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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2495

Mr BLUNT(2.52) —Today we have before the House a very important matter, a matter which this Government has no stomach to address-and that is the inadequacy and inappropriateness of its welfare policies and the consequences of those inadequacies for Australian families and age pensioners in the entire budgetary process. The reality is that this Government and the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe), who is at the table, have let down the Australian population as a whole. As a result of this Government's inadequate welfare policies we have a crisis in welfare and we are about to see further pain inflicted on Australian families and pensioners.

Before beginning the detailed facts that I intend to put before the House today, I will have a look at this Government's record. Its record is appalling. Many people are aware of the cost of welfare to Australian taxpayers but not many people know what it is in terms of each worker. In Australia today we spend $60 per week per worker. For every person employed in Australia today earning wages or a salary, and paying tax, this Government spends $60 on welfare. Honourable members should think about that when they pay their tax bills, because $60 per worker goes into this Government's welfare budget. It is also important to note that following this Government's term in office there are 430,600 more people on welfare than there were when it came to power. That says a lot for the much vaunted economic policies of the Hawke-Keating Government. They have been an absolute failure, matched only by the inadequacies of its welfare policies. As I said, this Government has inadequate welfare policies and sloppy administration.

When campaigning in 1983, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) made a series of promises to the aged in Australia. He promised to increase pensions to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. He promised regular and full indexation of pensions in Australia, and in a 1983 policy speech he said that his Party would increase the dependent spouse rebate. Selectively over the past couple of days this Prime Minister and other Ministers in his Government have been leaking to the Press Gallery what they propose to do in the next few weeks about the age pension and assistance to families in Australia. According to these selective leaks emanating from the Prime Minister's office there will be partial indexation of pensions, not full indexation on a quarterly basis. We will also have means testing of the dependent spouse rebate-the absolute opposite of what he promised, an increase in that rebate. Also we will have means testing of family allowances. I hope that the Prime Minister will tell us how much it will cost to means test family allowances, what the savings will be, what this means in terms of horizontal and vertical equities, and what it will do to the labour market. I am sure that the Minister at the table understands exactly what happens when a government goes in for hip-pocket and top-of-the-head reactions on family allowances. The Prime Minister is also talking about cutting the Medicare rebate, when Medicare was to provide cheap and effective health costs for all Australians.

When the Government was seeking office it made a series of promises. Let us have a look at what it did when it achieved office. The first thing that the Government did was to decide who was an easy mark in Australian society. The Prime Minister decided that the aged and the retired in this community were a very easy mark, a slow moving target that he, his Government and his Ministers could have a go at whenever they liked. The list of the Government's attacks on the aged is long and extremely embarrassing. The list is of no credit to any member of the Government. First, the Government introduced the assets test. We all know what hardship that caused and what a mess it was. We know that we have the fifth version of the assets test, and we know that it still does not work. We then had the withdrawal of earnings concessions. The Government withdrew the ability of pensioners to average the few dollars a week that they make to supplement their pensions. At the same time, the Government provided averaging for Australian sportsmen and women. What about a bit of consistency? We penalise the pensioners and give a benefit to sports people. There was no increase in the pension to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings, the Government deferred the consumer price index adjustments and, of course, the Government has restricted the access of pensioners to the free drugs list.

The Government's record in relation to the family is just as bad-in fact, it is worse. This is the Government that introduced a means test on family allowances for 16- and 17-year-olds but which still persists in paying an un-means tested unemployment benefit to 16-year-olds. It is positive discrimination against people getting an education. The Government makes it harder for families to keep their kids at school but provides a $50 cash in hand payment for any child who for one reason or another at the immature age of 16 decides to drop out. That is socially irresponsible. It is almost a crime against society. It is in the same category as the Government's proposal last week to pay the supporting parent benefits at the married rate to women under 16 years living in de facto arrangements. That is the sort of social engineering that is occurring within the Government's welfare policies. They are policies determined to change the structure of our society, not to provide assistance to those in need.

One would think that this Government had a hatred of the family, that it was anti-family. It has implemented policies that have done nothing but penalise families in Australian society. This is the Government which, since it came to office, has introduced 16 new taxes, which taxes have reduced the disposable income of all Australian families. The average Australian family is $31 a week worse off now than it was in 1983. There is not a family in Australia that does not know that it is worse off now than when the Hawke-Keating Government came to power. Families know the reason why. They know it is because of the new taxes and the high interest rates. They know it every month when they make their mortgage payments, they know it every week or fortnight when they pay their rent, and they know it every time they go to a supermarket and encounter the so-called 10 per cent inflation. A basket of food that cost $80 in 1983 costs $105 today, and it is directly the result of the economic mismanagement of this Government. It is a government that has lost control of the economy, a government that is determined to change the nature of Australian society, and a government that is anti-family. It is a government that is prepared to spend money that it knows it does not have, a government that is prepared to increase Australia's foreign debt to $100 billion. It is a government that is not prepared to make tough decisions, a government whose policies are all top of the head reactions, and a government that does not crack down on fraud and welfare abuse.

We have got to the stage in Australia where we can no longer tolerate irresponsible government and fiscal irresponsibility. In terms of the family and age pensions, it is about time this Government came down to earth and said: `Enough is enough; we are not going to attack the family again. We are going to back off the pensioners; we are going to do something about welfare fraud. We are going to stop the billion dollar a year rip-off that occurs at present; we are not going to simply make a few changes that save us $10m here and $100m there'. Those sorts of changes inflict considerable pain on the majority of Australians. The majority of Australians support this country, go out to work every day, try to earn a living and try to put a few dollars aside so that they can give their family a better opportunity and a better future. They are trying to keep their kids at school and to buy the food, clothing and shoes that are necessary to keep their families going. It is about time we cracked down on the welfare slime. It is about time we had a bit of principle. It is about time we had a go at the holy cows of the left wing in this country.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand Australian children are living in poverty, which is many more than when this Government came to power. The honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Hand) knows this. The spokesman for the left wing is embarrassed to admit it, but he is prepared to say it. It is about time the Government recognised that the consequences of its policies are directly hurting Australian families, and it is about time it came to grips with that and turned its policies around. In the next couple of weeks we do not want to see from this Government a further resort to expedient policies, to policies that pander to those people in the Government who will resist at all costs an attack on the structural problems that this Government has institutionalised within its budgetary process.

We have to do away with political pork-barrelling. We have to do away with funding the left wing, trendy causes. We have to recognise that the basis of Australian society is the family. We have to support the family. We have to support education for children. We have to support the dependent spouse, the person who chooses to stay home and provide the parenting role for the family. We cannot afford a continuation of those policies which are destroying the family, which are putting immense economic and social pressure on family units and which are encouraging the breakup of the family and therefore putting further pressure on the Australian taxpayer through the ever increasing welfare demands of this Government's policies.

We have over 600,000 people on unemployment benefit in this country. We have 60,000 unfilled jobs. We have no commitment from this Government to work out who is part of the black economy, who is actually working for cash but drawing unemployment benefits. It was only a few weeks ago that the Minister made a series of statements that all was well within the welfare area. He said that moves to tighten up the administration of unemployment benefits have been very effective. At the same time he was doing a deal behind closed doors with the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association to undermine the so-called review of the long term unemployed. Now there is no obligation within the Department of Social Security on any officer to ask any questions of anyone in the long term unemployed category. The only obligation that has been imposed under the agreement with the union is for the officer to get one signature on the last page of the interrogation form. The Minister reckons that his measures have been effective. He is running the greatest con job that we have ever seen in relation to this Department. In August 1986 the Minister warned welfare cheats that their days of defrauding the system were numbered. In September he attacked the Opposition for criticising the weakness of government initiatives to tighten procedures. He sold them out last month. Last October, with great fanfare, he announced his measures to toughen the welfare system against fraud and overpayment. Last November he said that no government has done more to fight welfare fraud than this one.

He is not even fooling himself. He is not fooling the Prime Minister; he is not fooling the Treasurer (Mr Keating); he is not fooling the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh); and he certainly has not fooled the Australian people because everybody knows that welfare fraud is widespread and insidiously ingrained and in the Australian society. For four years he has sat on his hands and not only has he done nothing but he has also condoned it-he has aided and abetted it. The last straw was his sellout of the so-called review of the long term unemployed in the past couple of weeks.

It is about time we had some effective anti-fraud measures in this country-not measures attacking the family, not the abolition of the dependent spouse rebate, not the means testing of family allowances but effective anti-fraud measures to bring to justice those people who are ripping off the system. Last year in this Parliament the Treasurer said that 10,000 people who are on unemployment benefits should not be getting them. More than 10,000 people who are on unemployment benefits should not be getting them, but this Government has not caught them. It announced with great fanfare that its hit squads would come up with a great toll of people who are cheating the system. It caught 1,500 people between the Budget in August last year and April this year. It has another 7,500 to catch in about six weeks to meet the Treasurer's estimate. It cannot be done because the Department has no manpower resources to enforce the restrictions and the eligibility requirements of social welfare.

Let me also tell honourable members that when the Government does catch someone it does not prosecute. Last year this Government prosecuted only 1,800 people for welfare fraud, not in the area of unemployment benefits but in the whole range of welfare payments. Four million people are getting benefits and, according to the Treasurer, there are 10,000 people getting benefits to which they are not entitled. What sort of a record is this? It is an absolute disgrace that this Minister and this Government continue to penalise those people who cannot fight back-the aged in our society and those people who are seen as an easy target, Australian families-and allow the welfare slime to go unapprehended and unpenalised. This is the Government that ran an amnesty for welfare cheats saying: `Come in and tell us what you have been ripping off from the system and we will forgive you and write it off''. The Government gave away $20m or more. Instead of cracking down very hard after that, it has done nothing. It sold out to the ACOA. The reason the ACOA put such demands on the Minister was that there is no manpower within the Department of Social Security to implement the test, because it would rather put effort into giving money away than into making sure that people who are getting the money deserve it.

Today in Question Time we saw the Prime Minister, stuck for an answer, say that the real problem in the welfare area was one of identification. The Minister knows, just as I know, that identity is not a problem within the Department of Social Security. If it is, the Minister should resign on the spot because one of the most significant aspects of this agreement in which he sold out to the ACOA was that he do away with any requirement for officers of his Department to obtain proof of identity. The Prime Minister knows that the questions that went by the way were those which related to proof of identity. Yet he sat there with his eyes on the carpet while the Prime Minister said we need the identity card. If the Minister were really worried about--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.