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Wednesday, 3 October 1984
Page: 1134

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Social Security)(5.12) —I thank Senator Walters for giving me this bonus of a couple of extra minutes. I will deal with the last point that Senator Walters made in a moment. The speech that she has just made is typical of her behaviour since any suggestion of an assets test came up. But some things in her speech were even more typical. As I entered the chamber Senator Walters was saying that Senator Richardson, Senator Grimes and Senator Gietzelt-

Senator Walters —No, I did not mention you. You had not spoken. I said 'Giles'.

Senator GRIMES —She was saying that Senator Richardson, Senator Giles and Senator Gietzelt all claimed that they had something to do with the exclusion of the family home from this assets test as distinct from the first assets test that was introduced in this place. That is the sort of typical nonsense we have had. The two versions of the assets test which have been proposed by me and by this Government have excluded the family home. This Government has never intended, and never said that it would intend, to include the family home in an assets test. Senator Walters knows it and has always known it. Yet since the whole thing started she has tried to put the fear of God into pensioners in this country by saying to them that the assets test includes the family home. That is what I meant when I talked about lies.

Let me talk about her second lie. Let me talk about the elderly person in Tasmania who went to Senator Walters's office before the first assets test was introduced. She told the person that he had better go away and sell up his assets. She said: 'You had better go and do that because if you do not, Senator Grimes and that nasty government will take them away'. That was a lie. Senator Walters, by that sort of behaviour and misrepresentation-along with her close colleague and personal friend, the honourable member for Denison, Mr Hodgman- goes around repeating the lie that gold in people's teeth will be included in the assets test, and never denies it. It is that sort of behaviour which frightens pensioners. It is that sort of behaviour which I think is beneath a member of this Parliament and should not occur. It is that sort of behaviour which makes a sensible debate on this issue impossible.

Senator Walters said that I should say in this place that pensioners will be able to convert all their assets to jewellery, that all of that jewellery will be excluded and therefore they would be able to leave it to their children. Of course, they cannot do that. I have never suggested by way of interjection or in any other way that they could do that.

Senator Walters —Oh, you fraud.

Senator GRIMES —I have never said that. I find it interesting that Senator Walters is advocating that that should happen because that was one of the criticisms of the first assets test that she, Senator Messner and others complained about. Now under the present assets test she says that people ought to be able to convert all their money and assets into jewellery so they can leave it to their children. They cannot do that by using that artificial device; of course, they cannot do that. That would give them a collection of expensive jewellery. To allow people to evade an assets test, an income test or anything else like that is not fair.

I have only a few moments left in this debate, so I will say a couple of things as briefly and succinctly as I can. It is simply not fair that if we have a needs-based social security system-and everyone on both sides of the House claims that we should have a needs-based social security system-that those needs are measured only in income and that assets are excluded. We said that in 1976 and we say it now.

Senator Messner —Well, why didn't you say it in your Labor essays?

Senator GRIMES —We said it in 1976 and we say it now. I said in 1976 that if assets are excluded in the way in which they were, artificial schemes would be created. When those artificial schemes are created, large numbers of people will avoid the income test to the disadvantage of their brothers and sisters who are in receipt of small weekly superannuation payments, small fixed incomes, who get small amounts of interest from the bank or who, like the vast majority of pensioners in this country, rely on the base rate of pension. Any government, be it Labor or conservative, will be limited in the capacity in which it can increase pensions if that inequity continues to exist and large amounts of money are leeched out of the system in that way. We looked, as did others, at all sorts of methods. We speculated, like Senator Chaney, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Peacock, and others have done over the years, as to how to overcome this system. We decided, like many members of the conservative parties, that the only thing to do was to incorporate those assets in the means test- something which previous Liberal and National Party Ministers for social security matters had administered for years without any difficulty and without any hassle.

Senator Messner —That is why they got rid of it.

Senator GRIMES —They only got rid of it because of pressure from the National Party, and Senator Messner knows it. Even Senator Messner, when he was Minister for Veterans' Affairs, dearly wanted to introduce it and he knows that that is true, too. Since it was introduced there has been a whole series of misrepresentations and people, even amongst pensioner organisations, are getting fed up with those misrepresentations of the assets test. They are getting fed up with the sort of lies and deceptions which are being perpetrated by the likes of Senator Walters. I remind honourable senators of the editorial which appeared in the Australian Pensioner which stated:

Opposition politicians, certain sectors of the media and certain so called pensioners' representatives have resorted to just about everything in their campaign against the assets test-even to the to point of suggesting that a type of social security Gestapo will be created to body-search pensioners and ransack their homes to make sure they are not hiding any valuable assets.

I interpolate to say that is not so. Senator Messner knows it is not so and Senator Walters knows that it is not so. But they will still try to perpetuate those myths. The editorial continued:

If those opposed to the assets test have a legitimate case to put, then let them put it honestly and openly. Don't play on the ignorance, fear and insecurity of this most vulnerable group.

Today in the Age Claude Forell said, and put it very well:

The hysterical froth of fear and loathing whipped up against the Federal Government's assets test on pensions has been wondrous to behold. The campaign has been waged not so much by those with a genuine concern for the poor and needy but the politicians eager to garner votes and by a newspaper anxious to win readers.

It is that base motive, that cynical motive, which has driven the sorts of deceptions that we have heard in this place in the five or six matters of public importance on this subject and in the four or five matters of public importance brought up by Mr Peacock in the other place. It is with this base motive, this desire to stir up the fear and ignorance that may exist among some pensioner groups, that the Opposition is carrying on in this way. In none of the long and repeated debates in this place have we had any concrete suggestions from Senator Walters, Senator Messner, Senator Martin or Senator Sir John Carrick who have been the main bit players in this. All we have heard is: 'All you have to do is wait for the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare to come down with its report. All the answers will be there. Do not do anything until that report comes down. You will not have to do any policy development because it will all be in that report'. I have been in this place a long time and I have seen many Senate committee reports. None of them has come down with the answers of that type. We have had all the information and for many years we have had endless reports on retirement incomes, taxation and national superannuation in this country. What was needed was a government that had the political will to do something, knowing that when it did something it would be attacked in the most dishonest way that this Government has been attacked.

But despite the nonsense and the fuss that we have in this place almost every week when such an MPI is brought down, I ask Senator Messner and Senator Walters to go away and look at what the people of Australia say in the public opinion polls. They should look at what the people say about their Leader, who has made such an issue of this, who almost every week, when he is not going on about the latest little issue that he has been going on about, has been running the equivalent of an MPI on the assets test. They should look at what the people of Australia think of him, his tactics and his policies. Maybe then they will go away and think what the people of Australia want. What they want is a government that is willing to take steps to remove inequities in the system, willing to take steps to improve the system in the future.

The simple facts are these: This is a very generous assets test. Pensioners who own their own homes will not be affected until, if they are single, they have $ 70,000 worth of assets, and if they are married, $100,000 worth of assets. To each of those sums can be added $50,000 if they do not own their own homes. In those circumstances the vast majority of pensioners in this country will be excluded because that majority, if they own their own homes, have only a few bob in the bank after that. People will not be going into pensioners' homes looking at their wedding rings, their dresses or their personal effects. Senator Walters knows that. People will not be going around putting on computer lists of people' s personal effects, as Senator Boswell and Senator Messner have suggested in recent times. They know that. The pensioners of this country know it.

Quite frankly, I suggest to the Opposition that until it can come up with a viable alternative proposal and a viable alternative policy it should stop boring us every Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday that this Parliament sits by repeating this MPI with different wording. Opposition senators must do it only to hear their own voices because the words they use never change and the speeches never change. It must be just to hear their own voices that they carry on in this way.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The time allotted for this debate has expired.