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Tuesday, 29 May 1984
Page: 2032

Senator WALTERS(5.12) —Wherever I travel in this country the question being asked-I am sure it is asked not only of me-is what on earth will happen about the assets test. Pensioners are expressing tremendous concern about what the Government intends to do about the assets test. Senator Haines in her contribution to the debate was nothing but destructive. As usual, she soft pedalled on the policies of the Labor Party and gave the Liberals a real blast. She did not concentrate in her remarks on what the Government has done in the past 18 months. She referred to what the Liberal Party did way back in the Menzies era. I suggest that times have changed since the Menzies era, but perhaps the Australian Democrats do not really understand that. The Australian Democrats did not come up with ideas of their own, but they never have to. There is no likelihood of their holding government. They never have to come up with anything constructive or positive. All that Senator Haines could contribute to the debate was that since the Menzies era the Liberal Party has changed its policies in regard to pensioners. She said that since the Government had been in office for only 18 months it should be given an opportunity to change its policies and muck about as it is doing.

As I say, wherever I have travelled the concern of pensioners has been paramount. I do not understand why the Prime Minister is delaying the introduction of this scheme. He knows as well as anyone else in Australia that pensioners are always extremely concerned about their financial situation, about the financial plans they have made over a period of years and which they expect to be able to continue in their later years. The Prime Minister knows as well as I do, and as well as everyone else, that those plans should not be interfered with, that pensioners should be given the opportunity to plan. He is so insensitive that their wishes do not really seem to matter. Before the election he certainly professed to have a great concern for pensioners. All honourable senators remember very well the grand promises made by Mr Hawke that he would not implement policies to stimulate the economy which would thereby reduce the value of pensioners' cheques. We all know what happened.

We are all well aware also of the suggestion at that time by Mr Fraser that pensioners might be better off hiding their money under their beds, and the ridicule that resulted from that statement. Government senators did not apologise for that ridicule when it transpired that Mr Fraser was 100 per cent correct in saying that pensioners would be better off puting their money under their beds if the mob opposite were elected to office. That is exactly what has happened. The media, which also ridiculed that suggestion of the previous Prime Minister, has not apologised either. He certainly has been proven correct, and those pensioners who supported Mr Hawke in gaining office are well aware of that .

Let us look at the history of this matter. At present there is an income test. Upon assuming office the Government refused to pensioners over 70 years of age a paltry $52 free of an income test. It introduced an income test to apply to pensioners over 70 years, thereby taking from them $52. It would have been so simple for the Government to apply that income test to anyone turning 70 from then on. But it did not do that; it reduced their pension by $52. The Government then introduced an assets test. We are all well aware of what that contained: Pensioners could have certain assets completely free of test, but they could not have other assets. They could have two Mercedes or two Rolls Royces; they could have a house of any value; they could have antiques of any value; they could have works of art worth millions of dollars in their homes. That scheme was nothing less than iniquitous. The pensioners decided to tell the Government exactly how they felt. Senator Grimes attended the meeting at the Sydney Town Hall where they let the Government know in no uncertain terms how they felt.

Following that pensioner scheme mark 1 was abandoned and pensioner scheme mark 2 was introduced. Under the mark 2 arrangements the Government introduced a holiday package of $30,000. Under that package pensioners could have a home of any value, a car of any value, and house contents of any value, but they could not have holiday assets worth more than $30,000. Any such assets that exceeded that amount were deemed to be income producing at a rate of 10 per cent. So pensioner scheme 2 was also considered by the Prime Minister to be not politically acceptable. As I have said previously in this place, the Prime Minister said to the Press, with the television cameras whirring: 'We will do away with that. Senator Grimes has made a big mistake'. The Minister for Social Security had to take the blame for the scheme because the popular Prime Minister saw that the decision taken was not so popular.

Now we have pensioner scheme mark III, the pay as you die scheme. In spite of all Mr Hawke's grandiose promises, we are now left with this pay as you die scheme. He set up the Gruen Assets Test Review Panel to inquire into and report on this matter. Senator Grimes said that Mr Peacock and Senator Messner complained that the recommendations in the report were unfair and unjust, without having seen the report. Senator Messner and Mr Peacock were simply quoting from the report. Page 4 of that report reads:

The Panel believes that the interim nature of its work cannot be too strongly stressed.

This is only an interim suggestion, nothing more. It must not be used as a long- term solution; it is only an interim solution. The report goes on:

Whatever proposal is accepted however there will inevitably be some problems and some hardships caused in the community.

You bet there will be. The Panel at least acknowledged that the recommendations it brought forward will involve some problems and hardships for the community. When the proposal was first mooted, Senator Messner and Mr Peacock came out and said: 'We will not have a bar of that; it is not just; it is not fair, and we will have nothing to do with it'. Senator Grimes said that those sorts of statements denigrated Panel members. That is not so. All Senator Messner and Mr Peacock were doing was agreeing with the Panel when it said that these were only interim measures and that they would create problems and hardships for the community. Mr Hawke set up the Panel.

I should like to look now at the report itself, because it is important that we know exactly what we are talking about. The preferred option is option 2, the pay as you die test. In relation to that, Professor Gruen, who is Chairman of the Panel, said: 'Well, yes, you could call it, if you like, a death duty'. However, he says quite clearly, according to a transcript from PM:

It isn't in fact a disguised death duty, I'm not particularly worried if it were by the way, I think that it was a retrograde step that we did in fact remove the death duty at the Federal level.

The Professor said that it did not worry him at all that it was being described as a return to death duties. Perhaps that underlines, more than anything else, exactly what were the feelings of the Professor. There are several questions I should like to ask the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes). For example, if we are going to use the home, what is included as assets under option 2? The report says that nothing would be excluded; everything up to the total of $150,000 for a single person and $220,000 for a married couple would be included as assets. Recently a three-bedroom cottage in Barton sold for $160,000 . It is absolutely incredible! What happens to the pensioner living next door to that property? One hundred and sixty thousand dollars is well over the limit on her home. Would she have to sell up and move away? Are items of furniture, curtains, carpets and so on to be included? What about bedding? Is everything to be included? What is the situation? It has not been spelt out. Pensioners are concerned and worried. Unless this is explained to the community clearly by the Government, pensioners will be very upset with the Government and the Prime Minister. They will, with all justice, put members of the Government back where they deserve to be after the next election.