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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 2069

Senator SCULLION (1:52 PM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2009. It probably does not need clarification, but as I read the title of this bill I wonder whether it tells you exactly what it is about. It probably should read ‘Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Adjustment Bill’ because this is clearly taking entitlements away from seniors. But you would have to be a bit fair dinkum to do that, and the Australian government, the Labor Party and those on the other side have not been fair dinkum about this matter.

Those in the gallery will perhaps remember—although that probably does not apply to some of the young people I see in the gallery—the carping of the Labor government before they came into power when they said, ‘When we go into government we are going to ease the cost-of-living pressures on older Australians.’ They have clearly failed to deliver. In fact, this particular piece of legislation says to 22,000 Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders, ‘You’re going to get less. Your cost of living is going to get higher and you are going to be worse off.’

I am a simple sort of a bloke but even to me this is disingenuous at best. On the one hand they say, ‘We’re going to an election and we’re going to reduce the cost of living. We’re going to make sure that we ease pressures on older Australians.’ But in bringing this legislation into this place they are acting 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

We had a Senate inquiry into cost-of-living pressures and throughout that inquiry you will note that older Australians kept saying, and the inquiry was told, ‘listen to older Australians’. But the Rudd government commissioned yet another inquiry, this time investigating income support for older Australians, with a reporting date of 28 February. We understand that they reported on that date. That review is known as the Harmer review, but so far it has not been made public.

Here we are with legislation that takes payments from older Australians and nobody bothered to say, ‘Wouldn’t this particular debate be informed by a significant review into the matter.’ But no, they decided that they would leave the report out. They are not even going to consider informing this debate by tabling that information and the advice from the Harmer review.

The government made cash payments last year of $1,400 per single person and $2,100 per couple, but they were a blatant political stunt to try to show pensioners just how much Labor cares. But the fact is that that one-off payment is going to be completely sucked up by the loss of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. On 13 June Labor were trying so hard to get elected to government they were showing their support by calling for a Senate inquiry—another inquiry—into cost-of-living pressures on older Australians. They actually said:

Older Australian are the lifeblood of a nation. They protected us during the Second World War. Through their hard work they have helped build our national prosperity.

They are fine words. They then said:

Today, federal Labor calls on Mr Howard to support this very important Senate inquiry.

A Rudd Labor government will ensure that older Australians enjoy the prosperity which they helped create for all of us.

Again these are fine words, but older Australians have every right to feel completely ripped off. They deserve a lot better than the thin pickings and the deception that have been offered by Kevin Rudd and his duplicitous team. The Commonwealth Seniors Health Card established eligibility for other Commonwealth benefits, such as access to discounted pharmaceuticals through the PBS, telephone concessions and the $500 bonus for seniors. Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders may benefit from other concessions as we all know, whether it is medical bulk billing, household, transport, education or entertainment facilities. For those seniors who lose the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card the effects are absolutely dire. For those who are dependant on prescribed pharmaceuticals, as so many older Australians are, under the PBS the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders currently pay $5.30 per prescription. After losing it they will pay $32.90, an increase of no less than 605 per cent. This comes from those people on the other side, who said, ‘We’re not going to put up the cost of living for older Australians. We’re here to help. So what we’ll do first up is reach into your pockets so that when you go into the chemist and pay for your prescriptions you will be paying 605 per cent more.’ It is an absolute outrage.

In spite of all the safety nets that they promised, these are just thinly veiled deceptions. At the moment, under the safety net threshold, if a person has paid a total of $318 for scripts the ones after that are free. Under the new legislation the safety net threshold for those who do not have the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card will rise to $1,264.90, after which it will be $5.30 for each prescription. So all of the 22,000 senior Australians need to understand not only the duplicity of those on the other side but also the huge financial impact that the legislation they are asking us to pass will have on every single one of you.

The Commonwealth Seniors Health Card comes with a number of other benefits. There was the $500 bonus in the 2008-09 year. If a person loses their Commonwealth Seniors Health Card because of eligibility changes they will not participate in any further bonuses. Cardholders currently qualify for a telephone allowance of $34.60 paid every six months as qualified income support under the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, and that will be lost. Senior Australians are telling me that those are the sorts of things that impact on the standard of living. If those opposite think that they can con senior Australians into thinking that they were the ones who were going to relieve the cost-of-living pressure, they are wrong. Senior Australians are well educated and understand very well—

The PRESIDENT —Order! It being 2.00 pm we shall proceed to questions without notice.