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Thursday, 17 November 1983
Page: 2878

Dr BLEWETT (Minister for Health)(3.14) —The farrago of stimulated passion to which we have just listened represents no indictment whatsoever of the Government's judgment and policy in this matter, but it does tell us a lot about the state of the Opposition. It has been said, I think, that power may corrupt, but quite clearly the loss of power has corrupted this Opposition absolutely. It has deserted every principle that it advocated when in government . It has abandoned every consideration of the real challenges that face this society, the real problems we will face in the next 20 years, in delivering fairly to this population welfare based on need which, of course, was once the theme of the party that now sits in opposition. I think it was Churchill who said that the task of an Opposition is to be critical, responsible and constructive. Let me say of the speech to which we have just listened-and I will prove each of these points-that it was hypocritical, unprincipled and simply destructive.

Mr Donald Cameron —I rise on a point of order. He cannot say that, can he?

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Order! There is no point of order. The honourable member will resume his seat.

Dr BLEWETT —Let me first refer to two statements by the Minister for Social Security, Senator Chaney, in the previous Liberal Government. First, in his 1981 Budget comment he said:

The Government is concerned that, in the welfare area as well as in taxation, income rigging practices are circumventing the intent of the laws and throwing undue burdens on taxpayers generally. In turn such practices make it more difficult to help genuinely needy people.

He went on to say:

It has become evident that there is a growing practice of avoiding income for pension purposes, or even more commonly for pensioner fringe benefits. There is no essential difference--

Mr Hodgman —Why are you attacking the old? Why do you not attack someone your own age instead of robbing the grandmothers of Australia?

Dr BLEWETT —When the noisy member for Denison has finished I will quote one of his own leaders speaking in the Senate when he was the Minister and was responsible. Senator Chaney said:

There is no essential difference, so far as the general community effect is concerned, between this . . .

he was referring to these pension practices-

. . . and tax avoidance. It is, quite simply, the welfare face of the income rigging coin.

(Quorum formed)

In an endeavour to show the hypocritical stance of the Opposition on this issue I was quoting from the responsible statements by its leaders when in government. Senator Chaney continued:

There is a real risk, however, that unless we can devise tenable strategies for directing welfare to those in the greatest need then, given the desire or perhaps the need for some overall restraint of welfare expenditure we shall begin to approach a position where we are failing to meet adequately the needs of the present groups in our community, those who are solely dependent for their incomes on the social security system. And this leaves aside the question of those for whom even the current provisions are inadequate.

I believe that those statements of Senator Chaney represent much of the best thinking that remains in the Opposition on these kinds of issues, but which, for simply blatant, opportunistic purposes is neglected utterly in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock).

Secondly, the speech was totally unprincipled in that there was no real effort to come to grips with the problems of an equitable distribution of our welfare resources nor any consideration of those in greatest need in the community. Finally, it was destructive because, although the Leader of the Opposition produced a valuable set of criteria whereby one could judge the assets test, he was not prepared to make real use of it for other than simply destructive purposes. He was not prepared to say: 'We believe in an assets test, but it has to be a good assets test. We will co-operate with you in having an effective assets test'.

Mr Peacock —I do not believe in an assets test.

Dr BLEWETT —As I said, his speech was simply opportunistic.

Mr Peacock —I do not believe in it. We abolished it in 1976.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Order! The Leader of the Opposition has made his point once. He cannot go on doing it all afternoon.

Dr BLEWETT —The noisy interruptions of the Opposition Leader cannot disguise the fact that his speech was simply opportunistic. He presented a series of criteria on which to judge an assets test and then said: 'The Labor Party does not meet them, but even if it did we would have nothing to do with an assets test'. A constructive attitude from members of the Opposition in this matter would have been to recognise the real need for an assets test in this community and work together, as many other members of the community have, towards having a fair and adequate system whereby the resources of the community can be fairly distributed in the welfare area. If honourable members consider the points I have made they will see that the speech of the Leader of the Opposition was hypocritical. It simply denied the basic principles which the Opposition parties advocated in government. Secondly, it was totally destructive. There were no constructive suggestions as to how we can deal with the real problems in the welfare area. Thirdly it was totally unprincipled in that there was no reference whatsoever to the real problems of equity and maldistribution in the welfare area.

Let me say clearly why the Government has moved in this direction. We have imposed an assets test in order to prevent wealthy people exploiting, even cheating, our pension system. We will welcome the help of the Opposition in making it effective. Most responsible commentators, aware of the real problems we face in this field, have approved this decision. Press comment since the Budget has noted that the decision of the Government recognised the realities of the current situation. In addition, it has been recognised that far too many people, because of the rorts and manipulation permitted under the present pension system, are having doubts about the whole provision of welfare in this society.

The assets test was abandoned by the former Government in 1977. It advanced no clear rationale at all for that abandonment. We heard today from the Leader of the Opposition that the decision was taken for sound reasons. Certainly, those reasons were never presented. As we know, it was simply a spur of the moment decision made for the election of 1975. It is true that Professor Henderson recommended the abandonment of the assets test in the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, but only in conjunction with other major changes in the tax system, including the introduction of a capital gains tax. Dropping the assets test, according to the Government at the time, was thought to involve no net cost. That is what we were told by the past Government. It said that it could get rid of the assets test and it would not affect the welfare budget because it would involve no net cost. The net cost at that time turned out to be $70m a year. That $70m was denied to those in real need in the welfare system. If we allow for growth in rates and numbers since then it implies a loss of at least $120m now. With the growth of rorts and evasions in this area, which the ex-Treasurer, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard) knows about well and which every Opposition member knows about, we anticipate that the savings through the re-introduction of the assets test will be higher, by as much as two to three times that figure. Honourable members need to talk to people in the welfare area-counter staff and bank managers-who will provide them with case examples, all indicating the extent of the practices whereby the welfare system is being ripped off through the non-existence of an assets test. A unit trust is advertising how millionaires can get the full pension. This seems to us a staggering waste of money, an irretrievable loss. With it have been lost opportunities to help the most needy in our community.

I turn to another point that the Leader of the Opposition made. One of his criteria was that the assets test and its principles should be well known in advance. The Government, from the beginning of this exercise, has been committed to that point of view. First of all, we announced in the Budget a series of proposals related to the decision to reimpose the assets test. We made it quite clear that it was the object of this Government, in the pursuit of its consensual policies, that these proposals would be discussed fully with all pensioner groups. My colleague the Minister for Social Security (Senator Grimes) has spent the last three months actively discussing with all the major pensions groups ways in which the limits and the exemptions can be improved, the way in which the assets test works and ways in which the transition period can be better handled. My colleague will be proposing a wide range of changes and modifications in response to those discussions.

We are looking at a leisure style package which is particularly relevant to the holiday home issue which emerged. We will be looking at ways in which we can modify the gift limits. Another aspect brought to our attention by various pensioner organisations was ways in which we can provide better incentives for encouraging superannuation and annuities. Further we are looking at improved transition arrangements. All these matters have been thoroughly discussed. They will be further discussed within the body of the Party. Legislation will be presented and it will be another 12 months before that legislation comes into effect. We have sought very much to follow the very criterion laid down by the Leader of the Opposition.

One other point was made by the Leader of the Opposition. He said that we are doing all these things because we have some terrible ideological hangups and commitments. Let me say quite frankly that if raising the pension to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings is an ideological hangup I am happy to have it. If providing much better rental provisions for those pensioners in rental situations is an ideological hangup I am happy to have it. If providing and paying for an integrated system of domicilary and community care for the frail aged is an ideological hangup I am happy to have it. We are making these tough decisions now, which many members on the Opposition bench recognised but did not have the guts to carry through in government, so that in the lifetime of this Government we can honour those promises to the broad pensioner community.

Mr ACTING SPEAKER —Order! The discussion is concluded.