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Wednesday, 7 June 1989
Page: 3533

Senator POWELL —I preface my question, which is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Social Security, by noting that the Government has reached the benchmarks it set itself for the eradication of child poverty and by quoting from an article by Adam Farrar based on the achievement of those benchmarks in 1989 and published in the May 1988 Australian Council of Social Service publication Impact. The article states:

One question that apparently won't go away for the government is how serious it is about eradicating child poverty by 1990 . . . what is clear so far is that the package has gone a little less than half way to eliminating the need for children to live in poverty . . . and studies make it clear that sole parents . . . need most attention in the next round of measures . . .

I ask the Minister, firstly, whether the Federal Government's abject failure to deliver in its April 1989 economic statement any support to meet the special needs of single parent families means that they and their children have become the forgotten poor within Australian society; and, secondly, when the Federal Government will introduce measures designed to deal effectively with the poverty traps that single parents continue to face.

Senator BOLKUS —I have seen the article. Reading the first part of it I thought that the researcher involved needed to do a refresher course. Senator Powell's question is based on a false presumption, a false inference from the article in question that the Government did absolutely nothing in the April economic statement to meet the special needs of single families. Nowhere in the article that Senator Powell refers to is that point made or developed. Sole income parents are not the forgotten poor under this Government. This Government has always recognised a need to address their particular problems. This Government has always seen the particular problems facing sole parents as a social tragedy. It is not a recent development, and that has to be recognised as well. In the way the Government normally approaches these issues, we have done that.

It should be recognised that in the 1970s and the early 1980s there was an explosion in the number of sole parents living in poverty. One stark figure indicates that fact more than anything else. Whereas, in 1974, 105,000 sole parent pensioners constituted 57.4 per cent of all sole parents, in 1983 the figure had risen to 82 per cent. So, by 1983, 82 per cent of sole parents were pensioners.

We are not happy with the situation. As I have said, we have addressed the problem consistently during our term of government. We have responded by rejecting income policies that imprison people in poverty traps and by introducing a whole raft of different measures. The child support scheme is one such important measure that is in place, and the family allowance supplement is another. We have also addressed the question of work force barriers, for instance, with measures addressing problems with pensioner earning credits and the retention of fringe benefits in certain circumstances. Those measures have gone some way towards addressing work force barriers for sole parents.

In addition, in 1987 the child free areas under the income test were increased, once again allowing sole parent pensioners to earn additional non-pension income. We have also recognised, however, that income support is vital. Income support for families with children, including sole parents, has been a priority of this Government since 1983. To that extent we have increased additional pension and benefit rates paid for children in every year of our term, the most recent increase being made in 1989. From 1983 to 1989 there has been an increase from $10 to $31, a three-fold increase, for younger children, and for older children the figure has gone up to $34.10. So there has been quite a substantial increase in income support for these families.

I refer to the family package announced earlier this year. We have made adjustments to family allowance, and the higher levels of payments under the family allowance decisions of this Government will also assist the families whom Senator Powell is concerned about. We should not forget the historic decision announced in the April statement to index these payments.

Senator Newman —This is ridiculous.

Senator BOLKUS —It is not ridiculous. This is a serious matter which this Government is addressing and one which we will continue to address. It is of concern not just to this side of the Parliament. Let me address the specific part of the question which refers to the April statement. I will not have to go through it in depth.

Senator MacGibbon —Turn it up. We are bored.

Senator BOLKUS —It is not my fault that this Government's record in this area is so extensive that it needs to be explained.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I ask Senator Bolkus to ignore the interjections and answer the question.

Senator BOLKUS —I will address two points, the April statement and work force impediments, which need to be addressed in any comprehensive answer. Sole parents benefited from almost all of the April statement measures. Sole parent rebates were increased and indexed; the family allowance was increased and indexed; the family allowance supplement was increased and automatic adjustment was provided for; and mothers or guardians allowances were indexed. Bringing forward pension indexation by 12 weeks will also assist. I do not need to go into any depth on the jobs, education and training program and the way it is geared towards addressing work force barriers experienced by sole parents. I will conclude with a statement from the Brotherhood of St Laurence issued in May this year--

Opposition senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Bolkus, I ask you to conclude your answer.

Senator BOLKUS —I will conclude. The Brotherhood said:

We congratulate the Federal Government on its work on child poverty, which represents a historic breakthrough in the national attack on child poverty. The Federal Government has now built a solid foundation of income security for Australian families.

Opposition senators interjecting-

Senator BOLKUS —If those opposite do not like it they will stay there and enjoy it.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I point out that there have been only five questions in nearly 30 minutes. I realise that the answer to the first question from the Opposition went for 8 1/2 minutes, but I ask Ministers to take that into account.

Senator POWELL —I ask a supplementary question, Mr President. Although I know it seems incredible after the Minister's long answer, I need to ask the Minister whether he agrees that the fact that there was no increase in the supporting parent's benefit or in the mothers guardians allowance-the only two benefits directly applicable to sole parents-in the April statement lends weight to my question regarding when the Government will act specifically on the issues concerned with sole parents. The other matters the Minister has mentioned are matters relating to families, whether they are sole parent families or dual parent families, which are much better off.

Senator BOLKUS —I will not give Senator Powell a long answer. I refer her to the answer I have already given and stress the point that all these initiatives have a direct beneficial effect on the parents she is concerned about.