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Tuesday, 29 May 1984
Page: 2037

Senator COATES(5.50) —The Senate is debating a matter of urgency from the Opposition which deals with developing a coherent social security policy. But it is really a disguised urgency motion; it is really about the assets test, as honourable senators opposite have shown. Included in the motion is a reference to one aspect of one option of a report on the assets test which has not even been released yet. So the motion itself is a farce. It is fair enough for the Opposition to try to influence the Government's position on whether to include a pensioner's home when assets are assessed. But to elevate this issue to a matter of urgency is really taking that sort of lobbying effort too far. However, I am happy to deal with the urgency motion as it has been moved.

Of course, there is much concern in the community about what the final decision will be. The concern has primarily been stirred up by the Opposition ever since the question of the assets test was first mooted. The stirring up of this uncertainty is just a callous and cynical attempt by the Opposition to gain political support. The Opposition knows that most people will not be affected; some will be but the vast majority will not be. Of course, the Opposition is trying to suggest that every pensioner is under threat; that is not so. It is natural that there is concern and that people want to know the decision. We all want to know the decision, and it will be made very soon. It is a bit much for the Opposition to complain about long delays since the Government received the report of the Gruen Assets Test Review Panel. The Gruen report was handed to the Government not much more than a week ago, as I understand it, so it is a bit much to complain about the delay since the report was received by the Government . The reference of this issue to the panel headed by Professor Gruen was supported by Senator Messner. It is a bit much for him to complain about the delay since that panel has reported. No matter what option is adopted, whether it is the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill, which is sitting in the House of Representatives, the various options recommended by the Gruen panel, or some other scheme or variation of it, very few pensioners will be affected.

Let us deal with the history of the assets test. It was announced in the Budget last year. It was part of the Government's policy of attempting to implement a coherent social security program. We have a coherent and comprehensive social security policy and it is a matter of adopting that and forming it into a comprehensive and coherent program. As the Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, said, nobody is pretending that we have yet achieved that, or are anywhere close to it.

Senator Messner —But that is not what you promised the people.

Senator COATES —Will Senator Messner please let me get on with my speech and stop interrupting?

Senator Messner —Why don't you tell us?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Messner is interjecting too much. I call Senator Coates.

Senator COATES —Senator Messner has no option but to create a lot of bluff and bluster about this whole issue. I can understand why he is doing it. But the Government is attempting to introduce a comprehensive and coherent program out of its policy. The sooner we can achieve that, the better. The Senate will be satisfied on all its doubts within a few days.

The Liberal and National parties, whether in opposition or in government, have never had anything like a coherent policy, let alone a coherent program. The only coherent aspect of their policy was to reduce spending on pensioners, to reduce outlays as much as possible in the social security area and to cut back. That was the only coherent thing they ever did. They certainly had no policy of care for those in need. The details of the Government's proposed assets test were adopted about last November or December, after much community consultation. At the time of the Budget it was announced that there would be community consultation about the details. After that had happened, there was adoption of a proposal, which was converted into a Bill and introduced into the House of Representatives. It included the lifestyle package that everybody knows about, which was in response to community pressure. It arose out of community consultation. Then we had the delay caused to the legislation by the threat of the Opposition and the Australian Democrats; so it was deferred until after Christmas. That time allowed for further community consultation and there was then pressure not to adopt that particular package because, as was acknowledged all along, there were inequities in it.

This issue was then referred to the Gruen panel which reference, as I said a while ago, was supported by the Opposition. Professor Gruen and his panel have reported very recently. That report is to be tabled this week. I have not seen the report. I understand that some of the reports in the newspapers are similar to parts of what might be in the report. We have had a version tabled by the Opposition which may or may not be a version of that report. I have not seen the report, but I look forward to seeing it. I will then make my decision about which of those options I support, whether it is the existing Bill or some modification of it.

The reason we are introducing an assets test is to reintroduce more equity into the whole social security system. As I have said in previous debates on this issue, the assets test should not have been abolished in 1976. We know that the previous Government, in the years since 1976, came to regret very much that decision. Following the abolition of the assets test, some people were much better off and were able to convert income to property and distort the whole intention of the income test. It produced so many inequities that something had to be done. This Government has had the courage to bite the bullet and say that it will have an assets test that is fair and reasonable. I strongly support that . It is the only way to administer fairly a social security system.

I am not going to argue here about which option is the best one. There are pros and cons in including a person's house in such an assets test. I think every fair-minded person would agree that there are some arguments in favour of this and some arguments against it. Also, it is a matter of judgment where the threshold for assets is drawn. Wherever the threshold is, some people will be just above it and some people just below. But, of course, the phasing in of those thresholds means that people will be dealt with fairly. All the tests referred to are very generous.

Of course, as Senator Scott said, people have the right to accumulate assets over the years and use them in their retirement. But there is no absolute right, on top of that, to a full pension. That is what the Opposition is now suggesting , that everyone should have a pension and that we should move away from pensions on the basis of need. It is essential that we have an assessment of assets as well as of income to enable a proper redistribution, to enable us to get pensions closer to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings, which is our policy, and to give social security assistance where the need is greatest, such as to assist families. I suggest to members of the Opposition that they have elevated their lobbying exercise far too much in making this a matter of urgency. It is not such a matter. The suggestion in their motion is not even true; so I urge the Senate to reject the motion, and reject it clearly.