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Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015



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ISSN 1328-8091

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BILLS DIGEST NO. 129, 2014-15 22 JUNE 2015

Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015 Michael Klapdor Social Policy Section

This Digest addresses the Bill as amended by Government amendments moved in the House of Representatives on 18 June 2015. The amendments remove all of the Bill’s Schedules except for Schedule 3— Assets test and concession cards.

Contents

List of abbreviations ............................................................ 3

Purpose of the Bill ............................................................... 4

2014-15 budget measures and stalled legislation ................. 4

Agreement with the Australian Greens to secure passage of the Bill ............................................................................ 5

Committee consideration .................................................... 6

Senate Community Affairs Committee .................................... 6

Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills .............. 6

Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights .................... 6

Schedule 3—Assets test and concession cards ...................... 6

Financial implications .............................................................. 6

Background to asset testing .................................................... 7

Brief history of pension means testing ................................. 7

The current assets test .......................................................... 8

Rationale .................................................................................. 9

Numbers affected .................................................................. 10

Financial impact on pensioners ............................................. 10

Concession cards ................................................................... 11

Perverse incentives ................................................................ 12

Alternative proposals ............................................................ 13

Position of non-government parties ..................................... 14

Date introduced: 4 June 2015

House: House of Representatives

Portfolio: Social Services

Commencement: Schedule 3 on 1 January 2017 and all remaining sections on Royal Assent.

Links: The links to the Bill, its Explanatory Memorandum and second reading speech can be found on the Bill’s home page, or through the Australian Parliament website.

When Bills have been passed and have received Royal Assent, they become Acts, which can be found at the ComLaw website.

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Position of interest groups .................................................... 14

Comment ............................................................................... 15

Provisions .............................................................................. 15

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List of abbreviations Abbreviation Definition

CPI Consumer Price Index

CSHC Commonwealth Seniors Health Card

DSS Department of Social Services

GDP Gross Domestic Product

HCC Health Care Card

No. 1 Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014

No. 2 Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014

No.4 Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(2014 Budget Measures No. 4) Bill 2014

No. 5 Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(2014 Budget Measures No. 5) Bill 2014

No. 6 Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014

PCC Pensioner Concession Card

Seniors Supplement Bill Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment

(Seniors Supplement Cessation) Bill 2014

SS Act Social Security Act 1991

SS Admin Act Social Security (Administration) Act 1999

VE Act Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986

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Purpose of the Bill The purpose of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015 (the Bill) as introduced was to implement three 2015-16 budget measures and reintroduce three 2014-15 budget measures.

The 2015-16 Budget measures included in the Bill as introduced were:

• placing a cap on the amount of income from certain defined benefit superannuation schemes that can be excluded from the social security income test (excluding income from military superannuation schemes) from 1 January 2016

• reducing the period an eligible pensioner can spend overseas before their pension rate is proportionalised to a rate based on their Australian Working Life Residency Period from 26 weeks to six weeks from 1 January 2017 and

• raising the assets test free areas for all pension and benefits, increasing the rate at which pension payments are reduced for asset levels over the free areas (the taper rate), and ensuring that any pensioners who lose eligibility as a result of the measure are automatically entitled to a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, a Health Care Card or a veterans’ Gold Card (Repatriation Health Card - For All Conditions) from 1 January 2017.

The three 2014-15 budget measures included in the Bill as introduced, with new commencement dates, were:

• abolishing the Seniors Supplement paid to Commonwealth Seniors Health Card and some veteran’s Gold Card holders but continuing to pay the Energy Supplement attached to the Seniors Supplement from 20 June 2015

• abolishing the Pensioner Education Supplement from 1 January 2016 and

• abolishing the Education Entry Payment from 1 January 2016.

Government amendments moved in the House of Representatives on 18 June 2015 removed all but Schedule 3—relating to the assets test and concession cards—from the Bill.1 The Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum issued by the Government states that Schedules 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill as introduced ‘are being removed for the purpose of this Bill and the 2015 Budget measures will be reintroduced in [a] separate Bill in due course’.2

The Bill as amended will amend the Social Security Act 1991 (the SS Act), the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (the SS Admin Act), the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 (the VE Act), and the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Act 2014, to implement the changes to assets test free areas, taper rate and concession card arrangements described above.

2014-15 budget measures and stalled legislation Following the 2014-15 Budget, the Government introduced to the Parliament two omnibus Bills that contained all the legislative amendments required to implement the Budget measures that fell within the Social Services portfolio. The first of these Bills was the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 (the No. 1 Bill) and, the second, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014 (the No. 2 Bill).3

The Government was unable to secure passage of either of these Bills through the Senate and both were discharged from the Notice Paper in the Senate on 28 October 2014. Subsequently, the Government reintroduced measures from the No. 1 Bill and the No. 2 Bill in four new Bills:

1. See ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015: Amendments’, 18 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 2. Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum, Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 3. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian

Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015; Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015.

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• the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Seniors Supplement Cessation) Bill 2014 (the Seniors Supplement Bill)4

• the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 4) Bill 2014 (the No. 4 Bill)5

• the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 5) Bill 2014 (the No. 5 Bill)6 and

• the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014 (the No. 6 Bill).7

Only the No. 6 Bill has been passed by the Parliament.8

Controversial changes to pension payments were contained in the No. 2 Bill and, subsequently, in the No. 5 Bill.9 In particular, the Government had sought to change the way pension rates were adjusted (known as indexation) and to raise the Age Pension eligibility age to 70 from 2035.10

In the 2015-16 Budget, the Government announced that it would not proceed with the proposed indexation change and would introduce a new savings measure as a replacement: the assets test changes contained in the Bill.11 The Government will still proceed with the proposed change to the Age Pension eligibility age.

Agreement with the Australian Greens to secure passage of the Bill As noted above, the Bill as introduced included a range of 2014-15 and 2015-16 budget measures. On 16 June 2015, the Labor Opposition announced that it would not support the asset test changes proposed in the Bill.12 The Opposition stated that it would support two of the Schedules in the Bill as introduced: the abolition of the Seniors Supplement and the changes to the income test treatment of certain defined benefit income streams.13

Also on 16 June 2015, the Australian Greens confirmed that they had reached an agreement with the Government to pass the asset test changes (support from the Greens allows the Government to pass the Bill through the Senate).14 Senator Rachel Siewert stated that passage of the assets test changes were not linked to other measures in the Bill and that these measures were still under consideration.15 Australian Greens Leader,

4. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Seniors Supplement Cessation) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. 5. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 4) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. 6. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 5) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian

Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. 7. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. 8. The No. 6 Bill included measures to cease indexation of the Clean Energy Supplement (and rename it the Energy Supplement), pause

indexation of assets test limits and free areas for all payments, change portability arrangements for student payments and Disability Support Pension, include untaxed superannuation income in the income test for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, remove Relocation Scholarships for students relocating within and between major cities, remove a supplementary amount paid to large families receiving Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTB-A), change the income test for FTB-A, and reduce the primary earner income limit for FTB-B from $150,000 per annum to $100,000 per annum. 9. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014, was discharged from the Notice Paper in the

Senate on 28 October 2014. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 5) Bill 2014, was introduced into the House of Representative on 2 October 2014 but has not progressed beyond the Minister’s second reading motion. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. Parliament of Australia, ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 5) Bill 2014 homepage’, Australian Parliament website, accessed 4 June 2015. 10. For a discussion of these measures see C Ey, M Klapdor, M Thomas and P Yeend, Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014

Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014, Bill digest, 16, 2014-15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2014, accessed 19 June 2015. 11. Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015-16, pp. 169-170. 12. B Shorten (Opposition Leader) and J Macklin (Shadow Minister for Families and Payments), Transcript of press conference, Parliament House,

Canberra, media release, 16 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 13. Ibid.

14. R Di Natale and R Siewert, Greens to reverse Howard-era pension mistake, secure retirement income review, media release, 16 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 15. Ibid.

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Richard Di Natale, stated that the Government had ‘agreed to give special consideration to retirement incomes in its Tax White Paper’.16

On 18 June 2015, the Government announced that it would remove all but the asset test measures from the Bill.17 The Leader of the House and Minister for Education and Training explained the move:

The actual amendments being moved by the Minister for Social Services today would split the bill in order to take the assets test into a separate bill from the other reforms that have been proposed in the budget. This will allow the Senate to deal with that change cleanly next week, when the government and the Greens together ensure that this reform passes both houses of parliament.

18

Committee consideration Senate Community Affairs Committee The Bill has been referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 15 June 2015. On 15 June, the Senate granted an extension of time for reporting until 22 June 2015. And, on 16 June, the Senate granted an extension of time for reporting until 10 August 2015. Details of the inquiry are available here.19

Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills had no comment on the Bill.20

Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights As required under Part 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth), the Government has assessed the Bill’s compatibility with the human rights and freedoms recognised or declared in the international instruments listed in section 3 of that Act. The Government considers that the Bill is compatible.21

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights had no comment on the Bill.22

Schedule 3—Assets test and concession cards Schedule 3 makes a number of changes to the social security assets test which will affect all means tested income support payments (including allowances and pensions):

• raise the asset test free areas—allowance recipients with assets valued over the free area are no longer eligible for payment while pensioners with assets over the free area have their payment rate reduced

• increase the taper rate—the rate at which pension rates are reduced for assets over the free areas and

• ensure those who are ineligible for a payment as a result of the changes are eligible for a concession card (either a Health Care Card or a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card).

The proposed measures will commence on 1 January 2017.

Financial implications The Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill states that the expected budget savings for Schedule 3 over the forward estimates period would be $2,434.0 million.23

16. Ibid.

17. ‘Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015: Amendments’, 18 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 18. C Pyne (Leader of the House and Minister for Education and Training), ‘Motions: dissent from ruling’, House of Representatives, Debates, 18 June 2015, p. 44, accessed19 June 2015. 19. Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill

2015, The Senate, 2015, accessed 22 June 2015. 20. Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, Alert Digest No. 6 of 2015, The Senate, Canberra, 17 June 2015, p. 53, accessed 22 June 2015. 21. The Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights can be found at page 28 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill. 22. Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, Twenty-third report of the 44th Parliament, The Senate, Canberra, 18 June 2015, p. 3,

accessed 22 June 2015. 23. Explanatory Memorandum, Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, p. 2, accessed 10 June 2015.

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The expected savings from the assets test changes are net savings which include the expense of not proceeding with the 2014-15 Budget’s changes to the way pension rates are indexed.24

Background to asset testing

Brief history of pension means testing Asset testing has had a contentious history in Australia’s social security system. The Age Pension paid from 1909 was asset tested (and income tested) and originally included the family home in the test (though it was treated concessionally). Many at the time the Age Pension was introduced were concerned that means testing would discourage thrift but this was rejected by the Royal Commission on the Old-Age Pensions held in 1905-06.25 As historian T H Kewley described it, the Commission concluded that ‘the inducement offered by an old-age pensions scheme such as it proposed would scarcely tempt a provident person into habits of thriftlessness’.26

In 1912, the family home was made completely exempt from consideration under the means test but there were few other changes to means testing between 1909 and 1946.27

After the Second World War, there was pressure to abolish means testing on the Age Pension altogether due to renewed concern that the thrifty were being excluded from the pension and that means testing was discouraging savings.28 Both the Liberal-Country Party Coalition and Labor endorsed either the abolition or liberalisation of means testing well into the 1970s.29 The 1940s and 1950s saw substantial increases in the levels of permissible income and property limits and in 1954 the Menzies Government exempted income from property from the means test. In 1961, the Menzies Government introduced a merged means test. The new test had no property limit, but income was deemed to be derived from property above an exempt amount. One pound for every ten pounds of property above 200 pounds was added to the annual income of pensioners to produce an amount of 'means as assessed'.30

The Gorton Government introduced a tapered withdrawal rate in 1969. The annual rate of pension was reduced by only half of the amount for income above the exempt amount (including income deemed from property) rather than the full amount as had been the case previously.31 In 1972, the McMahon Government introduced a large increase in the level of exempt income and intended to abolish the means test by 1975 for age pensioners aged 65 years and older. The Whitlam Government abolished the means test for age pensioners aged 75 years and over in 1973 and for those aged 70 years and over in 1975, having matched the McMahon Government commitment before the 1972 election.32 In 1976, the Fraser Government removed any consideration of assets from the means test making it an income test only (except for actual income derived from those assets).

The Fraser Government commenced the reversal of this trend towards a universal Age Pension free of any means testing. This trend was replaced with a renewed emphasis on targeting assistance to those most in need. In 1978, the Fraser Government froze the rate of pension paid free of the income test to those aged 70 years or more.33 The income test for those over the age of 70 was reintroduced for any additional pension entitlement. The Hawke Government completed the process of reinstating a full means test with strengthened income testing of pensions for those aged 70 years and over in 1983 and the reintroduction of an assets test in 1985.34 The family home and a limited range of other assets were exempt from consideration under the assets test as were the first $120,000.00 of a single pensioner's assets and the first $150,000.00 of a pensioner couple's assets. For those who owned their own home only $70,000.00 of assets for single pensioners and $100,000.00 of assets for a pensioner couple were exempt. These exemption levels were subject to annual indexation in line with the

24. Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015-16, pp. 169-170. 25. See, for example, J Thomas, ‘Second reading speech: Invalid and Old-Age Pensions Bill’, House of Representatives, Debates, 3 June 1908, p. 11,959, accessed 16 June 2015; T H Kewley, Social Security in Australia 1900-72, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1973, p. 73. 26. Kewley, op. cit., p. 73. 27. D Daniels, Social security payments for the aged, people with disabilities and carers 1901 to 2010, Background note, 2010-11, Parliamentary

Library, Canberra, 21 February 2011, p. 30, accessed 17 June 2015. 28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., pp. 30-31. 31. Ibid., p. 31. 32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

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Consumer Price Index (CPI). Pension was reduced by $4.00 per fortnight for every $1,000 of assets in excess of the exemption levels (also known as free areas).35

The main changes to means testing under the Keating and Howard Government years were in regards to how certain types of income and assets were assessed (particularly in relation to superannuation and other financial investments). In 1993, the Keating Government reduced the withdrawal rate (the taper rate) from $4.00 to $3.00 per fortnight for every $1,000.00 in assets over the applicable free area.36 As part of its Simpler Super reforms, the Howard Government halved this withdrawal rate from 2007 to $1.50 per fortnight for every $1,000.00 over the applicable free area.37 The Simpler Super reforms were aimed at improving retirement incomes and resulted in most superannuation benefits for those aged 60 or over becoming tax free and allowed many with significant assets to access the Age Pension (as a result of the taper rate changes).38

The current assets test All income support payments are means tested under both income and assets tests. Both tests are used in calculating the rate of payment, with the one that results in the lower rate being the one that is applied. The assets test thresholds (also known as free areas) apply differently for allowances (such as Newstart Allowance) than they do for pensions (such as the Age Pension). For allowances, assets over these thresholds will mean a person is not eligible for the payment. For pensions, assets over the thresholds affect an individual’s rate of payment. Currently, every $1,000.00 of assets over the relevant threshold reduces an individual’s fortnightly pension payment by $1.50, so those with significant assets may only receive a part pension rate. The level of assets which would reduce a person’s fortnightly payment to zero is known as the asset test limit.

Schedule 3 proposes to raise the assets test thresholds and increase the taper rate from $1.50 to $3.00 for every $1,000 in assets over the relevant threshold. This arrangement would be the same as that which applied prior to 2007.

The following tables set out the current assets test thresholds and limits applicable in different circumstances and the thresholds and limits that would apply from 1 January 2017 under the Bill’s provisions:

Table 2: Asset test limits for allowances and thresholds for full pensions

Current From January 2017

Family

circumstances Homeowners Non-homeowners Homeowners Non-homeowners

Single $202,000 $348,500 $250,000 $450,000

Couple (Combined)

$286,500 $433,000 $375,000 $575,000

Table 3: Asset test limits for part pensions

Current From January 2017

Family

circumstances Homeowners Non-homeowners Homeowners Non-homeowners

Single $775,500 $922,000 $547,000 $747,000

Couple (Combined)

$1,151,500 $1,298,000 $823,000 $1,023,000

Note: The asset test limits for part pensions are based on DSS estimates of pension rates for January 2017. Limits will be higher for those in receipt of some supplementary payments such as Rent Assistance (for non-homeowners).

Sources: S Morrison (Minister for Social Services), Fairer access to a more sustainable pension, media release, 7 May 2015, accessed 17 June 2015; Department of Human Services (DHS), ‘Assets’, DHS website, accessed 17 June 2015.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Australian Government, Budget 2006-07: a plan to simplify and streamline superannuation, 9 May 2006, p. 11, accessed 16 June 2015; Australian Government, A plan to simplify and streamline superannuation: detailed outline, May 2006, accessed 16 June 2015. 38. Ibid.

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Rationale Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison stated in his second reading speech for the Bill that the Government’s intention is to ‘rebalance the assets test’ to ‘make it fairer and better targeted’ and to ‘help ensure the pension system is sustainable into the future’.39 In its submission to the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into the Bill, the Department of Social Services (DSS) cited the Intergenerational Report’s estimates that expenditure on the Age Pension will grow from 2.9 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014-15 to 3.6 per cent of GDP in 2054-55 as evidence of the ‘fiscal strain’ on the current pension system caused by structural ageing.40 The Age Pension is the largest single component of the Australian Government’s budget expenditure (after payments to the states and territories) at an estimated cost of $44.2 billion in 2015-16.41

The Opposition has explicitly rejected the claim that the pension system is unsustainable. Shadow Minister for Families and Payments Jenny Macklin stated in her second reading speech:

This government would have you believe that the pension is unsustainable. They would have you believe that the government cannot afford to look after low- and middle-income retirees. But it is simply not true, and Labor knows that the pension is sustainable. Australia is considered to have one of the most sustainable pensions in the world. The Allianz Pension Sustainability Index last year found that Australia's pension system is the most sustainable in the world. According to the OECD, Australia spends just 3½ per cent of GDP on the age pension, compared with the OECD average of 7.8 per cent. Ensuring the continued sustainability of the retirement income system is important, but it has to be done in a fair and equitable way.

42

The Opposition has proposed changes to superannuation tax concessions arguing that it is this component of the retirement income system in Australia that is unstainable.43

There are two issues at play in this debate. Firstly, the growing fiscal cost of the Age Pension and what should be done, if anything, to reduce the pressure this places on the Budget. Secondly, the ‘fairness’ of any particular measure aimed at reforming the retirement income system in Australia. In regards to the first issue, it is broadly accepted that the growing cost of government support for retirees should be addressed. Proposals include restricting eligibility to the pension via changes to means testing or raising the eligibility age; reducing the rate of growth in payment rates via changes to indexation; and, changing the tax treatment of retirement investments (particularly superannuation) to increase government revenue. In regards to the second issue, fairness is assessed is different ways and with reference to different principles, meaning that different measures can be simultaneously described as fair and unfair. Fairness assessments can be based on the number of people positively or negatively affected, on the particular groups affected, on principles of horizontal and vertical equity, on claims of entitlement, in terms of intergenerational responsibilities, and in terms of emotional/sentimental values (for example, that the family home is different from other types of assets).

The measures proposed by the Bill are aimed at addressing the first issue by reducing expenditure on the Age Pension via tighter restrictions on eligibility. The claim for fairness is based on its impact: those who will benefit are those who have relatively little wealth (in terms of assessed assets) and those negatively affected are those who are relatively wealthy with assets they can draw upon to make up for any negative impact. Within these terms the Government’s rationale holds but it is important to note that a range of alternative measures have been put forward to address issues with the retirement income system (see below) and that different assessments of fairness can be applied.

39. S Morrison, ‘Second reading speech: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015’, House of Representatives, Debates, 4 June 2015, p. 2, accessed 19 June 2015. 40. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, 11 June 2015, p. 9, accessed 15 June 2015; Australian Government, 2015 Intergenerational report: Australia in

2055, The Treasury, Canberra, 2015, p. 69, accessed 19 June 2015. 41. Australian Government, Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2015-16, pp. 5-13, accessed 19 June 2015. This total includes expenditure on Widow B Pension and Wife Pension (Age). 42. J Macklin (Shadow Minister for Families and Payments), ‘Second reading speech: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Fair and

Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015’, House of Representatives, Debates, 17 June 2015, p. 95, accessed 19 June 2015. 43. B Shorten and J Macklin, Transcript of press conference, Parliament House, Canberra, op. cit.

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Numbers affected DSS estimates that 88 per cent of the more than four million social security and veterans’ affairs pensioners will not be affected by the measure at all—this includes recipients of the Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Carer Payment, Widow B Pension, and the veterans’ Service Pension.44 Four per cent (171,500) will benefit from the changes as they have moderate assets close to the free areas.45 This includes 166,000 social security pensioners and 5,500 veterans’ affairs pensioners. DSS estimates that the average benefit for this group of pensioners will be $30 a fortnight (or $780 per annum).46

Around eight per cent of pensioners (327,300) will be negatively affected by the changes:

• 236,000 will have their payment rates reduced by an average of $130 a fortnight (or $3,380 per annum) including 225,000 social security pensioners and 10,500 veterans’ pensioners and

• 91,300 pensioners will lose eligibility for income support with an average loss of around $190 per fortnight ($4,940 per annum) including 88,500 social security pensioners and 2,800 veterans’ affairs pensioners.47

Further, an estimated 6,500 people will qualify for social security allowance payment as a result of the increase in the free areas.48

Financial impact on pensioners The financial impact on some pensioners has been the most contentious issue in relation to the proposed changes to the assets test. DSS’s own modelling suggests that some pensioners will lose up to $14,467 when the measure commences. This is for couple homeowners with $823,000 worth of assets. DSS suggests that this couple would need to draw down on 1.76 per cent of their assets in that year to replace the lost pension payment.49 Some have argued that the measure punishes those who have saved for their retirement, particularly superannuants, who will have to draw down a significant amount of their assets only to have the same income as those with a low level of savings or investments.50 DSS has rejected that argument stating that retirees with assets at the affected levels could sustain a much higher standard of living than those on the maximum rate of the Age Pension through a combination of investment earnings, capital drawdowns and eventual pension entitlements:

For example, assuming the drawdown of investment returns and capital over a 35 year period, and long term investment returns averaging five per cent:

- a partnered couple who own their home and have $825,000 in assessable assets (just above the estimated assets test cut off amount of $823,000 that would apply from 1 January 2017 under the proposed changes) could generate a total income (including investment returns, capital drawdowns and eventual pension entitlements) of over $58,000 year in real terms, which is approximately $25,000 a year higher than the full pension, and

- a single person who owns their home and has $550,000 in assessable assets (just above the estimated assets test cut off amount of $547,000 that would apply from 1 January 2017 under the proposed changes) could generate a total income (including investment returns, capital drawdowns and eventual pension entitlements) of over $38,000 year in real terms, which is approximately $16,000 a year higher than the full pension.

51

The financial impact on individual households will depend on a range of factors, particularly the type of assets they hold and the rate of return. DSS has cited data on the asset holdings of current pensioners to argue that households with high levels of assets have substantial funds in superannuation and a diversity of other interests

44. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 8. 45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., p. 18. 50. Tax and Transfer Policy Institute (Australian National University), Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, 12 June 2015, pp. 4-5. 51. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 11.

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(including real estate and ‘deemed assets’ which can include shares, bonds and bank deposits).52 DSS holds that these households tend to have less invested in low-yield assets and are thus more likely to be able to draw sufficient income from their assets to cover any loss of pension income.53

The Tax and Transfer Institute submitted that, as a result of the proposed changes ‘many savers with private assets will need to run down their assets substantially to maintain a comfortable standard of living in retirement. The Minister’s figures appear to involve optimistic assumptions about the real returns pensioners can achieve’.54 Industry Super, which modelled the impact of the measure on future retirees, also expressed concern about how the changes would impact on retirees’ standard of living:

The changes amount to very significant change in the retirement income settings and represent a ‘shift in the goal posts’ for those near retirement. Many individuals contemplating retirement have sought specialist financial advice on the level of private savings needed to have a reasonable retirement. Such advice would have invariably considered age pension entitlement under existing rules. Under these proposals many of these individuals will be unable to achieve their retirement income goals because they may have insufficient time or discretionary income to accumulate additional private savings to make up for the shortfall due to the measures in the Bill.

55

The Government has rejected the premise of these criticisms by arguing that the Age Pension is not intended to supplement the income of retirees with sufficient means to support themselves, it is only for those with ‘genuine need’.56 Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison, wrote: ‘where people have the means to support themselves in their retirement, there should not be an entitlement for a taxpayer-funded pension’.57 Further, Minister Morrison stated that retirees should be drawing down on their superannuation assets to support themselves rather than holding on to these assets:

I think this is a fairer system, I think it represents a very simple proposition and that is tax incentives for superannuation are provided so people can build up their superannuation and they can draw down on it in their retirement. It’s not there as an inheritance programme; it’s not there as a wealth transfer programme; it’s there so people can save for their retirement and have a great standard of living, a good standard of living in their retirement, that’s what it’s for.

58

Industry Super’s modelling suggest that the number of retirees negatively affected by the proposed changes will grow to 40 per cent of retirees in 2055, and that pension reductions will particularly affect those who currently have average or below average incomes and single women.59 DSS has countered that this is not surprising and these results are essentially the intention of the current design of the retirement income system: that the superannuation system encourages greater self-sufficiency in retirement and thus less reliance on the Age Pension amongst the broader population: ‘The finding that the assets test changes will, in the longer term, affect those earning average incomes is a positive outcome. It shows that the superannuation system is working and is helping people on average incomes to achieve higher superannuation balances by retirement’.60

Concession cards Schedule 3 proposes to provide Commonwealth concession cards to any pensioner who loses eligibility for their payment as a result of the changes to the assets test. For many part-pensioners access to the Pensioner Concession Card (PCC) can be as valuable as the actual pension rate they receive. This is because the PCC

52. See ‘Assessable assets held by different groups receiving the age pension’, Document tabled by P McBride (Group Manager, Department of Social Services) in the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee Budget Estimates hearing, 4 June 2015, accessed 18 June 2015. 53. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 10. 54. Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 5. 55. Industry Super Australia, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation

Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, 12 June 2015, p. 11. 56. S Morrison (Minister for Social Services), ‘Opinion: Welfare is about genuine need, not entitlement: it should not be used as an incentive’, The Advertiser, 7 May 2015, accessed 18 June 2015. 57. Ibid.

58. S Morrison (Minister for Social Services), Budget 2015: transcript of doorstop interview: Canberra, media release, 25 May 2015, accessed 18 June 2015. 59. Industry Super Australia, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 4. 60. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 13.

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provides access to discounted medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and a range of other benefits including:

• lower expenditure thresholds for accessing the Medicare Safety Net

• incentives for GPs to bulk-bill PCC holders

• free hearing services through the Office for Hearing Services

• discounted mail redirection through Australia Post and

• a range of concessions from state, territory and local governments such as discounted energy bills, discounted rates, reduced public transport fares, discounted motor vehicle registration and licence costs.61

Apart from the PCC, the Commonwealth offers two other main concession cards: the Health Care Card (HCC) and the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card (CSHC).62 The HCC is primarily provided to some allowance payment recipients and low-income earners while the CSHC is provided to those over Age Pension age who do not qualify for the Age Pension because of their income and asset levels. The CSHC has an income test but no assets test.

Both the CSHC and HCC provide access to discounted medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the lower Medicare Safety Net thresholds and GP bulk-billing incentives but neither card provides access to the hearing service or Australia Post discounts in the same way as the PCC.63 Concessions available from state, territory and local governments also vary between the type of cards and a more limited range of concessions is available to HCC and CSHC cardholders in many jurisdictions when compared with the PCC.

CSHC holders also receive a quarterly payment, the Seniors Supplement, currently worth $1,261.00 per annum for singles and $949.00 per annum for members of a couple (including the Energy Supplement). In the 2014-15 Budget the Government announced that it would abolish the Seniors Supplement and pay only the Energy Supplement attached to the supplement to CSHC holders. Provisions to implement the measure were included in the No. 1 Bill and the Seniors Supplement Bill. Provisions to cease payment of the Seniors Supplement from 20 June 2015 were also included in Schedule 4 of the Bill when introduced.

Most of those over Age Pension age who lose eligibility for the pension as a result of the proposed asset test changes will likely qualify for the CSHC anyway (as it is their assets which prevent them qualifying for the pension and their income is likely to be below the CSHC income test). Those younger than Age Pension age affected by the measure (such as Disability Support Pensioners and Carer Payment recipients) may qualify for the HCC due to receipt of another eligible payment such as maximum rate Family Tax Benefit Part A or because they have a low income. The measure proposed by the Bill will ensure that any pensioner who loses eligibility for the PCC as a result of the change on 1 January 2017 will automatically be granted a concession card (a CSHC for those over Age Pension age or HCC for those under Age Pension age). This will ensure that no pensioners affected by the measure miss out on a concession card due to their income. While providing a more limited range of benefits when compared to the PCC, those pensioners affected by this measure will remain eligible for the most valuable concession—discounted medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Perverse incentives Since the assets changes were announced, there have been a range of media reports and articles suggesting that the measures will see pensioners spend their savings or investments to remain under the asset-test limits or redirect their investments towards an asset excluded from the test: the family home.64 That is, the measure will have perverse incentives for pensioners to frit away any savings or attempt to circumvent the means testing regime.

DSS has stated that the measure does not give rise to such incentives as pensioners who do deliberately dissipate large amounts of their assets will not be better off:

61. Department of Human Services (DHS), ‘Pensioner Concession Card’, DHS website, accessed 19 June 2015. 62. DHS, ‘Low-Income Health Care Card’, DHS website, accessed 19 June 2015; DHS, ‘Commonwealth Seniors Health Card’, DHS website, accessed 19 June 2015. 63. The automatic issue HCC provided to some income support recipients and FTB-A recipients does provide access to these additional discounts

but the card to be provided under this measure is considered a ‘claim required’ or ‘Low-Income’ HCC which provides more limited benefits. See DHS, ‘Low-Income Health Care Card’, op. cit.; and DHS, ‘Health Care Card’, DHS website, accessed 19 June 2015. 64. S Rose, ‘An Alaskan vacation will save Noelene’s pension’, The Australian Financial Review, 28 May 2015, accessed 18 June 2015; J Chancellor, ‘Offloading assets and home upsizing: the maze to keep your part-pension in 2017’, Property Observer, 13 May 2015, accessed 18 June 2015.

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A pensioner who reduced their assets by $50,000 to qualify for a higher pension payment would take more than 35 years to break even, assuming a long term investment return averaging 5%.

- The most that spending $50,000 could affect a person’s pension under the new $3 per $1,000 taper rate is $150 a fortnight, or $3,900 a year. The person would also forgo interest of $2,500 a year that they could otherwise have earned. As such, the net benefit in pure income terms might be around $1,400 a year only. It would take over 35 years before the person recouped their $50,000.

65

Some of these reports are based on errors in understanding how the means test applies, including that both an income and assets test applies and that most assets are assessed as earning income. Others seem to place significant value in a small rate of part-pension, over the possible returns from long-term investments.

DSS states that there is no evidence that people deliberately spend money or over-invest in housing in order to gain a pension advantage and that doing so would reduce the financial capacity of these retirees to enjoy a higher standard of living (i.e. having capital they can draw on easily).66

At play in most of these reports are differing values over the amount of regular income enjoyed by retirees versus capital, and whether certain investments are intended to support the costs of living for retirees or preserved for family members.67 As noted above, the Government is of the view that assets over a certain level allow retirees to enjoy a higher standard of living for a longer period than those with low levels of assets and those reliant on the pension. The Government also holds that retirees should draw on whatever assets they have available to them in their retirement and the Age Pension is not intended as an income supplement or inheritance program.68

Alternative proposals An array of academics, think tanks and stakeholder groups have put forward alternative proposals to address issues with the retirement income system, particularly in regards to assets test. These include:

• lower asset test free areas and a higher taper rate69

• including the family home in the assets test70

• allowing pensioners to draw upon their home equity via a government administered or guaranteed reverse mortgage scheme71

• restoring a version of the merged means test where all assets are assessed as having deemed income.72

The reform suggestions which look at housing equity are aimed at addressing the distortionary effects the current means testing arrangements have in terms of incentivising housing investments above all other kinds of investment and allowing for a significant asset to be completely excluded from the assessment of an individual’s need for government income support. Reforms in terms of a single means test with deemed income from assets are aimed at simplifying the system, providing for a more equitable treatments of assets and/or removing incentives to game the system.

There have also been many calls for reform of the superannuation system, particularly in regards to tax concessions, to reduce outlays on the Age Pension and improve the revenue base that will fund these outlays into the future.73

65. DSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., p. 12. 66. Ibid.

67. J Mather, ‘Treasurer gets a lesson on a pension paradox’, The Australian Financial Review, 27 May 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 68. S Morrison (Minister for Social Services), Budget 2015: Transcript of doorstop interview: Canberra, op. cit. 69. Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), Budget priorities statement 2015-16, ACOSS, Sydney, 2015, accessed 19 June 2015; E Millane, The entitlement of age, Research paper, Per Capita, August 2014, accessed 19 June 2015.

70. S Cowan and M Taylor, The age old problem of old age: fixing the pension, Research report, 3, Centre for Independent Studies, April 2015, accessed 19 June 2015; J Daley and C McGannon, Budget pressures on Australian governments 2014, Report, 2014-7, Grattan Institute, May 2014, accessed 19 June 2015.

71. E Millane, op. cit.; S Cowan and M Taylor, op. cit.; R Denniss and T Swann, Boosting retirement incomes the easy way, , Technical brief, 34, The Australia Institute, Canberra, September 2014, accessed 19 June 2015. 72. Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit., pp. 8-11. 73. For example, E Millane, op. cit.; J Daley and C McGannon, op. cit.

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Position of non-government parties As discussed above, Labor is opposed to the asset test changes while the Australian Greens have stated their support for the changes.

Labor has cited the fact that many pensioners will face reductions in their pension rates or lose eligibility for the pension altogether as the reason for their opposition:

People who have saved hard all their lives, people who’ve worked hard and saved hard, deserve our respect in their retirement. They don't deserve to have a Government come after their savings in their retirement and that is exactly what Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are doing. 74

The Opposition has drawn on the modelling work by Industry Super Australia which looked at the potential long-term impact of the changes, particularly on new retirees, to criticise the measure. Shadow Minister for Families and Payments Jenny Macklin stated:

Independent analysis shows that these new cuts will affect half of all new retirees within ten years.

It shows more than a million retirees will be affected by these cuts, including 700,000 people who will retire in the next decade.

Some single pensioners will lose more than $8,000 a year - a quarter of their yearly income of $36,000. 75

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten has argued that it’s unfair the Government has brought in changes affecting part-pensioners while not addressing tax concessions provided to retirees with millions of dollars’ worth of superannuation investments.76

Australian Greens senators have argued that the measures will make the pension system fairer and ‘undo John Howard’s tampering with taper rates’. The Greens hold that issues to do with superannuation tax concessions will be examined as part of the Tax Review process.77

Position of interest groups The proposed changes to the assets test have received some support from the welfare sector but are criticised by other stakeholders.

The Australian Council of Social Service and National Welfare Rights Network have offered qualified support for the measures.78 COTA Australia, a peak body for older Australians, has raised concerns with the measure, particularly the impact on those with assets earning relatively low returns.79 COTA Australia considers it a piecemeal change when a broad review of the entire retirement incomes system is needed.80

National Seniors has criticised the measures as ‘unfair’ and supported Labor’s opposition to the changes.81

Industry Super Australia has strongly opposed the changes in its submission to the Senate inquiry, citing the long-term impact on average and below average income earners today.82

74. B Shorten and J Macklin, Transcript of press conference, Parliament House, Canberra, op. cit. 75. B Shorten (Leader of the Opposition) and J Macklin (Shadow Minister for Families and Payments), Labor will fight Tony Abbott’s attack on pensions, media release, 16 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 76. B Shorten and J Macklin, Transcript of press conference, Parliament House, Canberra, op. cit. 77. R Di Natale and R Siewert, op. cit. 78. ACOSS, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and

Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, 16 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015; National Welfare Rights Network, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, 12 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 79. COTA Australia, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Inquiry into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015, June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 80. Ibid.

81. National Seniors, Seniors welcome stance to protect mid to low income retirees, media release, 16 June 2015, accessed 19 June 2015. 82. Industry Super Australia, Submission to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, op. cit.

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Comment The measures proposed in Schedule 3 essentially reverse the generous measure implemented by the Howard Government in its last year in office (halving the assets test taper rate) while softening the impact on those with modest assets by raising the free areas. The Howard Government’s Super Simpler measures were aimed at boosting retirement incomes and encouraging superannuation investment and were implemented at a time when there was little concern at the growing cost of the Age Pension. This issue is now of great concern to the Government and it has attempted to implement significant, yet controversial, savings measures to reduce future outlays on income support for seniors. The indexation measure put forward in last year’s Budget would have affected every pensioner and reduced the rate at which their payment increased over time. In the face of widespread opposition, the Government has replaced it with a measure that will still deliver budget savings but which will have its greatest impact on those with significant financial resources. The measure is in line with the broad principles behind the design of Australia’s welfare system in that it ensures assistance is targeted at the most needy.

The measure will impact on many future retirees, who will end their working life with higher levels of financial assets than previous generations. Yet the impact will be that these retirees will need to draw on these assets more than otherwise would have occurred, not serious levels of deprivation.

There are arguments to be made as to whether this is the most effective option to address the fiscal strain caused by an ageing population and/or whether it is the fairest. These arguments point to a need raised by most of the submissions to the Senate inquiry on the Bill and in the broader debate on the measures, that the measures are being implemented in isolation from a broad retirement income strategy, and before a serious public analysis of all the reform options available has been undertaken. Given the large impact any change to the retirement income system can have, with long-term effects on current workers and their retirement plans, any reform process should proceed cautiously, be consultative and involve careful analysis of other options and their impact.

Provisions Items 1-36 of Schedule 3 amend the Social Security Act 1991 (the SS Act)83 at various points to amend the asset test limits for Widow Allowance, Parenting Payment, Youth Allowance (for those considered independent)84, Austudy, Newstart Allowance, Sickness Allowance, Special Benefit, and Partner Allowance to the levels outlined above in Table 2, above (as applicable on 1 January 2017).

Items 37- 57 amend the SS Act at various points to amend the pension asset test free areas or asset value limits (including for Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Carer Payment, and Widow B Pension) to the relevant level outlined above in Table 2. The items also amend the formula for calculating the pension rate reduction for assets that exceed the free areas at point 1064-G4, point 1066-G4 and 1066A-H4 of the SS Act. Currently, the calculators work by multiplying any asset values in excess of the free area (any part of this excess that is not a multiple of $250 is not included in the calculation) by 9.75 and dividing this total by 250. This provides the dollar amount by which a person’s annual pension payment is reduced. The current effect of this calculator is that every $1,000 of assets over the free area reduces a pensioner’s payment by $39.00 per year ($1.50 per fortnight). The amendments at items 43, 50 and 57 double the multiplier in this formula from 9.75 to 19.5. This has the effect of reducing a pensioner’s payment by $78.00 per year ($3.00 per fortnight).

Item 58 doubles a rate similar to the taper rate in a formula at section 1130 which assesses whether a person might be able to access a pension under financial hardship rules. In effect, the amendment doubles the amount included for each $250 of assets as part of the person’s total adjusted ordinary annual rate of income. This test only applies in relation to assessing financial hardship.

Items 59-61 increase the asset test limits that apply in relation to certain special residents (for illness-separated couples where one or both members of the couples are residing in a retirement home or aged care facility) at paragraphs 1152(5)(g), 1153(3)(e) and 1154(2)(f) of the SS Act to $237,500.

83. Social Security Act 1991, accessed 22 June 2015. 84. Non-independent Youth Allowance recipients are subject to a separate means testing regime which takes into account their family’s means. See DHS, ‘Income and assets test for Youth Allowance’, DHS website, accessed 19 June 2015. Note that the Government has proposed changes to this family means test, see: M Klapdor, ‘Family payments’, Budget review 2015-16, Research paper series, 2014-15, Parliamentary

Library, Canberra, 2015, accessed 19 June 2015.

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Item 62 inserts subsections 1192(5C) to (5H) to provide for the new asset test free areas or limits to be indexed on 1 July 2017. These amounts are indexed to CPI annually. Amendments made by items 77 and 78 to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Act 2014 will repeal an indexation freeze that was to apply to these limits for three years from 1 July 2017.85

Items 64-76 make similar amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 (the VE Act) as were made to the SS Act to increase the asset test free areas for the Service Pension and Income Support Supplement, double the rate reduction for assets that exceed the free areas and ensure the new free areas are indexed to CPI from 1 July 2017.86

Items 79-84 amends the SS Act to provide for a CSHC or HCC to be provided to any person whose social security pension rate was reduced to nil on 1 January 2017 because of the amendments made by the preceding items in this Schedule. The amendments provide for the CSHC income test and the HCC income test to not apply to those individuals who lose eligibility for a pension as a direct result of the changes to assets test proposed by this Schedule. The age requirements for the cards will still apply so the CSHC will be issued to those over age pension age and the HCC to those below age pension age. The amendments also ensure that claims do not need to be made for the cards (the Department of Human Services will determine those eligible automatically) and those overseas on 1 January 2017 who meet the criteria will also not have to make a claim for the card so long as they return to Australia within 19 weeks of the day they left Australia. While no claim will need to be made for the HCC cards, they are not to be treated as ‘automatic issue health care cards’ for the purposes of social security law—there are differences in the claims process and benefits for HCCs automatically issued to those in receipt of certain payments and HCCs issued to those who meet an income-test.87 HCCs issued to those affected by the asset-test changes entitle the holders to the same benefits as income-tested HCC holders.

Items 85-92 amend the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 to ensure that certain claim requirements do not apply to those who qualify for a CSHC or HCC under the provisions inserted by items 79-84. The items also ensure that cards issued to those who lose their pension as a result of the proposed assets test changes are not affected by the general expiry date and replacement issues rules that apply to other cardholders. While nominal expiry dates may be placed on the card, expired cards issued to those who qualify in the above circumstances will be automatically replaced.

Items 93-98 make similar amendments to the VE Act to provide for a CSHC to be issued to recipients of the Service Pension or Income Support Supplement who have their payment rate reduced to nil as a result of the changes to the asset test proposed by this Schedule.

85. Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Act 2014, accessed 22 June 2015. 86. Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, accessed 22 June 2015. 87. See footnote 63.

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