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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 780

Senator RICHARDSON (Minister for Health) (10.51 p.m.) —in reply—There is not much to answer from the contributions made by the previous speakers, given that they have all supported this legislation. I will not belabour the point by repeating all they have said about this legislation. We have all now learnt what it does. I will not press on with that nor will I proceed to repeat all the comments that I made last week in opposing—I thought quite well—Senator Patterson's Bill, which was supported by the Australian Democrats.

  Now we have got both of them proposing to move the same amendments to this legislation. I am not quite certain who will get a guernsey first, but the Government will maintain the stance that it took last week and oppose those amendments, and we will divide on them. There is money at stake. At the outset of her contribution, Senator Patterson asked the question: where is the money coming from—the $70 million? There is $80 million they are trying to take off with the amendments, so that is where the money is coming from.

Senator Patterson —That is fake! It is monopoly money.

Senator RICHARDSON —It is not monopoly money. It is a fact, a fact which Senator Patterson does not seek to acknowledge. I can understand why she would not.

Senator Patterson —That is wrong.

Senator RICHARDSON —Do not get irritable. We can all get through this.

  I would like to very briefly answer the comments of Senator Lees on the question of reduced employment prospects, and the rule that prevents people from moving into areas where those prospects are less. Obviously, there has always been the basic obligation on all recipients of those benefits to do their best to get employment. Obviously, if they move to an area where there just is not any employment, or there is less than the area in which they are in and they are significantly reducing their chances, it is reasonable for the Government to move to prevent that. While Senator Lees may have had complaints about the way that this provision may have operated, the truth is that many honourable senators have had the other complaint, coming from the other direction, that too many people have abused the system in the past and just sought to go to areas where there would be no prospect of gaining work. All of us would want to ensure that people genuinely seek work in accordance with the legislation as laid down.

  Senator Lees referred to the review which the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, approved in October last year. That review is currently being conducted by DSS in consultation with other departments. It is a wide-ranging review and includes an examination of the appropriateness of this policy in times of an economic downturn. It is expected to be completed in June 1993, and the views of ACOSS and other welfare groups have been sought. I would assume that the problem of the April date has been the intervention of the election, which did interrupt business for all but a short time.

  I hope that that explanation satisfies the concerns of Senator Lees. I am sure that in the first week or two when we come back in August we will be able to debate the results of the review. It is a matter of concern, and I know it is something she was complaining about when I was Minister for Social Security all those months ago. I would also like to acknowledge that a number of the measures in the legislation tonight were raised by her on occasions. Senator Lees said that we have taken too long to act. I think there is always a problem in acting quickly to simply take away all of the disincentives that people have. However, when we are responsible for managing the finances of the nation, we cannot take these steps lightly. We also have to balance the public concern on the whole issue of unemployment against the kinds of concerns she has been raising. Nonetheless, the Government is acknowledging tonight in a number of areas that there is room to move. In so far as the other question of reduced unemployment prospects is concerned, we are looking at that as well. At this time it may be appropriate to table a corrigendum to the Bill.

  I understand that an Opposition amendment will be moved. I will make a couple of comments on it because it has been circulated, and I hope that the Senate does not take too long with the amendment tonight. The first point is that Senator Patterson and a number of her colleagues have painted themselves as the pensioners' friends here tonight. I wonder where they were when Fightback was being produced and when it pronounced that $1 billion would be taken out of the social security system.

  Had the Opposition gained government, we would not be worried about the simple measures contained in this legislation tonight; we would be debating a whole series of cuts—a slashing of social security expenditure. Those opposite would cut the heart out of unemployment benefits, the pension and pension benefits. The word `heart' has been used often by the Liberals—but, I might say, only since 13 March. Before then it was a dirty word. I think Chris Puplick referred today to `their painted lips with the venom of a spitting cobra'. I am glad it is being mentioned. It is a good thing to see. But I think it would be a lot more credible if some of those opposite had fought that appalling decision in Fightback—one only one among many—to rip $1 billion out of the social security system.

  For a start, the amendment to the motion that those opposite seek to move is pretty suspect given that sorry record. Point (b) of that amendment says:

the abandonment of the promise to remove pensioners from the taxation system by 1995;

It is pretty rich for those opposite to be telling us tonight that we ought to do things because pensioner groups and ACOSS are saying that we should. The truth is that pensioner groups and ACOSS have been lobbying against the move to remove pensioners from the tax system by 1995 because so many of them take the view that it will be a hindrance to equity. I think that is a legitimate argument to have and one that we ought to have over the course of the coming months. But, again, if the $1 billion cuts had been applied, none of these would have been a problem: everything would have gone.

  The Opposition has made constant reference to the Government's failure to guarantee the extension of full Commonwealth fringe benefits to all long-term retirees beyond the remaining three months of the 1992-93 financial year. While it is cute to draw attention to it by this form of proposed amendment, as Senator Patterson would be aware, the matter is inevitably and properly bound up with discussions between the Commonwealth and the States. Any lack of guarantee of State concessions is due to the fact that the States have again wanted to review responsibility for concessions. That situation was reviewed in 1991-92 as part of the broader review of Commonwealth-State functional responsibilities, but the States want another crack at it only a year later. The difficulty for the Commonwealth, which must work with the States for the provision of fringe benefits—obviously we must, because a great many of them are dealt with directly by the States—is that it is impossible to simply ignore that kind of State request.

  As Senator Patterson and, I am sure, most honourable senators are aware, a working party of Commonwealth and State officials is presently looking at the question of the options for ongoing funding of those concessions and who should be responsible for them. That review was undertaken at the request of the States, not the Commonwealth; it is not something that we sought, but it is happening. The Commonwealth holds the view, with some strength and passion, that all pensioners should have access to all Commonwealth and State concessions. All Commonwealth concessions are guaranteed and I sincerely hope that the States will negotiate to achieve an extension of their concessions too. The working party is due to report to the heads of government meeting in early June. I remain hopeful that there will be no problem. The Commonwealth is certainly not holding back; we are trying to urge the States forward but some of them are showing a degree of reluctance.

  As a late-night stunt, and a pretty poor one at that, the Opposition's proposed amendment completely ignores the record of the Opposition, the authors of the amendment, which has been one of an ongoing, unhealthy disdain for the welfare of pensioners and unemployment beneficiaries. The Opposition sought to deal those people out of the system with its Fightback package—the package which the people of Australia so soundly and sensibly rejected just a few months ago. It shows that some people learn nothing from bitter experience. While that is disappointing, it does keep us all in business.

  Amendment (by Senator Reid)—by leave—proposed:

  At end of motion, add:", but the Senate noting:

(a)the comments of the Minister for Employment, Education and Training that the number of long-term unemployed would inevitably rise to between 400 000 and 500 000 in the next 12 to 18 months;

(b)the abandonment of the promise to remove pensioners from the taxation system by 1995;

(c)the Government's failure to guarantee the extension of full Commonwealth fringe benefits to all long-term retirees beyond the remaining three months of 1992-93, even though the Prime Minister made special mention of this `promise' in his campaign policy speech;

(d)the Government's failure to rule out major increases in taxation and to outline a planned program of expenditure reduction to enable responsible implementation of its campaign commitments in relation to social security matters;

(e)further changes and tampering with the assets test for pensioners, adding further confusion and insecurity to their retirement plans; and

(f)the need for a full and complete review of the inter-relationship between income and asset tests for better integration of the taxation and social security systems,

condemns the Government for its failure to address the special needs of the unemployed and the aged".