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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2502

Ms MAYER(3.33) —I am really intrigued by the contribution of the honourable member for Hinkler (Mr Conquest). I am not entirely sure where he stands on his Party's policies but I guess, since his Party's policies are not detectable, that that is understandable. I would like to talk about something else; and that is, the terms of this matter of public importance:

The hardship caused to Australian families and aged pensioners through the Government's failure for 4 years to deal with massive social security fraud and overpayment.

If we want to look at that in any kind of context we need to talk about the record of the Opposition because what people do, rather than what they say, is the appropriate measure by which to judge them. We can only speculate about what might happen in the future, but we can say what happened in the past and what is going on in the present. Very few people will be taken in and believe that so-called massive fraud and overpayment suddenly sprang into being four years ago, on 3 March 1983. In fact, because of the previous Government's policy and its administration, fraud and overpayment became an endemic part of the social security system.

What were some of those policies that led to a situation that that Government was unable to deal with? First and foremost was the use of unemployment as an economic strategy to reduce inflation. That failed policy led to a 58 per cent increase in unemployment-187,000 lost jobs in the last year of the Fraser-Howard Government. This brutal strategy not only put 700 people a day out of work and reduced the living standards of 187,000 Australian families but also imposed unbearable strains on the underresourced and undertrained staff of the social security system. What was the response? Remember that we had the bedroom inspectors and the Greek conspiracy case? In the first instance, there was massive invasion of privacy and the assumption that pensioners and beneficiaries, particularly sole parent beneficiaries, were frauds and criminals, and the second instance was the most shameful episode in the history of social security. The infamous Greek conspiracy case was based on the word of an informant. On that informer's word people, because they were of Greek origin, had their entitlements denied with no preliminary examination of the legitimacy of those entitlements. The result was that all entitlements were returned as examination found that they were legitimate. A whole community was denigrated without subsequent apology and it cost the Commonwealth over $50m to carry out that nonsensical investigation and the subsequent failed court cases-so much for efficient administration.

What can bring about fraud and overpayment? The single very important factor in fraud is identity. If a person is able to establish more than one identity, that person is able to defraud the system. When a system is overstressed, as it was during the time of the previous Government because of its policies, the extensive checking of identity becomes a problem.

Overpayments usually occur when the Department is unable, because of poor resources, to keep in sufficiently close contact with its clients. Prior to this Government's coming into power, the discovery of fraud and overpayment relied largely on informers. The Greek case shows just how reliable that can be. In any case, I reject a system which encourages neighbour to spy on neighbour. What kind of society is that to encourage? One sensible thing done by the previous Government in this respect was to begin the replacement of an antiquated computer system with a much better and more powerful one, the implementation of which this Government has overseen and assisted with.

This Government has gone much further. It has established tighter identification procedures, which are working, though they are still time consuming and would better be dealt with by having the Australia Card. The Assistant Secretary, Benefits Control, has said that `anything at all which improves the ability of people to identify themselves and removes some of the difficulties which we and other agencies presently encounter is a good step'. So let us have that good step. It would certainly help to take a great deal of work out of the department and off the shoulders of its personnel, allowing them to get on with other essential things.

Opposition cries of massive fraud, at the same time as it is fulminating against a simple and effective method of ensuring that fraud is kept to an absolute minimum, really smack of hypocrisy. We have improved to an enormous degree contact with pensioners and beneficiaries through more frequent and simplified procedures. We have improved information to clarify and make understandable just what people are and are not entitled to. We have changed the system of providing cheques to the direct credit system, which had been recommended for some time by, among others, the Australian Federal Police but which was not taken up by the previous Government. That change alone has led to a 72 per cent reduction in cheque fraud-a worthwhile step taken by us, not our predecessors, who in opposition today prefer to wring their hands and cry crocodile tears about something they did nothing to prevent.

This year, the Department of Social Security office in my electorate was the first regional office to have a selective review team operating. This team has proceeded in a way that is very different from the bedroom inspectors of the past. They have done their work sensitively and efficiently on the assumption that the vast majority of pensioners and beneficiaries are honest people battling along on small incomes. They did not work on the primary assumption that social security clients were dishonest cheats. However, those interviews, the personal lodgment of claim forms, the necessity for unemployment beneficiaries to maintain continuous registration with the Commonwealth Employment Service and the extra entitlement checks have proved extremely effective in preventing pensions and benefits from being paid to those who are not entitled to them and, it needs to be noted, in providing benefits to those who were entitled but unaware of that entitlement. It is extremely important for the Opposition to understand that that, too, happened. To the end of March the 7,340 targeted interviews by the review teams resulted in 1,824 pensions or benefits being cancelled, 179 being reduced and 363 being increased. Therefore the review teams were not there as slashers but to ensure that people had their appropriate entitlements. In my electorate 780 pensioners and beneficiaries had their entitlements reviewed and 225 reductions and cancellations took place. I do not have the figures for the number that were increased. After all, it is surely important in preventing hardship that entitled people receive their full entitlement, although this is not apparently the concern of the Opposition.

Also in my electorate the Department of Social Security regional office has placed one of its officers with the CES, which is happy to co-operate in identifying and assisting the long term unemployed and others to return to the work force. Perhaps the honourable member for Richmond is unaware of the improved productivity, training and systems within the Department and is working on the information relating to past practices and resources. That would most certainly lead him astray. Given that the hardship referred to in this matter of public importance debate is predicated on the notion that fraud and overpayments deprive pensioners and beneficiaries, let us have a look at the situation. It is useful to understand that an increase of a dollar a week in pensions and benefits would cost $200m. Even if the honourable member's totally unsubstantiated guess of $350m were anywhere near the truth, which it is not, we are talking about $1.50 to $1.75 a week for each pensioner and beneficiary. Looking at the facts which are substantiated, such as the $136m which has been recovered, we are talking about a hardship of about 90c a week. If the honourable member intends to go on about hardship he should understand that that hardship resides in more than just an unsubstantiated guess at the amounts which fraud and overpayment cost. He should start looking at the realities of hardship in families. Those realities rest on such things as unemployment, lack of housing, poor education and poor health services, all of which were the responsibility of the Opposition when it was in government.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The time for the debate has expired.