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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24285

Senator COOK (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:23 AM) —Senator Schacht addressed that part of the cognate debate relating to the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001. I intend to direct my remarks in the cognate debate to the Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001. My colleague Senator Chris Evans, in his contribution to the cognate debate, will later this morning address the community service bills—the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (One-off Payment to the Aged) Bill 2001 and the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001.

In the budget on Tuesday night the government put to the people and to this parliament that it wanted this legislation immediately. That is why we are debating these measures today so soon after the budget was brought down. It is true that that is unusual, but the Labor opposition believes that we should speed the passage of this legislation to make sure that the benefits contained in it are delivered on time—albeit we reserve our view that in many respects the benefits are inadequate to the needs of Australians. But that reservation does not mean to say that they should not get what is available as quickly as possible.

I will now turn to the Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001. This bill attempts to do a number of things to give effect to the government's desire to appeal to those so badly hurt by the GST; that is, our older Australians—or, in the rubric that is now used, `seniors'. Firstly, the bill amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to enable an increase in the tax rebate available to senior Australians, an increase that will be realised through regulation. Secondly, the bill 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 pay the Medicare levy if their taxable income is less than $20,000. The bill also seeks to ensure that those Australians under the pension age who receive a taxable Commonwealth pension will not have to pay the Medicare levy if their income is below $15,970. Thirdly, the bill amends the Income Tax Assessment Act to exempt from tax the one-off $300 payment to the aged. That is the purpose of the legislation before us.

These measures are intended to take effect from 1 July 2000, which I consider to be a clear sign that the government acknowledges that it got it wrong when it decided to impose on Australians a GST without adequate compensation. It is clear that the government is now trying to atone for its unwillingness to foresee the pain that it has caused. Let us make no mistake here: this bill is part of the government's compensation drive, despite its unwillingness to admit it. The government broke its promise that no-one would be worse off under the GST. As we are clearly seeing, so many Australians are worse off. The notorious—or, as some would have it, infamous—undertaking by the Prime Minister that no-one would be worse off as a consequence of the GST is palpably and demonstrably wrong. Although in our view these compensation measures do not go far enough, they at least go some way to addressing and correcting that misleading promise.

The one-off $300 grant to pensioners is clearly part of the government's desperate attempt to win back some of those who have realised the government has failed them—one might say it has a political purpose. It was interesting to note that Peter Costello must know just how inadequate the $300 payment is, because, in spite of his best efforts to make it seem generous, he could not help but refer to it repeatedly in his National Press Club address yesterday incorrectly as being a per annum payment. It is not; it is a one-off payment. It is a one-off payment, a cash handout, to help compensate for the GST, but the GST of course goes on forever.

It should be noted that hundreds of thousands of pensioners reasonably believed that they would be entitled to the $1,000 aged persons savings bonus under the GST compensation package. However, they found that when they applied for the bonus they did not meet the strict requirements imposed by the government. They want to know where the other $700 is! The $1,000 bonus payment offered by the government had devil in the detail. When those who believed they were entitled looked at the detail, the government was able to say that they were not entitled.

The government has sought throughout its budget documents, its speeches and this bill to draw distinctions amongst those aged 55 plus by the use of a number of terms: `aged person', `senior Australian', `older Australian', `age pensioner', `pensioner' and `self-funded retiree'—a plethora of terms, some of which are indistinctly defined and lack particular, pointed meaning. These distinctions are used, however, to ensure that not all those who might have reasonably expected to finally be compensated for some of the hurt this government has imposed upon them in the form of the GST will miss out yet again.

One of the most tricky things about this bill is that, when the government put forward its compensation package as part of its GST legislation, it was happy to consider that a self-funded retiree was someone who, in short, was aged 55 years or more, had not received certain pensions or benefits for the three months leading up to the introduction of the GST and had limited business and wages income. Now we find that it suits the government and in particular the Treasurer, Mr Costello, to redefine what a self-funded retiree is so that the government will escape having to redress the damage done to all older Australians.

Pensioners will want to know when the two per cent pension clawback will be given back. The pension clawback is short-changing single pensioners by $7.90 and couples by $13.20 every fortnight. Also, many retirees will soon be wanting to know when the government will deliver on its promised $450 tax rebate on savings. It was half-heartedly introduced only to be later abolished. The extension in the concessions contained within this bill puts back just a fraction of the $750 million in cuts that the government inflicted in 1996, when it axed free dental treatment, cut back on free hearing aids and jacked up the cost of medicines bought on cards. Pensioners will also know that, whatever John Howard gives he will find a way to claw it back again. This is a `give with one hand and take with the other' budget. The government has devalued our elderly. Now it is trying to buy them off at a discounted price.

Labor will not be opposing this bill. Labor remains committed to the task of rolling back the GST. However, we recognise that there are so many Australians hurting because of the unfair burden placed upon them by the GST that they should rightly receive immediate relief, before we get the opportunity in government to make it fairer and to make it simpler.