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Tuesday, 29 May 1984
Page: 2036

Senator SCOTT (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(5.40) -I support the motion. The Opposition is concerned at the Government's failure to develop a coherent social security policy and the punitive effect of the proposal to include the pensioner's home in an assets test. That inclusion may be in doubt at the moment, but it is clearly in the court of the Government for it to come out and indicate, if it feels that that is an unfair and improper proposition, that it will not act along those lines. There can be no doubt that it would have a punitive effect. That the Government has failed to develop a coherent social security policy is abundantly clear from the occurrences of the last 12 months or so.

Anybody listening to today's debate could understandably generate a measure of pity for Senator Grimes and Senator Gietzelt because they really have taken a great deal of flak in this area. The prime mover of their discomfort and the prime mover of the discomfort of the pensioner community throughout Australia is the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). Clearly the Prime Minister has contributed to the discomfort of the Ministers involved and, through them, to the discomfort of those people who should be the beneficiaries of a proper social security system. Indeed, the Prime Minister has created the somewhat disgraceful confusion about social security that has been around for over 12 months. He has made at least three attempts to come to grips with the problem. In the first place, after the Budget in August 1983 the assets test became evident. Yet, only a few months before, in an election campaign, among the many things that he promised not to do was to impose this sort of test. No mention was made then of an assets test and there was no question of his having a mandate to impose that sort of test on the more aged section of the community. Indeed, that was a rebuttal of the circumstances by which he convinced the Australian people that they should elect him.

Some months later than the Budget, in about November 1983, a leisure package was introduced. That had all sorts of problems attached to it and was seen not to be satisfactory. The problems progressed further across the community, particularly across the age pensioner section of the community. There was a great deal of indecision. There was continual concern as to what their circumstances were and, more particularly, what they were likely to be. The result was that the Prime Minister appointed Professor Gruen and a group of well known and well qualified members of the community from a wide range of occupations and experiences to look at the assets test and come back with some recommendations. Although nobody has seen those recommendations officially, they have raised problems that have resulted in this afternoon's discussion. The confusion that has become part and parcel of the lives of the senior citizens of this country can certainly be laid at the feet of the Prime Minister. That is a quite extraordinary circumstance given that he is promoted in this country as a man of accord and consensus and a man of generous heart in all circumstances but particularly in relation to social security.

For a moment I will refer to the general principle involved because I think there is a significant principle involved in social security. In a free society such as ours it is a right for people to accumulate a measure of assets over a lifetime and so contribute to supplementing one's income when one ceases to be an active wage or salary earner in the community. I think it is accepted that that is what freedom is all about, that one can accumulate assets that will allow one to follow a lifestyle that one may choose to follow. There is nothing wrong with that objective. Why should it be penalised? That is exactly what this assets test is doing. It is a penalty. It is a penalty on people who have paid their share of taxes throughout their working lives and it is a penalty that should not confront them at a time when they have largely ceased to be active members of the earning community. Indeed, it smacks very closely of a death duty or a gift duty which the Opposition, when in government, was able to abolish. That abolition was received with a great deal of relief throughout vast sections of the Australian community. That sort of duty does a whole range of things that are, I believe, unacceptable in a free society. It tends to contribute to the breaking up of a family unit. Indeed, it destroys, significantly economic units, which is to nobody's advantage. It certainly penalises and, consequently retards the rate of development of a community, which means that it has an adverse effect on employment and on the competitive capacity of the Australian community around the world.

It is interesting to note that, for instance, after the leisure package of $30, 000 was introduced at some time around November of last year, Mr Hawke said at the National Press Club that the Government was 'concerned that many ordinary pensioners have been caused unnecessary worry by those who, for short-sighted political purposes, have encouraged groundless fears about our intentions'. Yet, those groundless fears have been the very basis of every desperate investigation that Mr Hawke and his Government have sought to carry out since that time. Were they groundless fears? The implication is that there was nothing wrong with the Government's proposal; it was rather that Labor's political opponents have generated groundless fears. If that is the case, why have all the investigations ? Why appoint Professor Gruen and others to come to some conclusions about the assets test? Why has all this been necessary if the fears are groundless? I imagine that it was made perfectly clear by Mr Hawke that they were not groundless fears when further questioning indicated that the Government had bungled the whole business. That is the truth of the matter. It has bungled the whole business well and truly for over 12 months. But the Government gave no indication to the Australian electorate that it was going to involve itself in this business in this manner.

I make it abundantly clear that if the proposed assets test becomes law at any stage and involves, as recommended, the value of a home, it would be totally inequitable because there can be no doubt that the value of homes, like the value of land and farms, varies significantly from the east to the west of Australia. That is a hopeless base on which to promote this sort of assets testing and this sort of decision about the range and level of pensions that are available to a whole range of Australians including age pensioners and service pensioners, men and women alike. They are concerned, and so they should be, at the constant failure of the Government to come to grips with reality and to find for itself, in a very difficult circumstance, what is a proper and responsible social security system.