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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2498


Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(3.07) —I cannot say that I have ever been more delighted to have the opportunity to deal with the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) than I am in this particular debate, because what we have heard was I think the most outrageous run of the mill, emotional bilge in the history of this Parliament. Frankly, it is time that not only the honourable member for Richmond but both of the oppositions got down to some serious thinking about policy. Let me say that I have no difficulty at all in defending the Government's record and, indeed, the statement of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) that no government has done more with respect to seeking to ensure the integrity of the welfare system than has the present Government. As recently as the last Budget we have introduced a number of measures, for example, with respect to beneficiaries: The compulsory continuous registration with the Commonwealth Employment Service, the personal lodgment of claim forms, the selective review teams, the measures with respect to interviewing supporting parents and positive stimulus for them, entitlement checks and so on.

Indeed, we know that collectively those measures have been so successful that, rather than there being a reduction of 10,000 in the average number of people on unemployment benefits in 1986-87, as projected in the Budget, the decrease has been of the order of 25,000. With respect to the targeted reviews that have been carried out, there is no doubt that they, too, have been successful in achieving their objective. I do not want to stress that. I think the facts are obvious. I think people understand that the situation has certainly changed quite dramatically in this Government's period in office. I want to take the honourable member for Richmond back to April of 1981, because at that time there was the equivalent of what would be called today a May statement. At that time the Prime Minister of the day announced, in his statement on the review of Commonwealth functions, some very interesting things. We find that what was suggested was:

In future claim forms for unemployment benefit and fortnightly income statements will be lodged directly with the Department of Social Security. The requirement that unemployment benefit claimants visit CES offices fortnightly is to be removed.

The requirement that unemployment benefit claimants visit Commonwealth Employment Service offices or, indeed, Social Security offices fortnightly is to be removed. The statement goes on to talk about some other measures. Honourable members will recall that in May 1981 the number of unemployment beneficiaries in this country was 301,890. By May 1983 that figure had risen to 627,064. In other words, there had been a massive increase of more than 300,000. If we look at the average payment that is made per beneficiary, including families, which is of the order of $7,330, we find that a cost of $2,383m per year was added in that period by the conservative Government. The previous Government effectively removed all the controls and we then had that massive blow-out in the number of beneficiaries. That resulted in a very significant rise in this country's social security bill. Most of our problems in the social security expenditure area go back to that period.

There has never been more rubbish or more codswallop delivered to this House than that which has been delivered by the honourable member for Richmond. No member of this House is more willing to pillory the unemployed for the mistakes of the conservative Government in that period than the honourable member. No member is less willing to examine the evidence and make a fair and objective analysis of it. Let us go back to April 1981 when a rigorous analysis of government expenditure and government functions was carried out by the conservative coalition of that time. What did that rigorous analysis save? It saved a lousy $500m of ongoing expenditure and, in the next two years, $2 1/2 billion was added to the welfare bill by the unemployment benefit alone. Of course, as the Prime Minister suggested during Question Time today, there is one simple test to show whether the National Party of Australia-let us take just one section of the Opposition-is serious about dealing with fraud and overpayments in social security and the massive blow-out in tax fraud of $4 billion a year, and that is its reaction to the Australia Card. By that simple test we ought to know one way or the other whether it is serious about wanting to deal with overpayments and fraud. We know that, as a result of the introduction of the Australia Card, savings would be of the order of $1 billion a year. So that is a very serious measure and it is a very serious test.

Let us have a look at the real views of prominent members of the National Party. What is the view of the Deputy Leader of the National Party, the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt), who is sitting in the House? In June 1985 he said:

The proposed national identification system offered dual benefits to the Australian people. The use of plastic cards for an effective means of identification would streamline the collection of tax revenue, imposing a greater accountability on that small minority of taxpayers who sought to evade their responsibilities to the community. The second major benefit would be to cut down on fraud affecting Government outlays . . .

That is what the Deputy Leader of the National Party was prepared to say, publicly, in a media release dated 5 June 1985. What is the view of the honourable member for Richmond and former shadow Minister for Social Security? On 8 June 1985, at a similar time, he had a very clear view. He said:

The use of plastic cards as a means of identification would streamline the collection of tax revenue, imposing greater accountability on that small minority who seek to evade their responsibilities.

The honourable member for Richmond then said:

Another majority benefit would be a reduction of fraud affecting Government outlays, especially social welfare payments.

He went on to say:

With the Government's White Paper on tax reform recommending the introduction of ID cards, there is now a broad bipartisan support for this measure.

So this person who told the Parliament that he really believes the standard of living of the Australian people is depressing is on record as supporting the Australia Card in June 1985. He is now opposed to it. Yet he tells the House that that is the crucial issue in relation to depressing people's standards of living. He may subsequently have varied his view and may say that the Australia Card is irrelevant.

Let me give the House some examples of fraud which have occurred and which have been detected by my Department and the Australian Federal Police. One case concerned a person with 20 claims involving a sum of $400,000 secured in unemployment benefits. That person made 20 different claims posing as 20 different people; therefore the question of identity was crucial. Another case involved 10 claims and $150,000 being received by a person pretending to be 10 different people. The third case involved six claims involving a sum of $170,000, that person representing himself as six different individuals.

The honourable member for Richmond, who has told the Parliament with great passion that he is concerned about fraud, opposes the Australia Card, even though he is on record as supporting the card before he was pulled into line. I lay a challenge to the honourable member for Richmond, and indeed to the honourable member for Gwydir. Let us know the views of the rank and file members in the National Party branches on the Australia Card. I would be very surprised if they did not support it. I will be very surprised indeed if they do not urge their members to support the Australia Card if there is another opportunity in this Parliament, particularly now that those members are freed from the shackles of coalition.

The honourable member for Richmond dealt to some extent with the question of declining living standards. That is a good thing to talk about. I am sure every member of the Parliament is concerned to ensure that, as far as possible within our economic circumstances, we preserve people's living standards. But we must ask how we are to achieve the maintenance of living standards. It can be done in a range of ways-for example in terms of wages policy. Clearly, wages policy is crucial to the maintenance of living standards, if that is what one is serious about. The coalition in 18 of the last 20 wages cases has called for a freeze-no increase at all. If it had been successful on every occasion what would that have meant for the standard of living of the average Australian family? It would have meant a cut in wages of $100 a week. But a person's real standard of living is not only built on what that person receives in wages. It is also related to taxation. The Government has recognised that factor, and it is why we have had a tax summit and why we have come in with a tax reform proposal. It is why somebody on average weekly earnings, in addition to some maintenance of wages-not full maintenance-received a tax cut in December, and will again receive a tax cut in July this year of some $10 a week. But a person's standard of living is built on more than wages, on more than how the Government treats that person in taxation. It is also built on the support that is provided for so many people through government outlays. The recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the effects of benefits and taxes on household income said:

Lower income households gain appreciably more from Government outlays than they lose in taxes. One major explanatory factor is that lower income households also have a greater number of aged persons who, in most part, are receiving age pension.

In terms of government outlays through social security we are concerned to provide direct payments to maintain the real standard of living of people in the community. The honourable member for Richmond mentioned the subject of age pensions. Let me point out that, in our period of government, pensions have increased by 5.7 per cent in real terms. Whereas pensions stood at 22.7 per cent of average weekly earnings when we came into government, they currently stand at close to 24 per cent. Under the previous Government's administration we saw pensions decline in real value by 2.4 per cent.

Clearly, other factors also affect the real standard of living of people-not only tax cuts and the maintenance of wage levels but also the introduction of the first home owners scheme for young families. Some 230,000 young families have homes as a result of that scheme. Under the first home owners scheme families can get up to $6,000 for a deposit compared with the $3,500 which they got under the previous government. The scheme provides assistance for people earning up to $34,000. It takes account of dependent children and is of enormous importance. Similarly, this Government has introduced and sustained Medicare which, according to the Opposition's policy, is perhaps its highest priority for spending cuts. The removal of Medicare benefits and a hospital subsidy for everyone except pensioners and the poor could cost families up to $27 a week.

Let us not be under any illusions as to what the Opposition's policies are really about; they are about not increasing the standard of living of Australian families and shifting the burden off the wealthy more and more on to average families. We know from the Opposition's secret plan, which was leaked some time ago, that the Opposition is singling out the indexation of pensions for a priority cut. We heard the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron) from the National Party talking about the need to have pensioners squealing like stuck pigs as their pensions are frozen. Let us be under no illusions: The Opposition parties are parties of big business and capital; they are not parties of ordinary people. When the honourable member speaks of welfare fraud, he really is talking about cutting the standard of living of people on pensions and benefits and of the poorest families. He is also talking about cutting wages. He is talking about reducing the real standard of living of Australian families.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The Minister's time has expired.


Mr Hunt —Mr Deputy Speaker, I claim to have been misrepresented.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Was it during the debate?


Mr Hunt —Yes, just recently.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member might wait until the end of the debate on the matter of public importance. We can deal with it then. Or does he wish to correct a matter that arose in the debate?


Mr Hunt —Yes, indeed.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I call the honourable member for Gwydir.