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Tuesday, 25 June 1996
Page: 2094

Senator SCHACHT —My question is addressed to Senator Newman, the Minister for Social Security. Minister, you spent question time yesterday in feigned horror, claiming we were frightening elderly Australians over pension cuts brought on by the National Commission of Audit's suggestion that the pension could be linked to average weekly earnings rather than the male average weekly earnings, thereby reducing the fortnightly pension by $54. Are not the real fear merchants revealed as being Mr Howard, Mr Costello and Mr Fahey, who asked the Commission of Audit to examine the basis for the pension while concealing this from you?

Senator NEWMAN —I could not be more delighted with the question. Thank you very much, senator. Let me first of all get it quite clear, in case anybody was not listening to question time yesterday, that I in this chamber, and the Prime Minister and the Treasurer in the other chamber, made it absolutely clear that we were sticking to our commitment to age pensioners.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! Order!

Senator Alston —Mr President, on a point of order: I do not know whether this is a deliberate attempt to frustrate the business of the Senate, but Senator Newman was endeavouring to answer a question, despite your calling for order and looking to your left. You had Senator Faulkner, Senator Collins and Senator Schacht all rabbiting on and making as much noise as possible, quite clearly determined to ensure that Senator Newman's answer could not be heard. If they do not like the answer, they should not ask the question. At the very least, you should ensure that Senator Newman is able to give it back to them in spades.

Senator Faulkner —On the point of order: I am sure that Senator Newman will appreciate Senator Alston's protection. I know that Senator Alston wants to protect all the weak ministers in the Senate. I make the point to you, Mr President, that there have been interjections which are disorderly from both sides of the chamber in this question time, as there have been every other question time in this parliament.

The PRESIDENT —Order! It is pretty hard to justify the sorts of interjections that have been going on but it is unfair to say that they have been going on only on one side. Certainly, they have been going on, in this case, on my left more than on the other side, but do not pretend that they are not happening on the other side too. I do ask you to listen to Senator Newman, who has the right to answer the question in silence.

Senator NEWMAN —Thank you, Mr President. I hope the clock is starting up again. We gave commitments in both chambers yesterday to aged pensioners and to the benchmark question. That was quite clear. If the opposition found that difficult to understand, so be it. They are slow learners as I have said before.

Nevertheless, after question time, my office issued a press release, which was very clear and in block letters so that the ones who are still learning their alphabet could understand. My press release says:

The government has ruled out fixing pensions by any different formula. The government maintains its commitment to pensions being determined at 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings.

The extraordinary thing is that former Senator Gareth Evans went on the PM program last night, totally ignoring the promises that were made—

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! On both sides! Senator Newman has the call.

Senator NEWMAN —Thank you, Mr President. Mr Evans totally ignored the commitments that had been given in both chambers and the press release that was put out. But the most interesting thing of all, which I would not want the Senate to miss out on, is that the former government have had a longstanding commitment—you could call it a secret agenda—to changing the benchmark. They not only commissioned the Department of Social Security to put out a paper—it took 18 months—called `Developing a Framework for Benchmarks for Adequacy of Social Security Payments' and which came out in November last year, but it also commissioned the University of New South Wales for further studies.

So much for the Labor Party and its hypocrisy! It was looking, as a government should—as I said yesterday—to the long term to see whether these measures are appropriate. But with all the breast beating that we got in here yesterday about benchmarks, and with Senator Schacht trying it on again today, you would have thought that it was the worst thing in the world to do research into social policy.

The Commission of Audit has contributed in part to that debate. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and I, as the Minister for Social Security, have, on a number of occasions, given a clear, unequivocal commitment to the elderly of Australia. But it is disgraceful that these people on the other side of the chamber would see some short-term political benefit for their party in frightening old people by saying that they are going to lose $54 out of their pension. It is absolutely disgraceful and you have to ask: what is the purpose of it all? When the budget arrives in August, all things will be understood and all things will be clear.

Opposition senators —Ha, ha!

Senator Panizza —Except for the blind that will not see.

Senator NEWMAN —Except for the blind that will not see across there, yes. Why are they trying to gain short-term political kudos out of people who are easily frightened like the elderly of Australia? I think it is disgraceful.

Senator SCHACHT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, do you not concede that initiating a review of the benchmarking for pensions gives pensioners every reason to fear your government's commitment to a decent rate of pension? What was the reason for the review if it was not to save the government money?

Senator NEWMAN —Why did you initiate it? Could I send you an autographed copy, Senator? The Minister for Social Security—then Mr Peter Baldwin—announced in November 1993 that the Department of Social Security would be undertaking a study into the development of benchmarks of adequacy for Department of Social Security payments. Why did he go into it if he didn't have an agenda?

Senator Schacht —Why didn't they tell you?

Senator NEWMAN —Why do you suggest we have an agenda? Of course, the same study should be made. What rubbish!