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Victorian Independent Remuneration Tribunal and Improving Parliamentary Standards Bill 2019

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
7 March 2019

I rise to speak on the Victorian Independent Remuneration Tribunal and Improving Parliamentary Standards Bill 2019. We stand here in the least democratic Parliament in this country, but the bill before us is an important step in the right direction for Victoria in catching up to other jurisdictions when it comes to accountability and transparency.

At a time when the regard the population has for politicians is continuing to fall, ensuring high standards of accountability and transparency for members of Parliament is the least we should be doing. Recent studies have shown that two-thirds of people think that politicians are not serving their interests, and yet that is precisely our job—to serve the interests of the community, not our own. The sorts of entitlements scandals we witnessed in this place in the last term are a key reason the standing of politics is so low in the community and is in fact putting our democratic traditions in danger. In the 12 years since the Greens first entered this place we have repeatedly called for better parliamentary standards in Victoria, including MPs’ salaries being set independently.

We have been fighting for donations reform, which we were proud to support last year. We have called for stronger powers for Victoria’s IBAC, an area that is still in need of attention. And we have advocated introducing a parliamentary standards commissioner similar to the model in place in the UK House of Commons, a call we are repeating in this debate on this bill. It shows the value of Greens in Parliament when governments take up reform proposals we have been advocating for for years and adopt them as government policy. The bill before us will establish an independent remuneration tribunal which will set the salaries, including ministerial salaries, and allowances and electorate office budgets for members of this Parliament. Victoria is the last jurisdiction in the country to take the setting of MPs’ pay away from MPs. All other states and territories already have in place systems to independently set salaries for MPs, as does the commonwealth. It is beyond time for Victoria to catch up and reform our outdated system. We are, however, concerned that the bill allows for significant increases in the salaries of MPs. The bill provides for a window within which the tribunal can set basic salaries. At the bottom of that window are the existing salaries and expense allowances; at the top are the salaries of federal MPs. This enables salary increases upwards of 20 per cent. This is at a time when wages across the country are stagnant. Ordinary workers are not getting 20 per cent pay increases; they are lucky to be getting 2 per cent. For many workers pay is going backwards. In fact just this week the Treasurer was out telling public servants—including health workers, community workers, emergency services personnel, train drivers and police officers—not to expect more than a 2 per cent pay rise. Yet with this bill the government is facilitating pay increases of up to 20 per cent for MPs. If generous pay rises are off the table for public servants, they should be off the table for us too, because that is what we are, public servants. The Treasurer said this week, and I quote: People’s expectations in terms of wage outcomes have to be tempered to the time. This is in the context of the state’s revenue being compromised by adjustments in the property market. The government should be consistent and our expectations should also be tempered to the time. To do otherwise is unfair. The Greens are proposing that the range in which the tribunal can set salaries is moved so that it has a lower upper range and the floor is removed. We believe an appropriate upper range is the government’s own wages policy, which until two days ago was 2.5 per cent. The Treasurer seems to have taken half a per cent off this week, and we do not believe MPs should have available pay increases 10 times those available to other public servants. I will be moving amendments in the committee stage of this bill to provide for a 2.5 per cent cap on pay increases, removing the floor for the tribunal and also removing the requirement that the electorate allowance be set at more than $20 000. I would like to circulate these amendments now.

The PRESIDENT: Dr Ratnam, to clarify, do you want all three sets of amendments circulated?

Dr RATNAM: Yes, please. Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.

Dr RATNAM: This about keeping faith with the people we represent. We all work hard, but so do so many others in our community. I do not believe the privileged positions we hold should lead us to support potential pay increases for ourselves well above those for the rest of the community. Importantly, the bill also strengthens the monitoring, compliance and enforcement provisions relating to parliamentary allowances and budgets. Reform in this area is well overdue. The Victorian Parliament has seen more than its fair share of entitlement scandals. Regaining trust in the parliamentary system is essential to a functioning democracy. A clear and accessible compliance regime that will operate to ensure that misuses of entitlements will attract consequences is a vital element in building the trust of Victorians in our political system. However, the compliance regime proposed in this bill is fractured across four different offices and roles. There is, one, the relevant officer, whose role is to sign off on budget and allowance claims. The relevant officer is either the Speaker, the President or the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, depending on the entitlement. Then there is the compliance officer, a new role to hear appeals about entitlement claims. It is the government’s intention that there be a parliamentary integrity advisor to provide advice to MPs, but that position is not legislated and it will be subject to the whim of the chamber from Parliament to Parliament. The minister tabled a motion to establish the integrity advisor just yesterday. Finally, there is the ultimate authority of the Privileges Committee and the chambers themselves.

The Greens proposal is simpler. We believe an independent parliamentary standards commissioner is a better, more accountable approach. Our proposal is not new. My former colleagues in this place have argued for an independent parliamentary standards commissioner for many years. I will be seeking leave to move amendments to establish an independent commissioner who will have responsibilities for overseeing the appropriate use of entitlements and observance of the code of conduct as well as providing advice to MPs on the acceptable use of public resources and the code of conduct. An important element of our proposal for a parliamentary standards commissioner is that it has a role of providing advice to MPs on the appropriate use of their entitlements as well as the code of conduct. The government’s proposed compliance framework risks even more confusion, with multiple sources of interpretation and compliance. The Ombudsman’s report into the red shirts affair found that there were grey areas around entitlements, and it is important for MPs and for the public that there is clarity of advice for MPs around any potential confusion. Our proposal leaves the final decisions on any potential contraventions to the Privileges Committee and the chambers, as is appropriate. Furthermore, the commissioner has similar appointment provisions to the remuneration tribunal members to ensure independence. Finally, the bill also updates the code of conduct. Victoria’s woefully outdated code of conduct is manifestly inadequate.

We are pleased to see a more contemporary and appropriate code of conduct reflected in the bill. While it might seem obvious that MPs should put the public first, treat people with respect, exercise care and diligence in performing their public duties and act ethically and in good faith, it is a vast improvement to have written down these basic expectations of members of Parliament. There is, however, one big gap in the revised code of conduct and that is tighter restrictions on post-Parliament employment for ministers and parliamentary secretaries. The public are right to be suspicious when they see their MPs leave Parliament and go straight into lucrative employment with corporations or lobbying organisations. It raises the question: were these ministers acting in the interests of the community or the interests of their soon-to-be bosses? So-called cooling-off periods for ministers are a key element in any transparent and accountable government committed to acting in the interests of the community, not corporate interests. I intend to move amendments in the committee stage to introduce cooling-off periods of two years for ministers and parliamentary secretaries. There are two other more minor but still important amendments I will look to move in the committee stage. They relate to the review of the provisions in this bill. The government has proposed a 10-year review. We believe these significant reforms should be reviewed after five years and, furthermore, that the report of any review must be made public, tabled as soon as possible in Parliament on the next day of sitting or within one month of the review being submitted. Overall, the Greens are pleased to see this bill before the Parliament at last.

We know that Victorians are tired of watching their elected representatives behave badly in Parliament, misusing public funds, rorting the system and throwing long-established parliamentary norms out of the window. As elected representatives we should be acting in the public interest and for the public good. The Greens have been fighting for better parliamentary standards for many years, but now, more than ever, we need to clean up politics in this state and make this Parliament more accountable and transparent. Motion agreed to. Read second time.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
7 March 2019
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