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Wednesday, 3 October 1984
Page: 1130

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(4.48) —When the Labor Government came to office 18 months ago it was faced with a massive national deficit, massive unemployment and massive inflation, and it set about creating the condition for economic revival. It has reduced the deficit by something like $2.5 billion. Some 250,000 new jobs have been created in Australia and the inflation rate has been halved. In light of that very impressive economic performance we have seen the Opposition parties concentrate on criminality, on Mr Costigan, on High Court judges and the like, seeking desperately to establish an issue on which to fight the coming election.

Here today, for the first time for months, we have a bread and butter issue being debated. I want to spend my time defending the Government's decision to establish an assets test in order to have a fair and equitable social welfare system. It is interesting and significant that whilst Messrs Peacock and Messner and some of the other members of the Opposition parties have spoken on this issue, we have had no contribution from previous Ministers for Social Security, Senator Chaney and Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle. When we look at a comment made by Sir Phillip Lynch, who was a Treasurer, we can see why former Treasurer Howard has remained silent on this issue. There is clearly an ideological division within the opposition parties on this problem of having a needs-based welfare system.

It is true that in 1971, for example, 65 per cent of those eligible for social security pensions received such pensions. In a decade, in 1981, that figure has risen to 87 per cent of persons of pensionable age receiving funds from the Commonwealth Government. We have seen the social welfare budget rise from 28 per cent to 40 per cent in that period. That information comes from figures supplied by the Australian Mutual Provident Society.

I want to spend the limited amount of time available to me in showing the duplicity of the Opposition parties. Mr Peacock has said that when he is elected Prime Minister he will abolish the assets test. He has as much chance of being elected Prime Minister as I have of living to the year 2100. He knows as well as I do that he will never be put in the position of implementing that promise. In any case, he is on the public record with respect to social services as saying that there was:

. . . a clear duty of government . . . to protect and assist those in genuine need.

He made that statement when he retired from the Fraser Government in 1982. Senator Messner has on several occasions discussed the question of the assets test in this place and asked numerous questions of his counterpart, the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes). For example, in a statement in the Mercury of 22 February 1982 he is reported to have said:

The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Messner, has warned of conflict between demand for tax cuts and middle class welfare.

He said recent surveys suggested Australians wanted social security welfare benefits for everyone, however well-off.

Yet apparently oblivious to the massive public cost, they also expected lower taxes, he said.

All welfare, whether in aged or repatriation areas, should be based on need . . .

That, of course, was his view. It was the view of the Liberal-National Party Government. Senator Chaney was quoted in the Age of 27 August 1982 when he was the Minister for Social Security as having said:

I think we cannot escape the fact that there are some genuinely needy pensioners in this country who do not receive enough help, while some other people, by the advantageous arrangement of their assets, are able to draw on the system to a greater extent than their real degree of need would seem to justify.

The Young Liberals on 4 July last year also have come on to the public record calling for the means testing of all social welfare payments. It is fairly clear that major divisions of opinion exist within the Opposition parties. That is why Maximilian Walsh, on 7 June this year, wrote an article drawing attention to the damaging articles against Andrew Peacock. He suggested that he had better take up some issues. He took up the assets test, as in recent times he took up the question of criminality, both of which have been proven to be of little consequence to the consciousness of the Australian people. There is no doubt that the Opposition parties, desperate because of the economic revival that has taken place in our country and because of the success of the policies being pursued by the Labor Government, have taken the step of activating in the pensioner groups of Australia a fear concept and complex in an attempt to gain some public support for the policies of the Opposition parties. However, I remind the Senate that in an editorial on only 18 September last, the Australian Pensioner, which is the voice of the pensioner movement of Australia, said:

Opposition politicians, certain sections 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 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.

Of course, the matter of public importance put forward by Senator Messner criticises the revised pensioner assets test which took into account some of the defects in the original scheme. The editorial in the Australian Pensioner went on to say:

So how do those opposed to the proposed test justify their hysterical outpourings? They do it, they say, in the name of pensioners' rights.

Well, pensioners do have rights, and the first of those is the right to be told the truth; the right to be informed, not misinformed.

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.

Yet that is exactly what the Opposition parties have done over the last year or so. They have failed to appreciate that the Government set out, in its desire to reduce the deficit and establish confidence in the Australian business sector, to create conditions that would lead to the creation of jobs, thereby overcoming the grave difficulties of unemployment benefits. It set out to establish a needs -based welfare system so that those people in the Australian community who require and live solely on the social security payments would have a decent and adequate living standard. This Government has committed itself to raising the pension to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. It has moved very strongly in the direction of lifting the amount of payment to pensioners to a more acceptable level.

It is interesting that the Opposition talks about means testing assets. In all the years it was in government it never concerned itself with lifting the maximum amount of income able to be earned without affecting pension entitlement -$30 for a single person and $50 for a couple. Pensioners on the maximum pension earning the maximum allowable amount of income would still be earning less than $200 a week. Is that adequate? Do the Opposition parties really believe that that is an adequate remuneration for the aged persons in the Australian community? Of course it is an inadequate amount. If the Opposition were genuinely concerned about a decent standard of living for aged persons, it would have taken steps when it was in government-that is 30 of the last 35 years in the post-war period-to raise the income level which has been in operation for many years.

What has this Government done? Not only has it assured the great majority of pensioners that they will not be affected, but also it has taken special steps in relation to the way in which the forms have been prepared and to inform the pensioner communities. Its success has been such that the Australian Pensioner editorial has appeared, indicating that the pensioner organisations and their spokespersons, in the wake of the revised assets test legislation, accept the equity of the assets test proposals. What has this Government done in addition to raising the basic living standards of the overwhelming majority of those who are in receipt solely of a pension? We have taken steps in this Budget to provide $4.5m in the immediate sense for aged care persons, to keep people out of institutions and nursing homes, to keep them in their own homes with home help schemes and other geriatric assessment arrangements. All these measures are designed to provide a better living environment for our aged and frail citizens.

During the winter recess, I took the opportunity to visit five of the six States. I visited five electorates. I addressed pensioner groups and veterans' groups. As late as last Friday week I addressed a group at Ramsgate of some 60 of the executives of 12 sub-branches of the Returned Services League of Australia about the Government's policy in respect to veterans' affairs. In all of those experiences, I have heard no criticism of the Government's proposals in respect of the assets test legislation. Slowly but surely, the Australian people are coming to accept that the Government's endeavours with the revised pension assets test are fair and equitable. With the home no longer counted, how many pensioner couples do we really believe have assets of $100,000? How many single pensioners, in addition to owning their own home, have $70,000 just lying around in accounts? We know, of course, that that is not Mr and Mrs Average Pensioner. Mr and Mrs Average Pensioner do not have anywhere near the asset maximum that has been placed in the legislation which is the subject of the matter of public importance we are debating this afternoon. The Labor movement has always showed intense concern for disadvantaged people. We are a compassionate party and a compassionate government. It is just ludicrous to suggest that the considerable sum of money that will be saved as a result of steps taken by the Government- between $50m and $100m-will not be used to raise the living standards of the overwhelming majority of those who rely upon government payments to sustain a decent standard of living.

I believe that the fears that the Opposition has sought to exploit in respect of this issue will prove to be as much a damp squib as, indeed, have been its endeavours in respect of criminality as it affects the Federal Labor Government. I believe that this debate will prove once again that this Government is pursuing economic policies which are designed to establish the environment for an equitable welfare system based upon need, which even Opposition spokesmen in their more sober moments concede has validity in the way in which any government accepts its fiscal responsibilities.