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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2516

Mr NEUMANN (1:47 PM) —I think I have some homework to do. I think I am going to have to look at the budget that was handed down by the Treasurer in May 2008 to see if the member for Aston was in the chamber. Then, when we passed the legislation governing the Economic Security Strategy, I am going to have to look to see if the member for Aston was in the chamber. Then, when we passed the legislation concerning the Nation Building and Jobs Plan, I am going to have to look to see whether the member for Aston was in the chamber, because I do not think he actually heard anything about what we are doing for self-funded retirees and pensioners in the legislation that we have handed down—in the budget, the Economic Security Strategy and the Nation Building and Jobs Plan. It seems to have passed him by entirely. He does not seem to understand any of the assistance we are providing for our senior citizens, but I know that the 14,714 people in my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland who are 70 years of age and older have benefited enormously by the Rudd Labor government’s initiatives.

I say to the member for Aston, who talks about morality and ethics and the like: is it morally right to treat the income of someone who receives income from a superannuation fund differently to someone who actually worked with their hands or worked in an office and earned income that way? Under the coalition’s perspective, policies and philosophy, one senior citizen in Australia should be treated one way but another Australian, who works in an office or with their hands and earns income in that way, should be treated differently. Are we talking about one standard for those who are comfortable—or even well off—and one for those who are doing it tough? Is that the philosophy that the member for Aston thinks we should adopt in 21st century Australia? Is that what he thinks is ethical or moral? I think it is fair, just and equitable to treat income—from whatever source a person receives it—in the same way. And that is what this is about. It is about refining the adjusted taxable income test for the Commonwealth seniors health card to make it fairer—to ‘treat similar sources of income in a similar way’, as the member for Maribyrnong, the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, said in his second reading speech on 12 February 2009.

The Commonwealth seniors health card is, I think, supported by both sides of the House. It is a just and equitable idea to help our senior citizens. It is available to all Australians over pension age—65 for men and 63 years and six months for women—who are not receiving an age pension and who have adjusted incomes of less than $50,000 a year for singles and $80,000 a year for couples combined. It has a number of implications if you are in receipt of the Commonwealth seniors health card. Let us look at the qualifications to get that. We will need, as well, to look at the history of the Commonwealth seniors health card. To qualify, as I have said, there is an income test, and there is another $639.60 per year that is added for each dependent child. Having children is not confined these days to people in their 20s and 30s. We have senior citizens who have children these days as well. They must not be also receiving an income support payment from Centrelink or the Department of Veterans Affairs, and they must be an Australian resident or a Special Category Visa holder. So there are certain qualifications to get a Commonwealth seniors health card, and what we are doing is adjusting the income test. It is a good thing for constituents in my electorate and elsewhere to get one, because it provides access to concessional pharmaceuticals under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. It also provides for bulk-billed GP appointments and that is a help for those people who, as they get older, suffer from illness and infirmity and the travails and troubles of senior years. It also provides, through the Medicare safety net, for a reduction in the cost of out-of-hospital medical expenses above a concessional threshold. We also, in some instances, see additional health, household, transport, education and recreational concessions which are offered by states and territories to those people receiving a Commonwealth seniors health card. So it is a good and helpful thing for those people who are in their 60s and older to have.

The Commonwealth seniors health care card was introduced in 1994 by the Keating Labor government and was initially intended to help those who did not qualify for the age pension due to the lack of resident qualification or due to the value of their assets. It was to help our older Australians in those circumstances. In 1999 the eligibility for the Commonwealth seniors health care card was based on an adjusted taxable income test to allow more people to qualify, but the indexation was abolished by the previous government in 1999. So let us not get too sanctimonious about how much was done under the Howard years to help our senior citizens, because that government abolished the indexation of the income threshold. Let us not get too proud about the record of Mr Howard and his government in that regard.

The current qualifying income tests for the card are less than $50,000 a year for singles and less than $80,000 combined for couples. At the Commonwealth level, if you get a Commonwealth seniors health care card under the Rudd Labor government, you will qualify for certain cash payments, notably the seniors concession allowance, which was increased from May 2008 to $500 a year by the Rudd Labor government and is paid quarterly as part of the government’s delivery of election commitments. Commonwealth seniors health care card holders also received, as I said before, moneys in the Economic Security Strategy. In December 2008 they received $1,400 for singles and $2,100 combined for a couple.

The budget measure announced in May 2008 introduced a similar treatment test, if I can put it like that, for those people earning an income and claiming the Commonwealth seniors health care card. Currently, if you receive income from a defined benefit scheme—for example, ComSuper for a public servant or some of the state government funds—it is treated as income. But income from a private, retail or industry based superannuation fund or from accounts based pensions are no longer taxable and so they are not counted as income for the purpose of the Commonwealth seniors health care card. But if you work in an office, work outside with your hands, do a bit a relief teaching, help out with the council or do other sorts of work in the retail sector, your income is taken into consideration, so you are disadvantaged. We on this side of the House do not believe that is fair. We do not think that is equitable. So with this bill we are going to change the income test to include income from a superannuation income stream with a tax source and income that is salary-sacrificed to superannuation. That is what we are about to do to make it fairer in all the circumstances.

Income salary-sacrificed into superannuation is already assessed as income for the age pension but not for the Commonwealth seniors health care card, so we are bringing the entitlement and qualification for the Commonwealth seniors health care card into line with the age pension. For all those opposite who seem to be worried about this aspect: where was their bill before November 2007? Where was their legislation to amend the taxable income test in respect of the age pension? If they are so concerned about what we are doing now, what did they do about the qualification for the pension in relation to this prior to November 2007? The answer, of course, is that they did not do anything about it at all. The truth is, they can prognosticate over there and pose and claim that they are standing up for our senior citizens, but the reality is that they did not do it—and that is the truth. It was probably coming in the 13th, 14th or 15th years of the Howard government. That is when it was probably going to happen.

The Australian government, the Rudd Labor government, is supporting self-funded retirees through this very difficult time. In reference to the failure of the member for Aston to actually acknowledge any of these sorts of things, they are amongst those millions who will benefit through our $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan. Self-funded retirees who paid their tax in 2007-08 and, as a result of their investments or other income, earnt less than $100,000 will get the tax bonus. If they earnt less than $80,000, they will get up to $900, so they will get funding. As well, if they are part pensioners and they paid even $1 in net tax last year, they will receive the $900 tax bonus.

About 290,000 older Australians, including self-funded retirees and part pensioners, can expect to receive the tax bonus—something that the Rudd Labor government is doing but those opposite did not have the wit or wisdom too. This is important for my constituency in Blair and it is important across the whole of Australia to help pensioners, seniors and those who are self-funded retirees. In December the Economic Security Strategy payment of $1,400 for singles and $2,100 for couples was made available to age pensioners and self-funded retirees who have a Commonwealth seniors health care card. Did the coalition support that? They supported it, they opposed it, they equivocated and now they criticise it. That is their position. Four out of every five of the 2.8 million older Australians 65 years and older benefited from the Economic Security Strategy.

What has the Rudd government done with respect to superannuation draw down requirements? The Rudd government has suspended the minimum draw down requirement for account based superannuation pensions for the second half of this financial year. That means that in the 2008-09 year draw down requirements will be reduced by 50 per cent, and that will help. That is responding to what the self-funded retirees are saying, to what they are concerned about. They are concerned that they will have to sell their investment assets and realise losses in a depressed market. So the Rudd Labor government is listening to what they are saying, listening to their concerns and acting on them.

Also, in relation to the age pension, many self-funded retirees have seen a fall in their investment income and they are now eligible for a part pension. The age pension is important. It is a fundamental social equity provision supported by the Rudd Labor government, and we are doing this. Since mid-October 2008 there has been a substantial increase in the age pension claim rates. We have seen a rise from about 3,500 a week in mid-October to about 5,500 a week in December 2009. That is the Rudd Labor government caring for our senior citizens. There were 4,608 pension claims lodged in the week ending 16 January 2009, and we remain committed to comprehensive reform, be it in terms of the aged care system—

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member for Blair will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.