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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 339


Ms McHUGH(12.50) —Yesterday the Low Income People's Network and the Campaign for Economic Justice invited members of parliament to lunch on the lawn outside Parliament House. They provided for those of us who joined them the best of the meals they can provide for 81c for their family, even if all the money they receive for the children's allowance, that is $17 a week, were spent on food alone. We ate a tiny piece of meat, some carrots, beans and a potato and we had one strawberry for dessert. That evening most of us would have dined, as I did, in the parliamentary dining room. There was plenty of choice there; we all ate very well, particularly as those of us who had been across the road to eat with the low income families were pretty hungry after the meagre lunch we had had. Yet we, as members of parliament, are responsible for providing for those whose only form of help is government benefit. We are the ones making the policies, so I think it is worthwhile that we look at how each side of the House approaches this matter of very deep concern to all Australians.

Recently a paper was put out called `Your Family: The Liberal/National Party Approach'. It is full of glowing descriptions of the family, love and mutual respect and it puts great emphasis on choice. Choice is what we had in the parliamentary dining room last night. There is not much choice when there is 81c for a family meal. The paper is full of assertions that the Liberal-National Party policies will help `form, support, encourage and maintain the family'. Of course the details are to be released later. The paper concludes by saying that the policies will `provide the environment in which individual responsibilities can be met and families can flourish and prosper'. That sounds great.

However, the paper has been described by the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) as blancmange. There was no blancmange for dessert at the 81c lunch outside Parliament House yesterday. We had the stark single strawberry for dessert and it seems to me that it was only because they were catering for quite a few of us that we got a strawberry. At home, probably, it would have been a slice of an apple or maybe a segment of an orange. If the parents and children who were there yesterday searched the paper put out by the coalition parties entitled `Your Family: The Liberal/National Party Approach', they would find not one concrete proposal to show just how they would benefit. But they would learn a lot about love and togetherness.

On the other hand, the Government has undertaken a major and fundamental review of the social security system. Established by the Minister for Social Security in February 1986, the Social Security Review is taking two years and its Consultant Director, Associate Professor Bettina Cass, is working with officers of the Development Division in the Department of Social Security. It has already produced an enormous amount of detailed material and detailed options for future policy decisions by government. So far there have been 12 discussion papers and three issues papers. This Social Security Review is the most comprehensive appraisal of the Australian Social Security system in more than 40 years.

The Review is concerned with several key issues and policy questions facing Government in relation to social security. It is designed to evaluate some of the principal policy aspects of the current system and to project a view of the future. The three major areas of policy are: Family income support; social security and the labour market; and retirement incomes. Dr Cass has visited every State for consultations. The Review is unique. The issues and background papers are being published with the intention of formulating both short and long term policy.

One of the key objectives of the Review in reforming the social security system is to look at the anomalies and the inconsistent treatment of children. At no stage in the past has there been a systematic examination of this area, mainly because child payments have never been indexed. This Government has raised allowances for children but there has been a long history of erosion of real value, and that could be seen yesterday. Family income support must move in conjunction with new wage fixation discussions. The aim must be to alleviate family poverty, which has greatly increased over the past 10 years.

The options that the Government will consider in trying to alleviate family poverty will be based on the hard facts revealed by this Review, not on pious, emotional and often judgmental assertions. For instance, how often do we hear from an ill-informed public that teenagers have babies in order to get the benefit; and that sole parents are taking so much money from hard working, deserving taxpayers that they are probably responsible for our economic problems? The coalition paper on the family itself makes pious statements like this one:

The most urgent need of families in crisis is often counselling rather than simply bare income support.

Tell that to the people who provided our lunch yesterday. They were the ones who had come to do a bit of counselling for the members of parliament. The paper also lends support to the ill-informed view of teenagers becoming pregnant solely to get the benefit by saying that `young people are vulnerable to the incentives provided by welfare benefits'.

Here are some of the facts from the Social Security Review:

Most sole parent pensioners are in their twenties or thirties; only 4 per cent are aged under 20.

Most sole parent pensioners are separated or divorced; the proportion who are unmarried has remained constant at about 18 per cent since 1977-78.

For almost 50 per cent, the pension is the sole source of income.

Listen to this:

. . . the majority of sole parent families are the result of marital breakdown. At that time-that is, the time the latest statistics were available-30 per cent of sole parents were separated while 37 per cent were divorced. Almost 19 per cent were classified as unmarried, but these figures include those who have previously been in a de facto relationship. Approximately 14 per cent were widowed. Thus, over 80 per cent of sole parent families in 1982 had been formed through the death of a spouse, divorce or separation.

As for the age groups, as for the fact that so many are teenagers having babies just to get the benefit, the Review states:

. . . the age groups amongst female sole parents which have shown above-average increases over the 1974 to 1985 period are the 25-34 year and 35-44 year groups while the proportions of 15-19 year olds and those aged 45 years and over have declined.

So much for that particular myth.

The Social Security Review is attempting to make recommendations regarding longer term directions for change in policy and to identify more immediate priorities for reform. The Review has discovered that the lowest median income for couples is when they have children of pre-school age. Housing costs in proportion to income are highest then and often one parent gives up work, at least temporarily. The situation begins to improve for most couples only when the child reaches the age of 15. What the Government intends to do is to minimise the poverty traps that are one of the major concerns of the Review. Sole income parent policies, it has been put forward by the Social Security Review, should probably create bridging payment for cases where sole parents are consolidating themselves in the work force. The coalition paper talks a great deal about how the individual has to put more into solving the problem that the Government is taking on on its own. It turns out, as Bettina Cass has done her consultation around Australia, that the thing the sole parents most aim for is to get back into the work force. It is just that the barriers to work force participation are so great.

Through consultations Australia-wide, clear consensus has arisen regarding the role of universal family payments. There is an importance of the payment of child entitlement for low and middle income families to protect real income of families through the tax transfer system. One of the things that the Review points out is that the word `family' and the concept it implies needs to be made acceptable. It needs to dispel the myths associated with the family and per- petrated, continued and entrenched by the Liberal-National Party approach.

Mr Deputy Speaker, when this Government makes its decisions for low income families it will well remember the excruciating embarrassment we felt yesterday in eating that meagre meal provided by the recipients of low income.