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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 26859

Ms JULIE BISHOP (12:42 PM) —I have found having to listen to the previous Labor speakers a particularly tedious pastime this morning. The rantings of the opposition members were so predictable, so monotonous and so lacking in substance—the scripted mantra. I join with so many others in the community who lament the fact that this opposition is seemingly incapable of accepting graciously or sensibly any positive government measure to assist deserving members of our community.

This is an opposition which can only wish that it was capable of managing the economy in the manner of this government that has allowed us to not only right the wrongs of past Labor administrations but provide initiatives for growth—positive steps and new benefits for the future. Labor could not afford to do any of this; we can. It seems that the mysteries of responsible fiscal management clearly still elude the opposition and that is why we hear this level of resentment from the opposition. It just does not get it.

I am particularly pleased to speak on these budget measures the morning after the budget was handed down, for it gives me the opportunity to place on record my congratulations to the Treasurer for this—his sixth— budget. This is the fifth consecutive year that we have had a budget in surplus. That is a very fine record not seen for many years—certainly not in the last 30 years. We have a healthy surplus of $1.5 billion—and that is three times greater than market expectations. Just imagine if this were a Labor government in an election year. We would not see a skerrick of a surplus—just irresponsible debt.

The Treasurer's first five budgets were focused on tax reform and on restoring the nation's economic position by paying off Labor's debt and by strong fiscal policies. The nation has been rewarded over the past five years with budgets in surplus. I think that is one of the most undervalued aspects of the economic management of the coalition over the past six years—turning the $11 billion deficit we inherited from Labor's pork-barrelling days into a surplus after our first year in government. We have maintained a surplus budget thereafter and we have repaid debt.

It is worth noting again that, when the coalition came to government, Labor had racked up an $80 billion government debt. Over the past six years we have steadily repaid $60 billion of that debt. The immediate consequence of that feat is that, while Labor used to have to find $8 billion each year— and we know where they found that—just to service its debts alone, our country now needs $4 billion less each year to service the remainder of Labor's debt. That is $4 billion this country can invest in its future rather than paying off the profligate debts of those Treasury marauders, the previous Labor governments. So I congratulate the Treasurer on yet another economically and fiscally responsible budget. And this year the Treasurer has been able to focus quite specifically on the future—on social issues, on health, on the environment.

As to the specifics of the bills before the House, I am particularly pleased to be able to support these measures on behalf of a great number of constituents in my electorate of Curtin, for the measures in these four bills address the circumstances of those who have served this country in times of war and those older Australians who have made and continue to make a contribution to our society. A nation can be judged on how it treats its older citizens as much as on how it treats its younger people. I am proud of the fact that this budget has recognised the immense contribution of our fathers and mothers, grandparents and, in some instances, great-grandparents—all those who have paved the way for future generations.

The bill comprising the one-off payment to older Australians—a payment of $300 to all social security pensioners and beneficiaries by 30 June this year—is a recognition of our gratitude and appreciation to those members of our community who have given much over the years and who deserve our acknowledgment in this way. I know from the discussions I have held with pensioners in my electorate that $300 will be a welcome addition to their pension payment—a payment that we fixed when we came to office. We fixed the maximum basic rate of the single adult social security pension, after indexation, so it would not fall below a rate equal to 25 per cent of the male total average weekly earnings figure. Last year we increased the pension by four per cent—it is two per cent higher in real terms—and now we introduce the $300 bonus. Only a very mean-spirited opposition would carp about this.

The Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001 builds on the initiatives and support that we have provided in our previous budgets and recognises the efforts of our self-funded retirees, those who have made provision for their retirement. These measures are directed to those on low or modest incomes who do not qualify for the age pension. I think the highlight of these measures is the significant extension of the availability of the Commonwealth seniors health card. We had previously increased the income limits under which people could access the benefits; now we increase the income limits to $50,000 for single people and $80,000 for couples from 1 September. That is a wonderful measure. It will affect a great many people in my electorate, and I encourage all those who are eligible for this card to take it up. The benefits are there, and there are even more incentives for those who do take up the seniors health card, with the extension of the telephone allowance to the holders of this card. That equates to about $17.20 per quarter. There are other positive aspects to the bill. Superannuation assets are to be exempted from social security means tests for people aged between 55 and the age pension age. This is a recognition that people should preserve their super for a better quality retirement.

The Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001 also builds on the benefits that have been delivered to pensioners and self-funded retirees in our past budgets and in our tax reform measures: the real increases in pensions and allowances, the low income tax rates, the lower capital gains tax rates and the refunds of excess imputation credits. So, in addition to those benefits, this budget provides for a substantial increase in the tax rebates available to older Australians, including self-funded retirees, those of pension age and those receiving a pension. In effect, a single senior Australian can derive taxable income up to $20,000 without paying income tax. Under Labor, they only had to earn $5,400 and they would be hit with an income tax liability. That is mean. We have lifted this tax-free threshold over time, and it is now up to $20,000. I applaud this initiative, as will the many self-funded retirees and pensioners in the Curtin electorate. Also under this initiative, couples will be able to derive income of $32,612 without paying tax. This is the next step along the path we have already taken to increase these rebates over time.

Finally, I turn to the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001 under which compensation will be paid to all living Australian prisoners of war and civilian detainees and internees who were held by Japan during World War II. My generation and those younger have grown up in relative security, assuming that Australia will provide us with peace and prosperity, and safe in the knowledge that we live in a country with a strong democratic tradition that values the rule of law, individual freedoms and basic human rights. But we owe much of our sense of security and contentment to our service men and women and others who made the sacrifice to defend the freedom of this country. Following the fall of Singapore in 1942 and during the war in the Pacific, 22,000 Australian men and women were taken prisoner. Many suffered unspeakable hardship. Many died in the most brutal circumstances.

One of the most moving experiences I can recall in the past few years was when I spoke at an Ex-POW Association meeting in Perth. Over a cup of tea, a number of the ex-POWs began talking about their experiences—not in detail; they spared me that. Quietly, in a matter of fact way, they spoke of some of what they had endured, what they had seen, how it had affected their lives and how they feel now. There are some 27 ex-POWs of the Japanese living in my electorate of Curtin and some 80 to 90 widows of ex-POWs. This budget initiative of a one-off cash payment of $25,000 is for them and for the other surviving POWs and civilian detainees and surviving widows and widowers across Australia. It cannot rewrite history, it cannot erase the years from the memories of those who suffered, but it is a recognition by this government of what they endured in the name of the defence of Australia.

These bills represent tangible, positive benefits for older Australians. As the Treasurer observed in his budget speech last evening, the government are taking these measures because the economy can benefit from them, the budget can afford them this financial year and our older Australians deserve them. We are making these payments because our management of the economy enables us to do so—we can do it, and so we have done it. These Australians deserve these payments. No-one should argue with that. I commend these bills to the House.