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Monday, 9 August 2004
Page: 25879

Senator HARRIS (2:37 PM) —My question is to Senator Patterson, Minister for Family and Community Services. Minister, the asset test for age pensions took effect in March 1985. In June 1985 the department required an assessment form called an `Entitlement Review' to be completed. In 1992 the department advised recipients of an age pension of an increase in the pension and requested information relating to income. Minister, the act also details instructions that, in the event of no response, the department would terminate the pension. In the case of Mr Frank Wise, a judge of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ordered that the debt allegedly owed by Mr Wise be waived. In the light of the decision by the judge that the debt be waived, why is your department choosing to pursue the debt arising from your department's error?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —If there were a question like this asked by the Labor Party I would take it with a grain of salt. But I would never answer a question from anybody in this chamber about a personal matter until I have actually had advice on it. This case has not been brought to my attention. It seems that it goes back quite a long way, before I was even minister. I do not know the details of the case. In a system where we have a targeted asset tested pension it is absolutely important, and a reminder for everyone who is in receipt of a benefit from the taxpayer, that it is a voluntary system where people are required to advise Centrelink if there is a change in their circumstances. If they be a pensioner and there is a change in their income or a change in an asset that they have, we have a view that it is only fair that customers with particular assets or income invested in any way—whether it is structured in shares, bonds, managed funds or properties—be treated in the same way. It is a system which requires vigilance on the part of the customer to ensure that they keep Centrelink advised, not only to ensure that they are getting the right payment but also to ensure that they are getting benefits to which they are entitled. As to the details of this particular case, I am not aware of them. I will get information as appropriate. I do not know the state of this case. I do not know whether it has gone on beyond the AAT. But I will provide Senator Harris with whatever information I can get which is appropriate to be given under the circumstances.

Senator HARRIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, the thrust of the question goes towards the fact that the department is pursuing a debt that a judge has ordered to be waived. Why? Let me give a little bit of background. Mr Wise was granted a pension in 1974. He filled out forms in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1985. The department then did not hear from Mr Wise until 1998, 13 years later. Under those circumstances the department should have ceased to pay the pension. They did not. The judge said that it was the error of the department. Why is your department pursuing the debt in the face of a judge's decision?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —This case, if Senator Harris has got all of the details correct, well precedes my time as a minister. Maybe it was even before I got into parliament. I am prepared to go back and have a look at this case. It seems that it has been a long time coming before the Senate but I am prepared to go back and have a look at it. If there is any more information I can give the honourable senator, I will do so. I have not had this case brought to my attention and I need to understand the details. I trust that Senator Harris has the correct details. I do not necessarily agree that I always get the correct details from the other side of the chamber, but I will look at this case and give Senator Harris as full an answer as is possible.