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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 673


Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction) (6.13 p.m.) —We have indicated that we will accept the amendments moved by Senator Bell. Our initial proposals in this bill were to recoup as much as possible of the overpayment that takes place because people do not indicate to the department that they are no longer eligible for payments because they have stopped their studies and so on, and there is no perfect system to make people tell the department exactly when they pull out of their studies and are no longer eligible. I am advised by the department that the continuing overpayment is probably around $43 million a year.


Senator Teague —It's quite substantial.


Senator SCHACHT —It is quite a substantial figure. At the moment the department estimates that it will in the end get about 75 per cent of that back, which is about $30 million. The other $10 million to $12 million is not recouped each year. That is a significant sum. We were talking about the previous amendment—that is the equivalent of the estimated cost I gave of the health care card basis for assets test for access to Austudy. So honourable senators can see that we have to be very careful which way we go on these amendments.

  We accept the scrutiny of bills committee report, and that is why we have kept with the amendment. The committee is chaired by Senator Colston, and I know that Senator Cooney and others are members of that committee. Senator Cooney is always one who will err on the side of protecting the rights of the individual, and who believes that one is innocent until proven guilty, and so on.


Senator Teague —On that matter he could well join our party—the Liberal Party.


Senator SCHACHT —Well, there have been times in the past—I can recollect a few occasions—when the Liberal Party has transgressed in government about the rights of the individual. None of us is perfect in this area. We accept those amendments, but we have to concede that they reduce our capacity to recoup the $10 million to $12 million that is not being recouped at the moment. I am told by my advisers that, with the proposals now left in the bill, we may recoup only about $2 million of the $12 million, so we have to understand that the measures restrict us in recouping the taxpayers' money.

  Members of a Senate estimates committee—another full of atmosphere—may well criticise the department for being lax about not recouping all the money. So it cuts both ways. If we want to have protection of the individual—innocent until proven guilty, and all of those things which I overwhelmingly support—the downside is that we forgo getting back taxpayers' money that can obviously be better used elsewhere. There is always an argument in this parliament, and quite rightly in a democracy, about the balance between recouping the money, keeping the money accurate, and the rights of the individual. I suppose that as long as this place meets, the argument will always be a grey one, as we judge discretely the circumstances each time. The government accepts the amendments, but I want to place on record that by accepting them we estimate that taxpayers will lose more money than we would have anticipated, but that is the recommendation of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, and we accept it.

  Amendments agreed to.

  Bill agreed to with amendments and requests.

COMMONWEALTH RECIPROCAL RECOVERY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 1994

  Bill agreed to.

  Student Assistance Amendment Bill 1994 reported with amendments and requests and Commonwealth Reciprocal Recovery Legislation Amendment Bill 1994 reported without amendment or request; report adopted.