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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 60

Senator MARSHALL (2:07 PM) —My question is to Senator Patterson, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Does the minister stand by her comments in the Age newspaper on 17 November 2004 in which she described families who had received multiple family tax benefit debts as `repeat offenders'? Is the minister still considering her proposal, outlined in the same report, to interfere in the FTB applications of some families to increase their income estimates to try to avoid future overpayments? If the minister implements this proposal, won't it have the effect of reducing fortnightly assistance to those same families? Isn't it true that some of the families that the minister has characterised as `repeat offenders' have suffered multiple FTB debts through no fault of their own?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —One of the things that Labor need to understand is that there are always difficulties in actually getting similar families similar assistance in similar circumstances. Using last year's income estimate, which Labor used, was not effective. They had to have a buffer of 10 per cent, which they forgave. That meant that some families had 10 per cent more assistance than they otherwise would have got and some people did gain in that situation. There are other families who did not get as much as they ought to have, given their income for that year, and they did not get a top-up. So you had families who were in similar circumstances being treated very differently. What we have tried to do is ensure across a financial year that families in similar circumstances—that is, with the same number of children, similar income—are treated in a similar way.

Because of the various measures that we have introduced, we have now identified some people within the system who have had overpayments a number of times and who consistently underestimate their income. I indicated in a discussion with one of the journalists—and of course the Labor Party would only bring up one aspect of that—there were some people, because of the lumpy nature of their incomes, who had difficulty in estimating it. There were some others who failed to change their income. One of the problems we have got with the system is that people can have given you an income estimate three years ago and they are not required to update it. If they consistently do this—and, in some cases, some people underestimate their income year in and year out by $10,000 to $15,000—it would indicate to me that either they need some assistance because they are unable to ring up and change their income or they are using it. I met with a large number of people who had overpayments when I first became minister, and one person indicated to me that he did choose to underestimate his income to get extra money.

I want to make sure that we get closer during the year to the correct fortnightly payment of the very few people we now have who are receiving an overpayment. We have to try to ensure that, in that financial year, people are paid as close as possible to their need, rather than using the previous year, where people have lost their jobs, need the money and have not got that financial assistance. I am working to ensure that families are treated fairly—treated the same in similar circumstances—that people do not get more when they are not entitled to it and that they get it as close as possible in that financial year when they need that assistance. Let me just remind people that families are now receiving, on average, if they are eligible for family tax benefit, about $7,000 a year per family—a significant increase on the assistance they were getting under Labor. When you run a strong economy, then you can actually deliver social dividends to the community and, in this situation, to families.

Senator MARSHALL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I did ask the minister: if the minister implements this proposal, won't it have the effect of reducing fortnightly assistance to those same families? Doesn't the minister's proposal demonstrate the minister would rather blame ordinary Australian families for the problems with the FTB system than accept any responsibility for fixing it? When will the minister deliver on her promise of last year to fix the problems with the family assistance system rather than searching for someone else to blame?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —Obviously the Labor Party get their supplementary questions and stand up and religiously ask them, even though they do not really add anything and they have already been answered. The issue is that, when a family receives an overpayment, their income will be reduced the next year when they have to pay it back. What we want to do is ensure that, as close as possible within that year, they get a correct fortnightly payment. I do not know whether Senator Marshall is saying, `If they get an overpayment, they shouldn't pay it back,' because, if they get an overpayment, they have had more per fortnight than they were entitled to. I do not know whether what Senator Marshall is saying is that we should leave it like that and let them have an overpayment and, as Labor did, excuse the overpayment.