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Monday, 7 May 1984
Page: 1644

Senator COATES(4.22) —Before Senator Walters began speaking, Senator Crowley and I entered into a pact that we would avoid responding to the provocations of Senator Walters and not interject. I am proud to say that we have both survived that challenge, although Senator Crowley did nod her head on one occasion in agreeing with Senator Walters's prediction that the Australian Labor Party would win the next election. I am pleased to be able to confirm Senator Walters's prediction. As Senator Crowley will agree, it was a strain not to respond to Senator Walters by way of interjection.

I want to respond now to several matters that have been raised by Senator Walters. A few moments ago Senator Walters said that the assets test review panel would not be reporting until after the election. At this stage, there has never been any suggestion at all that that is the case. As I understand it, the panel will be reporting very soon. Senator Messner's assertions that there was still no sign of any legislation-

Senator Robertson —The shadow Minister for misinformation.

Senator COATES —The shadow Minister for misinformation may well be an apt description of him. Senator Messner said that the tax Bill dealing with lump sum superannuation has not appeared. I suggest he hold his breath just a little longer. The other matter that I want to cover was raised by Senator Haines and Senator Walters. They referred to pensioners not receiving the appropriate consumer price index adjustment to pensions because of the introduction of Medicare and its effect on the CPI. As they well know, last week Dr Blewett, as the Acting Minister for Social Security, responded to this matter by pointing out that the Government was well aware of the effect of the CPI on the November pension adjustment and that the Government was considering the matter and will be--

Senator Walters —Considering; looking at.

Senator COATES —The honourable senator should just wait and see. It is none of her business. If there is not an adequate adjustment in the Budget, the honourable senator will be free to say what she said in her speech today. The matter of public importance was brought on by the parties which brought about the removal of six-monthly pension adjustments in 1977. That was a dastardly act , if ever I saw one. The Liberal and National parties saw the error of their way -a way which produced great insecurity and confusion for pensioners at the time. That action in 1977-78 left pensioners permanently worse off to the extent of something like $60 or $100. If members of those parties are right in accusing us of destroying security in retirement, they would certainly have to plead guilty to the effect of that action when they were in government. I point out as well that they were responsible for the freezing of the means test for those over 70 years of age.

An assets test is needed because the Liberal-National Party Government did not face the facts at the time and abolished the then means test and converted it to an income test only. We are now having to explain the reasons for the reintroduction of an assets test because of its abolition in 1976. The whole Liberal-National Party rhetoric ever since has encouraged people to be as avaricious as possible. One might also point to the actions of the Opposition recently. How much security is there for an employee approaching retirement who is the victim of the cherry picker tax avoidance scheme and the other mock superannuation schemes set up by the friends of those in Opposition, who by their vote in blocking the legislation to outlaw such tax avoidance, have ensured the continuation of no security for such employees? There is no security for such employees despite the Opposition's suggestion that they are protected by a superannuation scheme. The expressions of concern by members of the Opposition for people in or approaching retirement are very hollow. They are not concerned about those people who have only income; they concentrate their concern on the people with property, those who are able to receive lump sums and those with the ability to manipulate their affairs for tax and social security purposes. It would be good to have bilateral support for policies which would make the system fairer. One might expect that that would be possible of one had read the report of the Liberal Party committee of review entitled: 'Facing the Facts', written by Mr Valder of the Sydney Stock Exchange. I will give honourable senators some quotes which are supposed to be the background of members of the Liberal Party opposite. Page 52 states:

The principle of community requires a fostering of the recognition of Australians obligations to each other-a recognition of community obligations as well as individual rights. It means a rejection of the selfish pursuit of institutional and individual interests at the expense of the public interest.

Page 53 states:

One of the great strengths of community in Australia has been the preparedness to help those in genuine need or suffering from disadvantage.

Page 54 states:

The principal constraints in the development of the system of income support is the extension of benefits to many who are not in financial need.

Mr Valder talks about principal constraints. Again, he states:

The party-

this is the Liberal Party-

has emphasised the importance of concentrating welfare benefits on those in need .

Senator Messner should cringe with embarrassment at being reminded of those comments. It is about time the Liberal Party opposite faced the facts. In his speech earlier, Senator Messner had the effrontery to suggest that lump sum payments make people independent of the Government. What utter rubbish! The whole point of this debate about the need for an assets test is that people with lump sums can put them into assets and avoid the income test. That is why there is a need to reintroduce a broader means test which includes the assessment of assets-a very fair assessment, if I may say so. The treatment of lump sums at present means that the receipt of lump sums by a person retiring is not neutral, despite what Senator Messner has tried to suggest. Liberal platitudes about freedom for the individual have led to this whole matter of double-dipping, the stashing of assets and avoiding the income test and income tax. Honourable senators opposite stand condemned for their pandering to the greed of the wealthy who want to maintain their wealth. Let me just quote a few recent commentaries from respected newspaper columnists. In the Sun Herald of February, Peter Robinson pointed out:

But conservative parties always make a big song-and-dance about the need to reduce government spending-particularly in social welfare areas. In electoral terms, the conservative parties can hardly pursue with any credibility their campaign against 'big government' while opposing any rationalisation of social welfare spending-by far the biggest component of 'big government'.

* * *

The Peacock-Sinclair Opposition are now busily engaged in locking themselves into positions which make them ready prey to the single-interest pressure groups .

They appear to oppose any tightening of the pension scheme aimed at giving better relief to the truly needy; they are mindlessly opposed to Medicare; they have conducted a scare campaign on taxation. The incoherence of all this is glaringly obvious.

Again, late last year in the Sun Herald the same commentator, Peter Robinson, pointed out:

In a very modest kind of way, Senator Grimes and the Hawke Government have tried to inject some sense into this situation by re-introducing what must be described as a feather-duster means test-one that will affect no-one in any genuine need and hardly anyone else.

Towards the end of last year, on 28 November, Kenneth Davidson of the Age said:

I would have thought that if the so-called economic 'dries' of the Liberal Party had just one shred of intellectual honesty they would be the Government's strongest supporters in the campaign to reintroduce some sort of means test qualification for the old age pension.

They want smaller government, lower taxes and more effectively targeted expenditure. But how can they believe these things, and still want to allow the aged rich to adjust their financial affairs so they get a pension?

There is now silence and no interjections from honourable senators on the Opposition benches. Unfortunately, there is no bilateral support for a reasonable, fair and equitable pension policy. Instead we have an Opposition which has continued to stir up trouble about the matter, misrepresenting our policies and confusing those who are likely to be affected and those who will not be affected despite the quite definite announcements by the Government. There should not have been misunderstanding. There was misunderstanding because of the confusion engendered by the Opposition causing a lack of security in the minds of those in retirement and those approaching retirement.

We are proposing to tax lump sum superannuation payments, to reintroduce the means test for those over 70, although, of course, on a more generous basis than the standard means test and to reintroduce the assets test so that there is more to redistribute to those in greater need. We want a fairer system. Apparently the Opposition wants a system which is even less fair than it is now. As I have said, that confusion and the insecurity have been caused by the Opposition. I despise its actions. It has deliberately upset those people least able to cope, most of whom will not actually be affected. The Liberals are responsible for the need to redirect income support away from the wealthy to the needy because of their actions in the past. The Opposition's legacy to the needy aged when it was in government was years of neglect which we are now having to deal with. I wish to give the Senate some examples of the things the Government has done to improve the position of the aged. The introduction of Medicare will remove concern about illness and medical bills from all people in Australia, including those on pensions and, in particular, those who because of the test on fringe benefits missed out on receiving the benefits of the then existing pensioner medical services. We are increasing grants for housing. We are taking much more care of the aged in the domicilliary care area and that sort of area. We are talking about national superannuation. If the previous Government had done something about this, in response to the 1976 report initiated by the Whitlam Government, once again we would not be in a position of still only talking about it; some action might have been taken before this. There is a lasting benefit to all Australians, including those who have retired, from the continuing drop in inflation.

In conclusion, it is quite irresponsible of the Opposition to be suggesting that the Government is responsible for the destruction of security in retirement for Australians. The Opposition must accept this responsibility. Of course, it will never have to face the electorate as a government to answer for this.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.