Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:13): In opposing the retrospective parts of this legislation, I at least remain true to Liberal principles and to the principles of my party in fierce opposition to any retrospective legislation, no matter how popular the cause might be on any particular occasion or in the media cycle at this point in time.
Retrospective legislation is never good law. Indeed, the Legislation Handbook, issued to ministers by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, says this:
Provisions that have a retrospective operation adversely affecting rights or imposing liabilities are to be included only in exceptional circumstances and on explicit policy authority …
Retrospective laws have been described in the Federal Law Review as 'unjust, undemocratic, unreliable and contrary to human rights, individual autonomy, the rule of law and the Constitution'. The legislative principle often articulated is that persons and citizens are entitled to regulate their affairs on the assumption that their current circumstances are settled. That is why I have never consciously supported legislation that was retrospective in a serious way.
The recent changes to superannuation are a case in point. There were two elements of those proposed changes that I was told by constituents and believed myself did retrospectively alter arrangements put in place by those who had saved for their own retirement. When these laws were proposed to be changed retrospectively, I advised the Treasurer—and publicly—that, if these two retrospective elements were not changed, I would be voting against the legislation. Fortuitously, the Treasurer changed the legislation so that, whilst it did prospectively reduce some people's benefits, these new legislated changes were prospective, not retrospective. It is a sad reflection on public life in Australia that, when I opposed proposed retrospective legislation in the superannuation debate, my stand was all but ignored; when I oppose government retrospective legislation on this occasion, I am condemned by the commentariat.
People are also telling me that recent changes to pensions are retrospective. It is my understanding, but I am prepared to be convinced otherwise, that these are prospective—that is, they are taking away benefits in the future, but they do not change arrangements that applied in the past. Retrospective legislation has always been anathema to the Liberal Party, and I am distressed that my party, in this particular instance, has ignored a basic principle of our party. It does not matter that those who are retrospectively damaged belong to a group or genre in the community who are currently so poorly regarded. Retrospectivity is bad no matter who bears the brunt of the retrospectivity. Regrettably, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee in their report on this legislation entirely missed the point. It is not the retrospectivity back to 13 May 2014 that is the problem but rather the retrospectivity back to 1918.
I now turn to the question of why the government and Labor are introducing the Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 now, notwithstanding its obvious retrospectivity. This retrospective legislation is not about saving the budget. It is not about budget savings. According to the government, the saving is a massive $5 million. According to other figures, the saving is $1 million to $2 million. Whilst that is a lot of money, in the context of a government which every year spends upwards of $300 billion, the savings from the retrospective cancellation of this benefit for elderly retired politicians are not going to make one iota of difference to the budget. In fact, the new independent parliamentary remuneration tribunal, which we will be dealing with after this legislation, will itself cost some $12 million to set up, so the saving of $1 million or $2 million by taking from a few dozen or even 100-plus elderly ex-politicians is not going to make one iota of difference to the budget at all. This measure is pure populism.
Mark Latham, when he was the Labor leader and struggling at the polls, thought he could curry favour with the electorate by introducing some legislation to take away part of the remuneration package for parliamentarians. It did Mark Latham no good whatsoever. It did not garner him one vote, and he passed into history. John Howard, when he was struggling at the polls, tried the same thing, and, similarly, this made not one iota of difference to Howard's popularity. It did not gain him one vote, and he subsequently lost both the election and his own seat. Julia Gillard stopped the gold pass in 2012, and look what difference it made to her support in the 2013 election: not one vote was gained for her. More recently, Tony Abbott was struggling at the polls, and he announced further curtailments of remuneration packages for parliamentarians. History shows that that did not do Tony one iota of good. It did not garner him one vote. I say the same to Mr Shorten and to Mr Turnbull: if you think that going along with this populist approach on this issue is going to win you just one vote, history shows that you are sadly mistaken. When we start to run this country by what is popular rather than what is right, I fear for the future of Australia.
I now turn to the trolls of social media, the commentariat and the lazy journalists and subeditors who, knowingly, falsely accused me of self-interest and of opposing this legislation for my own benefit. I want to respond to them—not that any of them will ever print or broadcast any of this. This has nothing to do with me. It will give me no financial benefit or other benefit. This false criticism of me has been very loud, but, when a Labor senator was proven to obtain a very personal benefit by having a Chinese company pay his own personal bills, from the same accusers there was barely a murmur.
My message to the Labor Party and the Greens political party is this: tell your legions of trolls not to waste their time sending me their hate mail. It will never influence me in what I believe to be right—perhaps not popular, but right. I know why the Greens and the Labor Party have unleashed their attack dogs on me, and that is because, after 27 years in this place, I more than most can expose both the Labor Party and the Greens for the frauds and charlatans they are in a political and policy sense. I do this continuously in this chamber, and I know that both the Labor Party and the Greens loathe me for it. They love to seize upon anything they think may hasten my departure from this chamber, because they think that, the moment I go, no-one will be around to remember the fraudulent hypocrisy of both parties over many years. Sadly for the Labor Party and the Greens, I will be around for a while yet.
I was never interested in the gold pass personally. My opposition is on behalf of a small group of elderly retired politicians—Liberal, Labor, Democrats and Greens—who have no voice in this debate. Would I ever access the gold pass? Why is it of no personal benefit to me? Firstly, it applies only to retired politicians, and I have no intention of retiring; I will probably be carried out of here in a pine box. So it is of no interest to me personally. But, if I do eventually retire, can I tell you that, after spending the last 27 years of my life flying seven hours from my home down to Canberra and seven hours back each week that parliament sits just to get to my work, the last thing I want to do when I leave this place is get on an aeroplane. I will not go into the use of the Life Gold Pass by former parliamentarians. Suffice to say that many Australians who earnestly seek visits, lectures and speeches across all parts of Australia from former parliamentarians will now be denied, on abolition of the gold pass, that opportunity. This impacts on those living outside the capital cities more than anyone else.
The Life Gold Pass was an arrangement made with politicians, I am told, as far back as 1918, when the pay and conditions for parliamentarians were nowhere near what they are today. Even when I entered parliament 27 years ago, the pay for politicians was not what it is today. But I have to say that, for those of us on our side of the chamber, the pay was never the reason for entering the parliament. Most of my colleagues on this side of the chamber at least—and perhaps on the other side—would have been far better off financially if they had stayed in the occupations and professions they had prior to coming into parliament. You do not enter parliament for the money. Every single parliamentarian, I am sure—certainly all of those on my side—is here because they believe they can make a difference for Australia. The shock jocks and the lazy journalists and subeditors churn out the populist lines because it is easy to do so, and it always gets an energetic response from a small section of the community—a small section who complain a lot but never offer themselves for election to parliament, because they have never had the energy, the dedication and the commitment to do the hard yards and get elected in the first place, and to then work for something less than $50 an hour for all hours of the day and night, often at least six days a week, often for up to 48 weeks a year, in a job where there is no privacy, no down time.
By comparison to their peers in the public service, in the professions, in business, in the trades, in agriculture—and I suspect even in the union movement—they are not as well paid. Not many tradesmen would work for under $80 per hour. The charge-out rate for a solicitor in a small country town that I visited recently was $292 an hour. I would be intrigued to find out what a taxpayer funded ABC presenter like Barrie Cassidy receives for his two hours work a week. Some in the commentariat are saying, 'If you don't like the pay and conditions, resign from parliament.' I have never complained about my pay and conditions, and the day I do I will resign. No-one forces me to do this job and never has, but I continue on because every day of the week people come to me seeking my help. Every day I work to benefit my community and my state, and for northern Australia. So I say to the hate mailers and the dishonest journalists: if you have such strong views and think that the current group of parliamentarians is so corrupt and dishonest, why do you not offer yourself for election to parliament so that you can come in here and cure the ills that you see in all other current parliamentarians?
Could I return to the facts about the gold pass, rather than the lies that the commentariat continually publish to misrepresent the facts. The Life Gold Pass was banned prospectively three or four years ago, so all politicians who were not eligible for it prior to 2014 were never going to be eligible for it. But, at the time, the changes to the gold pass eligibility were accompanied by changes to the pay structure so that parliamentarians were then paid much, much more—more in line with the work they do—and to compensate for the removal of some benefits like the Life Gold Pass. But those who had finished their service in parliament prior to that time were not so compensated. So this legislation does not apply to current politicians, only to a few former parliamentarians, and takes away part of the conditions of employment retrospectively, without any corresponding compensation for taking of a property right.
However, if we are to govern by what is popular or not popular at any period of time, and if that is the position of the government and the opposition, then why are we only partly rolling over to populism? Why are we exempting former prime ministers from this ban and allowing them to continue to use the Life Gold Pass forever? Quite frankly, I think they should continue to receive the benefit, because I know it was given to them at the time they were prime ministers and I know most of them use the benefit responsibly, usually to fulfil engagements that arise because of their former positions. The same principle applies to former treasurers, former foreign ministers, former agriculture ministers, former health ministers and, I might say, to former long-serving backbenchers, who are often asked to travel to meetings to speak on matters on which they have some expertise. I am sure a former Greens leader uses his gold pass to go around spreading his message. But I know the public think the main offenders of this so-called abuse of the system are former prime ministers, and the statistics show they are the biggest users. So why are we exempting them from the ban? Perhaps, from Labor's point of view, it is because there are four former Labor prime ministers and only one former Liberal Prime Minister.
I will be moving amendments in the committee stage to legislate to remove the Life Gold Pass benefit from everyone. I gave everyone notice of this two or three days ago. And I say I think this is wrong, but if I am a minority of one in this parliament who believes that retrospective legislation is wrong then I cannot understand why this parliament will not at least be consistent and finish the Life Gold Pass for all former parliamentarians, not just some. I cannot fathom the logic behind allowing Julia Gillard, perhaps Australia's worst prime minister for a three-year term, to have a gold pass for the rest of her life, while someone like Peter Costello, who did magnificent work for Australia for 13 years, is banned.
Having retrospectively abolished the Life Gold Pass because of populist pressure, I am quite sure that it will not be long before trips by ministers to Europe and North America are called into question. For example, I note the Deputy Prime Minister made a pre-Christmas visit to Berlin. I know the good work that he did on behalf of Australia there, but populism will question it, think that it was just a pre-Christmas junket and demand that, if he has to go in future, the Deputy Prime Minister travels economy class to do his important and essential work in representing Australia at meetings around the world.
What do the punters think of the queues of big white limousines that line up outside Parliament House every day? Populism will decree that they should go, too, and that ministers and politicians should take a bus or a taxi, without any thought for the security reasons that make this service essential. Instead of those big flash offices in the electorate, perhaps politicians should just meet constituents in the privacy of their own homes. And, if we are to follow the populist approach, why bother with those hated, money-grabbing, self-serving politicians at all? Perhaps Hitler and Stalin or Idi Amin had the right idea: do not bother about a parliament and you do not have to bother about those pesky parliamentarians at all.
I repeat, service in this place is never about money and so-called perks. It is about doing what every single politician believes is right for Australia. I suspect that there will be no other politician that will have the courage to oppose the elements of this populist legislation that are retrospective, but I would certainly hope that those who espouse the populist cause and believe retrospectivity is not a problem for 100 or so former politicians who have no voice will at least support my amendments to include all former politicians, including prime ministers, in the ban. I will be fascinated to hear the logic on why the government and Labor would not support my amendments.
To summarise my position, I will support those parts of this bill that are prospective—that is, not retrospective. I will be moving amendments to remove the retrospective elements of the bill. If that fails, I will move an amendment to include all former MPs in the ban, including prime ministers. If that fails, I will then move an amendment to restrict the gold card pass to former prime ministers to a benefit that is commensurate to his or her length of service as prime minister.
In closing, can I again emphasise my total opposition to any retrospective legislation. If I am the only one in this parliament that believes retrospective legislation is bad, can I then ask the other parliamentarians, in the cause of consistency, to at least ensure that the ban of the Life Gold Pass applies to every single former politician and does not exempt some.