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Wednesday, 21 September 1983
Page: 1102


Ms MAYER(5.10) —It is disappointing that the Opposition response to the Budget, unlike that of the business community, major industries and the large number of individual organisations and people which will benefit from it, has been carping criticism instead of what I had hoped would be a constructive debate. I think the contribution of the previous speaker, the honourable member for Braddon (Mr Groom), is fairly typical of that kind of carping criticism and distortion of the reality. If we are going to talk about integrity let us talk about the integrity of the previous Government, which led the nation to believe that it was able to fund its propositions. We discovered when we came to office that far from doing that, it had lumbered us with a deficit of $9.5 billion.

One provision about which there has been a good deal of discussion, not to mention some fairly heavy emoting from the Opposition benches, is the assets test for pension recipients. The decision to inquire into the assets of pensioners, those who receive social security pensions, the supporting parents' benefit and the repatriation service benefits corrects an anomaly which was brought into being when the assets test was abolished by a previous government, but the income test was not. The provision of pensions and benefits to those who need them, on the basis of that need, is not an innovation in the social security policy of this country. Invalid pensions, widows' pensions, unemployment benefit and age pensions are payable depending on the income of the people concerned. The principle of need is an established one for the payment of benefits from the public purse. In fact, the provision for those in need of a basic level of income support below which no one can involuntarily fall is a prime principle of income maintenance programs provided by the Department of Social Security. In practice, the application of this principle means that programs inaugurated at some time will be continued until a contrary set of circumstances becomes too strong to be ignored.

That contrary set of circumstances has arisen. The loss of income and increase in expenditure resulting from the high level of unemployment, the need to provide a basic level of income for those who have nothing and the need to make provision for those parents and children who were not previously provided for has necessitated a return to the principle applying before November 1976. The abolition of the assets test for a range of pensioners and beneficiaries has not proven to be a sustainable policy. The Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) in a statement to the Parliament on 23 August said:

The existing arrangements are intended to concentrate assistance on those more in need, but this has not been achieved. A particular problem is the prevalence of contrived arrangements designed to exploit the pension income test by people who in fact are well able to support themselves. There has been increasing circumvention of the test by such mechanisms as converting income to capital gains. The growth in these income test avoidance schemes in recent years has been such that they now jeopardise the Government's ability to direct scarce funds to the pressing welfare needs of the disadvantaged in our society.

If those people's incomes are threatened, the Government certainly has to act. The Minister went on to state:

In designing the new assets test, particular attention will be given to protecting the position of the great majority of pensioners who have only small assets, and those who are not attempting to circumvent existing rules.

Since 23 August the Minister and members of the Government have been consulting with pensioner groups and individuals about the assets test and all its implications. Few government budgetary proposals have been involved in such an extensive, detailed, and lengthy consultation process before the legislation is drawn up. The concerns of pensioners have been thoroughly canvassed and such things as the ownership of modest holiday houses, the position of people in nursing homes and the millionaire pensioner have been considered. It is fairly clear that the mansion owner with two Rolls-Royces needs a sufficient income to pay rates, maintenance and petrol bills and, therefore, would already be income tested out of the pension, but those other areas are a matter for concern and consideration. The lengthy consultation process has achieved a level of understanding and acceptance, at least in those electorates and areas where the members have taken the time and trouble to listen to and explain to their constituents rather than score cheap political points at the cost of their aged constituents' peace of mind.

For example, my predecessor in this seat, although no longer a member, rushed into print saying that 19,000 pensioners in Chisholm would be adversely affected by the assets test. In fact, there are less than 15,000 pensioners of all types in my electorate and of those who have assets over and above the exempt levels, about 1,000 may possibly have some part of their pension reduced. However, 19, 000 people got a nasty shock. In contrast to that, several thousand older people whose income is derived from modest superannuation payments-the forgotten people of the previous Government-will benefit greatly from the introduction of Medicare. Those people will find their health insurance bills halved, even if they choose to take out private fund insurance for private hospital treatment. If they accept the cover provided by Medicare a net saving of between $10 and $ 15 a week will be possible for a great many of them. Medicare was the single most important policy to the people in my electorate and the implementation of provision for that policy makes this Budget a landmark budget, defining in one Act, the difference between the past and the present. No Australian, from 1 February 1984 will have to fear the financial burden of ill health.

I would like to mention, briefly other examples from the Budget which illustrate the Government's genuine understanding of the principle of need. The indexation of the single unemployed benefit recognises that single people need to eat and pay bills. Those single unemployed people with dependent children will receive the mother's guardians allowance of $8 a week from which they were previously, most unfairly, excluded. The spouse carer's pension removes a discrimination against men caring for their invalid wives and will enable several thousand men to cope better with a difficult situation. These changes demonstrate quite clearly the move towards equity and fairness which is a mark of this Government. The Budget provisions which have special importance for women in the Australian community include improved resources for the Office of the Status of Women, now in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, increased allocation of funds for women's organisations and an allocation of funds that is a 64 per cent increase on last year for a program of consultation, research and information on the status of women. It is not only through the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sex Discrimination Bill that this Government has demonstrated its commitment to the improvement of the status of women.

Assistance to families with children has been increased in 1983-84 by $77m. As it is women who still bear the major burden of family care, that assistance will ease that burden for women. The 90 per cent of sole parents who are women will benefit from the extension of entitlement to the mothers' guardians allowance. Migrant women will benefit from the $500,000 provision for child care in association with the migrant education program. That is a recognition that it is not easy to learn a new language and look after your children at the same time. A national women's emergency services program has been allocated $4m, a recognition of the appalling position in which women find themselves when they experience brutality, both physical and mental, from their partners. These are the women and children who are conveniently forgotten by people who extol family life and worry about its possible destruction by the elimination of discrimination against women. It is the codification in our society of discrimination against women which makes women's refuges necessary. This demands government action not only to provide refuges but also to show Australian society that the very elements in our society which make them necessary are no longer acceptable.

A further example of our commitment to the improvement of the situation of women is the provision that women must have equal access to jobs provided under the community employment program. It is very easy for the Opposition to categorise this program as a mickey mouse program, but the 85 per cent of discouraged workers who are women will not agree. They have simply wanted a chance and this Government is making that available. The $958m available in this Budget for employment and training is a solid demonstration of concern about unemployment and that concern is equally shared between men and women as will be the jobs and the training opportunities. I think it should put to rest some of the nonsense that has been talked recently about the Opposition worrying more about unemployment than the Government.

This Budget underpins and furthers the work of this Government arising from its clearly enunciated principles. It addresses the principle of need, it adjusts expenditure in social security to those who are in need, it redresses inequities and it has shaken out some severe anomalies in that area. It recognises the absolute necessity of health care delivered on a fair basis which will help our threatened public health service to re-establish itself on a secure, predictable basis. It provides for job creation to give our long term unemployed a chance to feel human again. The housing initiatives will provide thousands of long term permanent jobs as housing commencements improve. The evidence of that in Victoria is plain where increased funding for public housing has had an impact on the unemployment figures in that State.

This Budget allocates $4,210.5m to education; equivalent to 7.4 per cent of the 1983-84 Budget outlays. The principles upon which this expenditure, the third largest in total, is made are of enormous importance, especially in terms of public accountability. Those principles are clearly enunciated in the document entitled 'Participation and Equity-Funding Guidelines to the Commonwealth Education Commissions for 1984'. They are that the allocation of resources is to be determined by, firstly, giving greater weight to the principle of need. I do not need to point out the consistency of that principle with the same overriding principle in social security. The second principle involves directing a greater proportion of Commonwealth funding to considered policies aimed at demonstrable outcomes. If one suggests what the outcome will be one can certainly test the policy by seeing whether that outcome ensues. The third principle is to provide a firm basis for proper educational planning through triennial funding in some areas, forward commitment in others and the re-introduction of retrospective cost supplementation. These are the three basic principles upon which an education system can operate.

This, too, is a forward looking policy which clearly shows the understanding that this Government has of the necessity to place education on a sound footing which recognises the lifetime importance of education. The allocation of resources based on principles has ensured that both government and non- government schools continue to be supported. Forty-one of the 2,200 non- government schools which can well manage it have lost some 25 per cent of their per capita grants in order to provide an upgrading of resources in more needy schools. That is equity and that is sharing. All the heat and light which has attended that re-allocation of funds within the non-government schools has obscured the Government's commitment of funds to the education whole. That commitment has seen funding for the immediate priority programs of participation and equity, computer education, and education for girls to overcome built-in discrimination. The fact that this exists is highlighted in an article in the Canberra Times this morning. It states that the Australian scholastic aptitude test will be looked at again because its scoring suggests that it is biased against girls. If that is a value free test then we do not have a very sound notion of what is value free and it needs to be considered. This Government's allocation of quantities of money to education, the production of the document ' Participation and Equity' which shows what the principles of the allocation of resources are, what the objectives of the Government are and how those objectives will be implemented-the first time for several years we have had a document about education which says why we are doing something and where we expect to be going-indicate how responsible this Government is about its allocation of the enormous resources which go to education.

As the weeks have passed since the Budget was brought down and its impact has been more clearly realised, one thing has become abundantly clear. This is a Budget with a long view. It is not a Budget whose chief purpose is immediate political gain but a Budget which carries through from the National Economic Summit Conference, which implements major election commitments and which lays the foundation for recovery and contains a cautiously optimistic view of the future. The Budget recognises the difficulties ahead and the enormous problem of unemployment which is such a threat to the social order and health of our nation . While understanding those difficulties, the Budget initiatives in education, social security and health and its support of initiatives for women are forward looking and socially responsible. It gives me considerable pleasure to support this Bill.