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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2260

Mr HODGES(12.17) —In my initial comments I must rebut one of the statements made by the honourable member for Burke (Mr O'Keefe). He talked about the member of the Liberal Party's organisation, Mr John Valder, and his comments at a meeting which were apparently taped. Mr Valder said that welfare cuts would be made if he had his way. Let me assure the honourable member for Burke and other Government members that Mr Valder, like anyone else of Liberal, Labor or any other persuasion in any of the communities throughout Australia, has a right to make comments. But the honourable member cannot give validity to comments such as those made by Mr Valder, prominent as he may be in the organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia, because he plays no part in the policies that the Liberal Party is developing or had developed previously with its coalition partner, the National Party of Australia.

Mr Barry Jones —That doesn't apply to Sir Robert Sparkes.

Mr HODGES —The Minister comments that that does not apply to Sir Robert Sparkes. He, like me, is not responsible for what happens within the National Party. Certainly, we are not responsible for what has happened to the National Party in the State of Queensland. Let us put to rest for once and for all comments that have come from Mr Valder or anyone else of whatever political persuasion within our community. It is the political representatives who develop the policies which come forward, and this applies whether those representatives are in government or in opposition.

The debate on the Social Security Amendment Bill 1987 provides all honourable members within this Parliament with an opportunity to examine our social security system. It gives us an opportunity to look at the adequacy of the system, its shortfalls and excesses, whether there is waste and whether there is a means by which we can reduce this waste. The bulk of social welfare expenditure occurs in what is commonly known as transfer payments. If we set aside the family allowances-and I would not for one moment want it to be construed that I do not support the concept and payment of family allowances, because I do-then the transfer payments to the aged, the disabled, the handicapped and veterans in the form of sickness and special benefit pensions account for about 90 per cent of total social security outlays which, in this current Budget, are estimated at $20.7 billion or 27.8 per cent of total government outlay. These transfer payments are the life-blood of about three million Australians. Parents and their dependants rely on those regular fortnightly payments for their existence.

This debate gives honourable members the opportunity to examine fraud within the system and ways of combating that fraud. Importantly, it provides us with the opportunity to examine the Hawke socialist Government's record in this respect and the treatment that is meted out to the aged, the veterans and the disadvantaged. I will examine briefly the issue of fraud. All governments are conscious of the need to police pay-out systems. Although the vast majority of people in our community are honest, some are not. The Bill provides for some increased penalties and these measures are supported by the Opposition.

I will look at the recent crackdown on social security cheats. I believe it has been reasonably successful, but more can be done-indeed much more can be done-and there is no need for the Hitler or Moscow-type identity card about which the honourable member for Burke and the honourable member for Dobell (Mr Lee) talked earlier. Reductions in fraud are achievable without a Hitler-type or Moscow-type ID card. Many Australians are convinced that the ID card is the answer for the complete elimination of fraud. I assure them that it is not. We on this side of the House recognise that some elimination will occur, but it is not the complete answer. By tightening up the social security system, as the present Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) has done, to his credit, we will see a vastly reduced amount of fraud within that system.

I want to raise the question of whether average people in our community should be involved in reporting persons whom they believe are defrauding the social security system. I would answer a firm yes to the question; they ought to be involved in reporting suspected fraud. I am aware that there are mischief makers in our community and that some decent, honest people would be reported incorrectly. But that happens now; it has always happened; and it will happen, no doubt, in the future. The Department of Social Security has a very thorough system of checking and it does it in a very discreet way. That at least has been my experience. I say to the average citizen that he really should feel duty bound to report cases of suspected fraud. He should not feel that he is doing the Government's dirty work. He should not feel that he is acting as a pimp. He should not feel that this is unAustralian, which is often mentioned when one discusses this matter with members of one's constituency. Indeed, to allow knowingly the system to be ripped off and do nothing is much worse in my opinion.

Mr Hodgman —It makes you an accessory after the fact.

Mr HODGES —As the honourable member for Denison says, it makes one an accessory after the fact. Social Security fraud is stealing. People are stealing the public's money and that is the taxpayer's money, the money that other Australians contribute. Therefore, I believe that all Australians should be involved in a quiet way in endeavouring to ensure that the Government reduces social security fraud to the greatest extent.

Of recent times there has been quite a deal of speculation as to whether pensions will be cut as a result of the May statement or the August Budget. Reports have been made that there may be some discounting of the consumer price index increases. I want to say one or two things about that speculation. Needy pensioners, in my view, should not be the subject of discounts just to make the Government's mismanagement look a little better. If the Government wants to reduce its deficit-I believe it ought to-it ought not to look to those who are most in need in our community. Pension increases occur twice a year. That has been traditional now for many years.

The pension increases have already been delayed by the Hawke socialist Government-the Government which, according to previous speakers, has expressed so much concern for pensioners and the disadvantaged, a government which they say has tried to achieve pensions equal to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. If that is its objective, how does it explain the fact that it put back the pension increases from May and November until June and December-with a saving of $129m in this financial year, depriving Australia's pensioners of those increases for six weeks? Most times CPI increases are less than the real increases that pensioners experience, or at least that is my understanding. The CPI, as we know, is an average across a broad spectrum of goods and services that are purchased by the Australian community. It is my understanding that the goods and services most affecting the lives of pensioners are in the higher bracket of increases. The CPI, the average, is not representative of the bulk of prices of goods and services used by pensioners. Therefore, the CPI increase should be the minimum extra payment to pensioners and the disadvantaged. To discount the CPI increases would amount to a gross injustice to pensioners.

I believe that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and the Minister for Social Security should give an unequivocal assurance to Australia's pensioners that those pensioners will not be affected by way of any discounting as a result of the May statement or the August Budget. That is the least that the Prime Minister can do to relieve the anxiety of Australia's three million pensioners because they are worried and concerned for their future. They hear various reports that this is likely to happen. Most of them have little or no money left at the end of each fortnight and are waiting for the next pension cheque.

In the last two or three years I have made it a practice to visit supermarkets regularly. I wonder whether the Prime Minister, the Minister for Social Security or the Treasurer has ever pushed a trolley around a supermarket. I try to go once or twice a month.

Mr Beale —The Minister for Science has.

Mr HODGES —The Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) indicates that he does. I appreciate that point, and I applaud him for it. It is an interesting exercise to go to supermarkets regularly, watch prices and see how much $40 or $50 buys. It is not a great deal. Pensioners do not purchase luxuries-at least very few of them do. We do not see them buying smoked salmon, exotic cheeses or caviare. They buy a lot of basic products such as milk, cheese, eggs, butter, bread, potatoes, onions and the essential vegetables. They tend to buy the cheapest of foodstuffs because they have to stretch their available money as far as they can. Those Ministers should go into a Coles supermarket or a Woolworths Big W and look at the prices of basic clothing items and household goods. I invite the Prime Minister to inform us how often he does this-and the Treasurer, for that matter, and the Minister for Social Security who are supposed to be so concerned about the level of incomes of pensioners and the quantity of goods that those incomes will purchase for them.

It is a sobering experience to go into supermarkets, to stand at the checkouts for a while and see the items that the pensioners are purchasing or watch them as they select the items from the shelves. It is an interesting and a sobering experience because they do not have the extra money to put into any form of luxury.

In recent times, certainly in some areas, rumours have been circulating that a Howard-led Liberal Government would reduce the health services available to pensioners or that we would make pensioners pay for those services. What we have said-and we have said this for some time and we stick to it-is that we would abolish bulk billing for ordinary Australians, but not for pensioners and the disadvantaged. Let me make that point quite clear, as some scaremongering is going on in certain sections of our community, promoted by Labor politicians and Labor Party people, that that will not be the case if a Liberal government comes to power. Pensioners and the disadvantaged will be bulk billed in future-indeed as they are at the moment.

The question of the Prices Surveillance Authority has come to the fore in recent times, with prices surveillance people running around with notepads checking prices in supermarkets. I know that in Queensland the honourable member for Lilley (Mrs Darling) has been involved. I call them the notepad pimps, running around with notepads checking prices in supermarkets. Mr Deputy Speaker, have you ever heard anything so absurd in your life? There is a lot of competition in this country, at both the manufacturing level and the food preparation level, as well as between the supermarkets, whether Coles, Franklins or, in Queensland, Jack the Slasher, Woolworths, or whatever.

From my observations over several years in relation to members of the Government, although I know that they have a problem with inflation, I believe that instead of trying to mask their problems by blaming manufacturers and retailers for price increases, they ought to attack the basic cause of our rising prices-inflation. They should forget about the notepads, the notepad pimps, and get back to basics, and do something about the state of the economy. The Government ought to concentrate on reducing our inflation level to where it ought to be, in line with most other Western world countries. Instead of inflation being at 9 per cent, it ought to be no more than about 3 per cent or 4 per cent. The problem of price increases derives from wage rises which are passed on to prices of manufactured goods and foodstuffs.

Mr Reith —Tax increases.

Mr HODGES —Yes, tax increases also, as the honourable member for Flinders has said. I now want to refer to one or two matters that relate to the elderly. The provision of an adequate number of nursing home beds, in particular, is causing me great concern in my electorate, and I believe that this applies throughout Australia. The Opposition supports the home and community care program, which provides services for the elderly within their home environment. There is nothing new about this program; it was in operation well before the Hawke Government came to power. It was a collection of the various services that were provided, and they were put under a new name. The increase in activity in that area is welcomed, but I am concerned that we have seen a substantial slow-down in the number of nursing home beds that are being provided in this country.

There comes a time when those frail aged people who are now being cared for in hostels are going to need a nursing home bed. However, the emphasis has been on the construction of more hostel beds, so what happens to those people when they require nursing home beds? We will finish up with a significant shortage of nursing home beds, and that will cause an overcrowding of the more costly occupancy of beds in hospitals. The Government ought to have a further look at this problem of the provision of nursing home beds. I know that it is not so much the capital cost of the beds that worries the Government but the recurrent costs involved. However, we must face up to the fact that people will require nursing home beds and we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand.

Recently I had occasion to attend the opening of a day therapy centre at Redcliffe, a city in my electorate of Petrie. That day care centre was constructed by the Blue Nursing Service, which is an offshoot of the Uniting Church in Queensland. The day therapy centre was given approval in principle for Commonwealth funding. The Blue Nursing Service collected the funds together and built the centre but has now been refused the subsidy. I think that this is a very serious matter because, although it is attached to a nursing home and hostel complex, that day therapy centre is extremely important to the community of Redcliffe, of some 46,000 people, a high percentage of which are aged people. Until its construction there was no day therapy centre at Redcliffe, although there were many hostel beds and nursing home beds in other institutions which are privately owned. Yet, having constructed this day therapy centre, the Blue Nursing Service has been denied any subsidy at all towards its construction cost. I ask the Government, particularly the Minister for Community Services (Mr Hurford), to examine this matter once again.

I shall conclude by referring to the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. The Government has been merciless when it comes to pensioners and the availability of commonly prescribed drugs for them. The honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow), who I think will be the following speaker in this debate, as a pharmacist, like myself, would know the importance of those 46 commonly prescribed drugs that were deleted from the list by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) late last year, to effect savings of about $60m. Pensioners, arthritis sufferers, now have to go and purchase their analgesics. It is all right for the Prime Minister, for me, for the Minister for Social Security, and the Minister for Health, to pay the $3 or $4 for 100 aspirin for our complaints, but it is not right for the pensioner. Winter is coming upon us, and pensioners will now be looking to antihistamines, cough linctuses and cough mixtures, and they will now have to go and buy them. This is the compassionate Government which talks about a percentage of average weekly earnings for pensioners, and yet it has refused to provide for the pensioners of this country basic pharmaceuticals under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired. On this occasion the Chair was reluctant to interrupt the honourable member's remarks, but for his future guidance he might like to know that his remarks were scarcely relevant to the Bill.