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Monday, 20 May 1985
Page: 2171

Senator MESSNER(5.29) —I wish particularly to speak on one or two welfare matters and will conclude my remarks with reference to matters affecting the economy. I commence by referring to the current situation with the assets test and the hardship it is causing very many people in the community, particularly in rural areas. I do not wish to cover all the arguments about this matter, which have had plenty of airing both in the Senate and in the newspapers, chiefly by Government spokesmen. The fact is that a great deal of hardship is being generated in the rural communities at present. The essential element of this problem is that far too little income is available to support two families in many cases. People who were relying upon the supplement of the pension for their retirement find that they are unable to earn enough farm income to build that into two incomes. For that reason we on this side of the House believe-we moved the other day for the repeal of this legislation-that the Government should move as quickly as possible to ensure that the assets test is corrected to get rid of some of the gross anomalies. I do not wish to canvass all of those anomalies; I am sure that we know what they are. Many of them are on the record. We need action from this Government to make sure that hard working people who have built up modest assets and savings over a long period through their own efforts are not unduly penalised by this iniquitous assets test.

Of very real concern in the welfare area are the advanced aged and, in particular, those who use the services of nursing homes, various private organisations and community homes which provide hostel accommodation and related services in that area. During the Budget session last year the Government saw fit to announce a new home and community care program. As has now been exposed, that program was little more than a political confidence trick announced in advance of the election last year. Whereas people generally were thinking that there would be an increase in expenditure in this area of some $300m, we have found that it is as little as $10m in this financial year. The reason for that is that many of the programs that applied previously, such as the delivered meals subsidy, the so-called Meals on Wheels plan and the various domiciliary care programs that were available and operated by the States have in fact been merged into the new HACC program and, consequently, a very little money has become available.

This theory certainly had the support of the Opposition when it was announced in the Budget last year. The idea was that we should encourage as many people as possible in their advanced old age to stay in their own homes, near their friends, their well-known surroundings and the shops so that in their declining years they were living in an area in which they had lived for most of their lives. On the other hand, this would save very considerable amounts not only for families but also for the Government in that many of these people would not enter institutionalised care in the way that many have over a long period. We support that theory in very general terms and in fact said that at the time. But the fact is that the Government has not followed through on its promise. It misled the people very substantially during the pre-election campaign last year because it knew it was in awful trouble with the electorate over the assets test, broken promises on superannuation and broken promises on the incomes test for the over-70s pensioner. As a result, the Government saw fit to mislead people at election time and certainly demands the condemnation of the Senate on that matter now.

One particular case in South Australia was brought to my attention. It seems absolutely inexplicable in terms of its handling by this Government. A well-known organisation in Adelaide, Wanslea Child Care Services, has provided services for children over a very long period. It has a very substantial reputation going back over 40 years. Only in the last few months, upon application for funds under this very new program-the home and community care program that is designed to assist people in this area and to take the load off families generally-there has been a failure to acknowledge the equity of the argument put forward by Wanslea for extra funding. In fact, no arrangements have been made by this Government to provide funding for that organisation. In fact the programs have now been, as I understand it, curtailed or totally abolished. I think the Government has to be prepared, if it puts its name on the line in this area, to commit itself to more expenditure and to the further development of this program, to meet the circumstances as they arise and indeed to consider cases on their merits. In this case I cannot understand why the Government has seen fit to curtail the out-of-home care program run by the Wanslea institution in Adelaide.

The third area of concern to me and possibly to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, as well is the proposed submarine building project. Mr Acting Deputy President, you would know that there was a very considerable interest in the State of South Australia in this project. The State Government and the Chamber of Commerce in Adelaide have been making substantial representations to the Federal Government seeking to have the next generation of submarines for the Royal Australian Navy built in South Australia. We know that a decision has not yet been made. I hope that many South Australian senators from both sides of this chamber will be making appropriate representations, hopefully successful, to the Federal Government to ensure that that new project is undertaken in order to provide work for South Australians. The State Government is particularly concerned about this matter and has been putting forward very strong views about it. I hope that the Federal Government will see fit to support those representations and do what it can to ensure that the project goes ahead in the State of South Australia. I am not sure what my colleagues from the other States will have to say about this matter. Mr Acting Deputy President, I know that at least my thoughts on this matter will have your support. Indeed I look forward to the support of the Federal Government.

Mr Bannon, the Premier of South Australia, has really nailed his colours to the conning tower of the submarine project and has all but promised that the Federal Government-over which he has some special influence-would be able to deliver this to South Australia. I hope that he will be able to prove to us that he is a marathon man and can come up with the goods and deliver that project to South Australia. If not, I do not know what the people of South Australia will think about Mr Bannon. But they will be able to form their own conclusions. I am sure they will not be blaming the Federal Government as much as they will be blaming Mr Bannon.

Senator Archer —Another broken promise.

Senator MESSNER —Indeed, he may well have broken another set of promises in much the same way as this Federal Government has been consistently breaking promises since April 1983. Mr Acting Deputy President, I hope that we do have your support at least in this matter, if not Senator Robert Ray's support. He will never see the logic of any argument; so we are not going to be getting his support for this project, but certainly good South Australians like you, I am sure, would see the force of that argument.

Turning briefly to the questions affecting the economy, we must face the fact that since this Government came to office in March 1983, we have seen poverty in this country continue to grow. That is notwithstanding all the grandstanding claims of this Government that it is improving the position of the unemployed, making the economy grow rapidly and so on. In fact, the figures show that the average person who is in receipt of the base rate of pension today is 10 per cent worse off now in relation to the poverty line than he was when the Hawke Labor Government came to power. Not only are more people poorer, but the number is growing under this Government.

We must look at the reasons why this is happening. We find those reasons largely in the lack of commitment in this Government to the question of how to put people back to work. Sure, the Government says it is creating numbers of jobs, but a great number of those have been in the public sector. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) last Tuesday night, followed up with great gusto the next day by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), the object of this Government's economic policy is to get the public sector out and thereby create more room for the private sector to expand. I hope that this Government is serious about that objective, but frankly it is hard to believe that it is sincere. This Government is presiding over the greatest disincentive to private sector investment that has existed for 50 years. We have in this country the highest interest rates in real terms that have existed since the Great Depression in 1930. That is the situation-the highest interest rates for 50 years apply in Australia at the moment and these have grown consistently since this Government came to power in March 1983.

Even the most basic businessman knows that when he has to pay a great deal of interest for money he needs to borrow to build up his business, to employ more people, to create more jobs, to buy more machines he will be forced to consider very carefully his decision to buy that equipment or whatever because it is costing him so much. The truth is that that is a major disincentive at the moment and it is the reason why the worst performing statistics that have been appearing consistently over the past two years have been those for private investment in this country. For that reason the Government is not attacking firmly the problems of unemployment in this country and it is tending not to create as many jobs as it possibly could.

A lot of that is to do with the fact that this Government's wages policy is wrong and it is failing to enunciate clearly what policy it has. It is pandering merely to the trade union movement in seeking to maintain some semblance of order with its so-called accord, which is rapidly crumbling. We need some determined action from this Government; we need some firm leadership on the question of wages which will have the effect of lowering costs and keeping them down so that more goods can be produced by more people in work to produce them. It is essential that that policy be applied, particularly at the moment in the light of the fact that we have such a serious devaluation of the Australian dollar. Obviously that will cause more inflation in the economy. Inflation can only be driven up harder and harder by higher wages over which this Government fails to exercise appropriate control.

We understand all the political reasons why the Labor Party cannot make a decision about this. It is rent asunder by its three various factions that go together under the name of the Australian Labor Party. We know that the Government is in the grip of the trade unions in this matter but, in the interests of all Australians, it must stand up and show that it can lead this country, rather than letting it drift in the manner that it is today. These statements come not just from me and members of my Party; they come also from a growing number of writers in the newspapers who recognise that these facts are so vital to our future prosperity. One only had to read Des Keegan's article in the Australian last weekend to understand the clouds which lie on the horizon in this country and which must be faced by this Government.

We do not get any clear impression at all at the moment from this Government that it intends to pursue in a vigorous fashion a firm control over wage policy. Such control would mean job opportunities for those unemployed Australians who find it so difficult to get work today. I return to my point about poverty-the fact is there are more people today who are poorer under this Government than there have been at any other time since it came to power. These people are mainly the unemployed so for that reason they demand particular attention from this Government to ensure that labour costs are kept further under control so that there are more job opportunities, not just through the public sector but through the private sector as well. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer say that that is their objective, that the reason for the mini-Budget the other night was to roll back the public sector so as to make more room for the private sector. I see that even Senator Childs is laughing at that one. The fact is that it is through the private sector that there will be a stimulus to further activity in the community. It is by encouraging the private sector that that will occur, and it is up to this Government to show the lead. We look for that lead. We are very concerned that we will not get it and we in the Opposition will continue to draw attention to the doubts we have about the state of the economy and the way in which this Government is tackling its job as we pursue the matter leading up to the Budget and of course to the fateful tax summit which is yet to come.