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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2210


Mr WRIGHT(5.31) —It is normal that the Opposition's task in this chamber is to criticise constructively any proposal put forward by government and also to present some alternatives. I have just listened to a 30-minute speech in which the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) defamed thousands of fishermen. I remind honourable members of what he said. He said that the overwhelming number of professional fishermen were cheating on unemployment benefit. He did not substantiate this statement in any way and I challenge him to do so; otherwise he ought to apologise publicly for such an outlandish statement. In Queensland alone there are 2,300 fishermen. So the honourable member for Richmond is saying that the overwhelming majority of those 2,300 fishermen who belong to National Party electorates as well as Australian Labor Party electorates are cheating the system. The honourable member for Richmond should substantiate that claim.

He also said that we have found only 1,800 people who have been rorting the system. In fact the number is more like 25,000. One does not have to be a mathematician to realise that one does not save $100m in unemployment benefit alone if one has stopped only 1,800 people from getting that benefit. So his mathematics certainly do not add up. He also talked about trying to keep people at school. Let the House be reminded that under the Liberal and National Party policies the unemployment benefit was always greater than the allowances paid to students, whether it was the tertiary education assistance scheme allowance or secondary allowances. It has been the Hawke Government that has brought about a new system whereby within a two-year period the unemployment benefit will not be more than student allowances. Already in some categories one gets more money by going on to higher education than by going on the dole. But that was not the case under the Liberals and Nationals. Yet the honourable member for Richmond said that we ought to be encouraging students to stay at school. I often wonder why the Liberal and National parties never bothered to do any of these things when they were in government.

The honourable member also talked about the need for a means tested welfare system and he ended his comments on that point. He said that we must be paying people on their need and that we should have a means test system. Yet at the beginning of his speech he said that one of the first things the Liberals and Nationals would do if they ever got back into government would be to repeal the assets test. The honourable member for Richmond cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand recognise the need for a means test system, a need for paying people based on need rather than greed, and on the other hand say that he will give back the $140m that this Government has rightly saved from people who did not need the pension-people such as the 13 millionaires who had houses in the Riverina and the `pensioner' in my area who had something like $750,000 in the bank but was not caught up because no money was being earned on that $750,000. He said that the money was placed in a trust fund so that his relatives could borrow it at a low interest rate.

The honourable member says on the one hand that benefits should be means tested but on the other hand that he would support the repeal of the assets test. Obviously, one cannot believe much of what the Opposition says. I realise the honourable member is probably in difficulty because today he came into the House virtually as the Opposition spokesman on social security but we know that as a National Party member he no longer holds such a position. The facts are that it is this Government that has cracked down on the rorts and rip-offs about which he talked; it is this Government that saved the taxpayers of Australia $100m in one area alone and at the same time it is this Government that has had a sensitive approach to the needs of people.

I do not think people understand just how significant are the responsibilities of social security in our Commonwealth. People do not realise just how huge the number of beneficiaries is, those who are deserving. We can only understand this by first looking at the number of social security beneficiaries and, secondly, considering the actual dollars being spent in providing those social security benefits. This morning I took out some figures that showed that as at 9 January this year 1,321,027 age pensioners plus another 24,402 wives and carers were receiving pension benefits. Another 282,499 were invalid pensioners and attached to those were another 87,594 wives and carers pension recipients. Some 10,442 people were getting the sheltered employment allowance-the sheltered employment allowees-and this figure included wives. Another 3,651 Australians were receiving rehabilitation allowances; 154,217 people were widows and that figure covers all classes, A, B and C; 179,843 people were receiving supporting parents benefits; 67,897 people were on sickness benefits; 19,186 were on special benefits; 2,174,947 families were receiving family allowances; and 29,021 families were receiving the family income supplement. One can add to these figures another 623,079 unemployed people who were receiving benefits. As at January this year the number of pension beneficiaries totalled 2,063,675. The number of unemployed, sickness and special beneficiaries totalled 710,162. This is a cost to the ratepayers, taxpayers and all those who are paying their way in this nation. In 1985-86, the latest year for which figures are available, total expenditure under the Social Security Act-this is just for people receiving those benefits-was $15 billion. It is almost 20 per cent of the total Commonwealth Budget, a budget that is spent on helping and caring for people and providing much deserved retirement income for Australia's citizens.

Like all other members I accept that it is important that the system not be abused; it is important that fraud be countered; it is important that there be emphasis on those in need rather than those who are simply greedy. But that is what this Government has done. It is this Government that has given the emphasis to the aged and it is gradually working towards pensioners receiving 25 per cent of the average wage. It is this Government that has cracked down on fraud. As I mentioned earlier, some 25,000 people previously receiving the unemployment benefit have been cut off. Why? It is because they were not meeting the rules. The honourable member for Richmond accused 2,300 of my fishermen and thousands of other fishermen of rorting the system and said that some sort of rort was going on within the Department of Social Security. He accused Social Security officers of-I use his words-being part of a rip-off and rort within the Department of Social Security. That is not the way to address these problems; nor should he make outlandish claims in a supercilious way. He even accused this Government of tarring everybody with the same brush. I suggest that that is exactly what he has just done in his contribution to this debate.

The Hawke Labor Government has acted to stop the abuse; it has acted to limit the fraud by detecting and prosecuting offenders. The honourable member for Richmond says that this has not happened, but it has happened. People from all over my State have been caught. They were dobbed in or found out; they were detected and prosecuted. I appreciate that in some cases one cannot prosecute; it is not worth prosecuting. If a person is taken to court, it may cost $1,500 for one day in court. That is the sort of money it costs for a day in the Supreme Court today, and to get what back? To get back $30 or $40, or $300 or $400? Administrative judgments must be made as to what is best, because it is of no use throwing good money after bad.

This Government has acted against the worst rorts. Last year I went to the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) and put to him my concerns about the number of New Zealanders who were bludging off the Australian welfare system. Cases were cited to me by officers in three different places in Australia. I realise they took a great risk in doing that. They did not give me actual names, but they cited cases of people who had got off the plane in Australia and received benefits straight away. An estimate was given that this was costing the Australian taxpayer a million dollars a week or approximately $50m a year. That was the amount paid to New Zealanders alone. Thousands of New Zealanders who came to this country for a holiday were abusing the system. There was one case of a person who made his first claim in Adelaide, the second in Sydney, the third in Brisbane and finally the person was tracked down in Cairns. This person's holiday was paid for by the Australian taxpayers by way of benefits. But this Government acted. This has been going on for years and years. But did the Liberals and the Nationals do anything about it? They knew it was going on. They had received complaints from within their own political parties. The members knew about it, but nothing was done.

This Government did something about it. It readjusted the reciprocal arrangements that we have with New Zealand and also with the United Kingdom, in order to put an end to it and to make it impossible for a New Zealander to land here and receive benefits. There is now a residential requirement. Before that such people went to National Party members and insisted on their rights. There were cases in Brisbane of people going along to the Valley Social Security office and threatening that if they did not get their benefit they would see Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen, because she would make sure that they did get their benefit. So a National Party member of this House has said `We were going to put a stop to it', yet the facts are and the reality is that National Party members were encouraging a situation whereby people who did not deserve benefits were getting those benefits.

As I said, it has been going on for years. But it is this Hawke Labor Government and this Labor Minister for Social Security that have finally acted. In doing so, they have saved the Australian people tens of millions of dollars. I think it is important to realise that there has not only been a crackdown on New Zealanders and some of our British counterparts, but it has been across the board. At the same time, this Government has wisely strengthened the privacy provisions under the Social Security Act. We want to make sure that people are protected. We want to make sure that if a person is in receipt of a benefit, that is his business. We do not want that information to be used all over the place.

I want to use the last few moments I have to express some concern about what I see as a planned public campaign against the welfare system of our country. I, like other members, do not want to see a system in which those who do not deserve to get benefits receive them. But the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron)-again, unfortunately, a National Party member-has made it very plain that it is the National Party's policy or philosophy to cut pensions. There is a National Party policy to introduce a 25 per cent flat tax. Everyone realises that if pensions of $5,000 a year, or $106 a week, are taxed, pensioners will have to pay tax of about $1,000 a year, which at the moment they do not pay.

There is also pressure coming from the so-called new extreme Right. It has put out some booklets saying what it wants to do. It wants to cut the Commonwealth Budget by $15 billion. This proposition has the support of the National Farmers Federation, top business people and the National Party. I think it is time that they started to realise exactly where the money goes in the Australian welfare system. If they did that, they would have a hard time telling us exactly how to cut $15 billion from a total government outlay of $74.76 billion.

If one looks at the figures, one will find that $14.3 billion goes to other governments. Are National Party members advocating that we simply cut out all the moneys to local authorities, totalling $580m? That is the sort of thing that is being said. Sir Alby Abbott, the head of the Local Government Grants Commission in Queensland, is most concerned because he believes that that is the sort of thing that could happen. Does this mean that extra funding given to all the States will be cut out? That is the component-$14.3 billion of that $74 billion goes to the States and other governments. An amount of $1.5 billion is spent on housing. Are they advocating that we cut out housing money? As most people realise, whilst public housing is paid for by the public purse, it is private enterprise that builds the houses. It helps the local economy. In the city of Rockhampton in my electorate it is the local private enterprise builders who are building public housing.

Will they cut money from the education allocation? They are looking for cuts of $15 billion, but the total amount spent on education is only $5.2 billion. Does this mean that they will slash $2.5 billion from tertiary education? Will they cut out the money allocated to independent schools? If that is the policy of the National Party members, let them say so, instead of telling us that they will slash welfare benefits and cut government spending. We also spend $7.4 billion on defence. I ask again: Will they slash part of the $15 billion from that area? We spend $1.2 billion on assisting industry to carry out research and development. This benefits private enterprise. I have not heard National Party members advocate that that be cut out. Another $1 billion is used for training and job creation. Again, it is private enterprise that benefits, because it offsets the cost of employment. Will National Party members cut this out? The list goes on and on.

It seems that they will focus on the welfare area. That was what the honourable member for Maranoa talked about. That was what the honourable member for Richmond just hinted at when he started to talk about bringing in this new approach of granting no benefits to anyone under 18 years of age and bringing in a day by day work test. I wonder what the administrative costs of that would be. If we look at the cost of running the social security system now, we are talking about many hundreds of millions of dollars. What would be the cost if there were to be a day by day work test? It is an unbelievable concept, yet it is proposed by the honourable member for Richmond. Do National Party members intend to attack the $15 billion paid to pensioners and beneficiaries? If that is what they are advocating, let them clarify it. Let them specify it. Will they attack the $2.77 billion that we give to veterans?

I put it to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that $74 billion is a lot of money, and it is almost an impossibility to work out where the money could come from, especially when one realises that this Government has had to cut expenditure programs. We have had to try to cut back in so many areas because of the poor financial management of the previous Government. However, this Government is prepared to spend where the needs are. I am pleased that the Deputy Government Whip, the honourable member for McMillan (Mr Cunningham), gave me some figures that show that this Government is spending more than $9 billion on Australians over 65 years of age. Honourable members should think about that for a moment: Of that $74 billion $9 billion goes to people over the age of 65 years. Another $3.5 billion goes to Australians under the age of 4 years-the pre-schoolers. So where will cuts be made? Let us hear from the National Party in particular, because this Government has already set about making sure that only those who deserve benefits get them.

This Government has fought the frauds, the rorts and the abuse of the system. Yet this Government has tried to accept its responsibility to the disadvantaged, the aged and the low income groups. We have introduced a system whereby pensions are increased twice a year. We have regularly raised the threshold so that it is now $5,100, so that all Australians, particularly low income families, pay no tax on the first $100 per week that they earn. This Government, again, has understood the need to tighten expenditure in such a way that there is no waste. It is an impossibility to bring about the sorts of changes that the honourable member for Richmond suggests and to overcome the sorts of things that he alleges take place unless one spends a lot more money, which this nation does not have.

I put the case today for the 1.3 million pensioners, because I believe they deserve every cent they get. If economic times were different, I would like to see funeral benefits increased. I would like to see the installation of telephones made free of charge. I would like to see the pension increased. But we cannot do all of these things at once. This Government over a four-year period has changed the whole quality of life for our aged people. I believe that they commend this Government for what it has done. They understand that it must have a controlling system and an assets test. People in the branches of the Australian Pensioners League are the first to say that they support the assets test because they believe in helping the needy, not the greedy. I welcome this legislation and the action that has been taken by this Government to stop the rorts, fraud and abuse. I welcome also the sensitive approach that has been taken to those hundreds of thousands of Australians within the welfare system in this country.