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Tuesday, 12 November 1985
Page: 1992

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(6.10) —First of all, I must say that I cannot recall Senator Walters asking those questions, I think for the reason that I was not at that Estimates committee meeting. I think that was the situation. I think Senator Gareth Evans or someone else was sitting in for me because I was away. I may be wrong, but I think that is right. Secondly, I apologise for not being in the chamber when the estimates of the Department of Social Security were brought on.

I recall the matter of the Auditor-General's report on overpayments, as I remember the matter of the Auditor-General's report on overpayments every year for the last 11 years that I have been a member of this Parliament. I understand that this year there was a particular reference to overpayments in Western Australia. As I recall it, the overpayments this year resulted from industrial action. Senator Walters may remember-I am certain that Senator Chaney would remember if he were here-that industrial action has been taken by the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association over the years. Unfortunately, as part of that industrial action, the Association has refused to verify, for instance, identification in respect of unemployment benefit and other things. As a result of that, overpayments have occurred.

Overpayments inevitably occur in a social security system of the type that exists in Australia and it is inevitable that the Auditor-General will draw attention to them. However, I, Mr Howe, the present Minister for Social Security, Senator Chaney and Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle have pointed out that in fact, considering the system, the level of overpayments in the Department of Social Security is pretty low and the administrative efficiency of the system is very high.

Sometimes it is just not worth while to take action in every overpayment case. In fact, I, as Minister for Social Security, used to get complaints from honourable senators opposite, from honourable senators on my side and from members of the House of Representatives when we did take action because it was considered that that action was unnecessary or that overpayments were the fault of the Department. All sorts of complaints used to come to me.

Senator Sheil —How much is the overpayment in this particular case?

Senator GRIMES —I do not know. I thought Senator Walters knew that. I am afraid I will have to look that up in the record of the Estimates committee hearing. From my reading of this matter at the time, a decision was made at central office that in some of these cases action should not be taken because it would not be cost effective to do so. However, steps are continually taken in the Department to tighten up procedures so that overpayments of that type do not occur in the future.

I do not think I have any further details to those that were given at and after the Estimates committee meeting. Senator Walters can use emotive terms, such as `Yes Minister answers', as much as she likes. That does not concern me. That is the way she always talks. I would just remind honourable senators that the Auditor-General, the Australian Taxpayers Association and any organisation which has investigated the administration of the Public Service in this country have pointed out repeatedly that the amount of money forgone by the taxpayer in this country through tax evasion and tax avoidance far exceeds that of social security. Yet Senator Walters never gets up and talks about tax evasion and tax avoidance. She always gets up and harps on social security evasion and avoidance and always comes up with emotive terms, such as `Yes Minister answers', `Why has not someone been sacked?', `Why has not the Department taken action?' and `It is not good enough that it is not cost effective to take it'. If people in this place were to be sacked at any time because of inefficiency, I suppose half or more of us would be sacked. However, I just think that if we are to have a sensible approach to the Estimates, we should talk about facts and figures and not go on with this emotive nonsense that we have been hearing from Senator Walters.