Senator RYAN (Victoria—Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet) (13:13): This being my bill, I will take a moment to respond to some of the comments made in the debate on the Parliamentary Business Resources Bill 2017.
Firstly, I would like to thank the chamber and members of the committee who worked on this for their cooperation in allowing this bill to be brought forward today and for their cooperation and discussions that have led to its development and passage.
I have been in this job since August last year, and I think anyone who has been around politics will know that the occasional scandal or negative story about expenses, entitlements and travel has been something that predates more than just the last 18 months, two years or indeed three years.
This bill is a significant bill because it brings together a lot of legacy legislation, different regulations and different acts of parliament—things that I will not describe as hodgepodge but rather as things that developed over time to deal with the new needs of members of parliament and also, occasionally, the need to act in response to a misuse or a mistake. It is a significant piece of work, because one of the pieces of legislation that is being amended is older than me.
I will agree with one sentiment expressed by Senator Rhiannon—if it does not do her too much damage for me to agree with her on something!—and that is that this has been an issue developing over a long period of time.
This has been an issue that has damaged the institution of parliament over a long period of time. But it is an issue that I and the government have seized upon.
So far this year, with the consent of this place, we have finally abolished the Life Gold Pass—which was promised for nearly three years; abolition was immediate, so that people who had it lost it—because it did not meet community standards.
We have actually established, for the first time—and it is now an executive agency and, from 1 July, will be a statutory independent agency—the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.
I will say to Senator Rhiannon, as to a number of the requests that you have made: the ability to receive advice and to oversee, and the power of audit, are vested in that parliamentary expenses authority that this parliament brought in within a month of the Prime Minister’s announcement.
That does reflect the cooperation of other people in this parliament, but it also reflects that the can was not kicked down the road by this government—not by me; not by the Prime Minister.
We said we were acting and we were committed to action, and this is the third tranche of legislation dealing with these problems this year.
With respect to the Conde report, it did take some time, Senator Rhiannon. I was not in the portfolio until August last year. However, it did take a substantial period of time to draw together all the different legislation and regulations, as it will when we have to bring out the update to the parliamentary expense regulations that will be a consequence of this, because we do not want any inadvertent consequences; we do not want inadvertent loopholes; we do not want inadvertent restrictions. I will say, however, that I do not agree that fines are the best way to discipline members of parliament.
In this place, we vote on gravely serious matters, whether that be national security policy or taxation policy. We need to give members of parliament the flexibility to do their jobs. When people say to me: ‘Why don’t you just have a travel budget? Why don’t you have stricter rules?’ I say: ‘How does that work for someone from Melbourne versus someone from north-western Australia—for Senator Dodson, or someone like you, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, from Western Australia?’
And I do not think that, if we are going to be voting on such issues of national import, we cannot be trusted to make a judgement on how we use these business expenses to go about our jobs, to meet with stakeholders and to go to committee meetings et cetera.
The best discipline is the regular reporting that we are bringing in, because, as people have rightly noted, it is the six-monthly reporting that has actually drawn public attention to this in the past. That is going quarterly, immediately, and, as we update the information technology, which is more than a decade old in some cases, that will become monthly.
That regular reporting and the ability of the public to access that online will be the best forms of discipline.
But we also need to be careful. Not everything that is written up in the newspapers is a misuse. Sometimes there can be an innocent mistake. Sometimes there can be a slip of judgement.
Not everything is a conspiracy. And that is why, in the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority that goes with this, we have actually provided the power to provide advice and to provide binding rulings.
How it plays publicly and how it is going to be received by the public is a judgement we should all be capable of making—after all, we are all elected officials. But I hasten to say that part of the issue around the standing of members of parliament is the bidding war that happens as members of parliament seek to convict people in a court of public opinion before all the facts are known.
As someone who has to deal with the queries we get, I will say: some of the stories I have seen, particularly, I might say, about members from regional Australia and the travel costs they incur, I think paint them in an unfair light and do not fairly represent the travel burden on them, nor their correct use of entitlements, nor the fact that— to ensure that people living long distances from Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney can actually see a member of parliament—there are going to be substantial travel costs involved, and I am more than happy to defend those.
So I think we have just got to be careful to ensure that one error of judgement is not a career-ending moment, or that, if there is one genuine mistake in applying the rules—which tends to happen more often than conspiracy does, I think—we do not leap to a conclusion about the motives of that person.
That is why we have put in place an independent authority with the capacity to provide advice confidentially and to provide rulings.
Finally, I genuinely thank those who have facilitated the passage of this bill, and I commend the bill to the Senate. Question agreed to. Bills read a second time