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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20055

Mr SWAN (5:34 PM) —Today I grieve for the thousands of pensioners across Australia who are now the new target of this government's habitual heartlessness—a government that, when its record is exposed, claims complete ignorance and seeks to avoid responsibility for its heartless actions. It does this by elaborate diversionary tactics. There has never been a government more skilled in diversionary tactics than this one. People know that, whatever direction this government points in when it is allocating responsibility, they should always look in the other direction. This is advice that pensioners and their families would be very wise to heed.

A month or so ago, aged and disabled pensioners began phoning and writing to parliamentarians because they were receiving bills ranging from a few hundred dollars to $50,000 from the Howard government. The government has a new budget program to review 43,000 pensioners' past financial records to search for discrepancies. It hopes to claw back more than $100 million from the aged and the infirm. These are not welfare fraudsters; these are people who have in most cases dutifully provided Centrelink with a constant diet of payslips and other paperwork. They are people trying to do the right thing who, in most cases, have tripped up because the government failed to properly advise them or record their information. It would not have occurred if this government had actually been doing what it claimed it was doing about social security compliance.

In every case my office has examined, these pensioners who had additional earnings have lodged a tax return each and every year. But this government has not been running the checks between tax and social security to pick up the discrepancies before they get out of hand. In some cases, 10 years of error have produced a huge debt. One family that contacted my office have been providing Centrelink with payslips on a monthly basis for years. If they had provided them fortnightly, they were told, they would not have a debt today—but no-one told them to do that. Now they have a crippling bill, to be paid by the end of this month.

The fact is that these are debts that pensioners never knew they had. Now they are being handed to them by a heartless minister to repay. Most stand to lose their life savings or the money set aside for funerals to repay the money. And now we have the outrageous threat by the Minister for Family and Community Services to sell their homes. That is right; the minister has threatened to sell the homes of these people who have debts which have been incurred through no fault of their own.

The minister made her first outrageous comments during an interview screened on the Nine Network's A Current Affair on August 22. The outrage that followed resulted in the minister attempting to hose the issue down. In a press release issued on August 24 she denied ever making such a threat during the interview. In her press statement she said:

Claims that I think that aged pensioners should simply have their houses sold from under them if they incur a debt are simply rubbish.

However, a transcript from the minister's interview with A Current Affair shows this statement to be a bald-faced untruth. During the interview, the minister was asked about what she would do if aged pensioners could not repay the debts. This is what the transcript shows:

Interviewer: What if they don't have the cash?

Vanstone: Well, we would look at their assets.

Interviewer: So you would be prepared to sell up their family homes?

Vanstone: Well I would be.

It was as clear as that. Minister Vanstone's crackdown on aged pensioners is both heavy-handed and completely unwarranted. Most of the pensioners affected have in no way sought to rip off the system. The only reason the debts have accumulated is that the government has not been conducting even the most basic data-matching checks—that is, the government has bungled. Even small variations in fortnightly pension entitlements that have accumulated over the years now add up to thousands of dollars. Minister Vanstone should immediately call off her heavies and stop the standover tactics that are pressuring many pensioners to hand over every last cent they have. Where the repayment is due to an error by Centrelink and payments were received in good faith, the law requires that it be waived—no ifs, no buts—but that is not the advice that is coming from the government. Where an overpayment has been made due to an unintended lapse by the pension recipient the government ought to adopt a far fairer approach to recovering the debt. These aged pensioners deserve to live out their retirement years with respect and dignity, not to be left destitute or to be terrified by the government.

I would like to quote some of the cases that have come to my office. There is a 69-year-old widow who has had a $14,000 overpayment because of her husband's Italian pension. Her son agrees that the overpayment occurred over a five-year period but says that it was an overpayment, not a debt. He says, `If Centrelink can make the mistake over five years, why can't my mother repay over five years?' He went on to comment:

My father helped build this country and now his widow, my mother, is being treated like a criminal. The process is unethical and shows blatant disregard for Aussies who built this country.

There is a couple—one is 63 years old and the other is 69 years old—who have a $26,000 debt going back 10 years. They gave Centrelink income details which were not updated. The debt was reduced by $1,000 each but they say:

... [we are] unsure if we can go through the SSAT because the decision has caused such huge stress in the family.

They go on and talk about their personal distress. There is a widow, Sonia, who is 53 years old, disabled and confined to a wheelchair. She was widowed in March this year. Her husband was 53 years old. She and her husband came in for a debt of approximately $850 each. They declared income to Centrelink every month but it was not entered correctly. This is what Sonia says:

One month, the girl laughed and said, `I haven't entered last months yet!'... I am a grieving, disabled, homeless widow, my late husband was my carer, I believe the stress and heartache caused by this contributed to my husband's death.

There is a legion of people affected across the country and many more that have come to my office. I will quote from one more pensioner. She says that as a result of incurring the debt:

I cannot eat or sleep, I wake at 1 am, 2 am ... When I open my eyes my stomach begins churning again, my husband is so sick now and I must keep working now instead of being able to retire and look after him.

It goes on and on. This is simply madness. These are heavy-handed tactics which are treating the elderly of this country with complete disrespect.

But, of course, why are we going down this road? Why is this habitual heartlessness at the core of this government? Part of the reason is the minister, Senator Vanstone, who, in a recent feature in the Age, was characterised as `The moderate who wasn't', and nothing could be closer to the truth. In that profile piece the author, Frank Robson, compares the minister to the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, describing her as `both jolly and menacing'. Of course, we all know what the Queen was on about. She was there screeching all the time, `Off with their heads!' Vanstone takes the same approach to charities and parents of the disabled. Now, having got away with it in the other areas—having got away with it with disabled pensioners and the carers of disabled children—she has got the axe out there and is chopping into our pensioners, people who have worked hard to make this country great.

Ms O'Byrne —They have paid taxes all their lives.

Mr SWAN —Yes. In the article, Robson describes her as Roseanne the rottweiler. This is a woman who never forgives. She says in the article, when she is talking about her enemies:

... you don't have to cross the street to fix someone up. You just keep it in your memory ... and one day your [enemy] will lay open his belly, waiting for it to happen.

Ms O'Byrne —What did pensioners ever do to her?

Mr SWAN —That is right. What did the pensioners ever do to Senator Amanda Vanstone? In this article, she admits to a five-hour lunch, although she cannot remember how many bottles of wine she may have had. Let us assume that over a five-hour lunch she had five bottles of wine—one an hour is quite a reasonable intake for Senator Vanstone and a journalist, I would assume. If she was drinking something like Elderton Command Shiraz, at about $80 a bottle—which I gather she might—she would have spent more in one five-hour lunch than she pays these pensioners in a fortnight.

That is the problem. The approach of this minister and her approach to her portfolio is one of contrast: savage treatment for people on very low incomes, Australian pensioners, carers of children and those people who are disabled, and a luxurious personal lifestyle at the same time—but always out there chopping away at our great charities and taking down the unemployed through breaching and so on. This is a minister simply so out of touch that she should be removed by this Prime Minister for her disgusting behaviour when it comes to the pensioners of this great country. (Time expired)