Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 29 August 1994
Page: 512

Senator CHRIS EVANS (5.54 p.m.) —I oppose Senator Woodley's motion and support the retention of the regulation. It is fair to say that people listening to this debate could be forgiven for being awfully confused. We have the hard-line conservatives of the Liberal Party supporting consumer rights—

Senator Ferguson —Hang on, hang on! We're a couple of softies over here.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Sorry. We have the social conservatives of the Liberal Party supporting the rights of the battlers against the views of the superannuation and life industries and I, as a government senator, am rising to support the industry position and oppose some of this bleeding heart mentality that seems to have crept into the Liberal Party on this issue.

  On a slightly more serious note, this issue highlights the problem of policy on the run. This debate is a shambles and if we proceed to pass Senator Woodley's motion today we will create a shambles in the superannuation complaints tribunal area. I hasten to add that I do not blame Senator Woodley for that; as always, he has been reasonableness itself. But we have got ourselves into the situation, partly due to the government being unable to respond quickly enough to the Senate committee report, where we have this debate coming on today when, with the goodwill that exists and a proper look at the situation, we could quite amicably resolve this issue within a few days and have a position that all parties could agree to.

  The problem with Senator Woodley's proposition is that it has an impact tomorrow; it automatically adds the responsibility of hearing medical complaints to the super complaints tribunal tomorrow. Whatever else happens, whoever lodges a complaint or action tomorrow, whatever we do after that will have to be retrospective. It seems to me that as from tomorrow the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal can deal with complaints relating to medical issues that may go back many years. As a result of our actions today, if the motion proposed by Senator Woodley is passed, people could lodge those applications with the tribunal as from tomorrow.

  The tribunal has no staff for dealing with this situation, no procedures and no administrative mechanisms, and was not expecting to have this load placed upon it. The industry was not expecting to have to deal with this issue in this way either. We ought to draw back a bit and ask, `Is this good policy making by the Australian parliament?'. I accept that the fault is not on one side and that it is just a combination of events, but we ought to draw back and say, `This is not the way to create good policy; this is a way to create further complications.'

  Senator Ferguson suggests that this will improve confidence in the superannuation system; I think it will have the exact opposite effect. Whatever we agree that we might want to do with a new regulation in the future, we will have to deal retrospectively with what we have done if we support Senator Woodley's motion—which is to say that people can take medical disputes to the super complaints tribunal today; but whatever we do tomorrow we will have to try to deal retrospectively with that or create a new class of people who have lodged their claims or what-have-you. That is plainly a bad position for this parliament to get itself into.

  We should not ignore the role played by the superannuation committee in this matter. We did reach a consensus position which tried to accommodate all the parties' interests. I think we did a reasonable job of that. The difficulty is that the government has had only a couple of hours to respond to the committee report. Like the other members of the committee, I am not convinced that there is not a role for the tribunal to play in dealing with medical complaints. I accept the view of industry that it has serious concerns about that, but I think they are not insurmountable and that we can work through them.

  I think it is also fair to say that we want to ensure that the super complaints tribunal is up and running, and working effectively before we go down this path, and if we support Senator Woodley's motion today, we will not give it that opportunity. The recommendation of the superannuation committee provided for that breathing space; it provided for the issues to be addressed systematically, with commonsense; and it provided for the parliament to come up with a solution which allowed for medical complaints to be dealt with at the tribunal after the tribunal had established itself and its role in the superannuation industry.

  We ought to be very careful about rejecting the advice and views of the relevant industry organisations. I am not one necessarily always to argue that LIFA and ASFA are right, but they had a clear expectation that medical disputes would not go before the tribunal. They have a strongly held view that that would impair the work of the tribunal and would not assist in developing confidence in the superannuation industry or in allowing the super complaints tribunal to establish itself.

  The Liberal Party in particular has an obligation to think about that and to think about its position in relation to the very strongly held views of those industry groups. While I accept that one always has to examine whether or not people are speaking out of self-interest, I think it would be unfair to dismiss those industry claims purely on that basis.

  I accept that perhaps people have not explored this issue fully enough and that we are not fully conversant with all the issues of concern that have been raised or that industry groups may hold. That is not an excuse to rush into supporting Senator Woodley's motion today. The matter is capable of being resolved properly with the great deal of goodwill that exists within the sperannuation committee. I urge the Liberal Party to heed the warnings of the industry groups and not pass this motion today. I think it is creating more difficulties for us.

  The government has indicated to the opposition today that it is prepared to reconsider the issue in line with the committee's recommendations. I accept that it has been difficult to get that response quickly and that members opposite have not had enough time to deal with that issue and deal with the government's response, but I really think they ought to think about the haste with which we are dealing with this and whether or not this very blunt instrument of knocking out the regulation is the way to achieve the desired end.

  I think that the government's agreement to amend the regulation to create a provision in line with the committee's decision is sensible. It is saying to the committee that it will accede to its request and fully examine its report; that it will work through some of the outstanding issues, such as the relationship between trustees and insurance companies, that flow from decisions made by the tribunal, as well as the mechanisms that the tribunal will use to deal with complaints. These are important administrative and policy issues that have not yet been worked out.

  As a result of the actions of the opposition parties, the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal may have to handle complaints tomorrow. Some complaints may be longstanding ones. I do not have any in principle difficulty with those things going to the tribunal, but I do think we have to do this properly and methodically. We need to work through all those issues in a considered way, not by using this very blunt instrument.

  I accept that the opposition is in a very difficult position in relation to these issues, as is Senator Woodley. Senator Woodley is a very constructive politician, but we do not necessarily always get the opportunity to respond constructively. We have to use the mechanisms available to us. Senator Woodley is using the mechanism available to him, which is to knock out the regulation. But I think that the government has signalled its goodwill, given that the Labor senators on the committee supported the unanimous position and have indicated their willingness to support the general thrust of the committee's view.

  Further, the government is now publicly putting its position that it would amend the regulation so that it has no effect after six months from today. The government can seek to amend that regulation, but if we support Senator Woodley's motion today and knock out the regulation, we are using a very blunt instrument that will impact severely on the operations of the tribunal. We will be rejecting all the best advice from the industry in relation to these matters and will be providing a very unsatisfactory solution to a problem that I think this parliament is capable of solving in a very constructive manner.

  I think we ought to think again. I urge the Senate not to disallow the regulation. I think the superannuation committee's report provides the basis for a solution and I think the government has indicated that it is prepared to work with the Senate towards finding that solution. At the very least, opposition and Democrat senators have the ability to seek to amend the legislation if they believe the government does not act in good faith from this point on, but I think this is the most clumsy, inappropriate way of trying to resolve this issue.

  I know that this is being done with the best intentions, but I think we will regret it. I am very concerned about where it leaves us in trying to fix up the mess that we might create tonight. I am also concerned about the issues of retrospectivity, the administrative difficulties for the tribunal, the expectations it will create in people's minds and the next layer of confusion we will add to the superannuation industry by acting hastily tonight.

  I think we ought to take very seriously the views of the industry groups. We do not necessarily have to agree with them—I do not necessarily agree with them—but I think we ought to manage the change program properly. Clearly, this is not the way. I think we need to ensure that proper administrative arrangements are put in place and that all the outstanding issues are addressed properly before just handballing what I think will be quite a large area of work to the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal. I urge honourable senators to oppose the motion and support the regulation.