I also rise to speak on the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 today. I was keen to do so primarily because my views on the scrapping of the gold pass have certainly been grossly misrepresented by various media outlets that have not even bothered to check the facts or pick up a phone and speak with me.
I appreciate the comments that were made by the previous speaker in this regard. Quite frankly, there is lazy journalism and those with their own particular agendas, or those who see themselves as commentators rather than having an obligation to report the facts. Unfortunately, it is a growing trend. I thought I would take the opportunity today to set the record straight.
Most aspects of this bill I do not really have any issue with at all. I agree with imposing a 25 per cent loading on travel claims that require a subsequent adjustment, so long as they are found to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts and not an honest oversight, given the complexities as were described by the previous speaker. I think there needs to be the flexibility to accept that complexity can cause errors-quite often not in the favour of the member, but nevertheless errors. They should not be penalised for that. The bill also limits the travel provided to dependent children of senior officers to those who are less than 18 years of age. I have no issue with that either.
The bill makes other amendments to enhance parliamentary work expense frameworks, such as establishing an authority to make payments beyond entitlements in certain circumstances, and I agree that there needs to be, as I said earlier, a certain level of flexibility in this regard. So, again, I have no issues with that. And the establishment of a statutory authority to recover payments that are beyond entitlement from parliamentarians and impose that loading of up to 25 per cent on certain claims, in itself, I do not have an issue with-as long as there is clarity and transparency in any of the decisions that are made.
The bill also abolishes the life gold pass for all pass holders, excluding former prime ministers and their spouses. It is the fact that this bill retrospectively removes eligibility for life gold pass travel from 14 May 2014 that I have a very major issue with. To be absolutely clear, I have no issue with the abolition of the gold pass for all future travel. Members' and senators' remuneration today is very different to what it was 30 or 40 years ago. We have a new pay package now that no parliamentarian should be unhappy with, and it does not need to include side benefits such as a gold pass.
However, most politicians who are able to access that gold pass have earned it under very different conditions to what we have here now. I am talking about those that were in this place 30 or 40 years ago or more. There was an acknowledgement that a parliamentarian’s salary at that point in time was very low. As a result, there were extra incentives for long service. For the average backbencher to earn the gold pass, they had to serve seven terms, a period of around 21 years.
Most of the public and the media either do not know that or tend to overlook it: seven terms, or 21 years. It is a long time. We know how tough it is-and I say this to all of those that have come in here for the first time-to go through one election, let alone to earn the trust and the confidence of an electorate to win seven consecutive times. Very few politicians over the decades have managed to achieve this, given that the average political life is somewhere around six years. The overwhelming majority of people that serve in this place never, ever have access to that, and for that matter they do not have access to a lot of the other things that are often cited here-for example, even the previous superannuation scheme. Most of them never got access to that.
But we need to acknowledge that for those that did access it it was part of their package well before all of these changes happened. I accept that it should never be uncapped, and I understand that that uncapping was for senior executives and prime ministers, but nevertheless it should not have been uncapped. There is always a limit. There should be a limit, and it should be restricted to particular types of travel and be subject to regular reviews.
However, I have to say that the majority of passholders use it for the purpose it was intended for and ensure that there is some level of community benefit. The issue is that, where there have been breaches, people have not been prosecuted. If passholders have abused it, they should have been penalised, rather than there being the kneejerk reaction that we have seen here today. In 2014 there was a high-profile incident where a handful of individuals were identified by the media as excessively using the system.
Have a look at who they were. They were all former prime ministers, former senior cabinet ministers or former Speakers, all of whom had accelerated access in gaining the gold pass over the average member of parliament. In the case of the Prime Minister, the fact that you were appointed Prime Minister gave you automatic entitlement. In the case of senior cabinet ministers, you got an acceleration of three to one. So the value to those earning that was significantly less than for those that had done their seven terms, their 21 years to access it, and I think that needed to be recognised.
The decision to scrap the gold pass, in my view, was a kneejerk reaction. Instead of addressing the problem and actually defending the rights of those who in previous parliaments had earnt that as part of their employment contract, now we are going to see that this decision is going to have an impact on people that have long since left this place. At the same time, the people making this decision have made sure that they are not going to be impacted by it. It is a rather interesting scenario. For all those backbenchers who earnt it over an extended period of time, I think it is shameful to take it away from them after they have left the parliament. They are not being given the opportunity to express a point of view to defend it or put forward their case.
So my argument is on behalf of those on all sides of the chamber who have already served and are no longer with us. Yes, by all means abolish the gold pass, but if it is going to be retrospective let's take it off everybody, including former prime ministers, or let's set some time frames. Let's argue that if you have not done five years as a Prime Minister then you are not eligible. I understand that there will be some effort in the other place to make amendments of this nature. That would save even more money for the taxpayers by ruling the member for Warringah ineligible, along with the former members for Lalor and Griffith. Even the former member for Blaxland, Prime Minister Keating, would also be ineligible. Let's have it for long-serving prime ministers-five years or more-to be able to gain that eligibility.
Let's go back for a moment. We talked about the gold pass and the outrage that is expressed by the broader public about the fact that gold passes were actually attached as part of an employment contract for members of the parliament. This is not a unique situation. I am going to reflect on my own father, who joined the Queensland railways in the 1950s and spent his entire working life working with Queensland Rail. He retired in 1982 due to illness, but the thing that he was most proud of was that he had earned a gold pass, which was presented to him on his retirement.
My dad died 20 years ago, but my mum, who is now 87, still has that gold pass which allows her free travel on Queensland Rail. She does not use it, but still has pride in the achievement of her husband. Should we take it from her now in retrospect? I would argue no. And there are lots of other incidences where gold passes have been allocated for service that has been given over extended periods of time. Why should the service of members of this place it be any different-and I am talking about extended service-from anywhere else? And why should we, after they have served their time and left this place with a great deal of honour for the work they have done here, suddenly say, 'Well, we've changed our minds. Now we're going to go back and take that from you.'
As I said, gold passes are still being handed out to Queensland Rail employees, as they are across the country in many other areas. In the case of Queensland Rail it is after 25 years of continuous service. As I said, other professions also reward longevity for one company. Their spouses and dependents aged up to 16 years, or 21 if they are full-time students, are also eligible. I know it is hard for the younger generation to comprehend, given how people expect to chop and change between jobs and industries these days, that in those days things were very different.
I have also spoken to a number of former colleagues about this. Alex Somlyay, a good friend of mine-I would like to highlight his situation. Alex retired four years ago after 23 years in this place. He was one of the whips when MPs salaries were increased from $140,000 to $190,000 a year. The superannuation of previous members remained calculated on the lower level because of the benefits that were included in the package, such as gold passes and study leave. For the new members, it was calculated at a higher level because they did not have access to these additional benefits.
Alex tells me that he has used his gold pass twice in four years. The first time was to come to Canberra for a function in the parliament. The second time he travelled to Melbourne to speak at a seminar about his work in the parliament. When I talk to the majority of ex-members there are similar stories.
The thing that the general public has to realise is that for most of us when we finish in this job, the last thing we want to do is get on another aeroplane! I have spent 20 years travelling to this place for up to about 20 weeks of the year, and then flying around my electorate. It is about eight hours of travel from when I leave my home to when I get down here.
And then of course there is all the committee work by aeroplane. And in my electorate-as the previous speaker mentioned, one of the larger ones-I have to travel from my home base in Cairns up to the outer islands of the Torres Strait, which is only four kilometres from the mainland of Papua New Guinea. So I spent a lot of time on small aeroplanes. I spend a lot of time in helicopters and on dinghies, and on a whole range of other transport to get to these places. In my retirement, I can assure you, the last thing that I want to see on a regular basis is an aeroplane, unless there is a good cause for me to travel!
While I think it is disappointing that the government has removed the gold pass in this, at least I am still here to make noise in this parliament about this issue. My key concern is that we are establishing a very dangerous precedent of retrospectivity that can apply to anything in the future. When governments see themselves with a problem and they can just take away something that individuals have earned over the years, that is something the Liberal Party has stood against. It has certainly argued against retrospectivity.
Next time, it may not be the politicians who are affected-and yet we are allowing this to happen. The prospect of retrospectivity has now been established through a Liberal government, with the full support of the opposition. Let me assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, you never know where this is going to end.
At the same time, it is interesting that we have another piece of legislation that has just been introduced and this is the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority Bill 2017. In light of the controversy regarding the former minister for health, this bill aims to prevent future inadvertent or purposeful misuse of entitlements. It has been raised after numerous travel claim controversies et cetera. What is interesting about this one is that it is going to cost more to establish this than what they claim the savings are in relation to the abolition of the gold pass-which, over a short time, would have died out naturally with those who have received it in the past. I just find it amazing that they would actually do this.
I have to say that Ministerial and Parliamentary Services have always done a pretty good job, and if there are any issues it is because of the ambiguity of the guidelines. I have always thought that the Remuneration Tribunal was an independent body responsible for determining financial packages. So I think we had it pretty well okay. This legislation would establish another bureaucracy.
To conclude, the most disappointing thing about this is that I am accused of arguing purely in my own self-interest. People forget that I argued against retrospectivity in the superannuation debate, and people applauded that-the public and the media. As a result, we had some success in getting changes. Now I stand to make the same argument and people criticise me, because this one is different-no, it is not different. I am being consistent. But I also point out that at the same time as the government and the opposition are freely allowing retrospectivity on this issue, the government is working hard to avoid the same sort of reform in the paid parental leave legislation, where they are actually deferring it to avoid retrospectivity in that case. There is no consistency.
I know my vote will not make a difference on this issue, but I think it is important to put my objections on the record. I do not support this bill.