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Wednesday, 21 September 1983
Page: 1120


Mr KEOGH(6.53) —Having listened to the previous speaker, the honourable member for Bruce (Mr Aldred), one could be excused for believing that the only reason people enter our reserve forces is for what they get out of it. My impression of the people I know in the reserve forces is that they are in there because of their love for their country and their wish to serve it. They clearly understand the reasons behind the decisions of the Government. I am sure that all those in the reserve forces will have it well and adequately proved to them at the completion of the inquiry the Government has under way at the moment that they have lost nothing at all by the decision of the Government announced in the Budget, a decision that was subjected this evening to the long winded criticism of the previous speaker.

I want to devote much of my time this evening to the social welfare aspects of the Budget and in this way show the people of Australia that what has been set about by this Government is part of our long range plan to overhaul the social welfare system in this country. That will be of lasting benefit to all those people who are totally dependent on social welfare payments in their years of retirement and at times when, for various other reasons, they are not able to care or provide for themselves. This Budget clearly outlines in a responsible way, recognised as necessary and accepted, if not welcomed, by all sections of the community and certainly by the overwhelming proportion of Australians, that this Government's plans for the stability and economic growth of the nation for the next 12 months have been set on a very firm foundation. Once again, of course, in a predictable manner the Queensland Premier stood out as almost the lone dissenting voice on Budget night and on the next day. It is interesting to note that he was so devoid of genuine grounds for criticism of the Budget that he was able to voice his opposition only on the spurious grounds of misinterpreting the Government's new assets test for social security beneficiaries and service pensioners. It was misinterpretation because he either could not or would not understand the correct basis of the Government's proposals.

Since the Queensland Premier's initial failure to find anything in the Budget on which to mount a strong protest he has been strangely silent. Without a doubt his silence is due, I am sure, to his realisation that this Budget, on which he was planning to be totally reliant for the basis of his anti-Labor Canberra bashing election campaign, has turned out to be a responsible Budget, well received and accepted as appropriate for the present economic conditions and soundly directed to supporting economic recovery. The Queensland Premier now knows that the people of Queensland support this Budget. He now knows that having destroyed the coalition Government there and, at the same time, whatever remaining credibility he had, and having now been exposed to the Queensland people as no longer capable of providing strong leadership and stable Government , his last hope-an unpopular Federal Budget which may have helped him struggle back into office-has failed to materialise. I have no doubt that the strength and stability of the Labor Government, typified by this Budget, will be an important factor in the minds of Queenslanders and will lead to the election of a strong, stable Labor Government in Queensland next month.

I have found in the weeks since the Budget in my electorate office, in conversations with people in the electorate and in the telephone calls and letters that I have received from pensioners that, with few exceptions, the questions they raised or their objections to the assets test announced by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) were based mainly on a misunderstanding of the proposals. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding was initially largely due to the media failing to present the full facts from the explanatory Press releases of the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) or the Budget Papers accompanying the Treasurer's speech to which many journalists had access well in advance of writing their articles next day in the daily newspapers. This is not the first time that an assets test has been a condition of eligibility for social security benefits. In 1976 the previous Government stopped counting large asset holdings in assessing pensions. This resulted in an explosion of shady investment schemes which often contrived ways of converting income to capital gains. It is unacceptable that retired people with large estates and hundreds of thousands of dollars should be able to arrange their assets so that they can receive the full pension and fringe benefits.

The Minister has undertaken to consult pensioner and veterans' organisations before introducing the new test, which will commence 12 months after legislation is passed. I must say in all honesty that certain possible anomalies and some likely unfair provisions of the test have been brought to my attention. I do not believe that in any instance these are serious. I believe that in all cases the problems can be resolved satisfactorily before the final test is introduced in legislative form. It is important to note that the Government has made a definite commitment to consult with the various organisations representing those who will be subject to the assets test before it is implemented. These consultations are already under way. I have raised a number of matters of concern with the Ministers. When more matters are brought forward by honourable members, as I am sure they will be, they likewise will be raised with the Ministers. As I have said, I have every confidence that the assets test will prove to be, as so many other decisions of the Government, something which, if not welcomed by people, will be accepted as a necessary step towards the economic reovery that this Government sees as its major task.

The pension increases announced in the Budget which will be effective from 1 November represent a positive move by the Government to implement our policy to raise pensions to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. I appreciate that it is the aim of the Australian Pensioners League to have pensions lifted to 30 per cent of average weekly earnings. I am very sympathetic-and I am sure the Government is also-to this policy, but it must be realised that it cannot be achieved in the near future. It should be noted and understood that increasing social welfare payments to provide a reasonably satisfactory living standard for those totally dependent upon social security payments for their day to day living-those with only limited savings and no other income-is the aim of this Government. But that aim cannot be achieved unless the Government is able to continue its commitment to tidy up the social welfare system and eliminate from it those who, for a variety of reasons, do not need and should not recieve pensions or benefits due to their ability to maintain themselves very well from their own financial resources.

Despite recent public claims to the contrary, it is important for this Government to pursue its aims in regard to its commitment to the implementation of a national system of superannuation. It should do this in the shortest possible time. But again to accomplish this aim the Government must first continue its commitment to tidy up the present social welfare system. In retrospect, I readily admit that even though I, together with my Caucus colleagues, supported the decision by the Whitlam Government to abolish the means test progressively-it seemed like a very good idea at the time-it was the wrong priority for us to have acted upon.

I was interested to read recently an article in the Bulletin which realistically noted our decisions in regard to the implementation of an assets test and the earlier decision in respect of the means test free pension for those over 70 years of age. The article was headlined 'Labor bites the bullet on welfare'. It showed clearly that unless the Government is prepared to act decisively to control unwarranted growth in the social welfare budget, savage increases in personal taxation will be necessary. The article illustrated that the proportion of people working and accordingly paying tax and on whom falls the burden of providing social welfare benefits for those who have retired, is steadily decreasing. Recent figures show that in 1981 there were some 17 people over 65 for every 83 people of working age. It is projected that in 50 years time those of pensionable age will number 32 for every 68 workers.

It is patently obvious that the social welfare system inherited by this Government had reached the stage at which positive action was urgently necessary to stop the threatened intolerable burden on taxpayers and to allow the limited resources to be directed adequately to those in most need. Unfortunately, the all too common but false belief in the community generally is that because taxes are paid during one's working life, a pension on retirement is an automatic right. If that belief were correct and if an age pension equal to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings were a type of national superannuation scheme to which every Australian woman upon reaching the age of 60 and every Australian man upon reaching the age of 65 were entitled as of right, at least 12.3c in the dollar of every employed person's earnings would be required to pay for it. At present around 5.5c in the dollar is taken for that purpose.

From these figures honourable members will see that taxation would have to be increased by more than 30 per cent to cover that situation. Unfortunately, that cannot be so. Fortunately, under the present system not every person of pensionable age receives a pension, but the example clearly illustrates the potential burden on taxpayers if our present pension system were allowed, as it was allowed under the previous Government, to continue uncontrolled. I refer particularly to the payment of pensions to those who did not need a pension to sustain them and to provide for their needs. I believe that the Government has taken a well overdue and economically responsible action in this decision to reimpose an assets test and, equally so, in the earlier decision to reimpose a means test on pensioners over 70 years of age.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I now turn to one other matter that is in a way not totally unrelated to the matter I referred to in my earlier remarks. I have pleasure in knowing that this Government has decided to move for major expansion and redevelopment work to be carried out at the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital in my electorate. This matter is not totally unrelated because again as far as this matter is concerned we see another area of the previous Government's abject failure and total neglect to face up to the responsibilities of maintaining this hospital and of improving its facilities. The major expansion and redevelopment program planned in the 1983-84 Budget is most welcome. The Budget allocation this year will enable work to commence on redevelopment of the pharmacy at Greenslopes Hospital at an estimated cost of $250,000. Other projects included in the works program include stage one of the upgrading of the rehabilitation unit at a cost of $120,000. Furthermore, there are additional new angiographic facilities which are estimated to cost $150,000.

Last, but certainly not least, was the announcement by the Minister at the time of the Budget that Cabinet had approved the commencement of an $11.5m multi- storeyed building complex which would include six operating theatres, intensive therapy units, patient admission centres, a central sterile supply department and a clinical sciences unit for under-graduate and post-graduate teaching programs. Work on this project is expected to commence towards the end of 1984. This proposed construction will overcome deficiencies in work overflow and provide a more convenient location for specialised units which have a close relationship with the operating theatres.

I am pleased that the Government's decision to proceed with this work was announced in the Budget. It is a recognition that ongoing replacement of specialised equipment is vital to ensuring a better standard of diagnosis and treatment for both veterans and members of the general public using the facilities at Greenslopes Hospital. Unfortunately it was a fact that under the previous Government there was a serious deterioration in the program to replace obsolete, inefficient and, in some cases, potentially dangerous equipment. Funding for this year, as I have said, will be $505,000 in addition to the $520, 000 for capital works that I have already mentioned. This figure is 18 per cent higher than the average expenditure over the previous three years.

The Government has taken an enlightened approach in its decision to move forward with these very essential works at Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital. The provision of better facilities and equipment indicates that this Government is seriously committed to implementing its policy to provide the best possible treatment in its repatriation hospitals. As a result, morale and standards of service at these hospitals, which is already very high, will be greatly improved . It is already very high despite the neglect of the previous Government and despite the actions of the previous Government to curtail seriously the efficiency and effectiveness of the medical and surgical services in these hospitals. Despite that, Greenslopes Hospital has managed to secure accreditation, which is something to which very few hospitals in Queensland can lay claim. That is an indication of the high standard of service available at that hospital.

Before finalising my remarks this evening I want to put on record that that is only part of the answer to the problems of the Greenslopes Hospital and the problems, I am sure, that exists in other repatriation hospitals. Other action that needs to be taken by the Government-I understand it is being considered at the moment-includes getting away from the rigid enforcement of the 20 per cent ratio of civilian to veteran patients in the hospital. This ratio controlling the admission of patients to the hospital is seriously affecting its efficiency. It is necessary for the Government to move away from the rigidity of this ratio towards something more in keeping with the standards required in the various communities where the hospitals are established. The Government is moving towards that end. I hope that, at the same time, it is moving towards recognising the fact that the staff ceilings that have been forced on the Greenslopes Hospital have seriously affected the morale of the people working there and, to a great extent, have made it much more difficult for them to provide the high standard of treatment that they fortunately have been able to provide. The range of things that I have mentioned in respect of the Greenslopes Hospital will make that a much better and more efficient hospital-a hospital that will fit more readily into the total hospital services situation in Queensland. With the advent of Medicare early next year, Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital will be well placed to fill a vital role in providing hospital care for the people of Brisbane and the surrounding areas. I congratulate the Government on the Budget and I endorse it wholeheartedly.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.