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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 25056


Mr MOSSFIELD (10:06 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to participate in this appropriation debate and to be following the member for Lalor. It gives me a good opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents and record in the journals of this House the attitudes, feelings and problems being faced by some of the people in my electorate.

With this bill, we are appropriating money for government departments and programs—money that has come from the hip pockets and pay packets of ordinary Australians. That places a great responsibility on us as the representatives of ordinary taxpayers in this place to do what is right: to spend their money in the best interests of our nation—a great responsibility indeed. In fact, the appropriation debate is the most fundamental debate that we have in this chamber: how do we spend the money given to us by the taxpayer? How we spend it and what we spend it on is determined by what we see as the role of government. It is a fundamental question of basic principles.

Since 1996, we have seen a sea change in the way governments operate. We used to, as a government, support people: Medicare, the Commonwealth dental scheme, public schools and so forth. Increasingly, though, this government has stopped supporting people and is now subsidising multinational companies instead. Despite the rhetoric and the payment method, the 30 per cent rebate for private health insurance is a direct subsidy to the private insurance industry and the money is taken from public hospitals and public health to do it. This is an industry that could not stand on its own two feet in the marketplace. They were unable to provide a service consumers wanted at the price consumers were willing to pay. This is an industry now being propped up by taxpayers who did not want it in the first place.

Four Corners a few weeks ago exposed how this government is subsidising multinational drug companies like Pfizer against the express advice of its own advisory board, the PBAC. There has been a shameful dereliction of duty on the part of Minister Wooldridge regarding this issue. He has systematically dismantled the PBAC and its effectiveness. He sacked those who stood up to the industry and who got the outcomes that were favourable to taxpayers. He caved in to industry pressure and put Pat Clear on the committee. What has happened: a blow-out in the budget that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars—millions of dollars of taxpayers' money that could have been spent on any number of better things but has been spent instead on funding huge salary increases for drug company executives.

So while millions of dollars of my constituents' money is being doled out to the multinational companies who are now showing record profits, what is happening to my constituents? Many are struggling to make ends meet. The economy is booming—or at least it has been; or so we have been told. It has never looked better. But we do not live in just an economy; we live in a society, a community, a nation, and the economy is only part of that. We saw Richard Court being unceremoniously dumped in Western Australia, despite having a good economy. Why? Because Mr Court may have provided a good economy but he failed to provide a good society. Public schools and public hospitals were underfunded by Mr Court. These public assets are not helped by a good private sector economy, but they are the foundation stones upon which Australian society is built, and governments cannot be allowed to forget that.

This is where Mr Court fell down. He built the economy but forgot to build the society in which the economy functions. It is no good having a you-beaut engine if there is no body frame or seats around it to turn it into a car and the tyres are flat. This government has spent all its time working on the engine—spit and polish; meanwhile, the rust is building up, the paint work is fading, the material on the seats is becoming a little frayed and the dash is beginning to crack under the punishing sun. The engine is only part of it. Mr Howard will find it difficult getting it through rego later this year if all he is doing is putting a bit of spac filler over the rust and crossing his fingers, regardless of the condition of the engine.

It is also no good having a good engine if you cannot afford petrol to put in the tank. The economy is not the be-all and end-all of society. The sooner governments wake up to this fact, the sooner we can consign the failed experiment called economic rationalism to the dustbin of history. Governments have a role to play in the way our society, our communities, function. That is the government's job. That is why we are here and those who would sell it off or give it away are simply not doing their job properly. Governments are accountable and as representatives of the people in this place we, too, are accountable. Our job, the job of governing, brings with it great responsibility. But those opposite do not want to deal with that. They do not want to face up to their responsibilities. It is far too easy to flog off their responsibility to the private sector and sit back, hands in the air, and say, `It wasn't me. I didn't do it,' when something goes wrong.

If the corporate excesses of the 1980s and 1990s have shown us anything, they have shown that the private sector is not necessarily better at running things than the public sector. One only has to witness all the high-flyers who came crashing down, bringing many hardworking families with them. There were lessons to be learnt from that period, but this government has its head buried in the sand. For a Prime Minister who spends all his time looking backwards and none looking forward, I find it remarkable that he can fail to grasp the lessons of yesterday. The same mistakes are being repeated and new ones committed every day. John Howard asks us to be relaxed and comfortable. What he is really asking is whether we want the blindfold or not. There is no more evidence than in the Department of Family and Community Services with Centrelink. This is definitely one department that is not relaxed and comfortable. The social security safety net has been rent with holes since this government came to office, and there are now many who are falling through the cracks.

I want to mention a few specific cases I have dealt with recently in my electorate office. The first relates to the preclusion period faced by those who receive compensation payouts and the impact that the GST has had on their lives. There have been multiple cases through my office door regarding this matter, and I have spoken on this subject before. Unfortunately, nothing has been done by the previous minister and I have not heard from the new minister on this subject either. Members would know that, prior to 1 July 2000, the infamous date in Australian history that saw the introduction of the GST, any compensation payout for economic loss was divided by a figure of $422.90 and the result was the number of weeks that people were precluded from claiming Centrelink payments. As part of this government's so-called compensation package, this figure was raised to $543.63, a difference of over $120 per week.

The trouble is that, if you began your exclusion period prior to 1 July 2000, you missed out on compensation for the GST. There was no recalculation of this figure on 1 July; the $422.90 stayed. If the $543.63 figure was applied to the outstanding balance at 1 July, then the preclusion period for receiving Centrelink payments would be reduced significantly. The payout figure received by my constituents as a result of their injuries was effectively devalued with the introduction of the GST. Everybody's savings were also devalued. That is why the government put in place certain compensation measures. However, anyone who received the compensation payouts before 1 July and whose compensation period spanned the GST has been penalised. The government believes that anyone who received a compensation payout before 1 July 2000 should live for an extra 16 or 17 weeks on about $120 less per week than those who received their compensation payments before 1 July 2000. This is a piece of logic that escapes me. I believe that the recalculation of the preclusion period post 1 July 2000 should be the first order of business for the new minister, Minister Vanstone.

The next issue where government policies have left Centrelink not so relaxed and comfortable is the issue of breaching. Breaching is the formula whereby Centrelink recipients lose all or part of their payments for a range of offences such as failing to attend interviews or failing to declare income. In 1996 when this government came to power there were 113,000 breaches recorded. That figure has been rising dramatically. In 1999-2000, the figure was 490,494. This is an increase of 433 per cent of the number of breaches issued by Centrelink. Of the 490,494 people breached, 188,000 were either not proceeded with or overturned on appeal. Centrelink was wrong in 188,000 or 38 per cent of cases. In 188,000 cases, Centrelink took all or part of the payments for no substantial reason. Some 188,000 people were not very relaxed and comfortable at all. Centrelink is quick to get its claws in and take money off people. Some 490,494 breaches shows us this: take first and ask questions later.

In using the term `Centrelink' I am not being critical of the people who have to carry out the government's policy, but quite clearly my criticism is directed at the government itself for allowing these things to develop. However, some of my constituents have not merely been breached. Make a mistake and Centrelink lawyers come out to play, and they play with baseball bats. I had a constituent come through my door last year, a father in his mid 60s in poor health—I know him and his family personally. He had an impeccable record. He originally came from the UK. He had been a high school teacher in the UK. He had gone to New Zealand with his family and had been a high school teacher there. They moved to Australia and he was in receipt of a carer's payment for looking after his son, who suffered from cerebral palsy. This was clearly a battling family that has had major health problems.

His wife worked to make ends meet. She received a pay rise. With my constituent's ill health—during this period he suffered heart attacks and had a heart bypass—Centrelink was not informed; there was an oversight. They were not informed that his wife received a wage increase. This resulted in overpayment of some $6,800, which I understand was being repaid at the time that the matter was brought to a head. It also resulted in fraud convictions in the Parramatta magistrate's court. These were charges that were proceeded with despite the recommendation against this action by certain Centrelink staff. This was a good man I have known for a number of years. He was hounded by Centrelink carrying out the government's policy through the courts for a genuine mistake. Centrelink is a one-way street. The myth of mutual obligation has been turned to dust by the cold light of reality. `Mutual' is not in Centrelink's dictionary. It has breached for the most minor transgressions and usually gets it wrong anyhow and will bring out the lawyers and use the courts to pound people into submission. Under this government, the carrot has been given away to the bloke who made the stick bigger.

Another issue I want to refer to deals with the qualification tests to obtain a carers payment for a disabled child. There have been two recent cases reported to my electorate office regarding this issue, and I would like to explain to the House the circumstances of one of these cases. It is a case of a young child, Ryan Goswell, who suffers from Smith-Magenis-Syndrome, S-M-S. This is an extremely rare genetic condition where the sufferer is missing a portion of chromosome 17. The test for S-M-S has been around for only a few years. Prior to this the condition was often misdiagnosed as severe autism. Some of the characteristics of S-M-S are hearing impairment, chronic ear infection, eye problems including strabismus and myopia, heart defects and murmurs, curvature of the spine, urinary problems, faecal incontinence, speech delay, development delay, learning disability, mental retardation, hyperactivity, prolonged tantrums, destructive and aggressive behaviour and an almost lethal combination of decreased sensitivity to pain and a proclivity for self-injury.

Clearly, with those conditions, 24-hour a day, seven-day a week care and supervision of these children is needed. The Goswells receive respite for one week in four. This still leaves three out of four weeks for which they have to battle on alone. Robert Goswell, the father, is in and out of work as a result of the sheer amount of time required to look after his son. He was on Newstart but has been breached for a number of reasons, all relating to the care of his son. The medical bills are extensive and they keep piling up. Yet for the want of a single tick in a ridiculously narrowly defined Centrelink form, this family is unable to get a carers pension.

Children are treated differently from adults in the process of qualifying for a carers payment. For adults there is a test with a sliding scale, and points are added up for the various conditions and the amount of care required. So many points qualify someone for a payment. For a child, however, a medical report form is to be filled out by a doctor. The form requires three ticks in the boxes in part C, which reads:

The child's disability or condition includes the following circumstances:

the child receives all food and fluids by nasogastric or percutaneous enterogastric tube

the child has a tracheostomy

the child must use a ventilator for at least 8 hours a day

the child is 3 or over and has faecal incontinence

the child is 2 or over and cannot stand without support

a medical practitioner has certified that the child has a terminal condition for which palliative care has replaced active treatment

the child is at least 6 months old and requires personal care on 2 or more occasions between 10pm and 6am each day

To qualify, Ryan needs ticks in the boxes next to three of these conditions. In this case, because the questions are so narrowly defined, Ryan receives only two ticks—for faecal incontinence and for care more than twice a night. As you can see, the form does not take into account any of the reasons the Goswells should be in receipt of a carers payment. The form is far too narrowly defined to be of any real use.

Of course when Ryan reaches the age of 18, in about nine years time—goodness knows how the family will be at that point—he will qualify, simply because under the current government children are treated far more harshly than adults in determining their eligibility for carers payments. This quite simply astounds me. The Goswells have fallen through the hole created in the safety net, and this family is far from relaxed and comfortable. Their lives are a living nightmare. This is certainly an issue that the government should consider very seriously.

I will make a couple of remarks relating to Centrelink and its treatment of people who are seeking employment. We should now realise that, due to economic rationalist policies, job seekers come from all levels of the socioeconomic ladder and from all skill levels. One constituent, whom I will call Joe, has been unemployed for 18 months since accepting redundancy from his employer, by whom he had been employed for 21 years. Joe accepted redundancy reluctantly—another important point is that a lot of people are really being forced out of employment—because his employment conditions and benefits would have deteriorated due to the restructuring taking place within his employer, Pacific Power.

Joe, who has not been previously unemployed, finds some aspects of dealing with Centrelink unhelpful, including the requirement to make 10 calls a fortnight to prospective employers irrespective of employment prospects. Joe is one of a growing number of skilled people who have been forced into unemployment through structural economic reform who are now required to access a system that has not been designed for them.

Finally, I will quote from a letter that recently appeared in my local newspaper. It expresses some concern about the way in which unemployed people are being treated. It states:

The new system introduced by the government for finding employment is a nightmare. The CES is now disbanded and replaced by a network of faceless employment agencies.

Where once you went to the CES and, on the same day, accessed employment and got an interview, you now have to fax many agencies.

This means days, even weeks, before you might hear from anybody. I have sent many, many faxes and sat for exams for basic menial tasks only to hear from a few that tell you the position is filled.

Someone made a passing comment: you are only a database statistic.

(Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Dr Nelson) adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 10.28 p.m.