Senate debates

Thursday, 7 September 2006

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

Motion for Disallowance

11:43 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | Hansard source

I listened to your nonsense in silence; you might like to listen to my facts in silence. Of course the honourable senators opposite get twitchy as soon as you expose the duplicity and the hypocrisy of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Why did the Australian Labor Party introduce a printing entitlement which was uncapped? Was it for the re-election of the Keating government? Was it for the re-election of the Hawke government? Of course not. When Labor does it, it is to communicate with the electorate. It is all good and wholesome. But when we as a government seek to cap it, there are nefarious reasons behind it. What nonsense. The people of Australia can see through this duplicity of the Australian Labor Party.

Let us get back to when it was introduced. The printing allowance was introduced by the Labor government in 1990 as part of the Parliamentary Entitlements Act, and it was uncapped. In other words, it was an unlimited entitlement. You hear the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate go on with the nonsense that allowing somebody to roll over their entitlement into the next year—and I will get to the reason why that should happen—means that somebody can spend $300,000. But, guess what? Under Labor they could have spent $300,000 and more on their re-election campaign, because it was uncapped. Yet they have the audacity to come into this place and assert that somehow we are seeking to manipulate the system. Indeed it was in September 2001 that I announced, albeit with the Prime Minister, 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. We had under the Labor regime some members of parliament, and I confess that there were some on my side as well, spending up to $400,000. We stopped it. We put an end to it; something that Labor could never bring themselves to do. We put a cap on it. We put an end to it. We asked: what would be a reasonable figure to enable communication with your electorate? We had to keep in mind that, whilst printing is expensive, there is in fact a postage limitation on every member of parliament and therefore it is not as though you can put a sheet of paper into everybody’s letterbox every single day of the week. This sum is limited by virtue of the amount that can be used by way of postage.

That original decision to cap it at $125,000 was taken some five years ago. It makes good sense that that figure should be reviewed from time to time. If you start with the inflation rate and you then compound that over the past five years, a raise to $150,000 seems to be reasonable. It means that an MP would have about $1.60 per year per elector. It is interesting to note that Senator Evans, in his hyperbole, says that $300,000 for re-election is immoral. I have already pointed out the hypocrisy of Labor, because they would have it uncapped, which would mean that they could have spent $500,000 or $600,000. We put a limit on it. But all we are talking about here is an increase of $25,000. When he says that $300,000 is an inappropriate figure, what he is really saying is that $250,000, which is the current cap, would be appropriate. So somehow that $50,000 figure is the inappropriate amount—if you were to be honest with the electors. Of course, we know from Labor the tactic has always been ‘opposition for opposition’s sake; don’t do as I do, do as I say’. When they are in government, we know what they will do. If they ever get the numbers again, they would uncap it—as they were happy to have it uncapped when they introduced it in 1990.

We have heard all sorts of things from Senator Brown about this being an outrageous hike et cetera. I simply say to him that, with all his hyperbole, the mere repetition of his false assertions does not make those false assertions right. He can repeat and repeat and repeat the false assertions, but that does not clothe them with any integrity or any truth. Senator Murray made a contribution to this debate. He quoted Norm Kelly. I understand he wrote an article in recent times and is now an academic ensconced at the Australian National University. Unfortunately what Senator Murray did not remind us was that this Norm Kelly, if I have the right one, is in fact a former Democrat member of parliament in Western Australia. Senator Ruth Webber is acknowledging that for me. And so, with great respect, for these academics who try to pretend that they are somehow clothed with academic independence, there is an issue of integrity here. It would be helpful if they were to say, ‘And by the way, I am a former Democrat member of parliament with a particular persuasion and with a particular axe to grind in this debate.’ I have dealt with most of that which Senator Evans spoke about, including that this was somehow a perversion of the democratic process.

We as a government say that there should be an absolute limit in an election year of $300,000 with this rollover. That it would be spent, I would doubt, but nevertheless potentially it is possible. But, if $300,000 is a perversion of democracy, it behoves the Australian Labor Party to tell the Australian people why their uncapped approach, which would have allowed $500,000 or more to be spent, was not a perversion of democracy. It will be very interesting to hear Senator Carr try to dance around that one. I do not think he will be able to.

When we were on entitlements—and I remember when this suite of entitlements was introduced—the Labor Party and the minor parties tried this same stunt. Labor joined with the Democrats and Greens to disallow the increase to the printing allowance which would have assisted all members. But, of course, what the Labor Party do not tell you in this debate is that, at the time the printing cap was put in, which they found outrageous—which is interesting, seeing it was previously uncapped—they could not find it in their conscience to disallow a range of entitlements that were specifically designed in fairness in this democratic process to help the Labor Party and the minor parties, such as enhanced transport arrangements for opposition and minor party MPs, including new charter transport arrangements for them. Was the cost to the taxpayer referred to by Senator Evans or Senator Murray in their contributions? No, because, if it is something they might be able to avail themselves of, that is good and wholesome—and so we do not talk about that. When we allow business class travel for some of their staff and more computers and more mobile phones for these staff, the whiff of hypocrisy in this is quite overwhelming. In fact, it is no longer a whiff; it is a stench of hypocrisy of these honourable senators opposite.

It is interesting, because the Labor Party have been out on this issue banging the can for quite some time. Mr Thomson from the other place is their public accountability spokesman. He appeared on Perth radio on 17 August and said that the $125,000 was already too high. Interesting: a $125,000 cap is too high, but uncapped is not too high—that is okay! Of course, what he does not—or he might, in fact—know is that the member for Griffith, Kevin Rudd, spent the whole of that $125,000 less 1c on his printing entitlement. So what does that tell you about Mr Thomson’s approach to Mr Rudd? He believes Mr Rudd has wasted taxpayers’ money.

Labor members are finding the need to spend this money on their electorates. Is Mr Thomson willing to condemn the member for Griffith—the potential leader of the Australian Labor Party if Bill Shorten does not beat him to it? They are the sorts of issues that Senator Carr should be addressing in the event that he does in fact make a substantial contribution. He never has, so I am not really expecting him to. But Mr Thomson tells us:

I think people ought to be able to do their communication with a budget of under $100,000.

That is Mr Thomson’s view of the world. We have just heard Senator Evans saying it ought to be $75,000. Which is it? Let the Labor Party come out. They said, when they introduced it, it should be uncapped. Now that we have capped it so there cannot be an abuse, one says it should be $100,000 and another says it ought to be $75,000. What is it? If you are an alternative government, you ought to have a position fair and square and tell us and the Australian people what it is. But, of course, typical of Labor’s style, it is opposition for opposition’s sake—and then they cannot even get their story together.

But, if the limit ought to be $100,000, guess who spent $110,000 last year in communicating with his electorate? None other than the member for Brand. Who might be the member for Brand? None other than Mr Beazley. So here we have Mr Beazley making a conscious decision that, in communicating with his electorate, he should be spending $110,000, yet his shadow spokesman says that $100,000 ought to be the limit. Senator Evans has undermined Mr Beazley even further by saying that the limit ought to be $75,000. In other words, according to them, Mr Beazley has wasted $35,000 on excessive communication with the electors of Brand. Indeed, when Mr Thomson was really pressed on this, he tried to assert that a previous cap was in the order of $62,000. Of course it was not; there was no limit in any way, shape or form, and that is where the whole Labor Party argument came undone.

Even Mr Thomson himself is a good spender of this entitlement, as indeed is the member for Batman, who is on record as saying that a legitimate level of expenditure is only $30,000. He is a very senior shadow minister: the member for Batman happens to rejoice in the name of Mr Martin Ferguson. Here we have a range. When Labor was in power, uncapped; now that we cap it, Labor have all this mock hysteria and mock outrage. When they are pressed as to what the cap should be, you have Mr Martin Ferguson saying $30,000; somebody else, $75,000; somebody else, $100,000—all this faux outrage. Really, can I say to those opposite that what we are doing is not unrealistic: it is fair, it is reasonable and, what is more important, there is an actual cap, unlike what Labor had.

On what senators may or may not need in relation to communication, if we were able to communicate with every elector, that would be a serious impost on the taxpayers. It is interesting to note that a former distinguished senator in this place, now deceased, Senator Cook, wrote a lengthy and, might I add, well-considered and well-constructed letter to the chairman of the Remuneration Tribunal. This is what he said:

Members of the lower house traditionally have a much closer relationship with the electorate than is the case with members of the upper house who represent their state as a single electorate. It is therefore not appropriate to base the entitlement for senators on the size of the constituency.

That was from a former distinguished Labor minister, who, I think at some stage, even served as their deputy leader in this place. So that was the Labor view when they were in government. In his letter, he said:

In the United States, members of the House of Representatives are able to send out six mass mailings each year to each postal patron within their congressional district.

We do not allow for that—far from it. We allow for one mailing per annum, not six. If you do a worldwide comparison, you will see how very sensible and reasonable we are and, what is more, unlike Labor, we have capped it. Another example that Senator Cook pointed out was Canada. The members of the House of Commons there are able to send out four mass mailings each year and up to eight in an election year. I tell you that the House of Representatives members here would not be able to send out eight mailings to each constituent in an election year.

Despite this moral outrage about this ‘perversion of the democratic process’, a lot bigger entitlements in the United States and Canada do not seem to have perverted the democratic process there, so why should a smaller entitlement in Australia somehow pervert the democratic process?

I invite senators to also reflect that in the United Kingdom, as Senator Cook pointed out in his letter, members of the House of Commons are entitled to free postage for parliamentarians’ business in the country—in other words, it is absolutely unlimited. Mr Blair has not changed that. He has been in government for quite some time. I ask the simple question: if it is not a perversion, with all these unlimited, quite generous entitlements in the United Kingdom—and much more generous in all these other comparable democracies—why is our modest entitlement somehow a perversion of democracy? I will tell you why, Mr Acting Deputy President. This is another example of the Australian Labor Party doing opposition for opposition’s sake, not looking at things objectively, opposing anything and everything the government does and being absolutely and utterly blind to the fact that, when they introduced the printing allowance, they did so on an uncapped basis. We brought integrity into the system by capping it—something that Labor could never bring themselves to do—and we believe that at this stage of the life cycle of the printing entitlement, it is appropriate to have a modest increase. The government oppose the disallowance motion.


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