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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2336

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(8.23) —Once again I seek to allay the not too legitimate fears of the Opposition, notwithstanding that I am more than happy to look again at the clause at a later time. Firstly, let me make it clear that the amendment, in the form in which it is currently worded, does not make sense. It states:

Insert `but does not include a person who is living with another person in a relationship prohibited by . . . a State or Territory? . . .

As I understand it, no State or Territory law prohibits two people living together as if they were married. The point to which, the law refers is clearly the question of sexual relationships. In its present form, the amendment would achieve nothing or, if it did achieve something, it would be a situation in which people who are being paid a benefit for other reasons may well cease to be paid that benefit. The reality is that under-age people clearly are, and were for many years under the previous Government, paid benefits. For example, if a person is not eligible for the married rate of unemployment benefit that person may well be eligible for the special benefit or, if he is not living with someone else, he may be eligible for the supporting parent benefit. In some ways the Opposition suffers from being a little out of touch with the realities. I am not advocating, nor is anyone on this side of the chamber advocating, relationships between under-aged people or between adults and under-aged people. Nor are we encouraging, in any sense, people to break the law. The net result of this amendment would be that an under-age person about whom we are speaking would be paid a benefit at a lesser rate than that for which she is eligible under the law not only as it currently stands but also as it has been administered by successive governments.

As I have said to honourable members, the Government is seeking to cope with an anomaly in South Australia where the age of consent varies from that in other States. We would seek not to reduce the age of consent in South Australia because carnal knowledge is a criminal offence and that is a matter of criminal law. Nor are we seeking to change matrimonial law: We are simply seeking to determine, by way of legislation, a guide for the payment of a certain rate to an under-age unemployment beneficiary who is living with someone else who, presumably, is unemployed. That is all we are seeking to do. Such a person could quite well have other rights to receive payment; it is not a matter of including someone who currently has no rights at all under the social security system.

The responsibility of the Department of Social Security is not to make, in the final analysis, moral judgments. The responsibility of the Department of Social Security is to pay benefits according to need and, hopefully, to pay them on the basis of the law and not to allow a situation in which payments are made in a way that is not governed by the law but simply based on arbitrary discretion. The Government believes that if it is to determine fairly the circumstances in which the rate of payment should occur without being open to further challenge in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, this amendment of the Social Security Act is required.

As I said before the suspension of the sitting for dinner-I do not in any sense want to prolong the debate-I will have another look at the wording and if there is a better way to express the intention of the Government, it may be that that can be sorted out. However, the amendment as it currently stands runs against the intention certainly of the Government and it is not a sensible amendment. I am not prepared to accept it. I understand that the Opposition will divide on the matter. Perhaps it can be considered later.