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Tuesday, 26 May 1987
Page: 3357


Mr HAND(9.39) —I rise, as is often the case, to follow the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt). I do not know whether the honourable member for Richmond is the National Party of Australia's answer to the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale), but he seems to me to be a person who fits the bill. The honourable member for Richmond talks about poverty levels in this country, yet in a proposal he circulated he said that he wanted to freeze pensions, to tighten the supporting parent's benefit, to introduce the phased removal of pensions for women under 65 years of age, to tighten eligibility for widows' pensions, to cut back the Medicare rebate to 75 per cent, to increase charges to pharmaceutical benefits for pensioners, and so on. The member for Richmond came in here and bled all over the place, but he is on the record as having an incredibly harsh set of policies which he would hope to implement if he ever represented the Government at any time in his political life. But that is not likely to occur.

I believe that during the coming months people in Australia will see through the honourable member for Richmond more clearly than they do now, particularly if he stands front on. The point I make at the outset is that some of the measures in this legislation are harsh, as the Government has admitted. Last week in my electorate I had visits from a number of community based groups from all around Victoria and from my own electorate. We held a joint meeting last Friday and many concerns were expressed about aspects of the legislation.

Last Wednesday there was a protest by a number of young people at a social security office in my electorate. They contacted me and I agreed to see them on Thursday. They expressed concerns about some of the measures dealing with young people, particularly the 16- and 17-year-old unemployment benefit question, which will be dealt with later. The groups I saw were made up of concerned young people, students, the unemployed and employed workers. Among them were the Inner Urban CYSS network that includes Carlton, Kensington, Elwood, Collingwood, Brunswick and Glenroy, the Inner Urban Community Youth Workers group, the inner urban youth housing groups and other housing groups, the North Melbourne Community Youth Work Project, Dignity Financial Counselling Service and other inner urban financial counselling services, community legal services, the Coalition Against Poverty and Unemployment-(Quorum formed) Honourable members opposite are so terrified of free speech that they will not even let a person read out the names of community groups. They should wait until I get stuck into the legislation; that will give them something to weep about. The People's Budget Project, the Unemployed Worker's Union and the Melbourne Municipality Association of Community Children and Youth Services group were also involved. They reflected the views of a wide range of community groups within my electorate. As all honourable members know, my electorate is unique in the sense that a wide variety of people live in it. These community groups represent only a small number of the excellent groups that operate within my electorate.

As I said, the legislation, as described by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and others, is harsh. Let us not fool around. Some of the measures in this legislation are particularly harsh. I will address the Bill clause by clause in response to views expressed to me by people in my electorate. I come here tonight to put the views of people who are concerned about some of the measures, as reported in the media. Perhaps when the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) sums up the debate there will be some answers to some of the queries I intend to raise.

There will be new rules relating to people who live under the one roof. Clause 8 of the Bill inserts a new sub-section 6 (5a) in the Social Security Act 1947. This new sub-section treats people who are separated but living together under the one roof as married if they live in such a way for more than six months. If the co-inhabitants are currently disputing property, the period is extended to 12 months. The measure is harsh and possibly counter productive. There would be many situations where people who have no financial or emotional ties reside in the same residence together, often because they have no choice. The impact of this measure is likely to cause substantial hardship for women in particular. They are more likely to be the losers.


Mr Goodluck —Hear, hear!


Mr HAND —The honourable member should not `hear, hear' me, clapping his hands with glee. He is a phoney. He should not come in here and be a phoney. Also, in the case of a property dispute, the 12-month period is likely to put extreme pressure on couples to settle. Actions before the Family Court of Australia usually take far longer and, again, women are likely to be the losers. There are lots of people living under the one roof in a bona fide arrangement and who should be entitled to be treated as separate individuals.

I refer now to changes to the widow's pension and supporting parent's benefit. Under clause 12, class B widows' pensions will be phased out. At present, a class B widow's pension is paid to divorced, separated and widowed women aged 50 and over without dependent children. A safety net is provided so that those women who are currently eligible by age but not yet by circumstance will be protected in the future and will be eligible to receive the class B pension. Protection is also provided to a person currently receiving a supporting parent's benefit or a class A widow who is aged 45 or older and who, because of changes to the definition of `dependent child', will lose that entitlement.

Clause 12 (b) of the amendment Bill changes the definition of `dependent child' in the principal Act so that a woman whose youngest child is 16 years of age or over will no longer be entitled to receive the widow's pension. Clause 13 makes the same change to the eligibility requirements of supporting parent's benefit by amending sub-section 83aaa (1) of the principal Act. These changes are of major concern. They are very harsh measures, especially for women in the 40 to 44 year age bracket. Several thousand women will possibly be affected. Women in this predicament will have no alternative but to go on unemployment benefits. No other safety net is provided. An age pension is not available until a person is 60 years of age.

Women who are younger will probably, but not certainly, have some work skills, but there will be a significant number of women in the 40 to 44 age category who may never have worked. The Government is intending to provide special training for these women, but this is yet to be worked out, even though the provision is to take effect from 1 September 1987. There is a lot to be done to ease the concerns that these people put to me in terms of their future.

Even with special training, many women will just not be able to cope and will be unsuited to seeking employment. At the age of 42 with no employment history, no recent work experience and/or no skills, is someone in this predicament really expected to find employment immediately? We need perhaps to bring in some transitional measures. Perhaps in the first 12-month period after the youngest child turns 16 a less onerous income test could be applied, as applies to pensions rather than benefits, so that women could take on more temporary or part time work without losing their benefits. While supporting the Government's general policy of making income payments more labour oriented, I believe that this measure again is unintentionally very harsh and unfair in that it unfairly penalises this group of women. I repeat that there is provision for training, but I ask the Government perhaps to consider a phase-in period.

In relation to changes to the invalid pension, clause 10 of the Bill repeals section 23 of the Social Security Act. It inserts a new section 23 to tighten eligibility for the invalid pension. (Quorum formed) This is an unprecedented move. Two quorums have been called during the speech of a member. It just shows that the Opposition is afraid to hear somebody speak on this Bill as opposed to listening to a lot of hot air which has come from the other side. The basis of this change to section 23 is that a person must be 85 per cent incapacitated, as is the case now, but at least 50 per cent of that permanent incapacity must be medical impairment, either physical or mental.

As it reads, this provision is unclear and it could be interpreted to read that, if a person is classified as 95 per cent permanently incapacitated, then at least 47.5 per cent must be medical, whereas the person who is 85 per cent permanently incapacitated has to prove only 42 per cent medical impairment. Clearly, that is not the intention of the legislation, but the section needs to be clarified. I ask the Minister for Social Security to clarify that matter in order to ease the minds of people in the electorate. I think that this can be achieved simply by fixing the amount of medical incapacity at a given percentage, but some people working in this field believe that 40 per cent rather than 50 per cent would be fairer.

In relation to the unemployment benefit and the 13-week payment delay for school leavers, a number of people in my electorate have raised this matter with me because they are worried about its effects. I refer particularly to clause 21 which amends section 120a of the principal Act. Again, I say that this is harsh. It relates to a single person who is under 21 and has no dependants. The waiting period is increased from six to 13 weeks from the date of registration at the Commonwealth Employment Service or, if a person registers within four weeks of leaving education, from the date that the applicant actually left education. It is unclear as to whether a person who left education and then found temporary employment for less than 13 weeks would have to start his 13 weeks from the date that he ceased employment or from the date that he left education. I would like the Minister to answer that question in his reply. If it is the former, then this obviously would penalise the education leaver who sought employment and who may then lose the job through no fault of his own.

The 13-week period also is to apply where someone has finished a course. This is plainly ludicrous if the rationale behind this move is to provide young people with incentive to remain in education. Obviously, in relation to a person who has finished a course and is looking for work, the normal waiting period should apply. I understand that there is a safety net provision relating to hardship cases. Such people will be eligible for a special benefit, but this area is causing a lot of concern to constituents in my electorate and I think that some of the problems associated with the legislation need to be clarified and made easier for people to understand. Then perhaps those fears which exist within our community will be removed.

Before this decision impacts, we have some time to make those changes and, if the problems remain, perhaps to rectify some of them in the autumn session. In relation to family allowances, a means test has been imposed with a threshold of $50,000 plus $2,500 for each additional child. Given the circumstances, I think that this is a fair decision. Although some people in the community do not like this decision, given the circumstances and the situation in which we find ourselves, I believe that this decision is fair when compared with some others.

I want to refer also to some other areas, but I will not have time now and I will have to raise them in the Committee stage. I refer briefly to the recovery of overpayments and the changes relating to unemployment and sickness benefits. I believe that these two areas need explanation and discussion and that will be undertaken in the Committee stage of the Bill. I am somewhat disappointed in the Deputy Whip who has seen fit to call two quorums on me. I do not mind one quorum, because that is fair, but I think it is a little rough to call two quorums when we are discussing legislation which is of such importance to people in the electorate. I thought that the honourable member was a person who normally had some compassion for people suffering hardship and that he would at least pay me the courtesy of allowing me to complete my contribution. I, along with some of my colleagues, have had a lot of contact in the past week with community groups in my electorate. We were present at a meeting where they expressed some concern. I speak tonight as the local member in order to put those concerns to Parliament and also to reflect their views. I hope that the Government can rectify the problems which they see existing as a result of the announcement in the May economic statement. I have no doubt that, given that some of these decisions will not take effect for some months and given the Minister's commitment to this area and his work over many years, even prior to entering Parliament, he will ensure that adequate consultation is undertaken with what is termed the welfare lobby groups. I know that already there has been discussion between the Minister and sections of that group. He and his officers, I am sure, will work to overcome those problems before some of the decisions are implemented.


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