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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2329

Dr HARRY EDWARDS(6.04) —The primary purpose of the Social Security Amendment Bill 1987, as has been pointed out, is to introduce a number of procedures designed to combat social security fraud. That, at least, is a recognition on the part of the Hawke Government that social security fraud is not a matter primarily of identification-an argument of which we heard much as a phoney claim in the debate on the Australia Card Bill-but of wrong financial and other information. Belatedly, the Government wants to do something effective in combating unnecessary and wasteful expenditure in the social security area. This is tied into the May economic statement which is also a recognition that the Government's record as the biggest spending, biggest taxing and biggest borrowing government in the country's history has to be gotten under control.

Thus the imperatives of Australia's very serious and, indeed, quite critical and dangerous economic position are thus getting through to the Government. Let us make no mistake: The parlous state of the country has got through loud and clear to the average Australian. The living standards of ordinary Australians, particularly the one income family, have fallen disastrously under the Hawke Labor Government with higher taxes taking a greater proportion of the family income even after the co-called Keating reforms are in place than was taken when the Government took office; with crippling interest rates so that a typical home mortgage is up by the order of $50 a week; and with prices in the supermarkets increasing virtually every week. In several debates this week the Opposition has underlined the situation and the Government has had no adequate reply.

This decline in living standards, in particular the devastation of the ordinary family, reflects the wrong-headed economic policies of the Hawke Government, exacerbated to some extent by the adverse movement in the terms of trade. The cumulative massive Budget deficit, reflecting the reckless overspending of the Government in its four years in office, has been a major factor in that. Without elaborating in detail, the effect is to pile up debt-in the final analysis, overseas debt-vast interest obligations, contributing significantly to the yawning balance of payments gaps; and the depreciation of the Australian dollar which has the effect of further reducing the real income available to this nation; and so on.

This country is in one heck of a bind. For the benefit of those who are driving home and listening to this debate, I tried to focus the predicament of the country the other day, alluding to Economic Planning Advisory Council study No. 22, in this way: It will require the toughest of budgetary policy-that is, really axing government spending, curbing the Government's excessive spending and borrowing-a really tough line on money income increases, preferably a wage freeze; and a good deal of luck, and particularly an expansive international environment which is currently under threat. Those things will be required just to stabilise-not to decrease, just to stabilise-Australia's overseas debt at the order of 40 per cent of gross domestic product with a similar drain on our export income, and that in five years. I hope the Australian people can see the imperative of getting the Government's spending, and hence its borrowing, under control. That, in its way, is what this Bill is about as is, similarly, the forthcoming May economic statement.

Earlier in this debate, last night, I listened to the honourable member for Capricornia (Mr Wright) holding forth about the enormous difficulties of reducing government spending, let alone really axing it, and challenging the Opposition to respond as to whether it would cut this or that in this social security area-debate on which was before the House. Various other areas were raised-education, defence and so on. I reject totally any obligation on the part of the Opposition to respond directly to such a challenge. Honourable members opposite are the Government and it is their responsibility. We have only to look back and take a close look in particular at the 1984 Budget. Apart from the science area which was disastrously cut-so much for the Government's priorities-it was the greatest spend-up of all time. Spending on the community employment program, sport and recreation and many other areas went up by 60 to 80 per cent. The grant to the Australian Bicentennial Authority increased by the order of 350 per cent. I draw attention to that because this point was summed up in a recent ANZ Bank study which showed that, had there been reasonable restraint, the Federal Government's outlays would have been some $8 billion lower in the 1986-87 financial year than they actually are. The urgency of axing would have been so much less.

Just the same, I have no hesitation in specifying some spending cuts. For example, the then shadow Minister for Health, the honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter)-who is now the shadow Minister for the Family which, as I said earlier, is sorely in need of the greatest protection and support from the onslaught of the Hawke Government-recently set out how government spending in the Medicare area could be reduced by some $3 billion.

In respect of unemployment benefits, to come back to the general content of this Bill, last night the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) elaborated on some of the things that need to be done to cut down on fraud and unnecessary spending. The point I want to make in this content is that the Government has reported that investigatory teams have found in areas spread over four States that a quarter of the unemployment benefit recipients who were questioned had been cheating the Department and have had their dole payments terminated. In New South Wales, the applicable ratio was about one-third. Notwithstanding the remarks that the honourable member for Scullin (Mr Harry Jenkins) made a while ago, on the basis of the Government's reported findings, some 25 per cent or more of unemployment benefits should be withdrawn. The total payment made for unemployment benefits at the moment is some $3.5 billion. Thus, one is talking of a reduction in spending of the order of $1 billion. So, in just two areas, some $4 billion is involved. One can look to the gravy train of the grants under the Commonwealth employment program and to other areas, but-and I stress this-that does not include the pensions area. It was false, if not all but libellous, for the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow), who spoke earlier in this debate, to accuse the Opposition of proposing to freeze, or even to cut, pensions.

The Opposition supports the Bill, which is designed to further control social security fraud. That is an important thrust in the overall urgent imperative of axing Government spending in this country.