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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Page: 6155

Mrs MARKUS (7:32 PM) —I rise to support in principle the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform and Other 2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 in relation to the impact particularly on Australia’s veterans and the veteran community. This bill is an indicator of the Rudd Labor government’s strategy to align veterans with the Social Security Act. It is also an indicator of how the Rudd Labor government is responding to the debt and deficit caused by its reckless spending.

One of the key changes this bill introduces is the increase to the qualifying age for the age pension. The rise in pension age was unfairly sprung on senior Australians just before the budget and is an indication of the arrogance of the Rudd Labor government. In the same way, this bill is being unfairly sprung on the parliament today. There has been no opportunity for the broader community and the veteran community, both veterans and members of the broader ex-service community, to debate the reforms. It is appalling that the bill is being rammed through today. How can we ensure that there are no anomalies and there is no disadvantage? And what about the groups that will miss out? In the absence of any clear economic modelling, we have to surmise that the rise in pension age is a ‘savings’ measure. This policy direction deserves a fulsome debate, with opportunities for all those who potentially will be impacted not only to understand what it means for them but to give voice to their concerns, to have their questions answered and to be able to put their position clearly.

The bill proudly proclaims that the pension age for veterans will not be increased as a result of the legislation. While that is welcome, it is not quite true. The male veteran age will remain at 60 years, but the age for females in the veteran community to receive payments will gradually increase to align with the male veteran age of 60 by 2013. The pension age for females is currently 58.5 years. The bill goes on to say that for nonveterans under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act the pension age will increase in the same manner as the qualifying age for the age pension under the Social Security Act. Here the government is showing its hand, and clarification is required. Here the government is hiving off a section of the veteran community and, again, aligning it with the Social Security Act. This government did a similar thing last year when it made changes to the partner service pension. The government attempted to lift the age thresholds, but pressure from both the coalition and the veteran community led to amendments to that legislation. The question needs to be asked: what section of the veteran community will be next?

The bill implements increases to the amount of pensions and allowances for Australia’s 3.3 million age pensioners, disability pensioners, carers, and wife and widow B pensioners, and recipients of bereavement allowance, special needs pension and veteran income support. It would seem, however, that there are no increases, no provisions made, for Australia’s TPI pensioners. ‘Blue’ Ryan, the National President of the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women, has raised a number of concerns regarding increases with me.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs ad hoc information system sourced through the Parliamentary Library shows that the number of TPI pensioners as at March 2009 included: 19,737 Vietnam veterans; 3,234 World War II veterans; 2,760 serving members of the Defence Force; 2,329 Korean, Malaya and Far East Strategic Reserves; 254 veterans from the East Timor; 157 members of peacekeeping forces; and veterans from the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and other operations. In 2009 there were approximately 28,768 recipients on TPI pensions. TPI pensions are compensation payments and it needs to be noted that TPI pensioners have experienced the same cost increases as other income recipients.

Prior to the 2007 election expectations were raised by the Rudd Labor government that this group of veterans would not be left out. In a letter from ‘Blue’ Ryan to the Prime Minister, dated 1 June 2009—and I have it here—he wrote:

We are at a loss to understand why the increase to pensions announced in the budget was not passed on to TPIs and other DVA Disability Pension recipients.

There may be some provision in the bill. We have had very little time to have a close look at the bill. We have looked at it to the best of our ability over a very tight time frame, and it needs to be highlighted that not having the time to look at it comprehensively is hardly a democratic process. It is hardly the action of a transparent government, which is what they claimed and argued they were going to be.

What is important to the TPI group is that the relativity of their payments is maintained. When the coalition was in government we closed the gap by increasing all veterans’ affairs disability pensions and introduced indexation for payments to veterans with reference to both the consumer price index and the male total average weekly earnings. This group of people who have permanent and major health conditions due to their service to our nation had their expectations raised. I can understand their disappointment.

Last year the coalition tried to secure an increase for pensioners but this was bitterly opposed by the Rudd Labor government. Had the coalition bill been passed, many senior Australians would have already received over $1,000 in additional income to date. In 2007 Mr Rudd went to the election promising to ease the cost-of-living pressures for senior Australians and, even with a $22 billion budget surplus left by the former coalition government, he failed to act. When the government announced the first stimulus package there were several veterans—in fact, a number—who missed out. These people missed out on the stimulus payments and they are again missing out today.

There was one concession given to veterans. Recipients of social security and veterans’ entitlements payments who receive payments under certain Western Australian programs will have these amounts excluded from the income test for the purpose of calculating their rate of payment. The Western Australian programs are the Cost of Living Rebate Scheme and the country age pension fuel card scheme. However, this income test concession will start on 1 July 2009 and end on 30 June 2012.

Another major issue that has been raised by senior Australians is superannuation. I note the Rudd government has also decided not to proceed with the measure to include gross tax-free superannuation pension income in the income test for the Commonwealth seniors health card. This measure appears to have been withdrawn, I believe, thanks to the pressure brought to bear by the coalition and seniors groups. Now it is only income that is salary sacrificed into superannuation that will be included in the income test, but that is still a matter of concern within the community.

The pension increases will come into effect from 20 September 2009, and the minister in her second reading speech said that a ‘further bill, to be introduced at a later date, will deliver the pension reform measures for veterans and their dependants’. I look forward to seeing the bill foreshadowed by the minister and hope that, at least, when this next bill is introduced the legislation will not be rammed through with little or no opportunity for debate or consultation with the veteran community or the broader community.

Having seen this bill rammed through today, I would have to say that I think this is a grave attack on democracy and it is not reflective of a government that claim to respect and hold in high regard transparency. I have to say that many senior Australians will benefit from the measures in this bill but there are questions yet to be answered, particularly about those in the veteran community that will be missing out. I will be urging the minister to answer those questions at her earliest convenience.