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Election '96: ACOSS welcomes the Coalition policies overall but calls for existing family support packages to be built on and raises concerns that other groups may lose benefits to provide for these funding measures

ELLEN FANNING: Australia's peak welfare lobby has welcomed the overall Coalition package on families released by John Howard yesterday, but the President of the Australian Council of Social Service, Robert Fitzgerald, says it's poorly targeted.

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, this package actually does deliver real benefits to low-income families, particularly sole parents. A sole parent with one child under five years of age could get as much as $700 a year. So they're a real winner in this. Also I think, in some senses, the real winners are quite high income earners. Surprisingly, this package is poorly targeted in that families up to about even $80,000 income are capable of obtaining some benefits under this package. So in a sense, low-income people do in fact benefit but there are also people on very high incomes that also benefit under this package.

ELLEN FANNING: So overall, what's your assessment of it?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, overall, we've welcomed the package in that it's a significant shift in Coalition policy. It actually does deliver real benefits to low-income families, particularly sole parents with children under the age of five. But we have been critical of the targeting of it. Certainly, it's a much more complex package than could have been achieved, say, just building on the family payment structures, but it has some strange anomalies in it.

ELLEN FANNING: Let's look at some of those that have been suggested over the last 24 hours. It's been suggested it is skewed in favour of families in which one partner stays at home to care for children. Is it skewed in that way?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, the Coalition would argue that the whole intent of this package is to give a special bonus to those where one party chooses to stay at home, but that point ....

ELLEN FANNING: Is there anything wrong with that?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, there is nothing wrong with that except that that's not the nature of work today. More and more families are in a situation where one person is only able to get very low income work or, alternatively, part-time work, and the second spouse or partner is required to go out and find additional work. Under this arrangement, if that second partner actually goes out and finds a part-time job or casual work, then, in fact, they'd miss out. So we think that that part of the package needs considerable rework by the Coalition: one to achieve its own objectives and, secondly, to be fair in light of the changing work patterns, particularly low-income families.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, John Howard yesterday didn't talk about an asset test for these family payments and there is a very generous income test, as you've mentioned. Will it really make any difference to a couple earning $70,000 a year if a Howard government sends them a cheque for just under $4 a week?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: No, but then I suppose that raises the question: Why send it? In some senses ....

ELLEN FANNING: Well, what's the answer?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, one of the problems we've got in election campaigns is that targeting goes out the window. One of the great concerns we have with this is not that it's a good package in terms of delivering to low-income families because it will, and it certainly will benefit sole parents and so on. But we have to say that there is really no value in providing benefits to families on very high incomes, not only because the payment is actually small, but because it actually takes money away from other areas. And the thing that we have to get from the Coalition is an iron-clad guarantee that this family package builds on all existing family income support payments - that is, family payments, maternity allowance and childcare, but also that it won't be funded by taking money away from other areas, particularly other areas affecting low-income and disadvantaged groups, and in light of their cost savings announced last Friday, then that's a major concern.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, what is the guarantee that that will happen?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, that's the guarantee we need to obtain. We're talking about a package which is worth more than one billion dollars and it must not come at the expense of other groups. Already we've seen, and we've been quite critical of the Coalition's saving strategies, particularly relating to migrants and the activity testing for unemployed people.

ELLEN FANNING: So you want a guarantee from John Howard to that effect?

ROBERT FITZGERALD: Well, we want a guarantee that this builds on all existing family support payments and also that it will not be funded by cuts in other areas, and that's an exceptionally important guarantee.

ELLEN FANNING: Robert Fitzgerald, the President of ACOSS.