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Friday, 22 March 1985
Page: 745

Mr FREE(10.15) —Mr Speaker, I begin by offering you my congratulations on your re-election to your high position. I express the hope, indeed the confidence, that throughout this Thirty-fourth Parliament you will enjoy the respect and affection of all members, that respect and affection that you so richly earned in the Thirty-third Parliament. I also congratulate all of those new members who made their maiden speeches during this debate on the Address-in-Reply, particularly my neighbours, the honourable member for Chifley (Mr Price) and the honourable member for Fowler (Grace). I enjoyed their contributions. They are both people who bring to this House a wealth of experience in the local government area and I know their contributions will be valuable and their stay in this House will be very long ones.

I also congratulate the new member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon), who is almost as good as the old member. I enjoyed the honourable member's remarks and on behalf of those of my constituents who still endure the tyranny of the pump-out system I commend his interest in the sewerage problems of the nation. I know that the honourable member will pursue that concern through the proper channels during his time here. I congratulate my successor to the seat of Macquarie. I enjoyed the remarks of the honourable member for Macquarie (Mr Webster). Politically, I must say that I hope his stay here is not an extended one, but on a personal level I wish the honourable member a rewarding and satisfying period as the member for that electorate.

Following the 1984 redistribution and the elections for the enlarged Parliament, I was one of those members who enjoyed a rebirth of sorts on 1 December. I was one of, I think, 17 members who served in the Thirty-third Parliament who returned representing a new electorate in this, the Thirty-fourth Parliament. In my case two-thirds of my former electorate was kept intact by the redistribution and named Lindsay in honour of the great Australian artist and writer, Norman Lindsay. Norman was one of a family of 10, all of whom were talented people, five of whom became well-known artists and two of whom, Lionel and Daryl, were knighted for their services to art. Norman, over his 90 years, was prolific in his artistic endeavours. Anyone contemplating the quality, variety and quantity of his creative output-his woodcuts, etchings, drawings, water colours, vibrant oil paintings, books, articles, statues and model ships-could not help sharing Godfrey Blunden's assessment of Lindsay as a 'rare, wonderfully reassuring and luminous event-a genius: Perhaps the only authentic genius Australia has ever had'. I pay tribute to the National Trust of Australia for the part it has played in preserving Norman Lindsay's former home as a memorial to his life and to his work. Along with Penrith's Q Theatre and the Lewers and Regional Art Gallery, the Lindsay Gallery is one of the cultural delights of western Sydney.

I now turn to some political delights, the delights of the 1984 election campaign and its aftermath. That election was a good result for my Party, the Australian Labor Party, and therefore a good result for the country. It was an election conducted under a reformed Commonwealth Electoral Act which provided for an improved and simpler system for the Senate, a draw for positions on the House of Representatives ballot papers, the inclusion of party names on ballot papers, the provision of public funding, the disclosure of donations to political parties and much better support to the staff of the Australian Electoral Commission. I applaud these reforms. By and large they worked very well.

I place on record my appreciation of the work of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform that carried out its work so well under the leadership of the honourable member for Prospect (Dr Klugman). In one sense the Commission did its work too well. There is no doubt in my mind that, in one sense, the very fine advertising in the campaign that the Commission carried out to advise people of the new simplified system for the Senate, whereby the voter only had to mark a single square to vote for a party ticket instead of numbering every square to record a formal vote, was too effective. I believe it carried over into the voting system for the House of Representatives which, of course, had not changed but, nevertheless, a significant number of people had the impression that all they had to do to record a formal vote in the House of Representatives was to mark a single square. Far too many intended Labor votes were lost. In my electorate of Lindsay the informal vote leapt from 2.1 per cent, based on the previous figures, to 7.2. per cent. That is 4,380 votes, most of which, according to the reports from my scrutineers, were intended Labor votes with a figure 1, a tick or a cross next to my name.

I have every reason to believe that result is typical, but we will not know until the Commission completes its survey and report. If it is, the delight of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) in his Clayton's victory, claiming a victory from second place on 1 December, will lose some of its gloss. He is not the first Liberal Party of Australia leader to claim victory from second spot. I recall that Billy 'Hot Coals' Snedden did the same thing back in 1974. They never lose, they just run second. I think they would have got the message on the opening day of Parliament when the Governor-General read out our Speech and not theirs. If the Leader of the Opposition enjoys his position, it is a position that we are certainly glad to concede to him as long as he lasts. At best, it confirmed his position on the bridge of the Titanic. At worst, it provided him with a temporary stay of execution. It is no secret that the Leader of the Opposition faces considerable unrest and opposition from within his own ranks, from those former members of his front bench who were sent off to stand in the corner.

Mr Robert Brown —Seething with anger.

Mr FREE —Yes, seething with anger. I refer, of course, to the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Carlton) and the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender). I do not think we have seen the last of the Big Spender from North Sydney. I applaud the Government's program as outlined in the Governor-General's Speech. In particular, I express support for the Government's proposals for initiatives for the young people of this country, for the proposals that are being examined for a new and improved and integrated system of youth support. I believe that the critics are right when they say that the present system can in some cases act as a disincentive to the completion of secondary education and to people going on to further education. I also applaud the Government's initiative in embarking on consultations towards the formation of a permanent Australian youth service following on the recommendation contained in the Kirby Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs report. These consultations are now taking place and are aimed at providing a permanent service and developing the community youth support scheme into a wider co-ordinating body to act in the interests of young people in this country.

I also want to place on record my support for the objectives of the tax summit. There is no doubt that this country needs a simple, efficient and equitable tax system. We have not got it at the moment. We need a system that people can understand and a system that they perceive as being fair. I applaud the Government's initiative on that front. I am a supporter of the assets test, which came into operation yesterday. I am a supporter of the principle of assets testing. I was a supporter of the test in its original form, but I recognised that there was a need to communicate the essential features and the essential fairness of the assets test to pensioners. That was a formidable task, a task made more difficult by the fact that we were faced at that time with an opposition prepared to say anything at any time to frighten people. They did that during the election campaign and, of course, they did it again yesterday. I thought it would have died down following the election, and it did for a while, but unfortunately the Press did not help. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) referred to some disgraceful headlines in yesterday's evening newspapers. I do not think that people expect very much from the evening newspapers, but I certainly expect a little more from the Sun-Herald. I refer to its headline of 10 March-'Threat to pensioners over assets test form-10,000 face suspension'. The article under that heading stated:

More than 10,000 pensioners could have their pensions suspended within two weeks for failing to return assets test forms.

The controversial test comes into operation on March 21-next Thursday week.

Social Security Department officials warned yesterday that all pensioners who had failed to return forms by then could have their pensions suspended.

Efforts are being made to contact pensioners by telephone to make them aware of the danger.

The journalist who wrote that article failed to distinguish between two forms. One form was sent to 85 per cent of the pensioners last year with the instruction that the form should not be returned if the assets were less than the threshold figure. A second form went to 15 per cent of the pensioners and that form did need to be returned. The problem was that in this article the journalist failed to recognise that there were, in fact, two different forms with two different instructions. As a result, my phone started ringing early on the Sunday morning. People were concerned. My electorate office was kept busy during the week reassuring understandably anxious people. I understand that the assets test hotline in the Sydney office of the Department of Social Security was jammed during the week because people began to panic after reading that article. Needless worry was caused by sloppy reporting. I must say that I found that out of character for that journalist. I enjoy Neil O'Reilly's articles. They are one of the first things I turn to in that Sunday morning newspaper. But this time his performance was less than adequate. I must say, in fairness to the Sun-Herald, that it corrected that impression a week later, on 17 March. The confusion was explained and resolved by Philippa Smith in an article in which she said:

The great bulk of pensioners will find that the fear, or bark, of the assets test is much worse than its bite.

However, in the last week a great deal of unnecessary fear and confusion has occurred over reports that thousands of pensioners face suspension. Pensioner organisation and departmental phones have been running hot.

One particular issue of confusion is whether all pensioners should have returned information about their assets to the Department of Social Security. The short answer is no.

The only difficulty I have with that is that the offending article on 10 March appeared at page 1 of the newspaper and Philippa Smith's article which set the record straight appeared at page 126. The essential features of the assets test and its fairness have been well discussed. They were well discussed yesterday. I trust the scheme will operate fairly and smoothly and that those anomalies that have been mentioned will be resolved using the methods that the Minister outlined yesterday.

I support the other aspects of the Government's program as outlined in the Governor-General's Speech. It is a comprehensive program to continue the reforms taken by the first Hawke Government, to address the very serious inequalities in our society, and to continue the great economic gains that the Government made in its first term of office. The Governor-General said in his concluding remarks:

The program I have outlined is a program for consolidation of the great gains which have been achieved in the past two years. The Government and people of this nation have, by acting in concert, brought a new approach to solving the problems facing Australia. It is the Government's desire that the momentum which has been thus built is not lost.

That is a desire which I share.