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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 1159


Ms McHUGH(6.18) —I shall address that section of the appropriations for the Department of Social Security that relates to the payment of pensions. Members of this Government are committed to increasing pensions to a decent percentage of average weekly earnings. That cannot be achieved overnight. The Government has taken another step towards the goal by increasing pension payments in this Budget to those who most need them. In this Budget, the Government has considered the particular needs of disadvantaged groups in our community-the aged, the unemployed, single parent families, the disabled and the homeless. All disadvantaged groups will receive additional help this financial year through increases in pensions and benefit rates, but those who will receive the most will generally be those who suffer the greatest need-families and single parents on very low incomes, living in privately rented accommodation.

Payments and allowances for children will be increased, as will private rental subsidies. For example, from 1 November 1984 a single parent pensioner or sickness beneficiary with one child, renting privately, will receive up to $11. 50 a week more in social security payments. From 1 November 1984, married pensioners and beneficiaries with one child will receive up to $11.20 a week more, if renting privately, with an extra $2 for each additional child, and married pensioners and sickness beneficiaries with two children will receive up to $8.20 a week more if they own their own home or &13.20 a week if they are renting privately.

The single adult rate of pensions and benefits will rise by $2.50 a week, and the combined rate for married couples will rise by $4.20 a week. From 1 November the base rate single pension will be $91.90 a week and $153.50 a week for married couples. The Government has begun to close the gap between the single adult unemployment benefit and the single rate of pension and sickness benefit. In the 12 months to November 1984 the single adult unemployment benefit will have risen from $68.65 to $81.10-an increase of $12.45. The single under 18 rate of unemployment and sickness benefit will increase by $5 to $50 a week from 1 November for people without dependants who have been in continuous receipt of payment for six months or more. From November 1984 the maximum rate of supplementary rent assistance paid to pensioners and long term sickness beneficiaries who rent privately will be increased by 50 per cent to $15 a week.

If we are to continue to provide a system of adequate care for those in greater need, we have to look at where we can save money in other areas of lesser need. For that reason the Government had to make the difficult decision to impose an assets test. This Budget is allocating funds for the introduction of the assets test to begin on 1 March 1985. After constant consultation with the community, the Government has now decided on a form of test which will not affect over 70 per cent of pensioners, but will affect those with large amounts of assets who are in a financial position to provide for their own retirement. There is no need for pensioners to fear that anyone who needs a pension will lose it. But pensioners are being frightened-deliberately-by the irresponsible and mischievous tactics of the Opposition.

All sorts of groundless fears are being whipped up, and they must be demolished . Let me give some examples. One is that it has been falsely put about that a pensioner's pre-paid burial plot will be included as an asset. It will not. No matter what its value, it is specifically exempted from the test. Another is that one of my constituents was led to believe by a supporter of the Opposition that his medal of valour awarded him in the Second World War would be listed as an asset. Such awards made to a pensioner are specifically exempted from his or her assets. A rumour spread widely through Sydney-through the medium of a radio commentator-that pensions would no longer be indexed. The fact is that the rise from regular indexation this November would have been small as a result of the lower consumer price index figures since Medicare. The pensions have been specifically raised now to offset that. The increased pension will continue to rise with indexation.

Worst of all is the fear of intrusion into pensioners' homes and this fear has been whipped up by the remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) in his televised speech on the Budget:

'Labor's assets test means putting the aged through the wringer of interference , confusion and anxiety. It means intrusion into their homes, valuing their personal possessions and filling out forms. Never in the history of this country has any government allowed bureaucrats the right of entry into every pensioner's home simply to check the valuation of their personal possessions.

As the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) said in answer to a question I raised in the House on this matter:

The claim made by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech is probably the worst example of the exaggerated and irresponsible statements that he and others have been peddling about the assets test.'

The Leader of the Opposition knows only too well that the Social Security Act does not contain the authority for departmental officers to enter premises. He knows that his statements are misleading, designed to whip up fear and anxiety amongst old people. The advertising campaign which the Opposition has employed is a disgraceful example of how the Opposition will distort the facts for shortsighted political gain. In no circumstances will officers of the Department be permitted to enter a home to check or value assets.

Pensioners will make their own assessments. The Social Security Act contains authority to require a pensioner or any other person to provide correct information which may affect the grant or payment of a pension. This will also apply to the assets test. This has always been the case. Of course there are penalties in the Act for any person who gives false information. These penalties for deliberate fraud have always been there, and I am sure that most pensioners will be glad that they are there to protect them and to prevent fraud. It is the people who complain most who usually complain that the regulations are not strong enough. I refer to the people who constantly ask: 'Why do you not catch the dole bludgers who have a job on the side? Why do you not catch the single parent who has somebody providing for her?'. Those are the people who constantly complain that the social security penalty provisions for fraud are not strong enough. Now they complain that there is any provision for fraud at all. One has only to imagine what would happen if the provisions were not there. It would allow gross fraud to go unchecked. It would allow the sort of person who could not possibly expect government money in a pension to be able to claim a pension no matter what assets they had. I cannot believe anybody does not want those provisions to check fraud.

There has been much discussion by some pensioners on the statement of assets. Pensioners will be sent a form but very few of them will even have to fill in the form. After much consultation the Government has designed a form that will be clear and simple. It is not an easy decision for this Government to take to introduce this assets test. But as long as we have a needs-based pension system we will always require people to give some indication of their financial status. How can it possibly be more fairly implemented than by the Government putting trust in the pensioners themselves to advise the Government of their circumstances?

I add one remark, because this matter still has not been cleared up. If pensioners have difficulty in assessing assets they can request help from departmental officers. They can seek an interview to sort out their problems. All sorts of people ask the most extraordinary questions. A pensioner rang my office in the electorate today saying: 'They are going to take my engagement ring'. The Department is not going to take that lady's engagement ring, but questions like that can be answered on request. I repeat for the final time that no officers of the Department will be permitted to go into the pensioner's home to make that assessment.

Sitting suspended from 6.28 to 8 p.m.