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Monday, 19 June 2000
Page: 15140

Senator CHRIS EVANS (5:21 PM) —As you would well un-derstand, Senator Newman, I am not going to be announcing Labor Party election policy on the run.

Senator Newman —I do not think you are ever announcing any Labor Party policy.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I certainly will not be announcing the social security policy. I will leave that to the appropriate spokesperson, and that is my message to Senator Bartlett in answer to his question. I think it is fair to say, Senator Bartlett, that that is a recognition that Labor accepts that there are concerns about the adequacy of the PES. I said in my introductory remarks that we would rather be having a debate about the adequacy of the PES. We would rather be having a debate about the department's report. I notice that the minister did not give us any further information about that. She is happy to debate changes to the entitlement of the PES for recipients and floats a figure of $8 million but then says she cannot stand by that figure because it is hard to estimate. I concede that it may well be. In effect, the minister is saying she is going to take the $8 million from pensioners that is currently being paid to them. If that is the saving, it is a saving taken from those persons.

Senator Newman —No.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —If it is not, I would be happy for you to explain. Senator Bartlett asked you that question. You clearly did not answer it in the sense that, if you are saying there is a saving of $8 million, I assume it is because you are going to spend $8 million less, and I assume that means you are going to spend $8 million less in supporting pensioners' education costs. That is the obvious conclusion to draw, but if that is wrong no doubt you will re-enter the debate.

The point I want to make is that the Labor Party is suggesting that we oppose a gov-ernment attempt to change its own legisla-tion to reduce entitlements. We say that we are not convinced that the government's attempts to reduce those entitlements are warranted, given what we understand to be the general concern about the adequacy of the PES. The better way to do that, obviously, is to have a debate about the department's analysis of the PES, its adequacy and what might be done to better improve that education supplement and assist people to make the transition to work through improving their qualifications. That is obviously the preferable approach. From opposition you have to take opportunities as they arise. What we are saying is that the government amended the legislation to provide this pro-vision. We are not moving any amendments. We are saying that the legislation that the parliament passed earlier this year at the government's initiation ought to stay as is. We are not convinced that the change is warranted.

As I understand it, the minister seized on the question of the Austudy and some regulation from 1983 or 1993, which I must admit did not immediately come to mind. As I understand it, the history of these payments—and the supplements in particular—has involved a mixture of treatment over the years by governments of both persuasions. There is an argument about whether a supplement is treated the same as a primary payment. Putting all that to one side, at the end of the day you have to decide what position you want to adopt with the PES today. Our view is that it is better that the payment be made for the whole of the period under which people are required, if you like, to be available for or commit themselves to study and that that is a preferable position. It is one that existed in the past. I accept that when the Youth Allowance changes were made you went to the alternative approach. I guess I would argue that as a supplement you might be able to argue for different treatment, but we think that as a top-up payment on this occasion it is preferable that we start from 1 January or 1 July. As I say, the government's measure is about whether or not we vote today to reduce the total payment paid to those persons. There are probably better, more thorough approaches in terms of debating the adequacy of the payment but, when asked today to vote on a proposition from the government to reduce that payment, our view is that it ought not be supported and we will not be supporting it. That obviously says something about the direction Labor takes in terms of the PES and our views about that, Senator Bartlett, but obviously I will not be making specific commitments about Labor policy for the next election in relation to that today, as I am sure you will not be about the Democrats' position. But the issue today is whether or not we support the government's attempt to reduce those payments and what seems now like an attempt to make a reduction in payments of $8 million. I am not sure whether the minister stands by that but our view is that, on balance, we will not support that.