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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2876

Mr PEACOCK (Leader of the Opposition)(2.59) —This Government was elected allegedly on the basis that it would launch an attack on unemployment, but instead it has launched an attack-a vicious, arbitrary and highly discriminatory attack-on the aged, the most vulnerable section of our community. The Australian Labor Party says it wants consensus. What a sick joke that must sound now to the old people who are suffering at its hands. Labor's attack on the elderly is typical of this Government's approach. It picks on groups it thinks cannot defend themselves, on that sector of community whose members are least able to adjust their lives and to change their earning capacity in the face in a substantial decline in their income.

I have raised today the Government's proposed assets test on pensions, but that is by no means the first of the attacks on our aged. On the contrary, it follows a pattern already established with the tax on lump sum superannuation payments and the introduction of a means test for pensioners over 70 years of age. This pattern was certainly not foreshadowed during the election campaign. In fact, not one of these measures was foreshadowed. At no stage-I repeat, at no stage- did Labor warn the elderly that their price for a Labor government was a reduction in their standard of living. It did quite the reverse. It promised increases in pensions and declared in the policy speech that a Labor government would not take money out of the pensioners' cheque. Those were indeed the Labor Party's words. One could not get a clearer commitment than that. One could not get more underhand, deceitful or indeed vicious reneging on that commitment than that which we have witnessed from this Government.

Let us look at the latest of this Government's assaults on the elderly, its assets test on pensions. I remind the House that the assets test was abolished by the previous Government in 1976. The decision was taken for sound reasons. It was taken because the assets test was extremely complicated to administer. It was taken because it was extremely costly to administer. It was taken because the then Government wanted to eliminate the inequities inherent in an assets test. Those opposite know all about those inequities. They know how unfair and unjust such a measure is, but they have chosen to ignore these inequities in their callous and cynical grab for funds to pay for their ideological commitments.

Let us remember the words of the former Leader of the Opposition and now Foreign Minister (Mr Hayden). He addressed this question last year. He said that an assets test was 'another kick in the teeth for the aged and retiring citizens as well as half a million widows, invalids and supporting parents'. Then he said :

The argument about millionaires receiving pensions in a cruel and emotive device to cover up the Government's real intentions . . . of ripping the pension off ordinary people with modest savings they have worked for all their lives.

The then Leader of the Labor Party recognised the inherent inequities in an assets test, as we had when we removed it in 1976. I am sure he still does. But his concerns have been swept aside. Now Labor says that its assets test is a good test. Now Labor says that its assets test is a fair test.

Let us see how Labor's assets test shapes up against seven criteria for distinguishing allegedly good means tests from bad. I remind the House that these are not my criteria. The Opposition will repeal Labor's assets test because it is inequitable in that a person can be a millionaire and can have as many antiques and paintings and as much jewellery as he likes but if he has saved a nest egg and has only a weekender the pension will be ripped off him simply for that reason. This is the apotheosis of inequity of the spokesman for this Government in this area. If those opposite say that the assets test is fair and good because we are repealing it, let us test it against the seven criteria that have been put forward. They are not my criteria and they are not the criteria of the elderly pensioners who stand to lose so much from this Government's attack on them. These are independent criteria published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, well known to honourable members opposite.

Mr Howard —Certainly not pro-Liberal.

Mr PEACOCK —No, certainly not pro-Liberal. Let us get to the Institute's test of fairness and equity as the Government argues that this is a good assets test. Firstly, it says that an assets test should give equal treatment under equal circumstances and that that is a basic requirement for a fair approach. I have just told the House what one can have and be knocked out of a pension and what one can have and still keep the pension. Under Labor's approach people who put their savings into some types of assets will be better off than people who put their savings elsewhere. Is that fair? Is that reasonable?

The second criteria of eligibility for a good assets test, according to the Institute, would be 'well known in advance'. But by announcing its intentions in such an imprecise way the Government has already caused terrible distress and uncertainty to thousands of current and prospective pensioners. All this week we have not even had clarification of what is to be changed, whether the legislation will just sit on the table, whether it will be carried, whether it will be proclaimed or whether the exemptions will be lifted. We still do not know, and it was brought in here in August. Where is the predictability? I said earlier that those least able to change their circumstances are the elderly, and those opposite do not give a damn. They rapaciously seek more revenue for their ideological aims rather than having care and compassion for the aged. They know that they are going to be hurt. Honourable members opposite do not care. The elderly do not know the extent of that hurt or when they will be hurt. Is that fair? Is that reasonable?

I will go through the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh tests. Thirdly, according to the Institute, a good assets test would not leave an unnecessarily wide discretion to those administering it. Yet Labor's test will require that bureaucrats put values on pensioners' non-exempt assets. Pensioners now have bureaucrats nosing about in their private affairs. Is that fair? Is that reasonable?

Fourthly, the Institute says that a good assets test would minimise the potential for administrative error. Let me raise this question. How are bureacrats going to place values on non-exempt assets of pensioners? Quite clearly, there will be considerable scope for bureaucratic error which can cause untold distress. Is that fair? Is that reasonable? Of course, it is not.

Fifthly, the Institute alleges that a good assets test would ensure that small inequalities of circumstances would be matched by small inequalities of treatment. But under Labor's test fringe benefit entitlements will be cut out completely when non-exempt assets exceed a threshold level. This means that people with almost identical wealth will be treated quite unequally by Labor. Again I ask: Is that fair? Is that reasonable? The answer has to be no again. Sixthly, a good assets test would not favour those 'in the know'. Under Labor's policies those who know how to make money in housing, in jewellery and in the art markets will do much better than those who do not. Is that fair? Is that reasonable? Of course, it is not.

Seventhly, if a means test is intended to redistribute income, the Institue says-not unreasonably -that care should be taken to ensure that this actually happens. But under Labor's test someone can have a huge art collection and not lose his pension while someone with a modest holiday home will have his pension entitlement either eradicated or at the very least reduced. Where is the fairness? Where is the equality? There are seven tests of fairness by the Melbourne Institute and seven failures by this Government.

I repeat: We will repeal Labor's assets test legislation. We will not talk here about giving assistance to those most in need and then whack this sort of measure on people. To justify this test the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has talked of those with almost unlimited means automatically getting a benefit in times of stringency. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) has spoken of millionaires receiving the pension and accused them of ripping off the system. We have asked him again and again for the evidence. My colleague Senator Messner has continually sought some substantiation of these remarks. He has asked the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to name the millionaires. He has asked the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) for the reports from officials on which the decision is based. He has even gone to the lengths of seeking this information from the head of the Department of Social Security under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Ruddock —I bet they have not got it.

Mr PEACOCK —Exactly. At every turn all the efforts of Tony Messner have been stonewalled by the Government. It will not give him the information because it knows it cannot substantiate any of the wild assertions it puts forward to justify this inequitable treatment of pensioners. These assertions are not reasons. They are just an excuse for grabbing an extra dollar because Labor is a high taxation party. For Labor high taxation is the vehicle for the redistribution of wealth. For Labor, high taxation is the vehicle for expanding the role of government. For Labor, it is the vehicle for directing the lives of individuals. The Government has made the elderly-those least able to rearrange their affairs-a prime target in its rush to grab hold of people's assets. The Government does not care. It proclaims it in the name of fairness and equity. It knows what the reaction has been out there. I do not blame people for expressing their concern not only orally and in writing but also through the ballot box, as when they increased the vote for the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Donald Cameron) in the by-election last Saturday week?

Mr Anthony —How much by?

Mr PEACOCK —By 5.2 per cent. They knew what they were doing. They were registering a protest. The reaction will be greater when next we meet the Government in a ballot. Every time we meet it at a by-election we increase our vote, so let us have a few more. We are happy to meet it on the hustings at any time. People will not tolerate the double talk that the Government comes out with in justifying this inequity. They certainly will not tolerate the measure itself. The assets test on pensions comes on top of the new tax on lump sum superannuation payments. As if that were not enough, we had the Prime Minister talking yet again yesterday of investigating further the question of capital gains. Wealth taxes, capital gains taxes, gift taxes, death duties-the Government is going to get into the lot. It has already started down the line in what it has done to the elderly in the community to date.

All of the measures that I have mentioned have been floated by senior Labor spokesmen and we know that they are on line. When Labor talks of those sorts of taxes it talks of the wealthy, whom it claims must bear a fairer, as it puts it, share of the burden. What Labor is in fact proposing is taxing the modest assets and savings of ordinary Australians. It has chosen the elderly as the first group to attack. It wrongly believed that age was synonymous with weakness; it is not. The Government wrongly believed that the elderly would be too weak to resist; they are not. How wrong the Government has been proven to be; how important has been the resistance shown by the pensioners. They are leading the fight with us against Labor's mad grab for the modest savings of Australians and they have to be supported by others out in the community, not only because we must protect them against the ravages of this Government but because, if they succeed in their opposition, they will give heart to the millions of other Australians who now fear that their savings will be expropriated. The social injustice of this assets test, which we have raised today, was denounced by none other than Canon Peter Hollingsworth, the Executive Director of one of our most highly regarded social welfare organisations, the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, who said:

The assets test on pensions represents the imposition of a wealth tax on the elderly, but not on the rest of the community. The elderly should not have been singled out in this way . . . The Government's assets test on pensions attacks those least able to bear the burden.

So it is not just the Opposition which opposes this iniquitous assets test. It is not just the pensioners. It is those throughout the whole community with a genuine concern for equity and social justice.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.