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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 787

Mrs SULLIVAN(1.05) —There are two major ironies in the speech just given by the honourable member for Brand (Ms Fatin). The first I will refer to in some detail shortly, but the second is the finishing point of the speech. In order to demolish the credentials of the Opposition on the subject which she has chosen to raise, she has seen fit to refer to some document by a Monash research group, which I certainly have not seen, which has scrutinised and analysed policies which have not been published. I suggest to both the Monash research group and the honourable member for Brand that they wait until those documents are public documents to assess their impact. Even so, I would have thought there has been enough publicity given to the principles of policies in such areas as education and health to have averted the sort of conclusion that was drawn, which I am confidently going to say to this point are a nonsense. I am not going to be drawn into a debate, obviously, on policies which are not yet published, because it is not my role to debate those policies yet. However, I am confident in my belief and knowledge that those policies will not disadvantage the people with whom the honourable member for Brand is so concerned.

The first irony that I refer to now is that the motion that we are debating was moved by the honourable member on 22 February 1985. I note that for the record to point out that it was a motion that was moved early in the beginning of this Parliament, shortly after the flush of enthusiasm of an election campaign, and a successful election campaign at that. But as I looked at the motion and the wording I thought that this really does not reflect the propaganda of an election campaign and of the early days of government, rather than the facts of the two years that have followed since that motion. I want to read the motion out in full because I do not feel that it was fully and properly addressed by the honourable member for Brand. It is:

That this House, noting the Government's objective set down in the Governor-General's Speech to direct welfare assistance to the needy, believes that poverty among women in Australia is unacceptably high and, accordingly, calls on the Government to:

(1) continue to pursue wage justice for women;

(2) give women a high priority in job creation and training programs;

(3) ensure that income security payments for supporting parents and children of pensioners and beneficiaries are increased; and

(4) continue its efforts to provide adequate child care facilities throughout Australia.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I stated at the outset that there is a substantial section of that motion that the Opposition would agree with, and has agreed with in its public utterances on a wide range of issues as well as those that are specifically mentioned in this motion. The Liberal and National parties in government have a proud record of assistance to women and poor people. The record of these parties in opposition has been one of support where appropriate for certain policies in relation to women, and particularly disadvantaged women.

The honourable member for Brand, in the early part of her speech, paid quite some attention to the industrial situation. I say at this stage that it is going to be the lot of one of my colleagues to refer in detail, in another speech, to the industrial situation. I say simply that the issue of continuing to pursue wage justice for women is one that we have indeed in government and, by support in opposition, endorsed well and truly. I remind the House that the Opposition supported the sex discrimination legislation and it also supported the affirmative action Bill which was essentially an equal employment opportunities Bill. We had some disagreements on some of the detail but we voted for the passage of those Bills whilst attempting to amend and improve in some areas. So we have been committed to the continuance of wage justice for women, and to giving women a high priority in job creation and training programs. There is nothing at issue there.

We have also in government and in opposition been concerned about income security payments, particularly for those beneficiaries who are rearing children. It is a matter of great concern, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there is such a large number of children in Australia today being raised on welfare. It is a matter of concern for quite a number of reasons. The first and obviously the foremost is the physical welfare of those children who are being reared in poverty and the second is the long term welfare of this country when we are raising so much of a generation dependent on welfare. I have fears for what that will mean for the future of this country in terms of the futures of those children and their expectations of life.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do, however, have to take issue with the honourable member for Brand on the record that she claimed for her Government when speaking to the third and fourth parts of the motion. There have been a number of speeches relevant to that area in the last six months and there have been a number of opportunities in the time since the election for the Government to prove its bona fides but the actions have not always squared with it.

I took issue in more than one debate last year with a new compliance requirement for recipients of supporting parents benefits and widows pensions. It was a matter that has raised not one word of response from the Government in this House. It has been referred to only very briefly in a Government document which accompanied the Budget. The only reference to it was by way of an interjection from the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) in a speech that I was giving at one stage. In fact the issue has been ignored, apparently, one expects, in the Government's hope that it will therefore not receive public prominence and the condemnation that it deserves. I refer to the new requirement that the recipients of supporting parents benefits must report monthly for three months after they first begin to receive the benefit and quarterly thereafter to explain to the public servant designated to their case why they are not in employment, and the fact that widows are given a brief breathing space there, but subsequently also have to comply with it. I have pointed out that of course all the recipients of widows pensions are women, but the great majority, nearly 95 per cent, of recipients of supporting parents benefits are also women, and at a time when they are most distressed either by the breakdown of their marriage and the pressures on them to cope somehow with rearing their children, or by the grief that follows the loss of a spouse, they have to go, cap in hand, explaining why they should continue to receive this benefit that has always been considered to be an entitlement. I do not refer to it as an entitlement in the sense that it has been applied under the Family Law Act to which the honourable member for Brand referred.

The Opposition has already indicated that it supports the principles of the moves that the Government is undertaking. In fact, not only does it support the principles of the move, but the Opposition when in government initiated the first study which is now eventually leading to some sort of action. As a member of this Parliament when the Family Law Bill was debated in 1975, I know that a scrutiny of the debates of that Bill will show that it was never this Parliament's intention that that section of the Family Law Act be applied in the way that it has been by the courts, namely, relieve a very large number of parents of the financial responsibility they have for their children after the marriage has ceased to be a fact. So there is no issue there. The issue is that the Government has moved extremely unsympathetically in this particularly vulnerable area.

The honourable member for Brand referred to the representatives here last week of the Campaign for Economic Justice. I was one of the members who discussed the matters of concern that those women had. The discussions I had ranged over the point that I have just raised, and I was told that these women are being treated very unsympathetically indeed. Contrary to the assurances given by the Government that the purpose of this objective is to provide counselling, in fact these women are not receiving counselling when they are reporting on why it is they are still on a pension and not in jobs, and they are feeling very intimidated and overwrought indeed. I realise that the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand), who speaks after me, is a person who has a very real interest and concern in disadvantaged people, and I would appreciate it if he, and some of his colleagues who might share silently, so far as the public is concerned, the sentiments that I have expressed, would prevail upon their Minister to do something about this quite disgraceful move that has happened under the Hawke Government.

The honourable member for Brand said, quite erroneously, that this Government has, as I recall her words, increased pensions and benefits in line with cost of living rises. The honourable member for Brand knows very well that that is not so. She would have received the same material as I did last year from the Australian Council of Social Service on this subject, which included spelling it out for the benefit of those who had not realised it, that additional pension or benefit applicable for a dependent child of a pensioner or beneficiary, which was to be increased by $1 to $17 per week, in fact was not rising in line with cost of living adjustments. There was provided for in the last Budget an increase of 6 per cent, whilst the Budget Papers themselves anticipated an inflation rate of 8 per cent. The ACOSS document said:

The so-called increases in additional payments for children of pensioners and beneficiaries, and in FIS-

that is, family income supplement-

are not real increases at all, since they are less than the increase in inflation. As a consequence of these real cuts in payments for children, plus other delays in pension increases and income test changes, it is pensioner and beneficiary families with children-the neediest group in the community-who will suffer the most in this Budget.

There is a wide range of issues that could be raised in this debate about actions taken by the Government, which have disadvantaged the very people about whom the honourable member for Brand has expressed concern. I must refer very briefly, however, to the role for the principal Minister in this, in one particular area. That is, of course, the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), who is the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. It is that Minister who has presided over the introduction of an administrative fee for tertiary students. I have received quite a number of approaches from women constituents who are engaged in tertiary education as part time students, who have expressed to me, and spelt out to me, the real imposition that this $250 fee is to them. The Minister refuses to look at any pro rata application of the fee for part time students. The Minister knows that a very high percentage of part time tertiary students are women, and the Minister would also be equally aware that a very high percentage of those women are women with family responsibilities. I am not referring to those who are on benefit of some sort and who, through another activity of the Government in relation to the payment of tertiary education assistance scheme allowance-or non-payment of TEAS, I should say, in the future-to recipients of supporting parent's benefit, have been severely disadvantaged. She knows that the women I am referring to are indeed particularly affected, as women, by this move of hers. I have written her several letters on the subject. Mr Deputy Speaker, so embarrassed, apparently, is this Minister by her own actions, that she does not even acknowledge the receipt of my letters, let alone respond to the substance of them. I have been reduced to the point now when writing to those women, to say: `I will inform you of the Minister's comment if she pays me the courtesy of acknowledging that she has received my correspondence'.

Mr White —She has a few other problems on her plate at the moment.

Mrs SULLIVAN —She has had a few other problems in the last 24 hours, but they are--

Mr White —So your reply might be a bit late.

Mrs SULLIVAN —I think, yes, there might be a few other memos she has to attend to before she attends to my correspondence of some months standing now.

Mr Deputy Speaker, my time is nearly up, so I am constrained in giving much more detail in relation to points that can be raised on this particular motion. I finish just here: The Government, even in its child care program, has things that it cannot be proud of. There have been cuts in child care expenditure. There is a total reluctance to recognise that private enterprise has a role to play in the provision of child care. There is an unwillingness on the part of this Government to consider any form of taxation concession or rebate for child care expenditure. I just note that the honourable member for Brand did not refer to that part of our policy commitments, policy commitments we have spelled out, when she sought to raise furphies about policies that she has not yet laid eyes on. The non-provision of further assistance to extended hours child care, a decision recently made by this Government will, of course, particularly disadvantage the women for whom she expresses concern.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.