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Wednesday, 3 October 1984
Page: 1126

Senator RICHARDSON(4.17) —I rise to speak on this matter of public importance and like many senators on this side of the House I am offended by the words 'attack upon the retirement security of aged Australians'. I belong to the Australian Labor Party, a party with a proud history, a history of innovation and commitment in the field of social welfare; commitment to raising the standards of those weaker members of our society who have for so long been raped and attacked by those on the other side of the House.

Over the past 12 months we have witnessed in Australia a deliberate campaign of misinformation, of fear and scaremongering from the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia, in an attempt to convince the aged and the frail aged, to whom Senator Messner referred, that this assets test will affect them in great numbers. Yesterday the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) referred to the efforts of the Liberal and National parties in the last election campaign in March 1983 when they attempted to take that fantastic 'put your money under the bed' line during the campaign. That was one of Malcolm Fraser's great contributions.

Senator Boswell —They should have done so.

Senator RICHARDSON —Senator Boswell probably thinks that they should have but unfortunately for him three-quarters of the Australian population do not agree with him. When one looks at the rating of our respective leaders, one sees that 75 per cent of people think that the Prime Minister is okay and only 25 per cent think that Andrew Peacock is. That is the way that Australia has gone in the last 12 months because that 'put your money under the bed' line, that pathetic scaremongering, was just an insult to the intelligence of the Australian people. They threw the Liberal and National parties out in March 1983 and when we have an election in the near future, be it November, December or March, they will throw them out again. This is just another chapter of this recently written novel of desperation by the panic-stricken, leaderless rabble opposite that masquerades as a political force.

This Liberal-National Party coalition's disintegration was witnessed yesterday. Who could forget the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald today, referring to Andrew Peacock's performance yesterday, of 'Death in the Afternoon'. Now, on the second afternoon of these two weeks, we witness another rather ordinary attempt, hardly one of the coalition's spectacular efforts-though we do not see many of those nowadays-to discredit this Government that has done so much for Australia' s aged in such a short time, and which will do so much more given the certainty that the Australian electorate will entrust to it in the near future the running of the country for another three years.

Let us go back to the assets test and see how many people it may effect so we can begin to debunk the myth that the Opposition is trying to create that in some way the Government is prepared to attack the aged people of Australia. Of course the huge majority of Australian pensioners will be exempt from the test. That is being found out now as the Department of Social Security sends out the assets test forms to millions of Australian pensioners. A basic form will be received by 85 per cent of pensioners, and they need do nothing because as they read it they will find out that nothing is expected of them. They are not even required to fill in anything; no extra information is wanted from them. The Government accepts that they are, without any test, exempt. So we come back to the 15 per cent of pensioners who will receive a form which will require them to make some declaration of their assets. Even in that group the vast majority will not in the end be affected. It is estimated that less than 2 per cent of Australian pensioners can ever be affected by this test.

The Government got to that stage over a long period of again showing the Australian people that it believes in consensus and that it can listen to them. I received, I am sure like every senator here, many representations from pensioner groups and individual pensioners who were concerned about the assets test as proposed in its original form and the Government in its wisdom, after considering all those representations over such a long period, came to the view that the family home should be excluded. When we exclude the major asset that most Australians can ever acquire, of course we eliminate from the net many of the people who may have been worried in the first place. So now we have a test in which only the wealthy among pensioners can possibly be hit. Married pensioners would need to have assets in excess of $100,000 before they were affected, and before the pension cut out completely they would have to have $177 ,000 worth of assets. That is a significant amount of money and I do not really believe that those who have such assets are not able to have a secure retirement in any case.

The claim that every aged Australian is under attack is shown by these figures to be nonsense. It is not just the family home that has been excluded from the test. Also to be excluded are permanent fixtures, whether they be a garage, swimming pool or whatever, special aids for the disabled, pre-paid funeral expenses, and an interest in an estate not yet realised. The list goes on. These things are all excluded. When we look at what is included in these very high asset amounts, which I will get to in a moment, we come firstly to holiday homes . I know that some pensioners have made representations, and certainly some trade unions have made representations to me on behalf of members, be they railway or municipal employees, for instance, who have bought holiday homes on the coast. The Government looked at that situation and made sure that it set levels so that the great majority of those pensioners who have holiday homes still will not be affected by this test. Other real estate and boats, et cetera, are included but I am not sure that many of our pensioners are running around in huge cruisers so I do not know that it will be such a great problem for them. A value of $10,000 has been placed on personal possessions and household items. That has been done not just so people can believe the promises of politicians but also to have it down in black and white so they know that all this empty talk of inspectors tramping through the houses of ordinary Australians is nonsense. Indeed, 85 per cent of pensioners will be excluded automatically and there will be no reason for them to have that fear.

Assets disposed of in excess of $2,000 a year for a single person or $4,000 a year for a couple without adequate financial return will be taken into account. Such a provision will apply but the assets limits are very high indeed. Again they were set after consultation with trade unions and pensioner groups and after listening to the voices of the average pensioners, the little people, who came forward in their thousands to express their concern. Not nearly so many are expressing their concern now. We have gone from a period where all our offices were besieged with telephone calls to a period during which, in my office, there has not been one call on the assets test for quite some time.

Senator Messner —They have given up on you.

Senator RICHARDSON —They managed to come to me when they were worried about their family home. I think I had a role in ensuring that the home was deleted from the test. The great difference between Senator Messner and me is that I can have an effect on Australian Government policy; he can have none. The assets limit is, for a single pensioner, $70,000. Fringe benefits are not lost until $ 80,000, and the limit reaches $117,000 before the pension cuts out. For a single pensioner renting and not owning his or her own home, the levels are $120,000 worth of assets, $130,000 before fringe benefits cut out and $167,000 before the pension cuts out altogether. Again the figures for couples are very high. I have already mentioned the figure of $100,000 for couples owning their own home but for renting couples the figures are $150,000 before the pension is affected, $ 165,000 before fringe benefits are lost and $227,000 before the pension cuts out altogether. Given those high figures, no one can paint this as some sort of draconian test.

Of course when one talks about an attack on aged Australians one has to look not just at the assets test but also at the benefits that the Australian Labor Party has sought to give to those who are getting on in their lives. We have looked at only one aspect here today but we have to look also at what the Government has done for pensions overall. When this Government came to office, as in so many significant areas of need in Australia, it acted immediately to redress just some of the neglect. We have only to look at what the Fraser-Howard Government failed to do for so long. For instance, its $2 increase in supplementary rent assistance in 1982-83 came at a time when rents were going up $10 a week. It was typical of what happened during that period. But it is the actual pension rate that really counts. We lifted pensions, and from November this year they will rise $2.50 a week for single pensioners and $4.20 for couples.

The pension rate has increased from 23.2 per cent to 23.8 per cent of average weekly earnings, and we have to remember that 18 months ago, under Fraser and Howard, it was at 22 per cent. The Australian Labor Party is committed to raising the level higher still, to 25 per cent, and with each opportunity presented to us we will continue to increase those levels. The Government has put an enormous amount into the home and community care package to ensure that we have a wide range of initiatives in community care for the aged-a much wider range than has ever been available in the past, and a comprehensive range that is integrated with community care services. The Commonwealth contribution will be $300m in the next three years. It behoves all honourable senators opposite who speak in this debate to tell us just what they did during their period in office. In the 1975 election speech of Malcolm Fraser, at the start of that reign that will long be infamous in Australian history, he began by saying:

We stand by our commitment to abolish the means test on pensions.

In 1978 the Fraser Government reapplied the means test for over 70-year-old pensioners. When we look at the claims in 1984 of what the Liberals might do we have to look at what they did do when they had the chance. In 1975 Malcolm Fraser said:

The real value of pensions will be preserved.

When Labor left office the level of pensions had gone up to 24.5 per cent of average weekly earnings. When Malcolm Fraser left office the level had gone down to 22 per cent. I might say that we have done the very best we can to ensure that pensioners are informed. The hotline that has been set up to handle queries from pensioners on the assets test to try to ensure that our elderly are not taken over by this fear campaign took 22,000 calls prior to May and has taken 10 ,000 calls since.

I turn to some of the support that has been given for an assets test. It is not just the Australian Labor Party that has welcomed it. The Confederation of Australian Industry, in a long statement of 18 April this year, came out in support of the reintroduction of an assets test. The CAI said to the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare:

If the present system continues unchanged then the demands on community resources to support the provision of retirement income will increase dramatically over the next few decades, possibly to unmanageable proportions.

We all remember Sir William McMahon. Only a few weeks ago on Michael Schildberger's program in Melbourne he said that while 'assets' was an irritating word-'means' was better-the Government's decision was right in principle. In a statement that must go down in the annals, I might say, of hopefulness, he said:

Mr Peacock won't be opposing it 'when he gets there'.

Of course, the Young Liberals have opposed it. In conclusion, I think we should turn to the comments of Michelle Grattan from the Age. In an article published only a few weeks ago, in August, she ran a quote from Senator Chaney--

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