Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

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

Motion for Disallowance

6:30 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That Schedules 1 and 3 to the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2006 (No. 1), as contained in Select Legislative Instrument 2006 No. 211 and made under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990, be disallowed.

What an outrage this particular hike in expenditure is! Here we have a regulation being put forward by the government in the pre-election year to increase spending on printing for incumbent MPs by millions of dollars. Of course, we have to recognise that this was last tried in the run to the last election in 2004 and was blocked by the Senate when I moved a similar disallowance motion. It was blocked by the Senate for good reason: it was an outrageous hand in the pockets of the Australian taxpayers in the run to an election to advantage incumbents against those other people who would stand for election.

The biggest problem with the regulations is that they hike the amount of printing that members of the House of Representatives can have by an extra $25,000 a year, from $125,000 to $150,000. Moreover, there is rollover provision so that, if that money is not spent in the year running to an election, in the year of the election that spending can go up to between $180,000 and $200,000 for the year for each member in every electorate right across the country. Who does this advantage most? The party with the most members in the House of Representatives—the government. This is a prime ministerial decision to advantage the government against the opposition but in particular against all other comers in the electorate.

The Greens of course oppose the changes to these printing entitlements, but we should note that, as far as the Senate is concerned, it is not going to make one difference. The entitlements have not been increased for the Senate. The formula has been changed to disadvantage the Greens, and we will live with that. You can see the government and the Prime Minister’s office think, think, thinking: ‘How are we going to improve our election capability as against people elsewhere in the political spectrum that we are opposed to?’ Have a listen to these figures. The 86 coalition MPs will receive an extra $12.9 million in the coming year in printing allowance and the coalition senators an extra $780,000—total, $13.7 million.

If you put that into perspective, and you work it out at a generous 5c a printed sheet, this gives government MPs enough money to print 258 million flyers in the run to the next election. That is equivalent to 25 pieces of junk mail in every Australian household letterbox. It is just outrageous. It is well known that the Howard government injects tens of millions of dollars into advertising on television and elsewhere in the run to an election to advantage itself. This is a more direct largesse going to every MP to advantage themselves. The government has got over $13 million out of the taxpayers’ pockets in extra money—and we are not talking about what else is being done elsewhere in the political spectrum. I remember some years ago it was a $50,000 a year advantage to incumbents. It has now moved to well over $100,000 a year.

In America there are figures showing that 90 per cent of incumbents get returned because everything is loaded so much by the sitting members of Congress against those who would take them on at the hustings. That is the process that is occurring here. So much of what is wrong with the American system is being imported under the Howard government. They have an opportunity here now that the government has got the control of the Senate, now that the brake is off and the Senate’s role is simply to be able to talk about the issue and not to act on it, to go for the money. We have to deplore it. We have to debate it and defy it as best we can. We have to draw public attention to it. In my view the expenditure of public money in this way simply to advantage sitting MPs against other candidates for election is quite wrong. It is just simply ethically wrong. It is morally wrong. It is undemocratic and we need a big check on that.

The best check on that of course has been the Senate. But the government has now got control of the Senate. The Prime Minister said that he would not show hubris and would not abuse that control. It is being abused here today. This is an effort to get what the Senate refused to give the government just three years ago, and it is wrong. So the three parties on this side of the chamber are moving to disallow this regulation. The money being spent through this regulation would be much better spent on hospitals, on schools, on the entitlements of poor people and on the 1.8 million pensioners who were totally ignored in the last budget. If the government has a slush fund for things like this it should be thinking of those citizens who could use this money instead of thinking about how to disadvantage and abuse the electoral system on the way to the next election.

6:37 pm

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

I am pleased to associate myself and my party with the disallowance motion for schedules 1 and 3 to the Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2006 (No. 1). As soon as I saw it come through I moved rapidly and Labor and my party put down a disallowance to schedule 1, but we needed time to examine all the schedules. We agreed that schedule 3 was also something to be disapproved. It was complicated by a number of motions so we came to an agreement with Senator Brown that we all jointly move this amendment. I am pleased that it is being presented on that basis.

The Parliamentary Entitlements Amendment Regulations 2006 are contained in Select Legislative Instrument 2006 No. 211 and made under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990. These amendment regulations enhance existing entitlements where it is thought the current resources have proven inadequate or need a review and to be made clearer. They also make associated transitional and other technical amendments. Of note is that schedule 1 allows for an increase in printing entitlements for members of the House of Representatives from the current $125,000 to $150,000 and introduces the capacity to carry forward a portion of unused benefits into the following year.

Schedule 2 allows for mobile phone services as an additional benefit for the staff of party whips and clarifies administrative arrangements providing delegation of travel and travel by Inter-Parliamentary Union or Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegations. There is no motion for disallowing schedule 2.

Schedule 3 sets the printing entitlements of senators at $20,000 per annum from 1 July 2007, which is currently set at 10 reams of paper for senators and 20 for specified office holders, which works out at approximately $1,000 per annum, with a pro rata amount of $16,667 for the period 1 September 2006 until 30 June 2007. Administration of the entitlements moves from the Senate to what we know as MaPS, the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services Division. Approval for guidelines on the use of entitlements now moves to the Special Minister of State, and parts of entitlements can no longer be transferred between senators or taken in advance. Entitlements now cover all stationery requirements, newsletters and other printed materials, including Christmas cards for constituents. Senators can choose any commercial printer of their choice but should be mindful of government procurement policies and guidelines. Frankly, it was not an easy schedule to read and to determine exactly how it affected people.

Now in its second decade of incumbency, the Howard coalition government is displaying its determination to stay in office by these timely amendments to parliamentary entitlement regulations. They are timely, of course, because they are going to be very useful in the coming election year. Although they are being introduced under the guise of servicing the electorate, many are clearly about boosting electioneering activity by the government’s incumbent members. These manoeuvres will add and have added to a cynical view the public and the media have taken about politicians. There has been considerable adverse commentary already ranging from very forthright and quite often provocative remarks by Alan Ramsay—I am an avid reader of columns such as those written by Alan Ramsay—all the way to a more academic view taken by such people as Norm Kelly from the ANU.

Schedule 1 allows for an extra $25,000 a head for the printing entitlements of 150 members of the House of Representatives, which amounts to $3.7 million a year of taxpayers’ money being spent essentially to further the interests of the incumbents. If taken over a three-year parliamentary term, the figure is $11.25 million. At $150,000 per politician, that is $22.5 million a year, or $67.5 million over three years. Additionally, the rollover provisions are of concern as they will allow politicians to carry over an unused portion of an entitlement into the following year.

It should be strongly noted for the record that the government have attempted this manoeuvre in the past and the non-government senators unanimously rejected it. At that time we had the numbers in the Senate, and it is because we do not have the numbers in the Senate that this appalling extravagance is coming forward. I hope that when the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate speaks he will give a commitment to wind this back when Labor eventually take power, which I am sure they will do one of these days.

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

I hope they do.

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

It is the way of the world, as you know. Things do change. The wheel turns. Whilst we are having this interchange, I think it was William Butler Yeats who spoke in his Irish poetry about the gyre and how it moves. I will turn back to the issue. It would appear that this increase is needed to make use of the recent increase in the postage or communications allowance for members of parliament, which is a separate entitlement and which, with Labor’s support, the government introduced in June 2005. This increase will prove most useful for how-to-vote information, which was previously funded by political parties but will now be capable of being funded by taxpayers through this allowance.

There are concerns for the new printing benefits for senators under schedule 3. Under these amendments, printing will now be self-vetting—a copy of the printed materials is not required to be submitted to the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services Division with a formal invoice of payment to the printing account. Massively increasing the entitlement to the House of Representatives is not matched by an equivalent massive increase to the Senate, but it does have the ability to cover items previously supplied by the Senate outside the original entitlement. Figures from the Black Rod are available, and they indicate how the Senate entitlement was dealt with previously.

The big thing for our minor party—I am not sure about other minor parties—was that we used to share our Senate entitlement and so smooth out the demand. As far as I am aware we were the only party that used the entitlement to paper on this basis.

In the past, the average cost per senator per annum was $11,000 for newsletters and $5,700 for stationery. As the legislation currently stands, members of parliament are essentially able to determine their own entitlements—both the amount of money and how it is to be used—and auditing is minimal. In accountability terms this is unsatisfactory. What is required in the area of parliamentary entitlements is for them to be under the close scrutiny of a single, independent decision-making authority. In other democracies there are strict controls over the use of parliamentary allowances, and there should be here too.

Given that taxpayer money is already used to fund election campaigns—as provided for under public funding legislation—schedules 1 and 3 of these proposed amendment regulations are not in their interests. Questions certainly arise as to what I regard as an illegitimate use of incumbency to further political party interests.

Regardless of the outcome of this debate—and I suspect government numbers will be unanimous in advancing these regulations—it is time that the government and the parliament acted together to ensure the regular auditing of senators’ and members’ expenditure through these various entitlements. The last audit was opposed by the government and supported by the non-government senators. It was the only audit, I am aware of, since the foundation of the Federation.

It is true that the department carries out checks and keeps a much better eye on these matters than they used to in the past. It is true that there has been a significant improvement in accountability as expressed through the various reports that are now produced by the department that falls under the Department of Finance and Administration. Certainly, I regard the current presentation of material that is available concerning members of parliament’s allowances and entitlements as far superior to that which applied 10 years ago. But the fact remains that, from the Auditor-General’s perspective, these are not issues that are periodically and systematically audited. I think, particularly with an increase in taxpayer funds and incumbency entitlements, it would be a great improvement if that were to be introduced on a regular basis. That can easily be done.

The Democrats are deeply concerned about the nature of these additional increases. In particular, we are concerned about schedule 1. It is just outrageous that a House of Representatives member would be able to go into the next election in, say, November with a carryover plus their annual allowance, effectively having anywhere up to a quarter of a million dollars—probably closer to $225,000 if they are careful—available to them, being printing entitlements. That gives an incumbent a power and an ability to knock off competitors in the political field who are not incumbents, because of the sheer weight of available money and funds.

I applauded the Labor Party for unhesitatingly opposing this in the past. I applaud them again for unhesitatingly opposing it this time. It is obviously in their interest, in an incumbent sense, to have these funds available to them, but they recognise that the increases go far beyond the bounds of what is appropriate, decent and required in the proper servicing of a constituency by a parliamentarian.

Debate interrupted.