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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2258

Mr O'KEEFE(12.02) —I support the Social Security Amendment Bill and the measures that are contained in it. They are intended to further streamline the Social Security Act and its administration. The Bill contains a number of amendments to remove anomalies, close gaps and correct some minor drafting errors to bring the legislation into line with sound administrative practice. That is a key feature. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) is at the moment engaged in the most expensive overhaul of Australia's social security system to take place since the 1940s.

While I agree with some of the comments made by the honourable member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan) in her contribution-there are some points to be picked up from it-I am a little confused by her final comments in expressing sympathy and concern about the position of pensioners receiving correspondence from the Department of Social Security. That is a matter I want to talk about a little later in my contribution. But why I am confused is that the party which in government presided for so many years over the establishment of so many of these administrative entanglements, the party that was responsible for the creation of massive unemployment and the problems that have stemmed from that, is now talking about fixing up the Budget, cutting social welfare expenditure and overhauling all sorts of things, but at the same time is talking, as the honourable member for Moncrieff did, about repealing the assets test and such things as the fringe benefits tax and giving back pensions to millionaires and so on. In a debate such as this the honourable member should not make a contribution which is so riddled with hypocrisy.

The review of the social security system which the Minister is overseeing must take place on a track parallel to continuing efforts by this Government to both overhaul the system and make the operation of the existing system more effective. I cannot avoid mention of the Australia Card in this debate-the matter was raised just a few moments ago by the honourable member for Moncrieff-because, again, it is the Liberal Party which is pledged to making massive cutbacks in welfare expenditure. We only have to go to the famous Westpac tape on which the President of the Liberal Party of Australia, Mr Valder, first spilled the beans that this is where the cuts were to be made. That leaked document pre-empts a general strike caused by, among other things, massive cuts to pensioners and others. The party that talks most about these cuts that would be made comprises the people responsible for blocking in the Senate the key measure to be adopted by this Government to combat a number of areas of tax cheating and social security fraud-the Australia Card. I honestly find it hard to understand their position.

We are facing major economic problems and starting to work our way out of them. We are starting to stand on our own two feet internationally and within this country. Part of that process has involved coming to grips with this massive mess of regulation and with the need to overhaul legislation that was put in place over the many years that preceded our Government. We recognise that there are problems for the community at the moment with the cash economy. Some people receiving unemployment benefits are receiving cash wages on the side and people are using false identities and working in more than one job.

We on this side of the House-members of the Labor Government-are facing up to these facts. One of the key measures that we wanted to put in place to help overcome these problems in our economy was the Australia Card but it was blocked by those who preach about these things. It was blocked by the Liberals and the Nationals in the Senate together with those who are pledged `to keep the bastards honest'-the Australian Democrats. That alliance blocked the measure. I find it impossible to understand that. It is all right for the honourable member for Moncrieff and others to talk about privacy protection and those sorts of things and say: `We blocked it because we were concerned about those issues' That is not the real position. The real position is that the people who said, very early in this Government's life, that they would give credit where credit was due and that they would not block for the sake of blocking or oppose for the sake of opposing have adopted that path consistently on every constructive measure that this Government has taken. Nowhere has it been done more than in this area of combating social security fraud. That message does not go unheard by the people of Australia.

I want to pick up another point that arises from this legislation and was also touched on by the honourable member for Moncrieff and others in the debate; that is the matter of information provided to pensioners. Again, we on this side of the House recognise that there are complexities and that many pensioners are not aware of their full entitlements and are confused in many ways. I cannot help but refer to the disgraceful campaign on the assets test that was conducted during the lead up to the last Federal election, when pensioners were told to put their money tins under their beds. As the honourable member for Moncrieff conceded in this debate this morning, very few pensioners were affected. Yet the Opposition ran such a disgraceful scare campaign, aimed directly at elderly people and pensioners who are confused, and we recognise that.

I wish to make a suggestion to the Minister for Social Security. I certainly recognise the need for us to prepare for pensioners a comprehensive information kit in clear, precise language which they can study at home. Such a kit should be provided for them so that they do not have to go down to a Department of Social Security office in order to obtain it. In this context I refer to the efforts made by some of my colleagues-the honourable member for Lilley (Mrs Darling), the honourable member for Ballarat (Mr Mildren), the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow) and others-who have gone to the trouble of getting this information together and preparing pensioner information kits. They have done this on a trial basis to see whether it helps to overcome some of the problems. I have done the same in my own electorate and I have to report that the response has been astounding. Clearly there is a need for the Government to provide comprehensive information for pensioners in a clear, simple, easy to understand way.

Mr Snow —Hear, hear!

Mr O'KEEFE —My colleague the honourable member for Eden-Monaro says: `Hear, hear!' It is true and we recognise these problems. As I said before, this Government was faced with a whole legacy of problems-not just in the economy, not just in the cleaning up of a tax system which was left in a mess, not just in cleaning up social security fraud, but in a whole range of areas. You name it, we were stuck with having to fix it up. The problems went right through the economy. The most positive aspect of this is that we are now seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. We are starting to work our way out of these problems. I emphasise the words `work our way out of these problems'.

As the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has said and our Cabinet has endorsed, one of the key areas we are now addressing is the question of choice to work or not to work. The Fraser Government put one million people on unemployment benefits in Australia. Let no one in this House forget that. There was more than 11 per cent unemployed in Australia. It was necessary to have a system whereby people were supported and helped fairly by the country and by everyone who contributes to our economy. There is no doubt that our unemployment benefits system has done that, but the single most important factor for a family which is looking for security and assistance is a job. There is nothing that we as a Government can point to more proudly than our record of creating more than 800,000 new jobs. That has been the key factor in easing the burden on many families in Australia.

That takes us to the point-and this is recognised by the Government-that our social security system is not there to provide the choice between working and not working. We are aware of job vacancies existing but not being taken up. We are aware of people going to job interviews when they are not fair dinkum about them. Some people even sit down and do their sums in front of their prospective employers to show them that they are better off staying on the dole. That choice no longer exists. The Government is taking action and that is something that will be recognised and applauded by people throughout the country. We are prepared to face the hard issues but those opposite who come in here and preach about these matters are the people who voted to block the biggest single factor that we intended to put to work in this area-the Australia Card. Now we must find alternative measures. It might mean employing more people within the Department of Social Security or the Commonwealth Employment Service to attend job interviews with people and to do more face to face work between employers and those who are looking for work. One way or another we will get on top of the problem, but we have not been helped one bit by those opposite who preach so loudly about this issue.

In winding up my remarks, I commend the legislation. I recognise that it is part of a process being carried out by the Minister to upgrade and improve the administration of the social security legislation while he undertakes the bigger and broader review of the whole system. Everyone in Australia will understand that as the Minister makes his study and his recommendations arising from the review, it is at the same time encumbent on the Government to make these sorts of improvements to existing legislation so that we can continue to work our way towards the light at the end of the tunnel.