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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3113

Senator MESSNER(11.12) —The Social Security and Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill comes as a series of amendments of a relatively minor kind to the social security and repatriation legislation. It touches all of those Bills which are administered by the Department of Social Security and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The points I wish to make are fairly brief, so I will not delay the Senate for a great length of time. The Opposition will move an amendment to the motion for the second reading, which amendment I shall read out in a few moments. I shall concentrate on that matter in the course of my remarks.

Before coming to that, I wish to refer to two other matters which are the subject of the legislation, one of which we will oppose in the Committee stage. The item which we will oppose is the amendment set out in clause 41 of the Bill, which seeks to change the requirement in respect of the postponement of the payment of unemployment benefit for a period of six to 12 weeks in certain circumstances. The Government is seeking by this legislation to place discretion in the hands of the Director-General to mitigate that postponement, that waiting period, for the unemployment benefit with the consequence that the statutory limit of six to 12 weeks will not be required. Of course, under the present legislation the Director-General has some discretion in granting dispensation in certain circumstances. We see that as an unsatisfactory arrangement whereby power is transferred directly to the Director-General to assess individual cases and to allow benefits to be paid in any circumstances, which are not subject to any statutory guidelines. We believe that to be a wrong direction. As a consequence the Opposition will oppose that clause of the Bill during the Committee stage.

The second matter in the legislation to which I refer is of a more general kind . I refer to the matter of respite care, which is an initiative of this Government in its aged people care program. In short, a new benefit will be paid to nursing homes and eligible hostels that are providing respite care and there will be a subsidy of some $10 a week for a period of not more than 14 days in each 28-day period. If that period is longer than 14 days a $50 a week subsidy will be paid. We welcome this initiative as being a step towards the introduction of a very necessary development in the care of the aged; that is, the provision of some kind of assistance to nursing homes to take the loads off those families who find themselves in difficult situations with aging parents or relatives.

Obviously respite is an important consideration and has the connotation of eventually saving the Commonwealth money by virtue of giving some short term assistance to families in these situations. The Opposition does, however, have one concern. I wonder whether the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) might care to explain to us why the Government has chosen to offer a $ 10 a week subsidy for a relatively short period of respite whereas a rather larger amount of money is to be made available by way of subsidy where that period goes beyond 14 days. It seems to me that with the rather large disparity between $10 and $50 in these two cases, there is a maximum incentive to ensure that people are seeking respite care beyond the 14-day limit. I acknowledge the humanitarian aspect. Indeed, the people who are most likely to be in need of respite may be the ones who need the longer term arrangement. Nevertheless, I would like to hear from the Government why it has chosen a figure which is so considerably different from the shorter term arrangement.

The third point I wish to make concerns the Opposition's amendment to the second reading motion which reads as follows:

At end of motion, add 'but the Senate expresses its concern at the plight of pensioners and beneficiaries whose incomes will be reduced as a consequence of the artificial reduction in the consumer price index caused by the introduction of Medicare'.

All honourable senators are aware of the recent crowing by the Government about its so-called policy to control inflation. This has largely stemmed from the fortuitous arrangements that have been made in respect of the cost of health care having been excised from the consumer price index in recent times. This has been replaced by a one per cent levy on incomes for the payment towards the cost of Medicare. That has had the effect of reducing the CPI very significantly. The Government has acknowledged that the last quarter's figures were less than one per cent. This means that pensioners who may not have the same concerns about health costs-to a large extent they would more particularly be concerned about the cost of food, clothing or other daily necessities rather than medical and insurance costs-may find that costs are rising around them when they go the supermarket or when they go to buy some clothes at a rate far beyond the one per cent inflation rate or less which this Government claims is applying to the community. For that reason we sought to raise the matter with the Government. We seek an assurance from the Government that it will undertake a program to compensate pensioners for that potential loss. I will, therefore, be moving at the second reading stage the amendment which I read out earlier which seeks to draw attention to that matter. I hope that it will have the support of the Australian Democrats in order to--

Senator Haines —Yes, and that was my speech.

Senator MESSNER —I thank the honourable senator very much. I hope that the Government will take some action in this regard during its Budget deliberations. In summary, the Opposition does not oppose the Bill. It seeks to amend the motion 'that the Bill be now read a second time' in the manner I have foreshadowed. I indicate to the Government that the Opposition will be opposing clause 41 of the Bill at the Committee stage. I move:

At end of motion, add 'but the Senate expresses its concern at the plight of pensioners and beneficiaries whose incomes will be reduced as a consequence of the artificial reduction in the Consumer Price Index caused by the introduction of Medicare'.