by the government since it gained its majority in the Senate seeks to entrench the government in power by the use of taxpayers’ money.

The measure not only increases the printing entitlement for a current member of the House of Representatives to $150,000 a year; it also introduces a provision that allows the member to roll over 45 per cent of their unused entitlement from one year into the following year. It is the first time that a member has been allowed to roll over this entitlement and it is interesting—and I will come back to this—that the same provision does not apply to senators. When you are looking for consistency of principle and approach, you do not get it here. You do not get it, because it is about a political fix to ensure that current members of the House of Representatives have enormous taxpayer funded resources to defend themselves at the next election, not in their role as parliamentarians but in their role as candidates in the election. It is a huge advantage to incumbents; it is a taxpayer funded advantage to incumbents.

The government’s defence of this measure is paper thin. The government says: ‘It’s time for an increase and this is reasonable.’ A $25,000 increase? There was no justification. The only defence the minister has offered is that ‘it only equates to $1.61 per elector and that that is not an unreasonable position—$1.61 is a reasonable position to take’. It is a huge increase in entitlement. There has been no justification for it and, as I say, the provisions allow these things to be used in the defence of a member in an electoral context rather than in their role as a parliamentarian.

As I say, there has been no justification made for this in any credible way, but I want to focus in part today on what I call the Howard re-election clause. The Howard re-election clause is the amendment to schedule 1, subregulation 3 contained in this measure which allows for 45 per cent of the entitlement to be rolled over to the following year. Not only are you entitled to $150,000 of taxpayers’ money to print material for distribution to the electors; you are allowed for the first time to roll it over and spend more than that in one year. In fact, under this arrangement, it is possible for the member to accumulate $217,500 worth of printing entitlement in one year. So not only are we increasing the printing entitlement; we are giving the member the opportunity to hoard that entitlement for use in an election year. So not only do we have $25,000 increase in the total but, by virtue of the rollover, we allow a $92,500 increase in the entitlement for one year. Which year will it be used in? You can bet your bottom dollar it will be used in election years. The amount is quite frankly staggering but it is even worse if you think about it in terms of the current context.

The year 2007 is a federal election year. This provision comes in on 1 July 2006, so we have a provision that says: you can spend $150,000 in 2006-07 and $150,000 in 2007-08. That means you can accumulate $300,000 worth of printing entitlement to spend in an election year. We have gone from having a printing entitlement of $125,000 to a provision, the Howard re-election clause, that provides for a member of the House of Representatives to access $300,000 worth of printing entitlement in one year, the election year—that is, a $300,000 head start on any other candidate that stands for election, a $300,000 benefit paid for by the taxpayers of Australia.

In a sense, we argue against self-interest for all the Labor members of the House of Representatives but, if you analyse it from a perspective of what is good for democracy and what is good for the taxpayers of Australia, this provision is indefensible. It is much more insidious than you would expect at first glance. This clause, the Howard re-election clause, allows the rollover of money from one year to the next, which will effectively mean that those who want to save their printing allowance in one financial year are able in an election year to spend $300,000 on printing primarily directed at their re-election—$300,000 funded by the taxpayer to allow them to print material that is focused on their re-election. Think of the poor independent candidate standing against them in the re-election—not a cent to start and with very little capacity to raise money. It is a complete perversion of the democratic process. It completely advantages incumbent members of parliament and ought not be supported. It is an anti-democratic measure.

We concede there are arguments for members being able to communicate with their constituents. It is about finding the right balance. Labor argued last time the government tried this that about $75,000 a year was a reasonable limit. The government could not get its way last time it tried to increase the allowance to what we thought was an unreasonable amount. And here is the government having another go, in the year before the election, knowing that it has the numbers in the Senate to pass the regulation. Today’s disallowance motion will fail. It will fail because the government will exercise its numbers to ensure that the provisions apply.

Although I have but little time available to me, I want to make the point of the comparison with the senators. The new arrangements move from a cap on the reams of paper and printing via the Senate printing office, which senators have access to, to a universal cap of $20,000 per annum for all printing requirements. The government argues that that will not actually disadvantage senators, when compared with current arrangements, and that it is more sensible. I do not want to go into all those arguments, although I think it restricts senators in a very serious way in terms of their capacity to develop larger documents that discuss policy issues and that look to debate important issues of public policy. I think my colleague Senator Carr will probably focus on those issues, so I will not delay the Senate further on those points for the moment.

The members of the House of Representatives are having their allowance increased to $150,000 per annum, whilst senators will enjoy a cap of $20,000 per annum. The minister has defended this move on the House of Representatives printing allowance on the basis that it means a printing allowance of only $1.60 per elector, that it is a reasonable increase and that it is therefore a reasonable provision. But what does the same provision in that same regulation mean for a Western Australian senator? For senators in my own state it means 1.6c per elector per senator. What is the logic of that? What principle of communicating with your electors is involved with that? There is no principle. There is no policy underpinning that. This is a political fix for House of Representatives members to defend their seats. It is about incumbency. It is about the use of taxpayers’ funds to allow incumbent House of Representatives members to defend themselves against challenges in elections.

If you look at a larger state like New South Wales, you see that, while a House of Representatives member in New South Wales will get an allowance equating to $1.61 per elector, a senator from New South Wales will get an entitlement of only 0.46c per elector. That is the absurdity of the proposition being put to us when the government attempts to defend it on the basis of allowing members and senators to communicate with their electors. The reality is that this is a political fix in terms of increasing the entitlement of the House of Representatives members to campaign for their re-election. And it is all funded out of the taxpayers’ purse.

This has got beyond a joke. It has got to the stage where the government is using taxpayers’ money to defend itself from the electoral consequences of its arrogance and failure to develop policies in the interests of Australian citizens. This is about a government governing for itself. And if you look at all the other measures that go with this one—such as the abuse of advertising money—you see the fact that the government has used hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to advertise in defence of itself. In the last 10 years, over $1 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on advertising, largely for defending government policies. We saw the outrageous expenditure of $55 million of taxpayers’ money for the government to try to defend its Work Choices law. It failed, of course, because the Work Choices legislation is indefensible, but it spent $55 million of taxpayers’ money in doing so.

This regulation ought to be disallowed by the Senate, because it is an abuse. It is an abuse of the government’s power and it is an abuse of taxpayers. It goes way over the top in terms of what would be reasonable for members of the House of Representatives to have as a printing entitlement to use for communicating with their electors.

This ‘Howard re-election clause’ shows the cynicism and arrogance of the government. It shows that the government is about ruling for itself and entrenching itself in power rather than acting in the national interest. It effectively allows the taxpayer to pay for $300,000 worth of advertising by each member in an election year. It is a rort. It ought to be opposed. Labor will join with the Greens and the Democrats in opposing it. (Time expired)

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