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Thursday, 17 July 2014
Page: 8399

Ms KING (Ballarat) (16:17): As I was saying in my earlier contribution on this bill, there are hundreds of thousands of senior Australians who have worked hard all of their lives, who have diligently put away money for a secure retirement and who will have their payments callously cut by this government. The budget includes a cut of $1.1 billion to older Australians through the abolition of the seniors supplement. The seniors supplement is an annual payment of $876 to people who receive the Commonwealth senior's health card. At the same time as government does this, it is also cutting $1.3 billion in concessions for pensioners and seniors which are to help them pay their water and electricity bills, rates and public transport fares. The Abbott government is cutting every single cent of the money that the Commonwealth puts towards concessions for these seniors that are for things like electricity and water bills and council rates.

We know that for many of these seniors these concessions are absolutely vital to their budget and to meet their costs of living. When you are on a low fixed income, it is extraordinarily difficult to manage those things. Yet this government has cut the money that the Commonwealth gave to the states and territories to assist with those very concessions so as to help those people deal with cost of living pressures. This is not to mention that the government is hitting older Australian with the new GP tax and higher costs on medicines. We know that many older Australians who are coming through the system now have certainly not been the beneficiaries of a lot of the prevention work that is happening or that was happening. As they age, they are finding that they do need to visit the doctor more and more. We know that they are more reliant on medications to keep themselves well and that they do access the health system more.

What this government wants to do with its new $7 GP tax is absolutely going to hit them. We know from the modelling that the University of Sydney has done that where it actually hits the hardest is on young families with children and on older Australians. It hits those two cohorts of patients. It is not about income level. It affects those two cohorts of patients in particular because of their need to access GPs, their need to access blood tests and pathology—and you will remember that the GP tax is also that—and their need to access diagnostic imagining as well. It is not just one visit; it is every time you visit the GP. The concessions only kick in after 10 visits—and that is 10 visits per year. You then tick over to the next year and you have to do 10 again. So for those on concessions that is an extra $70. That might not be much for members opposite, but I can tell you now that the from stories we have heard from the front line—GPs and patients who are contacting our electorate offices—this is a lot of money. I know that the member for Gilmore, who is not in the chamber now—just dismissed it as just a cup of coffee. Joe Hockey has dismissed it as a couple of middies of beer or a packet of cigarettes. They have dismissed it as that; but we are talking about people who are absolutely on the margins, who are managing every single dollar of their budget. For them, it will be $70 to go to the doctor—10 visits—before they then hit the concessional rate of this GP tax; that is an enormous amount of money. It is not just an enormous amount of money for low-income people; it is also an enormous amount of money for those people who are on fixed incomes, who may not necessarily be accessing a pension, who may not necessarily be accessing other benefits but who are in fact on a fixed income—and that is what this government wants to do.

As I said, a recent report from the University of Sydney revealed that the most likely impact of the GP tax will be on pensioners. An age pensioner couple with concession cards would pay on average $40 in co-payments for GP visits and tests, plus $59 for medications—$199 extra out of their budgets

The study reinforced the concerns of Labor and shared by the Consumer Health Forum, the AMA and the GP organisations that introducing a co-payment for GP visits, pathology, and imaging services could deter vulnerable groups from seeking medical care. The report was absolutely clear: elderly people will be hit very hard by the Prime Minister's GP tax. Again, the question has to be posed: how is that fair? How is it fair to ask more from Australian pensioners, who have already contributed so much to this country over so many decades?

We saw yesterday the first of the health budget bills come into this parliament—the government's decision to increase the costs of pharmaceuticals. And then, in a nasty little surprise, not only did they increase the costs of medicines but they also made it much harder for people to reach the safety net. The safety net is for those patients who particularly need to have multiple medications, and many of those are older people with chronic disease conditions. So, each time you go to the pharmacist, if you are a general patient on general concession, it is $5 extra, on top of what you already pay. For concessional card holders it is an extra 80c every time you fill a script. And trying to reach the safety net has become harder and harder and harder.

In their own budget papers, for example, they say that by 2018 concession card holders will have to fill 68 scripts before they hit the safety net. That is what they did yesterday. It is absolutely one of the most serious measures for older Australians in terms of their costs of living and how they manage their budget. What we saw yesterday was the absolute debacle of six speakers opposite—and I can see that they now have a cohort of people who have health backgrounds whom they are asking to speak on health budget bills. That is a good thing, and hopefully they have some experience to bring to the table about what is actually happening within the health system and how you actually work with vulnerable older patients in GP surgeries.

So, six speakers were selected to speak on the bill, and there was not a single marginal-seat backbencher who had the courage to come in and defend this measure, who had the courage to come in and actually debate the measure. Then we had the debacle of the minister who is responsible for this measure—whose job it is to see this measure through the parliament, to then go and explain it to people, to then go and get it through the Senate—not turning up for consideration in detail. In fact, he was in the chamber, he gagged debate on the bill and then he left, so he could not be present for consideration in detail.

Ms Bird: Has that ever happened before?

Ms KING: I do not remember it happening before. It is a very unusual thing to have happen—for such a very serious bill from one of the most senior ministers in the government. He could not even be bothered to turn up for consideration in detail. Normally what happens—I have seen it happen a number of times before with consideration in detail—is that the minister will get up and reject the questions we ask, defend the bill, go on the attack, do all of those things, and get his backbench up doing that as well, and we will have a proper debate about the bill. But that health minister could not even turn up for consideration in detail and then gagged and gagged and gagged the debate again. That is what happened yesterday. That is a bill that increases the costs of medicines for older Australians. It increases the costs for every Australian. But we do know that older Australians in particular can be high users of medicines. Because of that, that bill had particular relevance to the many, many pensioners and older Australians in this country.

Before the election the Prime Minister said there would be no changes to pensions. The Prime Minister was not being truthful with older Australians before the election, and the Prime Minister should be truthful with older Australians now. At the same time as they deliver one of the harshest austerity budgets in our nation's history, they are proposing to spend around $100 million to increase eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card for people with higher incomes. Labor cannot support such twisted priorities in the context of what this government is doing in the entire budget to older Australians. It is as clear a display of the government's priorities as you can get: give to the top while you attack the people who are doing it the toughest. That is the framework that this government is operating within. We have seen it in the budget, which slashes support for vulnerable Australians. And now we see them extending support for people at the other end.

This is not the only example of those twisted priorities. Of course, the biggest example is the Abbott government's unfair and unaffordable paid parental leave scheme, which pays $50,000 to wealthy women to take six months off work to have a baby. There can be no justification for this sort of expenditure at the same time as pensioners—who earn around $20,000 a year—are going to have their payments cut. What sort of wrong priorities do you have when you have a government that thinks that is okay?

We heard the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in question time today. He has been out there thumping the table, threatening about what will happen if he does not get these measures—these terrible cuts to some of the most vulnerable low-income and middle-income Australians throughout the country—through. Well, he has some alternatives. There are some alternative cuts, and we gave him one: get rid of your Paid Parental Leave Scheme. We have a paid parental leave scheme, something that Labor is very proud of. We are very proud that we had the first one in this country. It is Labor who championed the cause of paid parental leave and actually introduced a scheme—and it is working, and it is fair. But what this government wants to do is give $50,000 to wealthy women, women on high incomes, to take six months off to have their baby, at the same time—and this is all about priorities, so you have to look at it in context—as cutting pensions. It is absolutely the wrong priority, the wrong thing to do. The government was offered at question time to get rid of it. They know they have support in their backbench and lots of support on their frontbench, and they have support in the business community to get rid of it.

We are trying to give the Prime Minister as much space to ditch the Paid Parental Leave scheme and save face as we can. But so stubborn is the Prime Minister that he is not able to see the wood for the trees and think: 'Well, you know, I've got a cause here. Maybe I can come and say, "Well, you know, the budget measures aren't getting through. That means we can't afford to do this."' He can blame us if he wants. It is what he will do. We have given him the opportunity to save face. But he would rather cut pensions and punish the sick and vulnerable in this community than lose a bit of pride by ditching an absolutely dud scheme. Those are the government's priorities and that is what the Prime Minister is doing.

The government is all about looking after high-income earners while cutting support to vulnerable Australians. The government's budget is an ideological attack on low-income earners. What is worse, the government is concocting a false budget emergency as cover for its savage cuts. If there was really a budget emergency it would not be seeking to increase government support to high-income earners through this measure. It would also not be proceeding with a Paid Parental Leave scheme that will cost more than $20 billion—that is almost equivalent to all of the cuts in education and just under half the cuts to the public hospital system—and give $50,000 to wealthy women to have a baby. Cutting support for vulnerable Australians whilst proceeding with these sorts of measures is a clear example of just how twisted this government's budget priorities are.

How is it fair to cut pensions by $450 million yet expand entitlements for the Commonwealth seniors health card so that people with high incomes can access more benefits? How fair is it that a single-income family on $65,000 with two school-age children will be $6,000 worse off each year because of the Abbott government while this entitlement will be expanded so that people with higher incomes can access more benefits? How is it fair to cruelly abandon young job seekers and yet expand this entitlement to people at the higher end? The answer is that it is not.

It seems the Abbott government does not care about fairness. It does not care about vulnerable Australians. It does not care that millions of Australians will be worse off because of its savage cuts. The priorities are on display in this piece of legislation, and those priorities are all wrong. Labor will oppose it.

Of course, the Liberal Party like to think of themselves as the party that represents the views of seniors and self-funded retirees. But, recently, my office has been inundated with messages from angry seniors who feel betrayed by the Abbott government—seniors who are going to have their pension cut, seniors who are going to lose the seniors supplement and seniors who are going to lose important concessions after the Abbott government unilaterally announced it is going to axe the National Partnership Agreement on Certain Concessions for Pensioner Concession Card and Seniors Card Holders from 1 July this year. This means that the states will now have to pay 100 per cent of the costs of these concessions or seniors will lose these concessions. This is a savage budget for senior Australians, and, of course, it is those with the least who will suffer the most.

The Abbott government likes to pretend it is out there helping seniors. But seniors are smarter than that. They know that they have been betrayed by this government and by the Prime Minister. They know that they cannot trust the Prime Minister, who said repeatedly before the election that there would be no changes to pensions. How many Liberal MPs and candidates distributed flyers to seniors during the election saying, 'By the way, we're going to abolish the seniors supplement and take $876 out of your pocket'? Not one of them did. How many of them campaigned last year to scrap concessions for Commonwealth seniors health card holders for things like utility bills, public transport fares and council rates? Absolutely none of them. They are so dishonest. That is why so many angry seniors have been contacting our offices and, I am sure, the offices of many coalition MPs as well.

Labor will oppose this bill because we believe in fairness. We do not believe that we should extend supports to people at the top while at the same time taking money from those who are more vulnerable. We will fight this government because it has made the wrong choices and is seeking to implement the wrong policies. As we said in the MPI, budgets are all about priorities, and this government, clearly, has it absolutely wrong when it comes to this bill and all of those punitive measures to health, education and pensions that it is trying to introduce at the same time within its unfair budget.