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Wednesday, 1 September 1993
Page: 797


Senator PATTERSON (5.10 p.m.) —The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has completed an eagerly awaited report on its inquiry into the government's planned treatment of unrealised gains on shares as income for social security and veterans' affairs which has been tabled here in the Senate today. It is important to recollect the circumstances that led to this Senate inquiry.

  Last December, the government included this income test on listed securities as part of a package of social security bills that contained a number of significant benefits, including an across-the-board increase in age pensions. At that time we were in an invidious position. We supported that legislation. I stated in the Senate that the coalition would review the shares provision after the election.

  This promise was reiterated by the then shadow minister for social security during the election campaign. Obviously, we had hoped to be in government. No doubt many Australians who have found that they have been misled by the Labor government would now hope we were in government. But that was not to be the case. We kept that promise as best we could in opposition by, in the post-election period, looking to review that as best we could from this position. We decided to make moves to repeal this provision.

  During the May sitting of parliament I introduced on behalf of the coalition a private member's bill seeking to repeal this provision. With the support of the Democrats, Senator Chamarette and Senator Harradine, this bill was passed by the Senate. However, when the shadow minister, Mr Ruddock, introduced a similar bill into the other place, the Keating government refused to support it. So it had two opportunities: one when our bill went down to the other chamber and again when Mr Ruddock introduced the issue into the other house.

  It was decided to seek to achieve our objective by amending government social security and veterans' affairs legislation. We tried another tack to give the government the opportunity to repeal this legislation. Again the coalition's amendments were passed in the Senate with the support of all the non-government senators. However, in the other place, the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) responded by claiming that the opposition was `into revenge, obfuscation and just being villains'. That is what he called us. He calls us `unrepresentative swill'; now he says that we are obfuscating and are just being villains. He called the opposition `irresponsible, stupid people'. Let me tell him that the pensioners who came to those public meetings did not think that we were irresponsible, stupid people or that we were obfuscating or that we were villains. They actually saw us as heroes; they see Mr Keating as the arch villain and Mr Dawkins, I suppose, as the Artful Dodger. But that is what Mr Keating was telling the people. They did not believe in that.

  In the light of this tirade, it is ironic that the Prime Minister was forced by a rampant and angry caucus to announce a review of this provision. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that caucus meeting, as no doubt you would, Mr Acting Deputy President—and I acknowledge your position in the chair, Mr Acting Deputy President; I think it is the first time I have been able to speak when you have been in that position.

  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to hear what was said. Maybe I should have blocked my tender little ears, given what I have heard about some of the words that came out of that meeting. The Prime Minister was forced to announce a review of this provision, which he did in a press release. He believes that a press release equals legislation; it does not. We have seen him do that with all sorts of taxation issues in the past. He has issued a press release and said that from the day the press release came out it is law. That is how much he understands about the process of parliament. That is not law.

  Pensioners are waiting desperately to find out what this government is going to do. They have to make a decision in the third week of September about whether to sell their shares or not. Many of them have already sold their shares. Some of them will be furious that they have been misled and that they have sold shares that they have held for years because of their belief as to what the government was about to do. As I said, the pensioners should never believe what is l-a-w because the government changes those sorts of things.

  It is the same caucus, bar a handful of senators, who voted against the amendments last May and who have now forced a review of this provision. In particular, one must wonder whether the honourable member for McEwen (Mr Cleeland), who labelled our amendments as an act of vengeance, was at the forefront of the caucus revolt. We will let his marginal seat of McEwen decide. It was a sad day when those people were cheated out of the representation of a tremendous member, Mrs Fran Bailey. The constituents were told so many untruths that, by a handful of votes, they voted in Mr Cleeland—a man who said that our amendments were an act of vengeance.

  In the interests of ensuring that the shares issue is not some government diversion to remain at the forefront over the winter recess—which is the tactic it always uses; bring in some diversionary tactic to try to get people's attention away from the real issues—it was decided to withdraw the amendments and set up an inquiry instead. This was done with the support of the non-government senators. Today's report is as a result of that inquiry.

  As has been said, the Senate inquiry received almost 200 submissions and more than 2,000 letters. Almost unanimously, they sought the repeal of this harsh and inequitable proposal. Many thousands of people have signed petitions that have been presented to the Senate in the last fortnight. During 1992-93, the Minister for Social Security (Mr Baldwin) must have received more correspondence about this issue than he has received on any other. It is reasonable to presume that he has received many more letters since 30 June. During the last two months, the talkback radio stations and letters to the editor columns have been inundated by people concerned about this initiative. I quote these figures and this information because they show the degree of angst that is required before this boneheaded Labor government gets out of its ivory tower, opens its ears and starts to listen to the community.

  Even now we find that the Prime Minister has merely said that the government will review the implementation of this proposal. We have three sitting days left—2 1/2 in the Senate—before this is implemented. When will the government do something? A very simple solution would be for the Leader of the House (Mr Beazley) in the House of Representatives to bring on the private member's bill. It is there, it has been through the Senate, and no debate is necessary. The government could have this legislation through the House of Representatives tonight.

  Pensioners could then go to bed tonight knowing what their situation was. They could sleep for the first time for many nights. They have now almost become insomniacs through worrying about what is happening. Tonight, if our private member's bill went through, they could sleep.

  Will the government have the gall to let a private member's bill go through down there? We have got the legislation which has been through the Senate with the support of the Democrats and the Independents. All the government has to do is pass the bill in the House of Representatives. We wonder whether it will do it. It is no good just telling the pensioners that the government is to review the implementation of this proposal. It is there on its doorstep and the government has to make a decision.

  The government's announced review is also totally unacceptable to the thousands of pensioners who have to make a decision before 20 September. Are they to keep their share portfolios? Should they sell them? What are they to do? The government has to make a decision and has to make it now. As I said, the easiest way the government can implement that decision is to pass the private member's bill that is now sitting on the table in the House of Representatives.

  The minority report by the opposition and Democrat senators on the committee recommends that there is only one respectable decision to be made, namely, to repeal this ill-considered legislation. It would be unfair to pensioners and veterans and would represent an undermining of the important work of the Senate committee not to do so.

  I commend the staff of the committee. I have attended a couple of those committee meetings and a hearing because I was concerned about the issue. I was one of the people responsible for bringing that issue before the committee. I have been impressed by the enormous effort that has gone into that committee by the staff. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that the views of pensioners were brought before the members of that committee. Again I say that the simple solution for the government is to take the private member's bill that is sitting on the table in the House of Representatives and put it through the House tonight to let every pensioner in Australia who is affected by this legislation sleep peacefully this evening. I move an amendment to Senator West's motion:

  Leave out all words after "That", substitute:

(a) the Senate takes note of the Report;

(b) the Senate also takes note of:

  (i) the massive public outcry against, and universal condemnation of, provisions to reduce pensions in real terms, by reference to a notional capital gain in the value of shares held by a pensioner or veteran; and

  (ii)the fact that this measure commences on 20 September 1993 unless the Parliament takes urgent and appropriate legislative action to prevent that; and

  (iii)the statement by the Prime Minister himself that the Government has decided to review the implementation of the decision to assess unrealised capital gains on pensioners' and veterans' shares; and

(c)in view of these considerations, the Senate calls on the government to act urgently to:

  (i)facilitate passage through the House of Representatives of the Oppositions two Private Senators' Bills to repeal the grossly unfair provisions to assess unrealised capital gains on pensioners' and veterans' shares; or

  (ii)introduce, as a matter of urgency, its own bill to repeal those measures and, with the agreement of the Senate and House of Representatives, facilitate its passage through the Parliament and its commencement before 20 September 1993; or

  (iii)at the very least recognise the enormous confusion, anxiety and stress which has been caused to thousands of pensioner and veteran share holders because of this measure and introduce, and facilitate the passage of, a Bill to delay commencement of these provisions pending full consideration of the Senate Committee's report, and to show that the Prime Minister's stated intention to review the legislation is not either pointless or another cruelly misleading promise waiting to be broken.