Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Parliamentarians Entitlements

5:39 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I want to indicate from the outset that the Australian Democrats warmly welcome these regulations and support the minister’s outline of the content of these regulations. This is action that needed to be taken early in the life of this government; the government have stayed true to their promise and have delivered what is a significant restoration of accountability and propriety.

I would confirm the view expressed by the Special Minister of State that there were two major problems with the printing allowances that were made available before. One was in terms of quantum—it was just excessive, overgenerous; and the other, of course, was that it was cumulative—it was allowed to be rolled over.

Any member or senator holding a seat benefits from incumbency, even more so if they are in a safe seat or they hold high office. The incumbent has a natural advantage over any challenger when an election is contested. However, when that incumbency advantage is artificially boosted so that it becomes much more expensive or difficult for a challenger to contest the seat, it becomes a real problem. Despite our democratic system being a plural one in which numbers of political parties and Independents can contest elections, there has been a strong tendency towards dualism and oligopoly. So incumbency advantages further boosted the prospects of the two largest beneficiaries of our system—namely, the Liberal and Labor parties. What the government has, in my view, commendably done is improve the contestability and affordability of elections, by reducing the incumbency advantage of individuals who are already in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Parliamentarians have a wide range of responsibilities: party, political, parliamentary, legislative, representative and portfolio. They do need modern, efficient office resources to carry out these responsibilities effectively. However, care should be taken that their office resources are not ahead of reasonable community standards and expectations. Proper independent determination and audit is needed, and reporting and disclosure must be full, regular and transparent.

Incumbent members or senators have an in-built advantage over challengers for their seat. Their staffing and office provisions; modern phone, fax and electronic communications; fast franking and Risograph machines; and colour printers and advanced computer facilities all help give them this advantage. Since 1996, office entitlements have expanded to provide enhanced parking and travel allowances for parliamentarians and their staff; broadband web access; significant computer, electronic and mechanical office enhancements; two phone lines, two mobile phones, a digital organiser and increased subscriptions. What the Howard government did was radically extend the natural in-built advantages of incumbency. Most obscene of all was the misuse of government advertising to advantage the incumbent government, and a huge increase in the number of ministerial staffers and members of the secretive government members secretariat.

At the individual parliamentarian level, the Howard government lifted the number of staff members per parliamentarian from three to four and doubled the relief staff provision—neither of which resulted from thorough, independent, publicly available assessments of whether members of parliament’s work demands warranted it. They hugely increased printing and postage allowances and allowed these allowances to be used for purposes never contemplated before. How-to-vote cards used to be at the cost of a political party; they were able to be funded by taxpayers at the last election, through the Howard government’s largesse. The public purse is now funding transport and telecommunication costs, mail and printing costs, the running of websites, the maintenance of electoral databases—all trappings of political incumbency and all worth many millions of dollars in each political cycle.

In 1996, six large electorates could have a second electorate office and an extra staffer; now there are 20 such electorates. Members serving large constituencies could now aggregate their communications and charter allowances, and money allocated for travel to distant parts of the constituency could now be used for mail. At the time this came through, the then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Evans, estimated that each of the 33 members in large constituencies could now accumulate, with other entitlements, as he described it, ‘a whopping $393,500 of taxpayer funds for their re-election’.

In August 2006, the Howard government displayed its determination to stay in office by tying amendments to parliamentary entitlement regulations which, because it had control of the Senate, could not be overturned. They were vigorously opposed by the non-government parties. Although introduced under the guise of servicing the electorate, many were clearly about boosting electioneering activity by incumbent members. Printing entitlements for members of the House of Representatives increased from $125,000 to $150,000. With 150 members, that entitlement amounted to $22.5 million each year.

There were no such allowances until Labor introduced them in the early 1990s, and they have grown ever since. There is at present a provision to carry forward 45 per cent of unused benefits into the following year that the minister will end through his announcement of this new regulation. This means that there was the potential for members to access printing entitlements of up to $217,500 during an election year, which was a grossly unfair advantage to incumbents over other candidates in an election. Members could use their printing entitlements for postal vote applications and how-to-vote cards for their seats or other seats in their respective states or territories. By comparison, members contesting the 1996 election could not use this entitlement for party based material. Figures released by the minister indicated that printing costs escalated for government members from $15,414 in 1996 to $94,511 in 2006 and for opposition members from $18,357 to $71,848. On the other hand, the printing costs for Independent members rose to only $35,214 over the same period.

Since 2004, sitting members and senators have been able to use their postal, printing and communications allowances for election campaigns. Members could spend those on parts of adjoining seats subject to redistribution. Senators could divert their allowances to help party colleagues. In sum, while the advantage of publicly funded expenses does go to all sitting members, that advantage compounded for a government where its electoral ascendancy was most pronounced.

I am not so naive as to believe that every single member of the then government supported such largesse from a moral perspective, nor am I so naive as to believe that every member of the opposition at the time opposed it from a moral perspective. There is a vast amount of self-interest attached to this. What the Rudd Labor government and Minister John Faulkner have now done—and here I want to pay respect to the Special Minister of State; this has been a long campaign for accountability and integrity on his part—is reduce the largesse, minimise the rort, restrict the advantage of incumbency and restore some contestability. I hope this is one of many steps that will be taken to make our democracy something that we can be more proud of than we were in the final years of the Howard government. I assure you that the Australian Democrats will strongly support the regulations that have been put before us.


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