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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2220

Mr SLIPPER(6.26) —It is indeed a sad occasion when the honourable member for Canning (Mr Gear) drags back into this place his tired old arguments on the Australian Labor Party's ID card. Members of the Opposition presented a very strong and effective debate when we opposed, just a short time ago, Labor's ID proposal. We pointed out that we are opposed to tax and welfare fraud. We do not believe that Labor's ID card in any way, shape or form would solve the problems that the Government claims it would solve. It would be a very expensive intrusion into the privacy of every man, woman and child in this country. However, on this occasion we are debating the Social Security Amendment Bill 1987. It is a major Bill which covers many aspects of the social security system. Indeed, as the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) mentioned in his second reading speech, provision has been made for renumbering the provisions of the Act so that, in effect, every single provision of the Act is covered by this Bill. This, of course, provides an opportunity for a very wide ranging debate by members on both sides of the House. It gives us an opportunity to take into account the Government's stewardship in this area, to refer to the Government's neglect and failure in this area.

The fact that the Minister's second reading speech on this major Bill covers only a mere three pages indicates that the Government has not set out clearly what it intends to achieve. At first indication, the provisions of the Bill might appear to be innocuous, but the Government fails to address very important issues, such as continuing high government expenditure and the blowout in the cost of social security payments made to people in Australia. Further, the Bill fails to address the way in which government policy has led to the development of a hand-out mentality in this country.

Of course, the Opposition's position will be misrepresented. The Government will suggest that we are opposed to assistance being given to those people genuinely in need. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are opposed to-and we make no apology whatsoever for our opposition-is the Government's attempt to make the average person in Australia subject to government assistance virtually from the cradle to the grave.

This Bill and the speakers on the Government side have failed to address the key issues of fraud and overpayment. Social welfare is costing the Australian taxpayer close to $20 billion every year. That sum is too high. As I mentioned a moment ago, welfare should go to those people genuinely in need but, unfortunately, the Labor Party has handed over social welfare to the left wing of the Party. We find the Minister in dispute with the Treasurer (Mr Keating). We find that whenever anyone comes forward and says that we must clamp down on the rorts and rip-offs the Minister takes a very soft line. The Government needs some steel in its spine; it needs to take firm, decisive steps to reduce social welfare fraud and overservicing. Earlier this year when I was acting shadow Minister for Social Security, I called for a campaign to dob in social security cheats. This, of course, would save Australian taxpayers millions of dollars and it would help to stop the growing instance of fraud. What has the Government done in this regard? Has it accepted this suggestion? Of course not. The campaign could be run along similar lines to the successful anti-drug exercise known as Operation Noah. People would be encouraged to report instances of fraud directly to a special hotline telephone number and trained departmental officers could then investigate each case on the basis of information received. All thinking Australians, regardless of their political views, would, in my view, welcome this direct approach.

People are growing increasingly concerned at the number of welfare recipients abusing the system. The cost of this sort of campaign would be easily recouped through the substantial savings which would be achieved. The Government's failure to act on the problem of social security fraud has already cost Mr and Mrs average Australia $2,000m-$2 billion-and the anti-fraud measures announced in last year's Budget simply do not measure up to the current problem. This, of course, was confirmed last November by the annual report of the Director of Public Prosecutions. This report said:

. . . many serious cases are not being referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions simply because they have not been investigated.

The Federal Government has clearly not grasped the enormity of the problem and is fast losing control of the situation. It is our view that all alleged cases of fraud should be thoroughly investigated and the offenders prosecuted. I believe the Minister for Social Security should now look seriously at this Operation Noah style phone-in which I suggested some months ago. There is a desperate need to take firm and decisive steps to eradicate the incidence of fraud and overpayment. The public would participate in exposing those people who are milking the system.

Every honourable member would no doubt have received approaches from people in society complaining about instances of social welfare fraud and overpayment. If the Government encouraged people to phone-in to departmental officers, I think it would have a very pleasant surprise. It would find that more welfare cheats would be knocked off the Government's payroll and money could get through to those people genuinely in need. Given the current disastrous economic situation, with inflation running at about 10 per cent, high unemployment and limited availability of funds, it is important-in fact it is a national duty-for the Government to ensure that it obtains the maximum possible return on the welfare dollar. Unless the Government takes this action immediately social security fraud will continue needlessly to cost the Australian taxpayer millions of dollars.

My suggestion for an Operation Noah style phone-in received editorial support from the Brisbane Telegraph of 9 March this year. It is obvious that there is a changing mood in society and that Mr and Mrs average Australia have simply had the situation. They will not accept it continuing. Something has to be done and it has to be done now. What is the Government response? The Minister for Social Security says that the Government is going to have a blitz. I suppose the word `blitz' should appear in inverted commas, because it is certainly a Clayton's blitz. I have here an excerpt from the Courier-Mail of 16 March 1987 which bears the headline `Blitz on dole to affect 104,000'. I suppose we thought: `Perhaps the Government is at last realising the enormity of the problem; perhaps the Government will now do something; perhaps the Government will strike a blow for the honest taxpayers of Australia'.

But what happened? We found that officers of the Department of Social Security said they would not carry out the Government's intention. Can honourable members imagine that? Paid public servants were prepared to subvert the Government's attempt to reduce welfare fraud and overpayment. It is bad enough when one gets militant trade unions such as the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association saying that it will not carry out the Government's policy. I do not know how we can accept the situation where we have public servants-they are supposed to be servants of the public-refusing to carry out lawful directions. But worse than that, this Government capitulated. It gave in. This Government permitted the union to block dole questions, thereby allowing people who were wrongfully receiving benefits to escape detection. The Melbourne Herald of 20 April 1987 had a very illuminating article. I would like to quote from the first paragraph of that article. It said:

Strong industrial opposition has forced the Social Security Department to revamp planned interviews of more than 100,000 long-term unemployed.

The department has scrapped at least 12 of 32 questions-

more than a third of the questions that the Department initially thought were necessary to be asked-

. . . from a package prepared for the Federal Government's crackdown on welfare fraud . . .

or the Government's so-called crackdown. That leaves 20 questions, one would think, which would be asked-20 out of the original 32. But this matter does not finish there, because the Government has given to those same officers who opposed the initial proposal the right to exclude further questions at their discretion. Does that mean that an officer who does not in any way, shape or form wish to cut social welfare fraud will be permitted to ask two, three or four irrelevant questions? The Government has left a way out to make its program entirely ineffective.

I think those people listening to this broadcast would be interested to know the questions which have been scrapped under the Government's surrender arrangement to the union. The first question is: `Have you worked since your benefit commenced?'. How on earth can the Government accept the deletion of that question? Surely it goes right to the essence of entitlement to receive welfare payments. The next question was: `Do you get any payments from . . . boarders . . . or . . . lodgers?' If people have alternative sources of income, surely that is another relevant consideration. Another question was: `Do you receive income from rented property?' Again, the Government has shirked a question which should rightfully be asked on whether the person receives certain additional income. The next question was: `What efforts have you made to get work in the past four weeks?' Social welfare and dole payments should be given to those people who need them. The dole is a payment of last resort to people who cannot get work. Yet under the Government's agreement-its surrender to the union-the public servants will now not be asking welfare recipients what efforts they have made to get work in the past four weeks. That makes an absolute joke of the Minister's program. Another matter is that those people being interviewed will not have to produce proof of identity-their father's name, their mother's maiden name or their place of birth. Consequently, the Department has handcuffed itself. The Department, by giving in to the wishes of a militant union, has prevented the Government's campaign-if in fact one can call it that-from being effective.

I think it is a tragedy that in this day and age when Australia is virtually a Third World country with a First World standard of living-a country where almost $20 billion is being spent on welfare; a country with a national debt of over $101 billion, or about $6,000 for every man, woman and child; which has an enormous trade deficit of over $12 billion or thereabouts for a year; which, as I have mentioned before in this place, is fast becoming the Argentina of the Pacific-this Government is failing to grasp this opportunity to eliminate welfare cheats from the system. Of course, to cheat on welfare is to thieve from one's fellow Australians. The Government's claim that its dole crackdown will be effective-and certainly there have been some savings to date-and that it will necessarily cut 25,000 from the list and save $100m might well be an optimistic forecast. I wish to reiterate, just in case those people opposite would like to misinterpret what we are saying, that we are not opposed to assisting those people who are genuinely in need. However, we are opposed to the Government's complete maladministration of social security matters.

Before I close, I draw the attention of the House to the single rate tax policy which was mentioned during this debate by the honourable member for Canning and the honourable member for Capricornia (Mr Wright). I must say that they indulged in scare tactics. They failed to note that we are talking about a single rate tax policy and not a flat rate tax policy. They failed to take into account that no person who is currently paying less than 25c in the dollar will pay any more than he is now paying. I assure the pensioners of Australia that they will not be worse off. They should disregard the comments of Labor members opposite which are quite incorrect.

Our main policy objectives in the area of social security will attract the support of the people of Australia at the next election. We aim to make the social security system simple and easy to understand. We aim to improve administration and to modernise methods of services and control of benefit payment. We aim to target resources better and to concentrate help where it is most needed. We aim to support and encourage the family structure as the traditional and basic unit of our society.

Mr Tim Fischer —Hear, hear!

Mr SLIPPER —I thank the honourable member. We aim to improve incentives to work, save, earn more and study. We aim to give more recognition to the needs of people with disabilities. We aim to ensure that services are delivered efficiently and economically. We also aim to take those steps which are necessary to place social security on a secure financial base for the future.

Australia is a compassionate society. However, we are a country with finite means. We are a country which must exercise financial administration in a husband-like way. We cannot afford to squander money that we do not have. Australia once was the lucky country. But under Labor we are now virtually a Third World country. We are a country in deep trouble. We are saddled with a government which has a shocking record of bad administration, a shocking record of neglect and a shocking record of the destruction of our economy. Therefore, in the area of social security, we seek from the Government common sense and a fair go for the average Australian. We seek from the government that it take the necessary steps to stamp out fraud and overpayment so that social security funds can get through to those people who genuinely need them.