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Tuesday, 7 September 1993
Page: 1018

Senator RICHARDSON (Minister for Health) (10.45 a.m.) —Firstly, I thank the opposition and the Australian Democrats for indicating their support for the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill. In respect of the amendments that are to be moved, one would have expected some disagreement, and that is occurring. I would say to Senator Lees that I do not think I know any millionaire pensioners. I have not met them yet, but they may be around and have thus far escaped my attention. The outer limits of our income and assets tests have been pushed a long way out in the last few years. So those who receive part pensions can now be on quite sizeable incomes by the standards of a lot of other families who do not necessarily have that level of government aid and support.

  It has been important to see, when examining where those income and assets test levels have gone, that their integrity is protected at every point. So it is not a matter of the government seeking either to be punitive or to push investment in a particular direction; it is simply a matter of making sure that the pension is paid to those who actually need it. That is what income and assets tests have been about—making sure that the income support is paid to those who require it. We can do that only by fairly and equitably looking at income and assets tests across the board. We have to make sure that there are not areas where people can seek an advantage that is simply not available to others. We do not want everyone jumping in to find a way around the tests.

  What we have achieved through this amended measure is to make sure that the treatment of shares is going to be the same across the board. I would have thought that was really the kind of policy objective that any sensible government ought to pursue. I note that Senator Patterson will be proposing the complete scrapping of the measure. That is disappointing because, for all the reasons I have just given, we are pursuing a sensible policy objective. Furthermore, the kind of hysteria about the sales of shares that this measure was supposed to have engendered is really based on a false premise. There is no evidence whatsoever that there has been any wholesale sell-off of shares. In fact, the evidence is quite to the contrary.

  Some have sold—there is no doubt about that—but the idea that great numbers have sold simply is not true. It never was true. I said it when this legislation was last debated here. The evidence has never been collected because it cannot be. There is simply no evidence that pensioners engaged in a wholesale selling of their shares. All this measure does is make sure that those pensioners who have got cash to invest in shares or anything else are able to make the choice of investment knowing that, no matter how they seek to invest that money, whether in shares or other investments, they are going to be treated in the same way. I think that is the kind of policy objective that we ought to be pursuing.

  It is true to say that some people have sold over the course of the last 12 months, but because there has been no wholesale sell-off I think much of what the government has wanted to do here has been correct. What happened, though—Senator Lees correctly pointed it out—was that there was a big community reaction, which she and the Democrats did raise in here, which the members of my own party went to the caucus economics committee last Monday night and made perfectly clear to the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) and the Treasurer (Mr Dawkins) in, as I understand it, stark terms. As a result of that jolt, as I described it yesterday, the government finally decided to take some action.

  The action having been taken to exempt all shares bought prior to 18 August 1992 suggests to me that what we have done now is absolutely fair. There cannot be any suggestion of any retrospective element. It is really when one gets into retrospectivity that one begins to cause some heartache and some pain. Now that even the suggestion of it has been removed, I believe that what we have before us today is a fair measure and one that will make sure that pensioners around Australia are able to approach their investments, knowing that we are not encouraging rorts and ways around the system and knowing that, if they invest in shares or other forms of investment, their income will be treated in the same way.

  I would like to respond to Senator Lees's remarks about our income and assets tests and how they might be reviewed. Not only the controversy over this issue but the kinds of inquiries we get and the kinds of judgments we make when listening to the department and its many offices throughout the country ensure that these matters are, if not kept under constant review, often looked at. I am assured that in the course of the next few months the minister and his department will be having a good look at the issues that have been raised here to see if any further changes are required.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a second time.

  The bill.