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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1901

Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4.47 p.m.) —Before we broke for lunch I was talking about the government's proposal to increase the pension age for women from 60 to 65. Some evidence was put before the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs—which the Department of Social Security acknowledged—that the vast majority of women affected by this proposal, at least 80 per cent, would be moving onto various alternative forms of income support, such as the partner allowance, JSA, Newstart, the new widow's allowance or perhaps the mature age allowance. Ironically, these last two allowances have been recently introduced by the government because it has been forced to recognise that in the current climate older unemployed workers are going to experience great difficulty in finding and keeping work.

  When the government announced the mature age allowance, it said that was an acknowledgment of the great difficulty unemployed male workers over 60 had in keeping and finding employment. The situation is hardly going to be any better for women over the age of 60.

  When the Minister for Social Security, Peter Baldwin, announced the new widows allowance—which will be available to women aged 50 or over who become separated, divorced or widowed and who have no recent work force experience—he said it was in recognition of the fact that these women `may have difficulty meeting the activity test and gaining employment'. On the one hand the government is saying that it needs to introduce new allowances and make new arrangements because it is unfair to expect those older workers to jump through the hoops and over the hurdles in order to get jobs that really do not exist anyway. On the other hand it is saying, `It's okay for women over 60 now. They don't need the pension, they can go out and find a job.'

  This means that most of the women affected by this change are either going to be struggling to find and keep relatively poorly paid and insecure jobs or they will be living on allowances which pay them less than the age pension, have fewer fringe benefits and are far less secure. In other words, their job prospects will be no better and their income will be reduced.

  Women on low incomes and with insecure employment will be the hardest hit by this measure. As Adele Horin pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year:

Well-off men (and a handful of women) will still be able to retire at 55, taking their ample superannuation with them. Even though taxpayers have heavily subsidised that super, the Government shows no willingness to force such people to work until 65 before they can have access to their super. Imagine the outcry!

That is the basic unfairness in this change; it will force women at the less well-off end of the labour market to work until they are 65 in jobs which do not have much to offer them in the way of income, security, training or superannuation. Meanwhile, at the top end of the work force, well-paid workers will still be able to collect their super packages, perhaps as early as 55, no doubt by the age of 60. The low income earners will grind on until the age of 65 having helped subsidise their well-paid work mates into early retirement. I really do not know what the government calls that, but I do not call it fair.

  It is true that the situation for older women—for women in the work force generally—is likely to improve a little over the next decade, but we have no idea how significant that improvement will be. We have no idea what the effects of enterprise bargaining will be, for example. We all know it could simply increase the gap between the well-paid, articulate professional women and those in poorly paid, low skilled jobs, particularly casual jobs.

  As the work done on women and superannuation by the Queensland women's policy unit indicates, there is a strong possibility that occupation based superannuation may in the long term operate to the disadvantage of women workers. So we just do not know whether things are going to get that much better for women in the work force over the next 10 years. Yet, by the end of that 10 years, by the year 2006, Australian women will be retiring at the age of 63.

  The other disappointing aspect of this debate is that we have seen very little evidence that the government has given any serious thought at all to any of the alternatives. For example, why can we not have a serious, informed public debate about whether there is any merit in progressively lowering the men's pension age to 60? Is it feasible? Is it something that the community wants and, perhaps more importantly, is this something the community is prepared to pay for? Would it make any difference, for example, to the availability of jobs for younger people? What about the compromise of moving to equalise both men's and women's pensions perhaps at the age of 62 or 63? Why can we not look at a stepped pension system—introducing a reduced age pension at earlier ages—as some European countries do and then perhaps offering bonuses or incentives for people who postpone retirement to the age of 65 or beyond?

  These are ideas which deserve widespread public debate and discussion, but that does not look like it is going to happen. The government has not wanted that because it knows it has the numbers in this parliament to force this change through. As I said previously, the government has lifted this idea straight out of Fightback and knows that it is going to waltz through this Senate with the support of the coalition. It has not bothered to look at the other options. It has not bothered to talk to the women of Australia to look at how it will affect them personally. The Democrats will be opposing this measure. We will be moving two alternative amendments—one to progressively bring the male pension age down to 60 and the other to push back the time frame for the change in the women's pension another 20 years.

  In the last few remaining minutes I am going to look at the disability wage supplement. This supplement is a way of getting people with disabilities into the mainstream work force by providing a productivity based wage paid by their employer but supplemented with an income tested payment from the government. The new supportive wages system, which has been endorsed by the government, the ACTU and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, offers people with disabilities, who would not normally be able to access this labour market and who would not normally be able to find employment at full award rates, the chance to move out of sheltered employment situations and into that general work force.

  The Democrats believe that the thinking behind this new system is laudable but we have a couple of concerns about the way in which this will actually operate. Firstly, we are concerned about the link between the disability support pension and the disability wage supplement. For example, several organisations have raised with me the issue of people needing to get back on the disability support pension after being on the disability wage supplement due to their jobs no longer existing or their being forced out of their positions. What prevents the DSS saying that these people are not eligible for a pension any longer because they have demonstrated by being on the supplement that they are able to work and they no longer meet the criteria of having a continuing inability to work, which is a requirement for the pension? They are then going to be forced back onto the jobsearch allowance and have to meet all the various requirements that it takes in order to get that.

  As the legislation reads at the moment, these people will have to lodge a new claim for the pension, go back to square one, wait four to six weeks for another medical examination and then wait another two weeks before their claim is assessed. Surely a far better and a fairer approach would be to allow people coming off the supplement to be judged as automatically eligible to go back onto the pension. This would not stop the Department of Social Security reviewing these people at some later time, but it would ensure that there is no gap in income support in the meantime. I believe that it would also cut out a lot of bureaucratic duplication. The Democrats will be moving amendments to this effect.

  Secondly, I am concerned about the process of assessment. Under this scheme, employees will be assessed through a process of negotiation involving the employer, the employee and either a trade union representative or an accredited assessor. Those assessors are obviously going to play a pivotal role in ensuring a fair deal for the disabled employees. I would like to know how many assessors have been or will be appointed. Are they going to be new appointments or will we effectively be expecting existing DSS and DHSH staff to take on this function in addition to their existing functions? Where will they be based? Will they be able to provide a service for people in all parts of Australia, particularly rural Australia?

  Thirdly, where a sub-award wage is to be paid, superannuation contributions will be paid at this reduced rate. That is a concern. I would like to know whether or not the government plans to re-examine the question of superannuation for these employees and whether it is willing to look at topping up to the full rate with a government supplement at some time in the future.

  Finally, as this is an untried and untested system, perhaps the most important thing is for the government to evaluate this scheme after 12 months. A number of groups are urging the government to simply see this first year of operation as a trial period and to do a full evaluation of it after that period of time. I would certainly like to hear the minister's response to that and whether the government already has a full plan for an evaluation or has built a review into the scheme at any point.