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Thursday, 23 August 1984
Page: 305

Senator MARTIN(9.15) —The Senate is debating a motion by Senator Messner which condemns the Hawke Australian Labor Party Government for its failure to address the needs of the aged. There have been several excellent speeches this evening. I shall speak but briefly and confine myself to one aspect of the motion, not because I do not agree with the other parts, but because I do not wish at this stage to reiterate arguments that have been put so cogently by Senator Messner, Senator Walters and Senator Sir John Carrick. A few minutes ago Senator Carrick referred to the ugliness of the policies that have been followed by this Government, particularly in relation to pensions. The measures of this Government, particularly in relation to the assets test, are the most disgraceful attack on the aged people of this country that I have ever known.

The Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, puts out soothing Press releases which unfortunately newspaper editors are all too willing to gobble up and reprint without looking at them critically. The Minister writes letters to the editors of newspapers and criticisms appear either in the 'letters to the editor' parts or in reporting in other parts of the newspapers. He writes these soothing letters, soothing on the one hand and abusive on the other. He talks about pensioners who are receiving money to which they are not entitled. According to the Minister we cannot afford these people who are taking money out of the public purse when they do not need it. Then, on the other hand he says: ' Ah, but it will affect very few. So stop worrying, all you aged pensioners. There are only a few whose pensions will be affected'. It may well be that there are only a few whose pensions will be affected but the measures of this Government affect every pensioner. It may or may not affect their pensions but it affects every pensioner.

I wonder how many frail aged the Minister has had contact with lately? I wonder how many of the elderly, the really dependent who are non compos mentis and who need support and care, the Minister has been soothing? I am sure he is very soothing in his manner. He has a good doctor's manner. he has an excellent doctor's manner but he must have faced those people, worrying. It has been my experience that many of the aged in our community have been made to feel little better than parasites. They have been isolated by a very carefully constructed argument. The first line of argument is: There are too many of them, there will be more, they will cost us more, they will bankrupt this country and we cannot afford the old people in this community. The other line of argument is: Those people do not need it anyway and they are taking things they are not entitled to . The Government says: 'We will just locate those people and we will fix them up '.

The aged in this community have been isolated by the Government in this debate and by the unthinking reiteration of the Government's arguments by people who have not looked past the surface. The allegations are false, and this much I will repeat. I will repeat it because the Government knows that the claim, 'We cannot afford the aged in the future' to be false. This is the advice it is given over and again from its departments and this is contained in its reports on the subject. The Government has had the evidence put in front of it. I am sure that the Minister knows by heart the tables that I have yet to read.

Between 1974 and 1982 the increase of aged pensioners, compared with the total increase of the welfare budget, has been 28.6 per cent. We have been told many times about the burgeoning welfare Budget. We have been told in debates that the suggestion is that this will become a Budget that we cannot afford and one area where we can properly prune it is in the area of the aged. Yet the figures show that the aged pensioners are not the ones who are inflating the welfare Budget. Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, has, of all the comparable countries, one of the lowest proportions of aged in the community. The impression we are given is that this wealthy country will not be able to afford the increase. Yet many countries have a much higher proportion of their population in an older age group.

Senator Grimes —This is a good speech. I agree with it.

Senator MARTIN —I am sure that the Minister agrees with many of the points that have been put to him, including the information given to him by his own Department. I am sure that what his Government determines, he is to say publicly that there is a different situation. Our Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) who likes to look as though he is tackling difficult subjects referred the matter of an assets test off to a task force for report. The task force reported that this argument that has appeared over the Minister's name time and time again, namely, the burden of the increasing proportion of our population--

Senator Grimes —No, no, no.

Senator MARTIN —Yes. This report, based at least partly on the Minister's own Department's information, points out the falsity of this argument.

Senator Grimes —I agree with you.

Senator MARTIN —The Minister agrees. I am sorry, I have not seen a single letter to the editor of a newpaper from the Minister disagreeing with an editorial that has run this line and yet I have seen inference after inference from the Minister that this country cannot afford the increasing proportion of our aged population. I will quote from the Gruen report of the Panel of Review of Proposed Income and Assets Test. The report pointed out that the increase in the rate of the aged section of the community is increasing ahead of the total population growth rate by 0.71 per cent per annum. It states:

. . . a 0.71 per cent relative increase per annum is not particularly alarming and, supposing that long term productivity growth rates average at least 1 per cent per annum, sustainable with an unchanged tax burden . . .

That is a very modest and moderate assessment. Long term productivity growth rates average one per cent per annum, sustainable at the present tax rate. A government report is quoted in the Gruen report which found that while the age proportion of the population will increase, this will be offset in expenditure terms by a reduction in the proportion of youth. So the expected cumulative increase in expenditure will be only 0.24 per cent per year.

Senator Grimes —That is right, no problems.

Senator MARTIN —The Minister nods wisely and speaks soothingly to me as I am sure he is speaking soothingly to the aged. I have yet to see a letter to the editor from this Minister for Social Security referring to the decrease in the percentage of our population which will be in the youth group. The aged are a proportionately expensive group in terms of facilities and support, relatively expensive, but so are the young very demanding on the public purse. That offset has not been mentioned in a single letter to the editor, in a single release from the Minister to editors of newspapers pointing out what all the factors are .

Finally, the report notes that those in the work force now are very much more likely to be able to better provide for themselves and their retirement in the future. So those unfortunate enough to be aged under this Hawke Government are the ones who have to pay for this Government's propaganda. The Minister nods wisely when I say that he keeps on saying that it will affect fewer pensioners. My goodness me, how many people, including a lot of pensioners, have swallowed that one? It affects every aged pensioner. It may not affect their pension, but it affects all aged pensioners because it hangs over their heads and there is information that is required from all.

Something that I find particularly curious about this assets test-maybe the Minister one day will fully let us in on what information this particular part of the decision was based on-is the $10,000 house contents valuation. When one thinks about it, $10,000 is a very modest sum of money indeed. For most people it will include all their personal effects. House contents insurance commonly does, unless people choose to have separate personal effects insurance. For most people all personal effects come into their house contents policy, that includes their clothes, whatever silverware they have, crockery, cutlery, jewellery, plus their furnishings. The Minister nods his head. I am correct. Indeed I am. I have read that information from the Minister's own sources. I wonder what this Government thinks $10,000 buys these days in those terms and what it represents?

Senator Grimes —It is not the replacement value. It is the actual value. If it is the replacement value it would be a dreadful sum.

Senator MARTIN —I will just cut the Minister a little short. I have the contents of my home insured. I know the conditions of insurance policies. It is actual value. So that is a very great consolation unless of course one chooses to insure for replacement value, which one can do.

Senator Grimes —Of course you should.

Senator MARTIN —Yes, one can. If the actual value is $10,000, replacement value will be much higher. Pensioners-let us say a pensioner living in an average, modest weatherboard home in Queensland which is a higher fire risk-will have to decide how they will insure their personal effects and contents or whether they are going to insure them because the Government will assume that the value of the contents is $10,000 unless the pensioner nominates a higher or lower figure. If it happens that the pensioner has insured for replacement value and it is likely to be much higher than $10,000, the pensioner is faced with a very real problem.

Senator Grimes —Insurance has nothing to do with it.

Senator MARTIN —The Minister says insurance has nothing to do with it. Yet if it is investigated, how will it be assessed? I will give a common example to the Minister because he is apparently terribly badly informed on this matter. It is quite common for elderly women to own more than one diamond ring, rings that have belonged to their mothers, maybe their grandmothers. They are family items. These people are not wealthy. The rings have been given to them by previous generations such as aunts and probably even by their own husbands. If rings are covered in a contents policy as personal effects, as they commonly are, they are going to have a problem. In any event, all persioners have to make an assessment of the value of the contents of their home and have to make a statement. Some will be affected as a result of the assessment.

Senator Grimes —No.

Senator MARTIN —It is true. They can choose whether or not to make a statement. If they do not they are allowing the Government to assume that the value is no more than $10,000. They can make a statement that the value is less than $10,000 ; they must make a statement if it is more. The other problem is the gift tax. Why is it that the aged pensioners of this country are the only people in the country subject to a gift tax? That is a matter that the Minister has not sought to elucidate in any of his letters to the editors of newspapers; not at all. There is no soothing elucidation that he could give.

I move to the next part of the motion. As I said at the beginning of my remarks , this Government has embarked on a disgraceful attack on the aged. But it has done more than that; it has moved very effectively to affect how people plan for their old age. Senator Sir John Carrick said quite a bit on this matter and I will refer to it just briefly. The new provision for the lump sum tax on superannuation, particularly when taken in conjunction with the Government's means test on the over-70 pension and means and assets test on all pensioners has provided a substantial disincentive to the future aged-particularly people now in their 50s. A number of people in that age group have discussed this with me in recent months and have said: 'I am not going to save for when I retire; I will spend; I will have the overseas holiday; I will enjoy myself because if I put even a modest amount aside the Government will be reaching for it'.

There is nothing more profound that any government can do to a society than the measures it takes in relation to its aged. The way a society treats its aged is a profound measure of the health of that society. The measures that this Government has taken in relation to the pension and superannuation together affect not just the retired, not just the about to retire, but every income earning person in this country. Whatever our expectations are when we are no longer earning or expect no longer to earn an income will be very much moulded by this sort of measure. Young people planning for the day when they will no longer be income earners, making decisions about investment, home purchase, property and all of those things about which we all make decisions right through our earning lives, are being influenced today in their decisions on those matters by these measures of the Government. There is nothing more profound a government can do. Those two measures together are a profound revelation in relation to a Labor government. There has been a distinct loss of incentive to save and to put that extra bit aside, a distinct lack of incentive to save to the maximum, to make the maximum possible provision for old age, and a distinct lack of incentive for those who are about to retire to make critical decisions for the next few years not knowing what will come next from this Government.

I wish to have one final word. The Minister has nodded his head wisely, muttered sometimes audibly across the table and shaken his head wisely on a few occasions. The saddest people I have met in the last few weeks are certain people in nursing homes who expect to leave or desire to leave. I think of one woman in particular who had had a very severe stroke and had been admitted to a nursing home. She was not old. She, I would think, probably in her late 60s-a lady of great vigour of mind and determination. Despite the severity of a stoke which occurred about 12 months ago, she was determined to return to her home. She was adamant that she would not stay in nursing home care, and she had made far greater progress than might have been expected some months ago. I conclude that all being well, the progress she was making will take her home. She may be better off in a nursing home but she will go home if she can possibly look after herself. In the meantime, she has a home that is not occupied and there is a two -year limit on how long a person can have a home and not live in it under this assets test. In about six months time she will probably still be in the nursing home and facing a pretty cruel choice. She knows that now. The Minister makes no soothing noises for a change.

Senator Grimes —I will answer that one.

Senator MARTIN —I know the Minister will answer me but he has yet to say anything in this place or via letters to the editors or via his Press releases which will convince the aged or soothe them. They know their vulnerability and they know they have been treated in a way in which they had been told they would not be treated by a Labor government. Senator Sir John Carrick, as I said at the beginning of my speech, used the word 'ugly'. It is ugly, and it is sad and tragic. The Government, I am sure, in looking at its numbers has decided it is safe. The Government in the case of its education decision decided that that was not safe. The churches were mounting too good a campaign against that particular government policy and influencing too many people. But the Minister says that not many people will be affected by this assets test. Everybody in this country who has any wit is affected by this assets test. People are affected in the first place if they happen to be on an age pension. They will be very aware of it if a member of their family happens to be elderly and dependent on a pension. If they are thinking at all, as most would be, they will realise that one day the way in which they acquiesce in how this Government treats the aged in these measures will determine the way in which they will be treated.