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Wednesday, 27 May 1987
Page: 3373

Mr LEE(10.01) —Before the debate on the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 1987 was interrupted last evening, the honourable member for Sturt (Mr Wilson) in his contribution stated that he dis- agreed with the Government's decision in the May economic statement to impose a means test, an incomes test, on family allowances. He explained his view, which was that people earning high incomes should continue to receive family allowances. That is questionable, to say the least. Members of the Opposition-members from the Liberal Party and from the breakaway National Party-are running around Australia telling people that they wish to cut taxes and that they believe government expenditure should be wound back. Day after day members of the Opposition say in this Parliament that more money should be spent on family allowances for the millionaires, that the assets test should be removed to enable the payment of pensions to asset rich millionaires, and that there should be greater expenditure on their own electorates in Telecom Australia subsidies, in road funding-you name it, they want to spend more money on it. Yet at the same time they swan around addressing the business community and all the New Right lobby groups claiming that theirs is the Party which can deliver cuts in government expenditure. I am sure that anyone who has listened to debates in this chamber in recent weeks would form the conclusion that the Opposition simply is not serious as far as reducing government expenditure is concerned.

The Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 1987 implements a large number of the decisions which were announced by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) in the statement of 13 May. The most important decision, I believe, that was announced in the May statement was the Government's decision to grant full indexation of pensions. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe), who is in the chamber, deserves much of the credit for the fact that pensioners and veterans throughout Australia will receive the full consumer price index increase on 25 June. That amounts to $6 a week for a single pensioner on the base rate of pension, which raises that base rate to $112.15. The married rate will go up by $5 a week, which will certainly assist those people. In addition, the Minister has ensured that the income test will be relaxed for pensioners and veterans on 1 July this year so that single pensioners will now be able to earn $40 a week and still receive the maximum pension. In addition, the tax free threshold for the coming financial year will be $5,100, which again will assist pensioners and veterans.

We should not forget the record of the Liberal and National parties when they were in coalition and in government. We saw the base pension as a percentage of average weekly earnings fall from the very high 25 per cent during the Whitlam years to only 22 per cent in March 1983 when the Fraser-Howard Government left office. I was very interested in a comment across the table from the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) when the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) asked the honourable member for Richmond to explain his record when the Liberal and National parties were last in government. The honourable member's answer to the Minister was that the Minister should look up the Parliamentary Handbook because it shows that the honourable member was not a member of this chamber during the Fraser-Howard years. The honour- able member for Richmond was a senior office holder in the New South Wales National Party. He was an active member of the National Party, yet he claims that he has no responsibility for the many decisions which were made by the Liberal and National parties when they were in office.

It was very interesting to read earlier this year a draft policy document released by the Liberal Party Secretariat. I believe that that document allowed the Australian people to see for a short time the hidden agenda of the Liberal and National parties and to see their proposals in the areas of social security and veterans affairs. That document advocated that pensions should be frozen for an indefinite period, that pensioners should not receive consumer price index increases to compensate them for price increases and that women under the age of 65 years should no longer qualify for the age pension. In addition, it stated that bulk billing should be abolished. If bulk billing is abolished, where does that leave pensioners in poor health who are on very low incomes? If they cannot have their visits to the doctor paid for through bulk billing, in many cases those pensioners will simply be unable to meet the daily costs of living. They will be placed in an untenable position.

In addition, this draft policy proposal advocated that the Department of Health should have its budget cut back and the pharmaceutical benefits scheme abolished. Madam Speaker, I am sure that you would have pensioners in your electorate who at the moment receive free of charge medication and drugs covered by the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. Some of those drugs are very expensive. In fact, some drugs cost up to $200 or $300 for a simple prescription because they are very expensive to manufacture and purchase. Is the Opposition seriously advocating that pensioners, some of whom receive only $100 a week, should have to pay hundreds of dollars for pharmaceuticals and medication? I consider that a large number of pensioners in my electorate would simply be unable to meet their ordinary costs of living in those circumstances. That is what the Liberal Party advocates, but it is also interesting to look at what the National Party is offering in this area.

We had a prominent member of the Queensland branch of the National Party, the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron), advocating the National Party's agenda for pensioners. In February this year, in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the honourable member for Maranoa, when asked about his policies for pensioners and social security, said:

I guess the pensioners might have to stand still-there's no reason why we should be giving pensioners or anybody else in the community any more funds.

He then went on to say:

We've got to have cuts in expenditure. And when I say cuts I mean that every Australia is going to squeal like a stuck pig.

(Quorum formed) I am pleased to see that so many Labor members are prepared to come into the chamber. I am staggered that there are so few members of the Opposition parties who even bother to enter the chamber. It is a disgrace. I was explaining to the House that the Opposition's proposals on social security are to abolish CPI indexation of pensions, to abolish pensions for women under 65 years, to abolish bulk billing and to abolish the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. How would pensioners and veterans exist if the Opposition ever came to government?

Mr Robert Brown —Heaven forbid!

Mr LEE —As the honourable member for Charlton says, heaven forbid such a circumstance ever coming about. I am quite confident that, in the current environment, whenever the next election is held, the Australian people will re-elect this Government with an increased majority. The Opposition has indicated that it will oppose our plans to impose a means test on the payment of family allowance. I was interested in a statement made by the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard), on 8 April this year.

Mr Gear —It is redundant by now.

Mr LEE —As the honourable member for Canning suggests, it is perhaps redundant or inoperative today. The Leader of the Opposition, appearing on the Vincent Smith program on 5DN, was asked what his view was on introducing an income test on family allowance. He said:

If you say to me should someone on $150,000 a year have a family allowance, obviously they don't need it, no. But if you say to me somebody on $35,000 a year gets the family allowance, I would say yes.

Mr Howard said that he believed an income test should be applied on incomes of between $35,000 and $150,000 a year.

Mr Robert Brown —He was quite specific for a change.

Mr LEE —As the honourable member for Charlton says, he was being quite specific that day. He was doing his best. It is very hard for the honourable member for Bennelong. It is very hard to get agreement on his side of the House between the wets and the dries and the oranges and the lemons. However, on that day the Leader of the Opposition said that he believed that some income test should be applied to the family allowance. This Government has had the courage to bring in an income test which will start to take effect when a family has an income of $50,000 a year. There will be an allowance of $2,500 for every child after the second child so that families with a large number of children will be adequately compensated for. Those limits will be indexed by the CPI each year to ensure that inflation does not push average and middle income earners above the new limit for the family allowance. I believe that that is a fair figure which recognises that both partners in some middle income families do need to work to provide a proper standard of living for their families. I endorse the imposition of that income test which is currently set at $50,000 a year.

In the mini-Budget the Treasurer also announced that the Government would take action to ensure that overpayments and fraud in the social security area were eliminated wherever possible. We intend to amend the Social Security Act under this legislation to allow for greater access to information to ensure that people are not double dipping. We will ensure that, under the current Minister for Social Security, there will be more co-operation with the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Education so that people are not ripping off the system. If there is to be an election in the near future and it turns out to be a double dissolution, all honourable members on this side of the House hope that one of the Bills used to justify that double dissolution will be the Australia Card legislation. The Australian people will have an opportunity to make a judgment regarding the Opposition's stand in frustrating this Government and stopping it from having the weapons which would allow it to cut down on social security fraud and to eliminate the rip-offs in the taxation system. Of course, if this Government were returned and there were no change in the balance of power in the Senate, there would be an opportunity to have an historic joint sitting at which the Australia Card legislation could become law even if the Opposition continued its policy of seeking, at every turn, to stop that legislation.

This legislation ensures also that the Department of Social Security is given every possible legislative support to recover overpayments which have been made to clients or to ex-clients. The statistics show that people who are no longer on social security benefits and who have received an overpayment are often less likely to make good the debt which they owe the Australian Government and the Department than people who continue to be clients. I think that is quite unfair. The Department is quite efficient and thorough in seeking to recover overpayments from people who continue to receive pensions, but often, under the current law of the land, it is very hard for it to recover overpayments from people who return to the work force, or who do not continue to receive social security. This legislation will rectify that problem.

Also, I commend the Minister for Social Security for increasing the number of review teams in the unemployment benefit area. They have shown already that they have had a reasonable amount of success in seeking to locate people who receive unemployment benefit when they are no longer entitled to receive it. As honourable members on this side of the House are aware, people are entitled to unemployment benefit only if they actively seek work. Along with every other honourable member on this side of the House, I have great pleasure in supporting this legislation. Under this Minister we have seen the Social Security Act extended and tightened to ensure that people who seek to rip off the social security system do it at their own peril. I support the legislation.