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Wednesday, 3 October 1984
Page: 1128

Senator MARTIN(4.32) —Senator Richardson, when opening his speech, referred to the proud history of the Australian Labor Party on the subject of welfare. I think that the behaviour of this Government in its attitude towards the elderly must be the sorriest chapter in that history. Nothing is more important to a society than how it treats its aged and nothing is more revealing of the socialist philosophy than its policies towards the retired. Today we are debating a matter of public importance which refers to this Government's assaults on the aged.

I, as have many other members of parliament in the last few months, have been approached by many elderly people distressed about the policies of this Government towards them. How have the elderly been treated by the Labor Party? It was Senator Giles, a Labor senator from Western Australia, who, on speaking earlier this afternoon, said that people have been seriously and deliberately misled. As I recall, Senator Richardson used that as part of his theme. I ask the Labor senators who are so willing to support publicly the Government's policy on the aged to look back at a few other statements that have been made by their Ministers. I ask them to look at the assault made by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) on the so-called millionaire veterans a few months ago. I ask them to look at the assault that the Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, has made on the elderly generally in orchestrating a campaign that this country cannot afford the future burden of the elderly. Those two Ministers are grossly guilty of deliberately, seriously misleading the Australian public as, for some time, have a number of newspapers.

Senator Richardson, towards the end of his speech, referred to the statements made by the Confederation of Australian Industry in April this year and those made by Sir William McMahon. I have no doubt that Senator Richardson could have trotted out a litany of references along the lines that he mentioned were made in April of this year. He will find that they are getting a little thinner on the ground now as people know what this assets test involves and as people understand how they, their elderly relatives and others they know are actually affected by this test. People are discovering that this is not at all an issue of equity-that is the latest buzz word in this debate apparently-but a question of the inevitability of inequity in an assets test.

Senator Giles accused the Liberal-National Party governments of doing nothing, of not being prepared to look at the issue. I remind Senator Giles, who was a senator at the time and who should remember it, that there was a time when the Fraser Government looked at an assets test for the elderly. While the Fraser Government was looking at it, Senator Giles and all the other Labor senators beat drums loudly-we had not even announced at that stage that we were going to have one-terrifying people about how they would be affected. The Fraser Government looked at an assets test. It took all the advice-I daresay it was the same advice as was given to the Hawke Government-and rejected the assets test. We looked at the implications of an assets test and realised that far from being a matter of equity and welfare it led inevitably to great inequities and the social cost, not to mention the financial costs, that we all now face, was not worth it. In fact, those who had been claiming that such a test was necessary for various reasons were in error.

I recommend to people that they cast their minds back to the statements made by Senator Gietzelt and Senator Grimes. The line that has been peddled so assiduously by Senator Grimes, who will speak later in this debate-he has not been present for any of this; probably he is listening to some of it in his office, but nevertheless he is not here to hear all of it-is that the country cannot afford the alleged burden of welfare and particularly the supposed future burden of the elderly. At the beginning of my speech I said that nothing is more important as a measurement of a society's worth than its attitude towards the elderly. For months now the word that repeatedly has come out of Labor mouths and has been printed in Labor Press statements on the subject of the elderly has been 'burden'. There is an element of burden in the elderly just as there is an element of burden in babies. They do require assistance. They are not as capable as those in the prime of their life of ordering their affairs. There is that element, but the government or the country that is not prepared to face that burden is a government or a country which has no basic human decency. Part of the effect of this campaign on the alleged future burden has been to intimidate and isolate the elderly. Since this whole sorry business arose, I have encountered many elderly people, who are not frail aged people but who are vulnerable as most elderly people are, who have been made to feel that they are somehow unworthy of the society in which they live, that they have been cheating it; they have been defrauding it. That is how they have been made to feel. It has been a clever campaign in that sense. Every time the Minister says 'Oh, but it is only a small percentage' those people feel more isolated and more vulnerable, because most of them do not know to which percentage they belong-the small percentage or the large percentage. Even worse, many of those who had assumed, because their assets and incomes are so modest, that they were part of that larger percentage that would be untouched have found that by the very nature of this test they are the ones who are the special target of this massively expensive bureaucratic exercise.

I give Senator Giles credit for the fact that in her speech she gave some facts about the demography of this country. What she said utterly accorded with what Senator Messner, the shadow Minister for Social Security, and other Opposition members have been saying all along. She said that we do not have a great deal to fear as a community from the aging of the population. Of course, Senator Messner was not on his own in promoting that concept in recent months. He was amply supported by the Gruen Panel of Review of Proposed Income and Assets Test. The Gruen Panel found that we would not have a future burden of the dimensions which have been parroted for months by the Minister for Social Security and other members of the Hawke Government.

I recommend to Labor senators that they read Senator Giles's speech and go to the references she gave. I also recommend that they read the Gruen report. It will not be easily available to them, but I also recommend the information given to the Government by the Department of Social Security. It has been given to the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare. It has been given limited reporting in the newspapers and the Department's findings coincide with those of the Gruen Panel. Labor senators and members of the Hawke Government will find that the expert advice available to the Government when it took its decision was that an assets test was not necessary. It is not even a question of a minor burden, but it has been easy to fool a few people.

As I have said, the term 'equity' is a buzz word these days. Senator Giles used it quite a few times. I waited throughout her speech to take note of her explanation of the equity of the assets test, but I did not get one. There has been some reference to an article in the Melbourne Age of today, written by Claude Forell. I will read a small part of it. He supports the Government's line and criticises the Opposition. He says:

The reasons for adding an assets test to the income test are twofold. One is that the proportion of people in the community paying taxes most of their lives is diminishing--

This has already been refuted by Senator Giles--

while the proportion dependent on welfare has increased dramatically and will continue to rise.

That is fudging. There is a higher proportion of people dependent on welfare in Australia today compared with some few years ago and there is a higher proportion of age pensioners in the population than there was some few years ago . But Senator Messner has stated over and over again in the Senate and in his Press releases, which Mr Forell presumably receives even though he apparently does not read them, that the highest proportion of people dependent on welfare are those on unemployment benefit. We admit that the welfare vote has increased, but Labor people trot out this increase and say: 'Ah, we cannot afford the elderly. We have got to put them through this assets test. We have got to get personal information from them and put it on a computer'. There are no assurances as to what will happen there. Forell goes on:

There is a simple and equitable alternative to the assets test, and that is to let the elderly enjoy their assets without worries, so long as they live and then impose Federal death and gift duties on their heirs . . . I have no doubt that sooner or later a Federal Government will take it up, as most other advanced nations have done, as a matter of fiscal necessity and social equity.

That is the first explanation of what equity is and that notion of equity is very much the notion of socialist equity. Socialism is hostile to private property and private investment, conditions essential in a community for individuals to have the discretion to make decisions that affect their lives. The assets test has a very direct effect on the economic behaviour of those who are 50-plus, and the superannuation tax has an effect on the economic behaviour of us all.

That notion of social equity is very much revealed in this test, and the subject of death duties arises. When Mr Forell says that the simple and equitable alternative to the assets test is to let the elderly enjoy their assets, that is the essence of what the Government is doing. It is saying: 'If your assets are such that your pension would be so reduced that you could not be expected to live on it or you would lose it, we will give you a loan and we will let it accrue'. I wonder what would happen to someone, say, in his late 60s who takes on that loan, with no knowledge of his life expectancy, with that loan and all that goes with loans compounding year by year and with the worry as to whether he will run out of time. In any event, apart from that worry, that loan is a death duty because the Government will claim its interest in that person's assets when he dies.

We already have gift duties and the only people in this country who pay it are age pensioners. Part of this assets test includes a tax on gifts made by those receiving the age pension. The tax applies annually on gifts in excess of $2,000 per person so pensioners cannot give their assets away without being penalised by the Government. Mr Acting Deputy President, you and I can give away our assets. We can make gifts to certain close family members with no penalty, but age pensioners will now be penalised. I would love to hear the equity of that situation explained.

I utterly reject the argument put by Senator Richardson about the proud history of the Labor Party. In the end that claim and the performance of the Hawke Government are totally hollow. Today we are talking about the elderly. In the next few days we will be talking about families. Some time ago Mr Forell wrote an article that I well remember. He pointed out that the poorest people in our community are those on welfare and with dependent children. Yet this Government has given no attention to those people. There has been no increase in family allowances or in family support.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Collard) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.