Bills - Communications Legislation Amendment (Executive Remuneration) Bill 2017 - Second Reading

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:44): I agree with some of what Senator Hanson has just said. She makes, in my view, a very good point: that the leader of our nation, the Prime Minister, from whichever political party, is paid a fraction of what many other people are paid in this community. I always smile at the fact that the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia, who is in charge of financial matters in Australia, receives, I suspect—I am not quite sure what it is—around $350,000 to $400,000. But he deals with the executive heads of the major banks, who receive $17 million, $5 million, $3 million plus. When the people who have charge of monetary policy in Australia are paid a pittance compared to what the people they deal with in this country have, it just seems to be a very skewed way of remunerating people. I made the point even when Mr Wayne Swan was the Treasurer—and, heaven forbid, if you were paying him by value, you wouldn't have paid him a cent. But he was there, he was in charge of the monetary system, and it was ridiculous that even Mr Swan was paid only a pittance compared to those he was dealing with.

However, I digress a little bit. I simply wanted to say I'm glad that Senator Hanson has raised these issues. They are issues that we've tried to raise many a time. Senator Hanson, you left out of your contribution something I thought you might've raised. It's something that, for years, we tried to get a handle on, and that is: what is paid to the totally taxpayer funded ABC? I remember we had Senate committee after Senate committee, we had advice from the clerks, and we used to say to the ABC, 'What are your presenters paid?' They refused to tell us. We eventually got to a compromise where we learned that the three major presenters from the ABC got within this range, which meant that some of these people, who, in my view, are nothing more than spruikers for the ALP and the Greens political party, were getting $5 million, $6 million, $7 million in salary for a couple of hours work a week. So maybe there needs to be a bit more transparency in what the taxpayers pay to some senior ABC presenters, on-air people, who I say work a few hours a week because they only do one show a week. As a parliamentarian, I know they do a bit of preparation work. But it's interesting to think about why these presenters, a couple of whom we know have very strong Labor Party connections, are paid these enormous salaries by the taxpayer to propagate what seems to me to be Labor Party propaganda. Others will disagree with that. That's a personal view on these particular presenters. I won't mention them by name. But I think it's time for the ABC, which is totally taxpayer funded, to be brought into this scrutiny, as we politicians always are. If any of my colleagues in this chamber make an indiscretion in their financial matters, it's always the media that are first in to query it and to make it a front-page story. And yet, with the ABC, we have no idea what individuals are paid, and I think that, as a national broadcaster, paid for by the taxpayers' money, that's something parliamentarians should have more oversight of.

But I've digressed from this particular bill. While I listened intently to Senator Hanson's contribution, insofar as Australia Post is concerned, this proposed legislation is superfluous. The intent of the bill was to limit the remuneration of the managing director of Australia Post—I'll come to NBN later. But the government has acted to ensure the remuneration of the managing director of Australia Post now aligns with community expectations. For that reason I suggest to Senator Hanson, through you, Madam Acting Deputy President Reynolds, that the bill's not required, in order to achieve the outcome that she and her party obviously seek to achieve. You don't need to do that, because the government has already acted. In February this year, Senator Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, declared that Australia Post is the employing body for the principal executive officer, the managing director, of Australia Post. This had the effect of bringing the managing director's remuneration under the oversight of the Remuneration Tribunal, and that meant that the board of Australia Post had to set the terms and conditions for the managing director consistent with the requirements of the Remuneration Tribunal. The remuneration for the incoming managing director, as all senators will know, was set under these new arrangements and is half of the remuneration of the outgoing managing director. The Remuneration Tribunal already sets the remuneration for Australia Post's chair and deputy chair and non-executive directors. The government took this decisive action to address community concerns regarding the remuneration paid to the former managing director.

These matters have been raised in any number of Senate committees over the many years that I have been here, but, as Senator Hanson rightly said, it was always difficult for Senate estimates committees to get any real information as to what the former managing director was actually paid. When it was revealed that he was on a total of $5.6 million in 2015-16, everybody appreciated that that was well out of step with community expectations—at a time, I might say, when Australia Post was losing money and the services it was providing to those who needed its services was limited.

I remember trying to do something about the mail centre in Rockhampton, to help out a couple of little people who couldn't get a night's sleep because of all this activity happening next door to their place in a residential area of Rockhampton. We interacted with Australia Post for a period of time. I must say, they treated us courteously, and they responded to everything. But we never achieved much because to remove the mail centre from a residential area and put it on an industrial estate would've cost too much money—though I suspect, in retrospect, it probably wouldn't have cost more than half the managing director's salary. So certainly what was paid to the previous managing director was out of step with the community's expectations.

The Remuneration Tribunal has looked at this matter and they have set a total remuneration reference rate for the office of managing director of $1.4 million, and they have agreed to a performance pay incentive arrangement that provides for access to up to 100 per cent of the total remuneration—that is, an additional $1.4 million. So the board can, if it so wishes, pay a total of $2.75 million, if my arithmetic is correct. That is a matter for the board. But it is overseen by the Remuneration Tribunal, which accepts that Australia Post is a big business with a lot of outlets right around Australia and that it has a lot of dealings with franchisees and a lot international dealings and so it does require the very best person to take on that role.

I know that I—and, I am sure, all other senators—get lots of complaints from licensed post office operators about the treatment they receive from Australia Post. I am currently trying to help the LPO operator in Normanton, way up in the Gulf of Carpentaria, in a dispute with Australia Post as to where the post office in this fairly remote area delivers the money it collects from all those grey nomads travelling up to Karumba near Normanton, and I am hopeful that that matter, which has gone to mediation, will be resolved so that the genuine issues which the operator had can be addressed at the very earliest time.

Whilst I understand what Senator Hanson is getting at, can I again repeat that the government has already addressed that. The Remuneration Tribunal does oversee what the board can pay the managing director of Australia Post. I know that at the time the managing director changed there were changes to the board of Australia Post. I don't know all of the board, but I do know one or two of them. Contrary to Senator Hanson's description of none of them being rolled-gold negotiators, one of the board members that I do happen to know you can class as a rolled-gold negotiator. So the board has changed. I think there is a new appreciation of what needs to be done. It's not an easy business, Australia Post, I concede. It requires good people, and you have to pay well to get good people. But I'm confident now that the board, with the oversight of the Remuneration Tribunal, has got the right balance.

In relation to NBN, you can't but have sympathy with some of the issues Senator Hanson raised today. The reason that the CEO of NBN is not subject to the Remuneration Tribunal is that the shareholder ministers of the NBN actually wrote to the Remuneration Tribunal and told them that they weren't to look at this. Those two ministers, I hasten to add, are not the current ministers. They were, of course, Mr Lindsay Tanner and former senator Stephen Conroy. In a letter dated 24 June 2009, they wrote to the president of the Remuneration Tribunal and said:

Given that the company has been established with the view to taking on private owners within the next few years, we do not propose to have the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company designated as a Principal Executive Officer, or to seek a Remuneration Tribunal determination in relation to the role.

I was around when this NBN was set up. There was never any way in the world—and I bet Senator Conroy, I think, a carton of Grange; I was confident in making the bet quite expensive because I knew I would never have to pay up—that in my lifetime or in Senator Conroy's lifetime would the NBN in the Conroy model ever be sold to private enterprise, because it would be a loss-making company and no profit-making private enterprise would ever consider buying something that was losing so much money. The Conroy model was such that it was impossible for NBN ever to make a profit and, therefore, ever to be in the hands of private owners.

Since the coalition has taken over, NBN will still struggle, I suspect, to make a profit, but it has a chance. I guess at some time in the long-distant future it may become a profitable company and it may then be more appropriate that a private entity run a business rather than the government trying to run a business. The days of governments and public servants trying to run a business passed in the '50s and in Russia and in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, when everyone realised—you didn't have to be an economic genius to realise—that governments and public servants shouldn't be running private businesses. But that is why that wasn't done.

I suspect another reason the Labor Party didn't want the Remuneration Tribunal anywhere near this organisation was that the early stages of the NBN under Senator Conroy turned out to be a repository for failed Labor apparatchiks to get a well-paying job. There was a former Queensland Labor member of parliament by the name of Kaiser who was thrown out of parliament for indiscretions. Would you believe it? He ended up working for NBN as a government liaison person at twice the money he would have received as a politician in the Queensland parliament. I always used to wonder why NBN, which was at that time a government-owned organisation totally under the control of Senator Conroy, needed a government liaison person. They were the government! It was the government liaising with themselves. I guess that, with some of the early payments made by NBN to middle-order officials, the last thing Senator Conroy or those in charge would have wanted was for the Remuneration Tribunal to be anywhere near it.

Senator Smith: Mike Kaiser.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mike Kaiser—you're quite right, Senator Smith.

It is the government's view, however, that for the moment, it remains appropriate that the NBN retain responsibility, or the board retains responsibility, for recruiting key management personnel and setting the remuneration. The NBN board itself is now made up of leaders with specific telecommunications, industry, government and wider commercial expertise. The government is, at this stage, prepared to leave the NBN board to determine the appropriate remuneration required to attract the talent needed to manage the NBN rollout. When compared to Australian businesses of similar size and to executive salaries in the communications sector—and I particularly mention the communication sector—NBN's remuneration is comparable with executive salaries in public companies.

But, again, I know that under the guidance of Senator Fifield and the government, generally, the NBN board will be aware that they should pay industry standards. If they go beyond it, as happened in the case years ago with the Australia Post board, then the government would be watching that very closely. It is the government's and the public's view that what was happening in Australia Post didn't pass the community standard that is expected. The government is very conscious of that. They changed the laws in relation to Australia Post. Whilst at the moment the government is happy to leave the qualified board at NBN to get industry-standard people there at the industry-standard price, it will be keeping a very close watching eye on that.

So the government won't be supporting the bill because: (a) part of it has already been actioned by the Turnbull government, and (b) we think that with NBN at the moment and in that particular sector of the economy, it's one that's best left to a qualified board, which NBN now has.

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