Senate debates

Thursday, 7 September 2006

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

Motion for Disallowance

Debate resumed from 6 September, on motion by Senator Bob Brown:

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.

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)

11:43 am

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

What the Senate has been hearing in relation to this debate has been a whole stack of hyperbole and exaggerated rhetoric. Mr Acting Deputy President, what we as a Senate ought consider in examining the assertions of the Leader of the Opposition in this place is when the printing allowance came into being. The printing allowance for members of parliament came into being under the Australian Labor Party government in the year 1990. And do you know what? Was the Labor Party’s printing entitlement in 1990 limited? It was not. It was uncapped. It was the reforms of the Howard government—indeed, whilst I was Special Minister of State, if I might say—that put a cap on the expenditure of the printing entitlement.

So it is a nonsense when the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate comes into this place and asserts that this is somehow a political fix for the re-election of the Howard government, because under Labor’s jurisdiction there was no cap in any way, shape or form. And so of course you had people like the person whom we nicknamed ‘Bob the printer’. I think he was the former member for Paterson. We called him Bob the printer. What occurred was that people were expanding—

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

Where was he on the list? He was 14th on the list. There were 13 coalition members above him in terms of expenditure.

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.

12:02 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister has just given us a dissertation on stench. I always find it an interesting concept, coming from a man—

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

You live in it!

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

He says that we live in it. That is his approach to the matter. We see from him a presentation that has all the enthusiasm of a salesman for the new product. No matter what the product is, he has enthusiasm for it. But in fact what you are seeing is a rather sharp, somewhat sleazy and slimy approach being taken to the presentation of what is a very weak case of a government. He has all the morality of a used car salesman when it comes to the selling of his product. In the first instance he says that, when the Labor Party was in government, it did not have a cap on printing. He knows, as he has been a former minister, that the policy of the Labor Party was to support a cap for many years. He knows that Senator Ray is on the public record and he knows that I and Senator Faulkner, as former shadows in this area, have both made statements to the effect that we support a cap on the printing entitlement. He knows that to be the case and he has wilfully misrepresented the Labor Party’s position on these matters.

He commented on the generosity the government has shown towards the opposition. I know that Senator Ferris wrote to him when he was the minister, at least on three occasions, requesting support for phones for the whip’s office, which was denied by him. I understand it was the current Special Minister of State, Mr Nairn, who finally agreed to the provision of extra phones for the whip’s office. We have opposition frontbenchers who do not have enough computers in their rooms. Those computers have been denied because it suits the government to restrict the opposition in terms of the facilities available.

What I am particularly concerned about is the abuse of ministerial power that flows from the actions of the government. We have seen the case that has been put in terms of advertising. We know the additional moneys the government are spending to support their case for re-election—over $1 billion in advertising from public sources. We know the changes they made to the electoral laws to undermine the franchise in this country, to undermine the Australian ballot. We know the actions that they are taking to restrict people’s capacity to participate. We now have this provision with regard to the printing entitlement, which is all about the re-election of the government. Those combined measures have to be seen.

However, what I am particularly concerned about is how the government seeks to use the ministerial office in a manner to undermine the position of other members of this parliament to the point where, just last month, we saw the current minister, Minister Nairn, releasing details of entitlement spending of some members of the Labor Party. Of course, that practice was pursued in 2001, where Minister Abetz today referred, once again, to the member for Paterson, who was the 14th member on the list of spending at that particular time. That was a clear attempt by the government to smear and misrepresent the situation. In that case we had 13 coalition members spending more money than the member for Paterson at that time. We now hear a reference to the member for Brand and the member for Griffith and their spending entitlements, so we see a clearer pattern being established by this government of gross misrepresentation of ministerial authority and abuse of ministerial office.

We have a clear situation where these are not matters that are subject to the Remuneration Tribunal. These are not the patterns of deliberation made by some independent authority. These are the political decisions of government made for the interests of government and aimed to extract the maximum advantage out of incumbency. I take the view that there ought to be a clear balance on these questions. All that we have said—and I have said this in terms of my responsibilities in this parliament on the questions of entitlement—is that there ought to be caps on the printing entitlements. We have made that very clear. But what we say, though, is that we cannot have a situation where members can take advantage of the $300,000 in an election year, which Senator Evans has pointed out, in circumstances where the audit provisions are extremely weak.

However, I want to concentrate on other aspects of these new regulations that the government is introducing by ministerial fiat. We cannot amend these regulations; we can only move to disallow them. So there is no question of saying we do not like this amount and would prefer another amount; it is about either disallowing them or accepting them, and we are moving to disallow them, because these are regressive regulations. The government claims that these changes in respect of the Senate are designed to regularise the arrangements for senators. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We now have a ludicrous situation, as a result of this government’s actions, where senators are effectively banned from using the Senate printing office, where senators are not entitled to use the Senate printing office. However, what I am particularly concerned about is the fact that the President of this chamber is said to be the source of this advice to the government to restrict the capacity of senators to use the Senate printing office. I refer directly to the minister’s letter of 30 August that confirms that the printing office will no longer be responsible for senators’ printing. He says:

As a consequence of the fact that the newsletter and stationery entitlements of senators have now been amalgamated, the Senate printing office will no longer be responsible for printing any items for senators.

What an extraordinary proposition! And Minister Nairn’s letter of 15 August points out that these changes were the results of representations by the President himself. I know he has been concerned for some time to see the use of Tasmanian paper in the printing office. He does not like the use of imported paper. I can understand the view about using domestic paper for the printing of government documents, but I think it is a long way to go from that to suggest we should have some sweetheart deal with local printers so that we can win the services of friendly local printers for the printing of our materials—and I look forward to the acquittal processes that will come from those arrangements.

I am particularly surprised by the acquiescence of the President to the transfer of the administrative responsibility for these matters from the department to MAPS. We have a situation where the presiding officer should not acquiesce to the executive, because I understand that the real source of the authority for this change in the Senate printing entitlements is a decision of the Prime Minister himself. He is the one that has been pursuing these questions, because he is very concerned about the way in which some senators in this chamber are actually using their printing entitlement to canvass ideas. Shock horror!

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

See Senator Ray’s comments in Hansard. Talk to Senator Ray!

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I raise the point, Minister: who did the President consult? Which senators did he consult? Who did he ask about these changes? What constituency was the Senate President actually seeking to serve by these changes?

The minister for finance tells us that we have an average expenditure of $15,000 on the services that are currently available. I would like to know on what basis he calculated that cost. I would like to know on what basis as to the quality of services provided were these assessments made. What allowance was made for the commercial costs of the printing that we are supposed to be undertaking? We understand the new provisions will mean that all senators’ printing—everything from their Christmas cards and their calling cards to their compliments slips and their fax cover sheets—will have to be done privately. You would have to ask yourself what additional costs will be involved in that process.

I am particularly interested to know how the government will seek to establish the pro rata amounts between a senator and a member of the House of Representatives. We clearly have a situation with the carry-forward provision, as Senator Evans has pointed out, where there is a great disparity in the amounts of money that are available for senators and House of Representatives members. No-one on this side would suggest that there ought to be equality in terms of the amounts, but the disparity is now at a point where it is clearly ridiculous. If you think about the amounts of money that are actually available for the electoral cycle, we are now looking at a figure of some $540,000 that is available for members of the House of Representatives to be used for their own re-election. That equates with nothing like the amounts of money that are available for senators to undertake their work.

I take the view that it is not just a question of the size of the envelopes or whether or not we now have to go down to the MAPS store and ask the MAPS people to deliver envelopes to our office for us to then personally transfer to a local printer. That is all irrelevant to this major issue, although there are clearly additional costs involved that the minister for finance has not calculated. What I am very concerned about is the impact of these changes. One of our critical roles in this place as senators is to debate matters. Our critical role is to assess what is going on in this country at any particular time. We actually live in a bizarre age. We are seeing with this current Australian government, particularly under this Prime Minister, a severe case of antipodean cretinism. We have a clear case of the degrading of the importance of rational debate, of intellectual rigour, of the assessment of social and economic options. It is a dumbing down, Minister—and you are the perfect example of it. There is a dumbing down of the level of political debate in this country. Parliament ought to be the centre for the battle of ideas. It ought to be the arena in which issues and policies of enduring national significance are debated and thrashed out. It is the site where different visions of society should be tested and canvassed. The Senate has a particular role in that regard, and under the current arrangements the capacity to produce larger documents, policy documents, discussion documents, magazines and journals is of course apparent to us all; the ability to swap the paper entitlement around means that has occurred.

What we are seeing under this government is that the Senate’s role as a house of review is being restricted—and I do not just mean review of legislation; I mean reviewing the work of government, public policy and our vision of ourselves, our country and our place in the world. All of these matters are being restricted. A senator ought to be allowed to have the highest level of intellectual commitment—a commitment to rational debate and analysis—and the capacity to make appropriate judgements. But, under these regulations, we are confined to doing that on four sheets of paper; if it does not fit onto four sheets of paper, it is not to be covered by printing. We cannot print any documents that are longer than four sheets of paper. What is the mentality of a government that creates that as part of its regulations?

I take the view that the contest of ideas should occur not just in this chamber but throughout the community at large. It also ought to occur in the back rooms of parliament. Labor has a long tradition of emphasis on political debate and journalism. There is an equally long tradition of Labor politicians who have recognised and used the platform offered by journalism and the political press. Red Ted Theodore, John Curtin, Frank Anstey and a whole host of people have used their jobs as members of parliament to argue their case in the public debate using the printed word. Even Billy Hughes, in his early days, was interested in these sorts of things.

These regulations seek to change the communications entitlement to wilfully—and, I say, quite intentionally—frustrate senators who have an interest in fulfilling that important part of their work. What we have here is an attempt by this Prime Minister, through his deliberate personal intervention on this matter, to stifle debate and stunt the development and evaluation of policy and policy options. No case has been made for this, but we are now told that there is to be a restriction on what we can do. There will be a limit of $20,000 a year for all printing entitlements, and documents can be no more than four pages in length.

We are told that the changes that are being taken—moving away from the Department of the Senate—will be an improvement. I have had no trouble at all getting material published through the Black Rod’s office; it is not a restriction. I have put forward policy documents, journals of essays and a range of matters. I have used my entitlement to the full, without restriction by the Black Rod’s office. We are now told that this is the excuse that is being used to justify the transfer of these arrangements to DOFA. We are being told that if it does not fit on four sheets of A4 paper—we can have it on glossy paper if we want, of course—it does not count and that is not the appropriate way for it to be done.

It strikes me that this is an attack on our rights and our capacity to undertake our job. It will mean that some senators who currently use this allowance to do the job will not be able to do it. Senator Brandis, Senator Mason and even Senator Fifield have an interest in this sort work. They produce journals; they are interested in contributing to journals; they are in the business of articulating views about the direction in which this country should go. I happen not to agree with them, but I defend their right to do it—and it would seem that I defend it much more strongly than this Prime Minister does. We have a situation in which the work of senators is being undermined by the actions of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has targets whom he cannot abide. I have mentioned Brandis, Mason and Fifield. They are not left-wingers; they are probably moderates. They are conservative libertarians; they are not particularly revolutionary men. But this Prime Minister aims to silence them. They join another group: Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird and Judi Moylan. This is not exactly a roll call of John Howard’s favourites. What we are seeing with this device is the Prime Minister’s determination to silence the Peter Costello acolytes. This device is being used by the Prime Minister to restrict—

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

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the articulation of opinion in this chamber. It is as much a factional move by this Prime Minister—and the likes of Senator Abetz—to restrict his opponents as it is anything else.

Some senators are able to publish their own documents because they are able to use their own resources. Senator Santoro’s magazine The Conservative is a case in point. Senator Santoro is the editor of this journal and he is clearly aspiring to be a leader within the Liberal Party. This journal draws upon the thinking of notorious people within the Liberal Party such as Mr Gerry Wheeler, who contributed to the last two editions of that journal. It is supposed to be printed quarterly—it is falling a bit behind. I read the initial issue, which was sponsored by the patron Senator Minchin. Mr Gerry Wheeler stood unsuccessfully for Liberal preselection for the Senate in 2002. He has been described by a former party colleague as:

… a hardline right-wing member of the Liberal Party who was once part of a group known as the ‘bronweenies’—young Tories who worshipped Bronwyn Bishop, who for a brief while fancied herself as a saviour of the Liberals after John Hewson lost the 1993 election.

With Mr Wheeler comes an attitude that strikes one as being like that of the rabid anti-communists of 1950s America. Formerly an adviser in Mr Howard’s office, although what he actually did there was always a mystery to most of us, Mr Wheeler is a man who detests the ALP—and the left of the Liberal Party for that matter—with a passion.

Another report suggests that Mr Wheeler has other political interests such as the right to bear automatic arms, the privatisation of the ABC and the SBS, opposition to economic sanctions against South Africa and all the rest of it. That is his long history.

So Senator Santoro’s journal is very interesting. It is privately funded by a Sydney not-for-profit company and it is not in his declaration of pecuniary interests. I always find it very interesting that this should be the case. My point is simply this: senators ought to be able to use their printing entitlement for the discussion of ideas about policy. They should not have to rely upon privately-funded, undeclared, not-for-profit companies to organise the articulation of their points of view. There should be an opportunity for senators to undertake their job properly. These measures by this government are part of a package of measures aimed not only at ensuring that the incumbency of this government is maintained but also at enabling the Prime Minister to mount a direct assault on his factional opponents. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.) be agreed to.