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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24287

Senator CHRIS EVANS (10:39 AM) —I rise to speak on the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001 and related bills and indicate again that the Labor opposition will be supporting the bills. I will address a few remarks to those measures directed at pensioners and self-funded retirees, as they fall within my shadow ministerial responsibilities. In moving around the country since the introduction of the GST, one of the first issues of concern to be raised with me at all the meetings and in all the contacts I have had with elderly Australians has been about the impact of the GST and the inadequacy of their compensation. The GST has really hit them hard, hit them often and hit them in ways they had not expected. Despite all the discussion about the GST before it was introduced, people did not realise the enormity of its reach and the regularity with which it would be applied to everything they consumed or paid for.

People on fixed incomes have suffered the most. These people did not benefit largely from the tax cuts and their compensation was limited to the very meagre measures provided by the government. Those on fixed incomes—age pensions, disability pensions, unemployment benefits and self-funded retirees on fixed incomes—found it most hard to cope with the impact of the GST. They have found it really difficult when their house insurance, electricity bills and those sorts of bills have arrived with an added 10 per cent on everything. It has been foremost in their minds that they have really suffered under the GST and that they did not receive some of the offsetting benefits, such as huge tax cuts, in the tax package as did middle-income earners or two-income families. They have really felt the pressure. It has been recognised in community debates and in published polling that people on fixed incomes have suffered. It has affected their view of the government, their view of the GST and the tax package in general.

This measure by the government is obviously an attempt to deal with the politics of that situation and in some way to provide more compensation. Although the government does not say that this is GST compensation, everybody else in Australia—apart from government spokespersons—acknowledges that it is GST compensation, which has had to be legislated because of the impact of the GST on the lives of those on fixed incomes and pensions and because of the resultant political heat the government has felt from those groups in society. No doubt the Prime Minister and other ministers have had the same feedback I have had when they have spoken to elderly Australians.

Elderly Australians are particularly annoyed because the $1,000 pensioner bonus that was promised by the Prime Minister during and after the campaign did not materialise for many of them. Many of them have said to me, `I thought I was going to get $1,000.' Some got cheques for $1, which they sent back in disgust. Others got a couple of hundred dollars. I visited nursing homes where there was a great deal of disquiet as people received varying amounts in cheques forwarded to the nursing home where they reside. There were arguments and concerns about the differing amounts paid to people and about the failure to meet expectations when people had budgeted for $1,000. There was a great deal of upset and anger that it had not been delivered.

As we now know, 40 per cent of those aged over 60 got nothing, and most of them expected the $1,000 bonus. The government has gone some way to try to recover its ground with this $300 payment to pensioners. Labor support that measure because it is in part recognition of the impact of the GST on pensioners and recognition that their compensation package was inadequate. But, when asked to comment on the budget in the last day or so, many pensioners have said that they want to know where the other $700 is, and others have wanted to know why it was suddenly $300.

It is interesting to try to understand how the government arrived at the amount of $300 and how a one-off payment of $300 somehow compensates people for the GST. I think the point Senator Ludwig made is the key point, and it is the point pensioners have been making to me in the last couple of days about the budget—the GST goes on forever but the compensation is a one-off payment. I think that is why many of them are not quite as grateful as the government might have expected. They wanted an adequate compensation package that dealt with the ongoing impact of the GST; instead they will get a one-off payment of $300 to try to bribe them to change their view about the adequacy of the compensation. Pensioners know that the compensation is inadequate. While the $300 will be a help, it will not solve the basic inequity of the GST and its impact on those on low and fixed incomes. I do not think it will change their minds about the efficacy or the fairness of the GST.

One of the issues I want to particularly mention in my remarks today is the concern I have about the lack of social equity in the treatment of those on age pensions and those on disability pensions. I think there has been quite a deal of reaction in the community about this package and about what it means for people on DSP. I think there has been some concern more generally from people who have had the package oversold to them. When they ring the hotline and get more information, they realise they are not going to be beneficiaries of some of the largesse that the package seemed to indicate. I know there was an argument in the other place about a footnote. I do not want to go into that. The reality is that a lot of people had the impression that they were going to get some tax reductions and some benefits that it appears they will not now get.

The most important point I want to make is about people on disability support pensions. I think for them the argument about GST compensation is the same or stronger than for those on age pensions. These are people trying to support themselves on a low fixed income who suffer from often quite serious disabilities. They have the same problems that pensioners do in surviving in the face of the GST with the increase in their living costs and the impact of the GST on all the goods and services they purchase. But people with a disability are larger purchasers of services. There have been a number of research projects undertaken which prove that the impact of the GST has fallen harder and has disproportionately affected people on disability support pensions because the costs of disability have risen as part of the impact of the GST.

Despite the government's attempts to exclude a number of areas such as health costs from the impact of the GST, people on disability support pensions know that they are paying GST on aids and services to assist them to get through life, to try to live as normal a life as possible every day. For instance, one of the issues that is raised with me now is things like batteries for battery operated wheelchairs. People are paying enormous GST costs on replacements for those sorts of things. These are absolutely essential to their daily life, their mobility and their ability to participate in society, yet these are additional costs that the GST has imposed on them. It is those people who are really feeling—like the age pensioners—the full impact of the GST. It is seriously affecting their standard of living and their ability to participate in society.

They have not shared in the largesse that the government saw fit to bring about in the budget. The Treasurer said, `This is not GST compensation.' He said that this is about allowing those people on pensions who have been doing it tough to share in the economic good times and benefits of what he claimed was good economic management. But he has said to the disability pensioners, `You do not get to share. You are not deserving; you are the undeserving.' The age pensioners are the deserving poor; the disability pensioners are the undeserving poor. What is the rationale for this? What is the social equity at the basis of this? There has been no explanation given. Those people on DSP—many of whom have contacted my office and other parliamentarians' offices in the last couple of days—are very upset about the fact that not only they were not able to access the payment but also it reflects the attitude the government has to them and to their needs and circumstances that have arisen as a result of the GST. That is a very important issue that I wanted to highlight today—the impact on those on DSP and also on carers.

Carers are another group who are excluded by virtue of this government decision. They cannot understand why their worth was not recognised, why the disadvantage they have suffered as result of the GST was not acknowledged, and why they have not shared in the economic largesse that the Treasurer sought to bestow on age pensioners. None of this is an argument against age pensioners receiving the bonus, because it seems to me the case is very strongly established that the GST compensation was inadequate. We have their disquiet and anger about the failure to deliver the $1,000 bonus and then we have their anger at the clawback of the two per cent of the pension increase which occurred in the last adjustment. Those two events were signals to aged persons in Australia that the government was not interested in them and was not concerned about their welfare but was being, in Mr Stone's words `mean and tricky' in its attitude.

I think this is an attempt to recover some of that political ground. The key point to make, while supporting the bonus, is that it does not structurally affect the impact being imposed on pensioners and those on fixed and low incomes as a result of the GST. While the $300 will help in a one-off instance, the fact is that the GST will go on forever. The inadequacy of their compensation is now structurally entrenched, and their disadvantage will continue to be felt unless more fundamental changes are made.

I do not want to talk too much about some of the other measures. I know we have given a commitment to pass this legislation today, even though we have had very little time to look at it. I think some of the details are only now coming to light, but we have given an undertaking to ensure the passage of the legislation and to ensure that pensioners have the opportunity to access the payment as soon as possible. We will certainly be honouring that.

I note what Senator Schacht and Senator Ludwig said about POWs. I went home last night and watched the Australians at War series on ABC television—an example of good local production, Senator Alston. It is an excellent program. The focus last night was on the Second World War and the experiences of Australian servicemen in the Pacific region and of those held captive as POWs by the Japanese. It certainly brought home again—if one needed to be reminded—the horror of their experience and the terrible conditions under which they lived. I have a friend who was a POW in Changi who unfortunately died a couple of years ago. The impact it made on those men's lives is incalculable. Certainly any measure by the Australian community to recognise their suffering and their service is welcome.

I want to reiterate that in supporting this measure we have some concerns about those who have been excluded from the benefits of additional GST compensation. Those who are equally deserving of assistance, such as disability support pensioners and carers, have missed out. I express some concern about some of the misinformation on who will get access to health care cards and tax rebates and the implication that somehow some of the people who are retirees but who are not yet 65 would benefit from these measures. Apparently they will not. Already I think there is some anger in the community about how some of those people have been treated, because the initial sell indicated that those people would receive the benefits, and now they are finding out that they will not. There are a whole range of issues like that. But, as I said, the Labor opposition announced very early on that we would support the measures in order to provide as much relief as possible, as early as possible, to those suffering as a result of inadequate compensation for the GST.

In that light, I want to indicate that there is a foreshadowed second reading amendment from Senator Bartlett, which I gather he will be moving shortly. I agree with every word—but I will not be voting for it, despite expressing some of the sentiments that I have expressed in my remarks today. I agree with most of the sentiments in it, but the reality of the politics of the time is that we have agreed to pass these bills today in order for them to be enacted and the payments made. As a result of that, we have agreed not to move amendments or to use any procedural devices such as committee inquiries or other such things to delay passage. The support of a second reading amendment would only do that and would necessitate them going back to the House of Representatives et cetera. I think second reading amendments are a device that is sometimes overused to make a political point. I accept it is a useful vehicle for Senator Bartlett and the Democrats to express their concerns on these bills—most of which I agree with—but the Labor opposition have given their commitment to the government and to the Australian public to ensure these bills are passed today and we will not be supporting that second reading amendment. As I say, it is not a philosophical thing but a practical decision about ensuring quick passage. With those remarks, I thank the Senate for its indulgence and reiterate that the opposition will be ensuring passage of the bills today.