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Wednesday, 21 September 1983
Page: 1062


Ms FATIN(12.05) —I welcome the opportunity to speak in this Budget debate today. I wish first to make reference to the derogatory statements of the honourable member for Curtin (Mr Rocher) about the Commonwealth employment program-the job creation scheme. He referred to the 70,000 jobs to be created as mickey mouse jobs. I suggest that the men and women who will be getting those jobs and who will be paid award wages for a full year will consider them to be very valuable jobs and a very worthwhile experience.

Just over six months ago the Australian Labor Party was given an unequivocal mandate to reorder Australia's priorities and policies. The former Government was leading this country deeper into recession and further away from the kind of democratic, fair society that we have come to value. Of course, Australia has been the victim of the world recession, and, although we retained the title the 'lucky country' well into the 1970s, we all knew that the effects of high interest rates and increasing domestic costs could not be staved off indefinitely. But the previous Government failed the people of Australia. It failed to act to cushion those most vulnerable to the blows of the economic depression. This was surely one of the chief causes of its crushing defeat in the last election. Mr Fraser obviously thought that he had lulled the whole of Australia to sleep with his catch cry of 'life wasn't meant to be easy'. Judging by the former Government's behaviour, the enormity of its mistake still has not dawned on members of the Opposition.

The empty rhetoric which has emanated from Opposition members during this Budget debate is a clear indication of the extent of the confusion in which they now find themselves. There has not been one coherent strand of argument detectable amongst all the straws which have been clutched at by the Opposition during the debate. Only one point has emerged clearly: Confronted with a Budget which takes a sizable step towards restoring equity to Australian society, honourable members opposite have been reduced to mounting a token response which has ranged from downright abuse to manifest dishonesty. For instance, take the way in which they have reacted to the Government's announcement about the reintroduction of the assets test for pensioners. The Government's intention was made quite clear by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) in his Budget Speech on 23 August . There is a growing number of people who are deliberately arranging their financial affairs so as to avoid the pension income test. In times of widespread hardship it would be indefensible for a government with any claim to responsibility to turn a blind eye to these practices. We must ensure that our resources reach the people who need them most.

It is a basic principle of any just society that welfare payments are directed towards those in need; not those who assume that they have a right to have their already extensive investments and incomes supplemented by the welfare system. As the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) has pointed out, four coalition Ministers for Social Security retained the assets test between 1961 and 1972, believing it to be a fair system. When the Liberal government removed the assets test, it must have known that it was opening up the system to exploitation by wealthy people. But it took the easy option-the path which it believed would accrue the most political advantage. The former Goverment abolished the assets test, but failed to carry out the crucial second recommendation of the Henderson Commission of Inquiry into Poverty which stated quite categorically that a capital gains tax should be introduced to discourage people from holding assets idle and waiting for capital gains to accrue. This Government promised to make Australia a fairer society. The reintroduction of the assets test for pensioners is a crucial step towards implementing that promise.

I now turn to some of the very positive moves the Government has made in the Budget to provide increased assistance to pensioners and the recipients of Commonwealth benefits. The decision to index the single over-18 unemployment benefit to the rate of inflation is one of the most significant of these moves. 'We will be generous to those who can't get a job and want to work', said Malcolm Fraser in 1975. Yet during the next seven years he and his Government watched the rate of unemployment benefit for single people over 18 fall by $13 a week in real terms. The Fraser Government's failure to index the unemployment benefit for inflation was compounded by its refusal to raise the level at which a person's additional earnings affect his or her rate of benefit. The Labor Government has acted decisively in this area by doubling the amount a person can earn before his or her benefit starts to decrease.

Several measures to be introduced by this Government in the present session will go a significant way towards removing some of the bureaucratic and administrative hassles foisted upon people by the previous Government. The decision to index-link fringe benefit limits not only is fairer but also overcomes the absurdity whereby pensioners lost their fringe benefit entitlement as a result of a small cost of living adjustment to their superannuation. I add at this point that the introduction of Medicare will go a long way towards relieving some of the financial pressures and worries faced by many Australian pensioners. I have found a huge groundswell of support for Medicare amongst people throughout the community. But it is particularly the elderly people who are expressing relief that the increasing confusion created by the previous Government is to be brought to an end. Of course what Mr Fraser and his Ministers could not cover up in the confusion was the fact that, in seven years, the cost of basic family health insurance rose by 220 per cent compared to an increase in average earnings of less than 100 per cent.

The Opposition has tried its best in this debate to cast doubts on the Government's statement of accord with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, but all it has really succeeded in doing is to highlight the central importance of having a sound prices and incomes policy. The Australian Labor Party has never pretended otherwise. The accord with the ACTU was reached as a result of months of discussion during which the overriding concern was to establish the areas in which the Government and the trade union movement could work together to get Australia out of the vicious circle which seven years of Fraserism had set in motion. The intent behind the accord is so far removed from the expressed policy and experience of the previous Government that it is hardly surprising to find members of the Opposition speechless in disbelief.

The Liberal Party of Australia has always paid lip-service to the idea of working with the trade union movement, but how did Mr Fraser carry out his 1975 pledge to 'work positively in co-operation with trade unionists'? We may very well ask. The record shows that he proceeded to pursue policies of deliberate confrontation, dealing one savage blow after another to the security of Australian workers. We have the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Act, the establishment of the Industrial Relations Bureau and the expansion of the Trade Practices Act, all of which were intended to curb the effectiveness of the trade union movement. We even saw legislation introduced to bring in industry unions and to end compulsory unionism. Mr Fraser also promised to support wage indexation. His Government then turned around and opposed the full flow-on of the consumer price index at almost every Conciliation and Arbitration Commission hearing until he formally abandoned indexation in 1981. During those five years 12 out of 15 hearings resulted in an award which did not cover the cost of inflation. No wonder the Opposition mistrusts the trade union movement. It has every reason to be wary after the injustice it has casually handed out for so many years.

I have said that some of the attitudes and poses adopted by the Opposition during the Budget debate are predictable. For instance, it is hardly surprising to find the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey) vainly attempting to divert attention away from the real significance and potential of the Government 's community employment program. However, I am frankly astonished at the manifest inconsistencies in some of the Opposition's arguments. On the one hand, it urges the need for compassion towards those in real need and talks about programs that look after 'the real needs of Australia' and, on the other hand, it opposes Budget legislation that will raise the revenue necessary to implement the reforms so desperately needed if equity is to be returned to Australian society.

Despite the fact that the Costigan Royal Commission into the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union reported that tax evasion in Australia during the last Government's period in office had become a multimillion dollar industry, the Opposition has attempted to sabotage every move this Government makes towards recouping some of the lost revenue. The number of people identified by the Commissioner of Taxation as being involved in tax avoidance schemes rose by 2,500 per cent between 1975 and 1981. It is estimated that more than $3,000m a year in tax revenue has been lost through non-declaration of income alone. Of course, the previous Government recognised the problem and even won elections by promising to clamp down on tax avoidance. Yet when this Government, the Hawke Government, acted decisively to bring certain industries into line with the legal requirements of the Australian Taxation Office by making source deductions, the Opposition was horrified and did everything it could to create confusion. That is hardly a consistent reaction from a party which, while in government, had pledged to remove loopholes which permit tax avoidance.

It seems to me that the root cause of these inconsistencies is that the Opposition really does not know what it is supposed to be arguing about. First, it attacks the Government for bringing down an expansionist Budget. Then it accuses us of not spending more to help the unemployed and the disadvantaged. On the one hand, it attacks us for sanctioning an unacceptably high deficit. It then says that we should not have increased certain areas of indirect taxation. The truth is that the Opposition has dug itself into a wholly untenable ideological position. It is only too quick to oppose any measures which might increase the well being of people who for any number of reasons require assistance from the Commonwealth welfare system. Yet it condones the accumulation of private fortunes even when these are amassed by unsavoury, if not overtly, illegal means. It uses grand-sounding phrases about enlightened self-interest and the diversity and richness of individual personalities without considering for a moment the insidious nature of the systems of economic inequality which it is promoting and the extent to which these policies are completely opposed to any real concept of individual freedom.

This Government was elected on the clear understanding that what Australians need is the opportunity to work together for the common good. We have acted decisively to restore the justice and equality which were being wilfully eroded by the previous Government parties who are still clinging to the wholly discredited doctrine of laissez-faire economics. The Government is working on the understanding that it is not too late to reverse the damage done during the Fraser years. We have a mandate from the Australian people to carry out our task and our first Budget is a clear indication that we shall not be diverted from our goal of securing a decent, secure, dignified and constructive way of life for all Australians.