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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 26841

Mr SWAN (11:08 AM) —We are supporting the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001, the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (One-off Payment to the Aged) Bill 2001, the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001 and the Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001 today, and why wouldn't we? We are supporting these bills because they give back part of what the Howard government has taken away through the savagery of its GST. Too many people in this community, particularly the elderly, have suffered too much hardship over the last 12 months and the four years prior to that. Today in these bills the government is giving back only part of what it has taken away. In a sense, this budget has been built on the suffering of too many Australians, and today the rewards are given back to too few Australians.

When this government was elected five years ago, it said it would defend the battlers in our community. It has only created more battlers in our community, and that is particularly the case since the introduction of the GST. So many in our community on low and middle incomes have been squeezed. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle have been squeezed. When we have raised these questions in this House and around the country, the government has said how generous its compensation was for all Australians in the GST package. It said that it was generous for families and, in particular, it said that it was generous for the elderly. When we pointed out that the government was going to take back two per cent of the four per cent pension increase to compensate for its 10 per cent GST, the government said that there was no clawback.

The government said that the GST compensation was generous. The government said that it was going to give all elderly Australians $1,000. The centrepiece of these four bills here today is that the government is giving back $300. What about all of those elderly Australians who were promised $1,000 by this Prime Minister? The passage of these bills today is an admission that the elderly of this country were dishonoured by the Howard government not only over the past 12 months but over the past five years. There are more measures that we will debate here today which put back some of those measures which were taken away in the first and second Howard budgets.

We ought to be very clear: we enthusiastically support the measures in these bills today because they give back some—but only a small amount—of what the Howard government took away. When the Howard government went to the election and put its GST package, it did not tell people what was in the fine print. The Prime Minister went around the country and said that all pensioners would get $1,000. He did not tell them about the fine print; he did not tell them about the two per cent clawback from the four per cent pension increase. So forgive us if we say that we do not trust the government and forgive us if we say that we think there are hidden measures in here which may well mean that many Australians today who think they are going to receive a substantial benefit may well not receive that benefit—and that is particularly the case with the measures that the government has put forward for self-funded retirees.

Self-funded retirees and pensioners have all been hit for six by the GST. On relatively low incomes, they spend a very high proportion of those low incomes on the necessities of life and, as we have said in this House on so many occasions, it is in the necessities of life where they have been pushed backwards by the GST—electricity and gas up in excess of 10 per cent. I do not know whether this Prime Minister pays an electricity bill and knows what it is like to pay for the necessities of life but, whether you are a self-funded retiree or a pensioner and whether you live in Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne or Dubbo, you have been going backwards. That is why these bills today are desperately needed by the elderly, but the government is only giving back some of what has been taken away.

Let me deal first of all with the $300 which will be given as a bonus to all elderly Australian pensioners. As I said before, this $300 bonus is simply too little too late because it is a one-off payment. Pensioners who will receive this have the GST as a life sentence; it goes on year in, year out. They know that when they go to the supermarket food prices are up dramatically, they know that their electricity and gas bills are up, and they know that one $300 payment is not going to make up for the burden of the GST for the rest of their lives. As I said before, hundreds of thousands of pensioners were promised $1,000. They want to know today where the other $700 is. Equally, they want to know when their two per cent pension clawback will be given back. The pension clawback short-changed single pensioners $7.90 and couples $13.20. All of this has to be seen in the context of the Howard government's treatment of the elderly.

Time and again, the government come into this House saying, `We have introduced this marvellous piece of legislation which says that pensions must be 25 per cent of average weekly earnings.' What they neglect to say is that pensions have fallen below average weekly earnings on 12 occasions since they were elected. So that is the total record of this government: pensions have been constantly going backwards, culminating in the savage impact of the GST on living standards.

As I move around this great country of ours, I talk to a lot of people who are well-off. What they frequently say to me is, `I am going OK, but my mum and dad are not. They are going backwards.' This is an issue which goes to the heart of the nature of this government, and it goes to the very heart of what sort of country we want to be in this century. That is why we say that this is not a budget for the new century. This is a budget which papers over the meanness of the last five years and gives back substantially less than was taken away, particularly from the elderly.

Now I want to deal with the self-funded retirees, because there has been an enormous amount of inaccurate comment in the press today about who will receive benefits from the measures announced last night. I believe that inaccurate comment results from the government grossly exaggerating—and that is the kindest way I can put it—the benefits that will flow from some decisions contained in these bills. The bill I am dealing with here is the Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001. This bill lifts what is said to be the effective tax-free threshold for a self-funded retiree to $20,000. The government, of course, has neglected to tell anyone that in the last couple of weeks it gazetted an increase to $15,000 in that effective tax-free threshold, which is achieved by providing rebates. It did not tell anyone about that. It did not want anyone to know about it. That was another mean trick from this government. It wants people to believe that it has lifted the effective tax-free threshold from $12,000 to $20,000, when it has actually lifted it from $15,000-plus to $20,000. There is a big difference between $10,000 and $5,000, but I suppose the minister opposite cannot add up, so he would not know. So the increase in the effective tax-free threshold here is only $5,000.

Now let us come to who is going to be the beneficiary of this. The lifting of the effective tax-free threshold is very welcome, but the government have deliberately created the impression that it is going to be accessed by all self-funded retirees. They have created that impression so strongly that in the press this morning we have reports that it is going to be accessed by people who are 55-plus. It is not. It is not going to be accessed by anyone between 55 and 65 years old. So all those self-funded retirees aged between 55 and 65 in our community who have got the impression, deliberately created by this government, that they are going to receive the benefit of an effective tax-free threshold of $20,000 are not going to get it. And they are already on the telephone today, extremely upset, because the government directly created the impression that this was going to be delivered to people who are 55-plus.

What is this reminiscent of? It is reminiscent of the savings bonus, when the Prime Minister went around the country and said that everybody would get $1,000. He did not tell them about the sneaky, mean fine print he had in place which meant that, on that occasion, 40 per cent of those people got nothing. They flooded into our offices around this country, talking about the meanness and the trickiness of the Howard government. I suggest that we are about to have another episode just like that, with the lifting of this tax-free threshold, which is not going to go to anyone between the ages of 55 and 65 and is not going to go to anyone who has an income over $35,000. On our preliminary calculations, as few as one in 10 self-funded retirees will access this benefit. I hope many more self-funded retirees can access this benefit but, if you were examining the behaviour of the Howard government over the last five years, you would not hold out high hopes for that.

So I challenge the government here today to publish the full figures, to establish who gets it, at what income level they get it and how much they will get. I want the government to come into this House this day and tell the parliament of this country how many are going to get it, what their ages will be and what their incomes will be. If they do that, at least those who are not going to get it will get to know that pretty quickly, instead of going through the pain and anguish of trying to establish who gets it and who does not because the government will not come clean about how many people are going to get it. So, today, in this debate, I call on the relevant minister in this government to come into this House and tell the parliament of Australia how many people are expected to get this, what their income level is and what they expect their benefit to be. Come into this House and be open. Let us have no more of this sneaky savings bonus behaviour and no more stonewalling. Come into the House and tell the parliament of Australia and the elderly of this country who is going to benefit.

The other big furphy we had in the lockup last night was when the government went around and said to everyone, `Gee, we are generous: do you know what? We are going to backdate this measure.' Rebates are always backdated. That is how they work. So we had all the hype last night, with the Treasurer putting his hand on his heart and saying, `We are so concerned with the elderly that we have backdated the increase in the effective tax-free threshold.' They always backdate it. There is nothing new about that.

That rhetoric really gets us through to what this is all about: when all is said and done, this is a government that is desperate to give itself a compassion facelift. It wants to somehow signal that it is born again with a social conscience. Last year was supposed to be the year of social policy in this country. It never turned out to be the year of social policy, because the government hit low income Australians and vulnerable Australians with the most savage hit that they have ever had in this country's history, thereby dramatically escalating the growing gap in this country between the rich and the poor. Through the imposition of that and its failure to implement genuine welfare reform, it has caused a flood of poverty in this country, causing a flood into my office of people on low incomes and particularly pensioners saying to me, `We can't make ends meet. We don't have any relatives. We don't have any friends up the road. How are we going to get by?' This is something that this government cannot understand. That bunch of millionaires opposite us—always in the pockets of the top end of town—who spend all of their time at the boardroom table and none of their time at the kitchen table just do not have a clue what it is like to live on a low income in this community. So forgive us for being sceptical about what the government is up to.

We say to the people of Australia: `Look very closely at the fine print. In particular, have a very close look at how the government respond to my challenge in the House today for them to tell the parliament of Australia and the Australian people how much each self-funded retiree is going to get and how many will get it. See whether the sort of figures that we are talking about are correct or incorrect.' If they are correct, what we have is just another huge grab—government taking more than they portend to give—and more and more Australians becoming bitterly disillusioned with the parliament and the government of this country as a result. We support the measures in the self-funded retirees package. We just do not think that the government are being honest about what they are doing. This information should be available. If the government have costed it, as they have said, publish it and publish it today so that everybody can know what the government are up to.

The next measure deals with the superannuation assets of people aged between 55 and 65. This repeals one of the most obscene bills that has ever been passed in this parliament and I say that is a terrific thing. This government some years ago decided that it was going to be so mean that it would make you, if you became unemployed at aged 55, spend your superannuation before you were entitled to any benefit. That is what it decided. Since that time, literally tens of thousands of Australians have had to use their superannuation assets which were meant for their retirement to literally survive. I have seen many of these people in my electorate absolutely bewildered that they could be so betrayed by the government of this country. Having been told to save for their retirement, once they have been made redundant or lost their jobs the government has the hide to come in and take away their superannuation before they are entitled to receive any support from the government. People who have worked hard for the country—people who have made this country what it is—have had that imposition for the last four or five years.

I am absolutely delighted that the government has seen the error of its ways on this measure and has backtracked—but it has not backtracked out of conviction. Like in all of these measures, it has done so to save its political hide. But, for whatever reason it did it, we welcome this measure. It should never have occurred in the first place. I just wonder how the generation of people who have had their assets taken away are going to feel. Why were they consigned to this particular period in Australian political history where they were persecuted to the point of having their superannuation assets taken from them? I think the least that this government ought to do for them is to apologise or try and make some restitution to them, because their lives have been ripped apart by this savage, mean and nasty measure. I am delighted that it has finally bit the dust. We took a proposal to get rid of this to the last election and I am just delighted to see that the government has finally capitulated to our pressure and has got rid of this very nasty measure.

This brings me to a couple more of the measures contained in the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001. These measures deal with the extension of the telephone allowance to a further group of retirees and the lifting of the income limits for self-funded retirees. The opposition supports these measures, but I would make a number of points. The extension of these concessions has to be seen against the backdrop of government cuts over the last four or five years. The government is putting back just a fraction of the $750 million in cuts it inflicted in 1996 when this government axed free dental treatment, cut back free hearing aids and jacked up the cost of medicines bought on cards.

The experience that we have had with this government is that, whenever it gives a benefit such as it is giving today, someone else pays—more is ripped out elsewhere. Last time, the extension of the benefits on the health card for the self-funded retirees was largely funded on the back of knocking off free hearing aids. So I fear that after this measure goes through we are going to see some more of that pain distributed around and someone else in the community is going to lose. We are supporting the measures for the lifting of the income limits, but I am sure that there will be many low income families out there on relatively modest incomes with a couple of kids who, when they see the new income limits, will think, `Well, we might like one of those, thanks very much.' I think that there is going to be a lot of people feeling like that and we may well have another debate flowing out of this.

Having said all that, we are supporting these measures because they are so desperately needed. We are supporting these measures because this government have taken so much off the elderly in particular and because giving some of it back is the least they can do. The problem is what is in the fine print of these measures. I would like a government member to come into this House at some stage today and tell us the numbers of self-funded retirees who are going to really benefit from this $20,000 effective tax-free threshold. We need to know that because we have to end the uncertainty; we definitely need to know that. We have to see that fine print and we have to see what the real impact is.

What is even more disturbing about the whole process we have been through in this budget is that I am just left with the absolute impression that the government are not doing this because they care for older people; it is just that they want their vote. If it was done out of conviction, we might be able to be a bit more generous to the government, but they have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position by the Australian people and the opposition. The members opposite were sitting in this House only months ago saying, `No such thing as clawback,' and, `The compensation package is absolutely generous.' If the compensation package has been so generous, why is this here today? If it has been so generous and people are swimming in money and doing so well in our community, why is this here today? It is here today because you are trying to give back a little of the massive amount that you have taken away. You went to the election with a package which claimed the inflation effect of the GST was going to be 1.9 per cent and you based all your compensation arrangements on a 1.9 per cent inflation rate. We are now into our third quarter of around six per cent inflation, and the budget papers claimed yesterday that it is going to wash out. You were saying it was going to wash out after the first quarter—and prices are still going up. This was the mob that was claiming that supermarket prices were going down—and they went up. You were going around the place saying basic groceries were going down in price; we have proved they went up. Hogwash Hockey was in here all the time talking about price cuts, when prices were going up at the supermarket. Hogwash Hockey was in here making claims about all these benefits, which never happened.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. J.A. Crosio)—Order! You will refer to `the minister'.

Mr SWAN —The minister, Madam Deputy Speaker, was in here claiming all of these benefits, which never occurred. Low income Australians—families as well—pensioners and self-funded retirees have all been caught in this squeeze. They have far less than the compensation that you promised them. Forty per cent missed out on anything in the savings bonus at all. They got less on the compensation side and they have massive rising prices on the other. For many of the self-funded retirees the situation is also complicated by the fact that interest rates are going down. So these people are being caught in a squeeze of your making, which is why you have been dragged kicking and screaming to the position that you are in today.

You have dishonoured the elderly of this country. They look forward to retirement as a reward, but the GST and the package associated with it for the elderly of this country has effectively meant double taxation. Then you turned around and doublecrossed them: you decided that you would tax them twice and then in the compensation package you would doublecross them. So you gave them double taxation and you gave them a doublecross. No wonder they got a bit cranky about all of that. Then you were too smart by half by putting all of these mean, tricky rules in the fine print, which basically meant that more and more of them missed out. So that is the environment in which these bills are before us today.

Then we get to the welfare reform package, where the government have decided they are going to impose mutual obligation on the mature age unemployed, 50 and over, because they do not trust them either. In fact, they do not actually trust any of the Australian people. I think they would want to sack them if they got the chance. They are so out of touch: they bring in measures which are so out of touch with community opinion and they think it is possible that they can politically dud the elderly, a group who have been so loyal to them on the conservative side of politics. They decide they will give them a double beating for that! Now, justifiably, those people are walking away from them in droves because they do not like to be dishonoured. It is just not a question of money, as important as it is; it is actually a question of respect.

Sadly, through the budget package, your actions over the last five years and your actions today, you really demonstrate that you do not have that respect for the elderly in our community. As for the people who have worked their hearts out to make this country what it is today, you have simply dishonoured them and then you have turned around and fleeced them financially. That is why we have ended up in the position in which we are here today. Then you turn around to the mature age unemployed and say you are going to impose a mutual obligation on them. What is next? Is work for the pension the next agenda of the next Howard government? Is that what they are going to do?

Mr Billson —He's good, isn't he? He thinks every meeting of the House is a branch meeting of the Labor Party, so he winds up with this garbage again.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Dunkley will have his chance on the next call.

Mr SWAN —I spend a lot of time out there in the community, my friend, and I can tell you that they are no friends of yours. We do support the very speedy passage of these bills. On the final bill we support the payment of the $25,000 to those former POWs in the Japanese theatre of war. That is an excellent measure and we support that thoroughly.

Mr SWAN —I had a father who fought in that theatre, thank you very much. That sort of comment from the other side of the chamber is just another example of their complete disregard and disrespect. I will not go into that, but we support this measure enthusiastically, just as we support all of the other measures; we just do not think that any of them, particularly the ones that I spoke about earlier, are being done out of any conviction at all. They are just being done to save your miserable political hides, which is a very sad thing, because, if we as a parliament want respect, why don't we give it? The problem that has come about in recent times is that we have not respected the elderly. We have not honoured the elderly; we have effectively done the reverse.

It takes a political earthquake to get this government to move. If you had been listening to the parliament over the last 12 months, you would have been introducing these measures well before now. You have had to be pushed kicking and screaming into this House by the opposition and the Australian people to show the most minimal amount of respect in the first place. You have had to be drawn to this kicking and screaming. But we enthusiastically support these measures. We enthusiastically support these measures because at least they give back a little bit of the so much that you took away.

When the epitaph of the Howard government is written, it will have as its signature: the Howard government said it would come to power to defend the battlers. What in fact it did was create many more of them. The Howard government said it would come to power to implement a fair taxation system. What in effect it did was implement a taxation system which was strong in taxing the weak and weak in taxing the strong. It said it would bring new standards to the parliament. Instead, it has brought the parliament into disrespect by the sorts of processes we have been through today. We enthusiastically support these bills; they just do not reflect political credit on the government.