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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 2223

Mr MAHER(6.44) —I reject the contention of the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper) that we are a Third World country. I reject the comparison and the somehow odious reference to Argentina which I think is a beautiful country, having visited that nation in 1984. I think it has a lot to teach Australia culturally and in other ways. It is also a very rich and fertile land and now that democracy has been restored I think it is on the road to success. Some of the outrageous things that the honourable member for Fisher said cannot be allowed to pass. It is a shame that he did not attend the talk last night in this House organised by the Parliamentary Library in which Professor Mathews spoke on the subject of taxation. Many of the things Professor Mathews said would have gladdened the honourable member's heart. Professor Mathews said that if we are to have a single flat rate tax, it will have to be accompanied by a wealth tax such as that which is levied in Europe. I have not heard anything about a wealth tax. However, he pointed out that such a tax must be part and parcel of a single rate tax. That is the procedure in Europe. Nearly all of the European countries tax wealth. I am sure that that is something that the National Party of Australia will never agree to. Its single rate tax will be laughed out of court.

The honourable member for Fisher talked about improving services within the Department of Social Security. The Government agrees with that. Everybody agrees with improving services. The Department now has 16,000 staff. All the National Party and the Liberal Party of Australia did when they were in government was cut staff. In 1982 the razor gang cut staff in every department. It was impossible to chase up people who were being reported for fraud or overpayment. That was certainly just a hollow statement by the honourable member for Fisher. His colleagues are loud in this House in their desire to revoke the assets test and to give pensions to people who now no longer qualify because their assets are such as to disqualify them. Yet, at the same time, the honourable member complains about the size of the social welfare budget which is about a third of our national Budget. He and his colleagues very foolishly say: `We want to cut welfare but we want to give pensions to everyone who is of pension age'. If they want to do that they need to investigate the desirability of introducing national superannuation.

The legislation before the House is of great importance. I feel that I must answer one other point that the honourable member made in his speech. The honourable member is a good friend of mine. However, he put forward an appalling proposal for an operation dobber under which one would have to dob in a friend, a neighbour, the lady across the road or some other old lady who may or may not be doing something illegal under the Social Security Act. I think that is outrageous. I think the Australian people are against the whole notion of pimps. It is against the Australian character. Our colleagues opposed the ID card on the basis of protecting privacy. Such a proposal would be an outrageous invasion of privacy. Let us consider the distress that would be caused if a wrongful or a spiteful allegation were made against someone getting the age pension who was sick and, perhaps, in a nursing home. Surely no member of this House could support such a proposal. That is why it has never been acted on. This is the sort of thing that happens in a totalitarian regime. We hear of children in Russia who allegedly report their parents for going to church and that type of thing. I say to the National Party: Please do not run such a frivolous proposal.

Australians accept this type of thing in certain cases. The Operation Noah drug campaign was tolerated, and quite rightly so. The campaign was quite successful in the States. People in the drug scene were dobbed in and I am sure that the police got many leads out of this campaign. If the proposal of the honourable member for Fisher were let loose we would be encouraged to dob in a tax cheat, a teacher who was not doing the right thing or a doctor who was overservicing. Where would we stop? We could be asked to dob in an accountant who gave us advice on how to cheat the Australian Taxation Office. The honourable member must rethink his operation dobber proposal. He must weigh it against the whole area of privacy and public policy. What does he hope to do when he gets all of this information? How many staff will need to be taken on by the Department of Social Security? There are already 16,000 there now. One cannot get a base grade clerk to go out and investigate complaints. One has to have trained personnel who will sensitively, sympathetically and thoroughly investigate all allegations.

All of us in this House as members of parliament receive letters and oral complaints from constituents about social security cheats. Some honourable members insist on statutory declarations. But, if members of parliament get letters they are duty bound to send them to the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe). I am sure that every member of this House and the Senate does that. Many prosecutions are made under the Act and this legislation deals with some of them. To get it in perspective we must realise that 1.3 million Australians received the age pension in 1985-86 and of those there were only 1,903 prosecutions. Most of these must have been pleas of guilty. Each of these prosecutions has to be investigated. They have to be prepared, and written up and typed by departmental officers. They then have to be sent to the legal officers, either in the Department or in what used to be called the Crown Solicitor's Office, and people have to go before the magistrates. Of the 1,903 prosecutions, 1,885 resulted in convictions and the amounts involved totalled $8.6m. That seems a lot of money but when one looks at the amount of $15 billion paid out in pensions, which was one-third of the Budget, one sees that it is not a very significant percentage.

There will always be problems in any social security system in ensuring that everyone is scrupulously honest. My experience not only as a member of parliament but also in the Crown Solicitor's Office was that people, particularly widows, got into trouble. These hard-working people would get a job, say, at a canteen. They would work for three weeks and be so good that an employer would beg them to stay for a bit longer. These people who would be working to make ends meet would then be dobbed in by somebody. Invariably that is how people are found out. I notice that this legislation is increasing the penalties for employers to ensure that, if required, they give information about people who are working for them.

I have never quite understood the matter of a personal liability being listed in legislation in the case of failure to comply. The maximum fine of $500 for an individual is being increased to $1,000 or six months imprisonment, and in the case of a corporation it has to pay a $5,000 fine. This means that individual loses six months salary. Even supposing that he or she is on average yearly earnings of about $22,000, that works out at a fine of about $12,000 plus the $1,000 fine which is not even an alternative; it is cumulative. So if an individual is fined the maximum amount he is looking at a loss of $13,000 whereas a company can only be fined up to $5,000. Of course, nominal fines are often imposed, particularly on first offenders. I often wonder why the draftsmen drawing up these Bills do not work on average weekly earnings when setting the fine to be imposed not just in the legislation which is before the House tonight but also in other Bills.

Under section 17 of the legislation there is an obligation, which is extremely relevant, on staff in the Department not to divulge personal information and breach of this also attracts increased penalties. I must say that in my electorate of Lowe I have a very good working relationship with the Social Security office, which is the main office covering 110,000 people in the suburb of Strathfield. I am told that a new office is to open next Monday at Ashfield in the electorate of Grayndler-the electorate held by my colleague the Deputy Speaker, the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Leo McLeay)-right on the boundary of Lowe. The local newspaper is not able to establish how residents will find out what areas of Lowe are covered. But it is a good thing to increase the facilities so that old and frail people, or people who might be ill, do not have to go long distances to obtain information on their pensions, or perhaps apply for a pension or any other service from the Department of Social Security. It also eases the work in the electorate offices of members of parliament. So I am delighted that this new office is opening next week in the electorate of Grayndler. I only hope that the Department will see its way clear to open an office in the suburb of Burwood, which is the main shopping centre between Sydney and Parramatta and the commercial heart not only of my electorate but also of the inner western suburbs of Sydney. I assume it is mainly because the rents are so high in Sydney that there is no office there.

The legislation has other important facets. It includes reciprocal agreements on social security with the United Kingdom and New Zealand in the Schedules to the Act. Last year, when I was fortunate enough to visit Italy, it was very encouraging to meet Australian citizens who, having worked all their lives for this nation, had returned to Italy in their declining years and were living up in the mountains at San Fele and down near Potenza. I met one man in the village of San Fele who received an Australian pension. He was literally an agent or an honorary consul for Australia, spreading the word about Australia. He missed his beloved Five Dock back in Sydney and had many nostalgic memories of the good life in Australia. But he had decided to do what the Whitlam Government had allowed people to do, and that was to return to their homelands in their declining years. No one could criticise such a proposal, and I was pleased that the previous Government allowed it. The social security agreements have been cranked up and the Italian agreement is still going through the Parliament.

As I have mentioned, other matters in the Bill relate to prosecutions, offences under the Act and a number of miscellaneous matters. Rather than delay the House I want only to touch on the carer's pension, which is reasonably new, and amnesty. The annual report of the Department of Social Security for the year 1985-86 has details of the amnesty which was held during that year and which resulted in about 14,000 persons coming forward and surrendering pensions. I believe that an amnesty is something that Australians tolerate but they certainly do not tolerate an operation dobber. Members of the Opposition must realise that if they promote an operation dobber and they dob in a neighbour who is getting perhaps a bit more than he should in the way of old age pension, there is no holding such a scheme. It would just go into every other facet of public life. I do not believe that Australian children should be encouraged to dob in people and I do not believe that Australian citizens should be encouraged to do this, except in serious criminal matters.

We put forward a proposal, which the Opposition could have supported, to defeat welfare fraud. We have had a plea from the honourable member for Fisher to do something about welfare fraud, yet the Opposition totally rejected the Australia Card. The coalition has split up and members of the National Party of Australia can now support the ID card with impunity, because they will no longer be dragged by the Liberals to oppose the ID card. If the ID card comes forward again I hope that we will see members of the National Party cross the floor and vote with the Government.

I commend the previous government speaker, the honourable member for Canning (Mr Gear), who spoke on the legislation. He made the point that when we came to government in 1983 the age pension was 22.7 per cent of average weekly earnings. It is now 24.1 per cent and hovering around 24 per cent of average weekly earnings. I think we have a good case to put to the pensioners in Australia. After all, as I said earlier, 1.34 million people in this nation have to live on the pension. All members of parliament see pensioners who are at the cut-off point who lose fringe benefits when one spouse dies because they have a bit of income. These are all very sad cases and I hope that in the fullness of time this Government will do much to cut out not only the poverty traps but also those areas where old people are worried because of a loss of fringe benefits. The other day I saw a lady who was receiving a small superannuation payment. She had been a nursing sister in child care clinics and she received a small pension but by $1 she lost her fringe benefits. There must be a cut-off point, as everyone knows, for every government pension or service under this Act and under many other Acts relating to Austudy and other things, but it is sad for people to lose fringe benefits when they mean so much to them-perhaps more than is the case in reality because they are all covered by Medicare. This leads to the provision of many State and local government benefits, but mainly benefits ultimately paid for by the States. The situation in each State varies. Some States have pensioner concessions on local government rates and other States do not have such concessions.

In the few minutes that remain to me in this debate I wish to pay tribute to the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr West), who has doubled the amount available for pensioner accommodation and for public housing. I also pay tribute to those local groups who work for the aged, not only in my area but throughout New South Wales and in Australia generally. I pay tribute to the unpaid people who run the senior citizens clubs, the Combined Pensioners in New South Wales, the Blue Nursing Service and the Sydney Home Nursing Service, which does so much good work as a scheduled hospital in New South Wales which looks after old people. I also pay tribute to the Council on the Ageing in New South Wales, which is the peak organisation for Meals on Wheels and similar services. I wish to mention Mrs Averil Fink, the director of that service, who retired last week. I was sorry that I could not go to her farewell, but she has spent her life working for old people. I was for some years an executive councillor in the Council for the Ageing. I made a small contribution to that organisation, but Mrs Fink did a lot to create a good feeling towards that organisation. It paved the way to preparing groups and organisations for carers, those people who look after their old mums and dads, or sick wives. Some of those people give up their jobs to undertake this work. Most of them are in their fifties and abandon their employment in order to stay home to care for a frail relative. From time to time members of this House should pay tribute to Australians who are prepared to sacrifice all in nursing their parents or sick husbands or wives. Those carers are saving the Government money by keeping people out of nursing homes.

The Government has done a lot to help the aged and is constantly moving towards improving the carer's pension. In this debate on the Social Security Amendment Bill I thought I should mention these matters. I commend the Bill to the House. I am sure that when the honourable member for Fisher takes the opportunity to read my remarks he will appreciate that there are a lot of problems in running a dobbing in service in social security. We must bear in mind not just the implications for social security and the impossibility of recruiting the great numbers of extra staff that would be needed to handle these matters, but also the implications for every other aspect of Australian life. People would be asked to dob in tax cheats. They would be asked to dob in a neighbour with a defective car, or a neighbour's child who is not paying tax on his or her babysitting, or the lady up the street who has a small cleaning job. I think that the Australian people would totally reject such an inhuman and unsympathetic treatment of fellow Australians. I believe that it is an attitude that no government should encourage. I urge the House to support the legislation.