Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Principal Executive Office Classification Structure and Terms and Conditions

Motion for Disallowance

5:37 pm

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

I rise on behalf of the Labor Party to indicate we will not be supporting the disallowance motion moved by Senator Brown. As I understand it, the disallowance motion seeks to disallow the determination by the Remuneration Tribunal which led to a 4.2 per cent increase in salaries for those people affected by the decision—essentially, the principal executive officer remuneration range upon which the parliamentary salaries are linked. It also, as I understand it, affects about 95 senior public servants. The allowance to senators and members is pegged at the reference salary of band A in the lowest of the PEO ranges. So, by moving this motion, Senator Brown seeks to deny the pay increase to politicians, but of course also denies it to a range of public servants. I understand the reason he has done it. I am sure it is not his intention to affect them in that way. I think he expects to lose it, but, in doing so, I suspect he might have lost 95 potential votes among those public servants. I am not sure how many of them vote Green, but they will not be voting Green next time, Senator Brown.

My problem with this, as I have said previously, is that Senator Brown proposes that we set our own salaries. Senator Brown says he knows better and this Senate knows better how to establish the rate of pay for senators and members. By moving this motion, he seeks to put an alternative proposition to that one determined by the independent body, the Remuneration Tribunal, which is authorised to set the salaries of members of parliament. On this occasion, Senator Brown seeks to say, ‘No, we won’t use an independent umpire’—the sort of independent umpire that Senator Brown has supported in terms of IR legislation for other workers in this country and has had a good position on over the years; allowing the right for independent determination of such things. On this occasion, he says, ‘I, Senator Bob Brown, will tell you what the salary of politicians ought to be.’ Now there may be others who want to argue a much lesser position than the total remuneration package Senator Brown proposes. But, effectively, Senator Brown says: ‘I know better. On this occasion, I will determine what the rate will be by disallowing this regulation. I will take it out of the hands of the independent umpire and I will make this parliament decide.’

Fundamentally, I have always opposed the proposition that people should set their own salary and conditions. We are no better at doing it than anybody else. We are totally conflicted and any ability to try and explain such decisions in a wider audience would be undermined by claims of self-interest. Whatever we do, we cannot win. But, quite frankly, we are not the appropriate body to set the salary and conditions. I think it would be totally inappropriate for the Senate to seek to establish the rates of pay and conditions for politicians. It is just not appropriate. Because of that recognition, in 1999 the government made a regulation under the Remuneration and Allowances Act to link the parliamentary base salary with reference to the tribunal’s principal executive officer structure. It basically allowed the tribunal to manage the salary structure since that time.

The difficulty for us, of course, is that every time there is a movement it comes before us by way of the determination and it gives an opportunity for someone to seek to have a debate about it. I am fine with a public debate on the issue. I am fine with a public debate about politicians’ salary and conditions, but I am not relaxed about us determining them. I am happy to have a debate, but I am not happy about making the decision because no-one will see us as independent on that subject. I just think it is totally inappropriate and wrongheaded for us to set our own salary and conditions. That has been a principle broadly accepted by parliamentarians and broadly accepted by the public. No-one, apart from Senator Brown, argues that the Senate ought to set the salary.

Senator Brown is saying he has made an independent judgement as to what the appropriate salary ought to be for a senator and member, and he is going to give effect to that by his motion today. So Senator Brown is now putting himself as the independent umpire of his and our conditions by what he seeks to do today. He says, ‘On this occasion,’ but, quite frankly, this process has been followed before. I cannot remember when—I did not bother looking up on which previous occasions Senator Brown or others have done this—but it has been quite common in other parliaments for, generally, minor party senators to use the opportunity to play some cheap politics. I think the Greens did it in Western Australia at one stage in the state parliament. It is useful in terms of publicity. I assume you get a lot of coverage from it. That is your prerogative. But the reality is that good public policy requires, in my view, that the parliament not seek to set the terms of the salary and conditions of parliamentarians. We do not have a great record on it. We are totally conflicted in doing so and there would be no public confidence in any decision-making processes that we took in that regard.

I think we are better off having all our salary and conditions set by an independent Remuneration Tribunal, as I have never been comfortable with us seeking to set some of our other conditions. I remind senators of the government’s decisions in relation to MPs’ print entitlements, where the government determined those levels and brought them before the parliament. I just do not think we are the right people to be making those decisions. The government got it wrong. It appeared highly politically motivated to increase MPs’ printing entitlements in the lead-up to a federal election. It favoured the government party because they had more members. The whole thing looked like a political stunt and the whole thing brought politicians into disrepute. As far as I am concerned, an independent Remuneration Tribunal should set all of those conditions. I am not sure that is our official party policy; I will check that. But, as far as I am concerned, hands off! We are not the right people to determine those things. There ought to be independent assessment of those things.

Senator Brown talks about public disquiet. Everywhere I go people tell me they do not think politicians are paid enough—particularly the Prime Minister and senior ministers. Maybe that is because I am moving in the resources sector these days and they are all earning a packet and anything under 500 grand looks paltry. But, to be honest, even when I had the shadow portfolio which covered FaCSIA and I was moving among the community sector, they tended to express the view that they thought, because of the hours and the responsibilities, not all politicians were paid enough.

I do not share that view. In my personal judgement, the salary is about right. I do not think paying politicians will attract better people to politics, but I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I? I do not adopt that argument. People go into public life for reasons other than salary. It ought to be of a sufficient level that people are not making a massive sacrifice, but, equally, I do not know of anyone in public life who would be motivated by a minor adjustment in pay rates. As we know, we have a fair share of millionaires in the parliament these days. They are not doing it for money—it is costing a few of them—but that is a sign that we can attract all sorts of people to the parliament and that they come in for reasons other than the salary.

But the fundamental principle that this parliament has endorsed and the community broadly accepts is that we should not set our own pay and conditions. Senator Brown’s motion has the effect of seeking to get the parliament to set them again by virtue of the disallowance opportunity of the regulation. It is a bit opportunistic of Senator Brown to seek to do this. I understand why, but I have seen these stunts before about rejecting this pay rise or that pay rise. Every time it comes up it is an opportunity, but I think we ought to be more systematic in the way we approach it. We ought to say: ‘What are the principles? How should these be determined? What is the process?’ Establish that and leave it alone; do not seek to interfere when one thinks there is political advantage in running one case or the other. That is a principle this Senate ought to endorse.

The issue that Senator Brown was right to raise, and which is an important issue, is the level of the age pension. He expresses concern, rightly, about the level of the aged-care pension. I, frankly, do not understand how people live on that income. I never have. It is interesting: I was chatting to my father the other day, who is an independent retiree as a result of his employment, and he was expressing the view of how well off he was in comparison to pensioners and how he was appreciative that he had joined a super scheme late. He was espousing his support for superannuation, that it had made his retirement far more comfortable than it would have been if he had been on the pension. He mentioned that a couple of his drinking mates down at the Wembley Hotel were surviving on pensions and that they were finding it very hard to afford the occasional beer. Senator Brown makes a good point about that; it is an issue we ought to focus much more on.

His point about the CPI increases is also right. I have had no end of representations from pensioners about the basket of goods which is used to calculate the changes in pensions—that things like cheap imported electrical goods are in the basket and that the price of plasma TVs coming down subdues the total value of the CPI index. They quite rightly say to me, ‘I’m flat out paying for my groceries, without buying plasma TVs, and I’m still operating on the old black-and-white we’ve had since 1963.’ Those are legitimate arguments, and the parliament ought to have more debate about them and focus on the conditions that so many tens of thousands of pensioners live in in this country. It is right to focus on that. I know that inside the Labor Party we have focused on those issues and on how we can afford to improve the lot of pensioners. So that part of the debate is right, but linking the issues to try to say, ‘If we stop the pollies getting a pay rise, somehow this is going to favour pensioners,’—it is easy politics. It gets you a headline and you get a run in the paper, but you do not do anything to improve public policy in this country. In the end you do not do anything to assist the pensioners. It is unhelpful and, quite frankly, it does not do the reputation of politicians and the political process any good.

As I said, it is easier to do the stunt, but there are serious issues at stake. I know it is harder for Senator Brown and the Greens to get noticed in the current climate. The focus on the prime ministerial race between Mr Rudd and Mr Howard is consuming a lot of oxygen in the political debate. The reality of the Senate becoming less relevant since the balance of power changed and our inability to get any focus on the role of the Senate and the accountability mechanisms must make it much harder for minor parties. That might be difficult, but I do not think pulling stunts like this is the answer to those pressures. I am sure the Greens and the Democrats and Family First are finding this. The parliament ought to reiterate its support for salary and conditions being set by an independent Remuneration Tribunal. We ought to, as much as possible, move down that path in relation to most politicians’ and parliamentarians’ conditions. The government’s move on the postage and printing allowances was a classic sign of why we should not be put in charge of our own conditions. Proper decision-making process was corrupted by the political panic of the government to try to ensure their incumbents had the best opportunity to be re-elected. That is not the proper basis on which you decide postage or printing allowances for parliamentarians.

Labor will be opposing Senator Brown’s disallowance motion. The decision of the Remuneration Tribunal, whether one agrees with the quantum or not, has been determined by the appropriate body, not by parliamentarians seeking to set their own wages, and we ought to accept that that process serves our democracy much better than this attempt to pick and choose on which occasions and under which conditions we accept or reject it. It is not a sustainable process, and I do not think it is in the interests of confidence in the political system more generally.


No comments