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Monday, 10 September 1984
Page: 751


Senator GRIMES (Minister for Social Security)(10.16) —I shall respond briefly to two honourable senators who have just spoken. Senator Teague spoke with some emotion and some histrionics in this place. I think that all honourable senators should read Hansard to see exactly what Senator Teague said. What he said was: 'We do not want the assets test in this form'. He is the first honourable senator on the other side of the chamber who has given some inkling that there may be an assets test in some form from a future Liberal-National Party government. He went on with the usual stuff about those who have worked hard, who suffered during the Depression and who have suffered difficulties throughout their lives.

Senator Teague may be surprised to learn this, but I am also concerned about those who have worked hard and who suffered deprivation during the Depression and I am concerned about people who suffered deprivation because of illness, long periods of unemployment, invalidity or whatever but who managed to eke out their lives, bring up their children and make this country what it is-all those expressions which Senator Teague used-and who have retired and are reliant on the age pension. Perhaps they have their own home, perhaps not. The capacity of future governments, be they Labor or Liberal, to give them an adequate level of pension will be diminished if we have an inequitable system that allows those who are more fortunate to arrange the assets that they have been fortunate enough to accumulate so that they will still receive the full pension and full fringe benefits. Senator Teague ended up advocating a means test free pension in this country, a means test free pension which would be taxed as pensions are now taxed. The net cost of that would be $1,200m. The end result would be the situation that exists in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a base rate pension which is means test free and which is inadequate. Inevitably, on top of that there have to be supplementary pensions to assist those who cannot live on that base rate pension and who have a means test applied to them which is far more severe, demeaning and intrusive then anything that is suggested by this Government.

Senator Messner, in his contribution, stated the Opposition's objections, but the best argument he could use was the old argument of fear of what will happen in the future. We heard about this being the foot in the door and so on. We heard no argument on principle from him. But Senator Messner did announce that the Opposition, if it came to government, would reverse this Government's stand on the over-70s pension, at a cost of $270m per annum. He said that a Liberal- National Party government would reverse the assets test on the pension, at a cost of $50m in a full year, and that it would reverse the income tax on lump sum superannuation, at a cost of $300m a year. That is $620m alone. If one adds that to all the things that his leader has said a Liberal-National Party government will do, such as scrubbing the wine tax and all those other taxes, where will we be? What does it all add up to? Someone in the media made a calculation the other day that the minimum estimate is $2,000m and the maximum $ 6,000m. The Opposition will cut taxes and all of the revenue measures, increase concessions to industry and at the same time cut the deficit. That sort of nonsense is not believed by the community. The polls demonstrate it is not believed by the community. It is the economics of witchcraft and not many people in the community believe it any more.

Senator Messner said that we should solve all these problems by giving everyone the pensioner fringe benefits card. That would solve the whole problem.


Senator Messner —I did not say that.


Senator GRIMES —The honourable senator has said many times that it would largely solve the problem.


Senator Messner —I said you have not considered that.


Senator GRIMES —Do not worry, we have considered it. We are still considering it . There are a few problems, such as the little problem of the State governments which need to be consulted and which, I assure the honourable senator, would scream blue murder if we add on to them the extra burden of those fringe benefit cards.

The key falsehood and hypocrisy in Senator Messner's argument is that he has been in this place for a long time. The present Opposition was in government from 1975 to 1983 and it was in government before that for 23 years. I cannot remember Senator Messner ever raising a peep about giving everyone the fringe benefits card. In all those years, when Senator Chaney and others were saying: ' We have a difficulty here because people are able to manipulate their assets and get the full fringe benefits when they should not and therefore other people are not getting sufficient pensions', we never heard any of these arguments from anyone who is now in the Opposition, and then in government. We certainly did not hear them from Senator Messner. I am glad that what he is saying now indicates that at least he is thinking about the problem. I wish he would take a leaf out of Mr Elliott's book, face the problem and recognise that sometimes governments have to do unpalatable things, as this Government has done and will continue to do.

Finally, Senator Messner told us that Mr Alexander Downer has had a sudden conversion since 9 June 1984. I suppose that sudden conversion has something to do with the fact that he has been preselected as a Liberal candidate. If Mr Downer said things that he did not believe at the time, I am sorry for him. But Mr Downer was reported accurately. He actually put out the 'Press statement' from which I quoted. Mr Downer may not have believed it, but he gave every indication on the television interviews that I saw that he did believe it very firmly. If he did not believe it, he will certainly be a formidable opponent in the other place because he must be one of the best actors I have ever seen on television in this country. But Mr Downer, like the rest of us, will be reported on what he says, not what he meant to say. I am sure Mr Downer will have his statement quoted back to him in the future. I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the debate.