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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 24240


Senator HEFFERNAN (Parliamentary Secretary to Cabinet) (6:14 PM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001 and I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows

COMPENSATION (JAPANESE INTERN-MENT) BILL 2001

This Bill will help give effect to this Government's commitment in the 2001-2002 Federal Budget to recognise the hardship and suffering endured by those Australians who were held captive by Japan during World War II.

Following the fall of Singapore in 1942 and during the war in the Pacific, more than 22,000 Australian men and women were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

By war's end, more than 8000 Australian PoWs - 36 per cent of those taken prisoner by the Japanese - had died.

For up to three-and-a-half years, Australian service personnel and civilians suffered in the most horrific conditions imaginable.

They endured starvation and brutal treatment at the hands of their captors.

They were forced into slave labour on projects like the Burma-Thailand Railway.

They were sent on forced marches, such as the notorious death march from Sandakan to Ranau, during which more than 2000 Australian and Allied prisoners of war died.

In recognition of their unique ordeal, the Government will make a one-off cash payment of $25,000 to all living Australian prisoners of war and civilian detainees and internees who were held by Japan during World War II.

This ex gratia payment will also be made to the surviving widows and widowers of former prisoners, acknowledging those who lost their spouse to the PoW camps, or supported their partner on their return from the war.

The payment will be made to eligible veterans, civilians, widows and widowers who were alive on 1 January 2001. In those cases where an eligible recipient has died since that date, the payment will be made to their estate.

Arrangements are being made by regulations under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to make the payment to those former PoWs and war widows who receive payments through my Department.

This Bill will enable the payment to be made as soon as possible to other eligible civilians and widows.

This Budget initiative has the widespread support of both the veteran and general community.

It is my hope that it will bring some degree of comfort to those who suffered so greatly for their service to Australia.

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FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (ONE-OFF PAYMENT TO THE AGED) BILL 2001

This Bill forms part of a package of measures that further demonstrates the appreciation and acknowledgment of the Government and the community for the contribution older Australians have made and continue to make to society.

This Bill provides for a one-off payment to the aged to be paid to those people who, on 22 May 2001, have reached age pension age and are receiving a social security pension or benefit.

The one-off payment of $300 will be paid to social security pensioners and beneficiaries by 30 June 2001.

This special one-off payment will also be available, otherwise than by this Bill, to people of age pension age receiving certain veterans' payments and payments under the ABSTUDY Scheme. It will also be made available to people of age pension age who are outside the personal income taxation and social security systems.

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FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES AND VETERANS' AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMEND-MENT (FURTHER ASSISTANCE FOR OLDER AUSTRALIANS) BILL 2001

This Bill forms part of a package of measures that further demonstrates the appreciation and acknowledgment of the Government and the community for the contribution older Australians have made and continue to make to society.

This Bill recognises the effort many older Australians have made to provide for themselves in retirement.

This Bill directs special attention towards those who, while on low or modest incomes, do not qualify for age pension.

Previously, the Howard Government extended access to the Commonwealth seniors health card by increasing the income limits under which a person could qualify.

This Bill goes further by increasing the income limits to $50,000 for singles and $80,000 for couples, from 1 July 2001.

The Government has found that not all those qualified for what is a valuable concession have taken up the card. The Government will undertake a special publicity campaign to encourage take-up.

This Bill provides even more incentive for older Australians to take up the seniors health card.

The Bill provides for the extension of telephone allowance to holders of seniors health cards. Until now, only pensioners and some beneficiaries could qualify.

In making telephone allowance to holders of senior health cards, the Government is recognising that being able to communicate by telephone with families and the wider community is vital for the participation of older Australians in society and for the well-being of society as a whole.

From 1 September 2001, holders of senior health cards who claim telephone allowance will be paid a quarterly payment - currently $17.20 for both single people and couples - in January, March, July and September each year.

The Government's package of measures for older Australians also demonstrates its determination to assist those older Australians who through no fault of their own are particularly vulnerable to long-term unemployment.

As a result of the consultative process of welfare reform and of the deliberations of the House of Representatives Committee which inquired into mature age unemployment, and produced the Nelson Report, the Government is taking a number of steps to give this group a better deal.

As part of this package, superannuation will be exempt from the social security means test until people reach age pension age. This will encourage people not to give up and consider themselves “retired” at an early age, and will help people preserve their superannuation savings for a better retirement in the long run.

This Bill gives effect to this measure.

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TAXATION LAWS AMENDMENT (CHANGES FOR SENIOR AUSTRALIANS) BILL 2001

As part of tax reform, the Government delivered a number of benefits to pensioners and self-funded retirees. These included real increases in pensions and allowances, lower income tax rates, lower capital gains tax rates, one off, non-taxable, bonuses of up to $3000 and refunds of excess imputation credits. Tonight's budget and this Bill build on those measures which the Government has already delivered.

This Bill amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to enable a substantial increase in the tax rebates available to Senior Australians, including self-funded retirees and people who are of age pension age, and receiving a Commonwealth pension. The increase in the rebates will be achieved through an amendment to the Regulations.

The higher rebates will allow single senior Australians to derive taxable income up to $20,000 without paying income tax. This compares to $12,652 in 1999-00. Senior couples, on equal incomes, will be able to earn taxable income of $32,612 without paying income tax.

Regulations have been gazetted to allow single pensioners who are under age pension age to derive taxable income up to $15,970 in 2000-01 without paying tax. This compares to $12,652 in 1999-00.

The Bill also amends the Medicare Levy Act 1986 to ensure that senior Australians, who are entitled to the increased rebates as a result of this Bill do not have to pay the Medicare levy where their taxable income is less than $20,000.

The Bill also ensures that those Australians under age pension age and who receive a taxable Commonwealth Government pension will not have to pay the Medicare levy where their income is below $15,970.

This means that these people will be able to earn more income without incurring an income tax or Medicare levy liability.

The amendments made by this Bill apply to the 2000-01 year of income, which means that these Australians will see the benefits of these measures in a lower tax bill or a higher tax refund after they lodge their 2000-01 income tax return.

The Bill will also amend the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to exempt, from income tax, the `one off payment to the aged' of $300. This payment was also announced as part of the Government's 2001-02 Budget.

The increased rebates for self funded retirees and aged and other pensioners and higher Medicare levy thresholds deliver benefits amounting to around $1.5 billion over four years.

I commend this Bill.

Debate (on motion by Senator O'Brien) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.