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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24291

Senator BARTLETT (10:55 AM) —I speak on behalf of the Australian Democrats to the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001, the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (One-off Payment to the Aged) Bill 2001, the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001, and the Taxation Laws Amendment (Changes for Senior Australians) Bill 2001. It should be noted that the Senate is being extremely cooperative in enabling the very prompt passage of these bills because we support the measures contained in them. However, I think it is an action that is occurring only because of the insistence of the government. It should be noted that cooperation is being provided, and the government should remember that for any other times when it likes to try to generate some myth about Senate obstruction. I think the Senate is being exceptionally cooperative. It is also worth noting, particularly with measures of this size, that rushing things through is not necessarily wise public policy when you are dealing with payments through the social security system to large numbers of people. There is always a risk if things are rushed through of glitches being contained therein. Certainly any support the Democrats give to these bills is conditional on the recognition that glitches that may be contained in the bills are solely the fault of the government because of their insistence on rushing these measures through.

The four bills deal with a range of measures that were only announced a couple of nights ago in the government's budget. Whilst they are positive measures, I think the message underpinning them is an attempt to repair some of the damage that the government have caused through a range of their policies over the less than six years that they have been in government. I will speak specifically to a few of the measures in the bills. Firstly, the one-off payment to the aged is to be made to those people who, as of last Tuesday, have reached age pension age and are receiving a social security pension or benefit or service pension and also to those older Australians who are self-funded retirees outside the tax or social security system. The intent is for it to be paid by 30 June this year. The enormity of the administrative task for Centrelink within such a short time frame constitutes an admirable goal and one which the Democrats certainly hope will be efficiently carried out by Centrelink.

As an example of the potential problems that can arise, the Democrats have only recently learned that up to a six-month delay is being experienced by Centrelink in transferring people from the disability support pension to the age pension once they reach age pension age. We understand from constituents that what used to be a standard procedure has, in recent times, in some cases taken several months. We certainly hope that nobody gets caught in a no-man's land in the situation where they are of age pension age but the Centrelink record has not been updated accurately to record this fact. We hope they will not be disadvantaged by any delays or be unable to receive that bonus. I am sure that all efforts will be taken to ensure that nobody misses out. Again, it simply shows the sorts of glitches that can arise. I am certainly not in any way wanting to criticise Centrelink staff. They are dedicated and do a huge job in an environment that is significantly underresourced. A component in the budget providing more staff in that area is a recognition that Centrelink have been underresourced in the staffing area. They will be making nearly two million payments available in less than six weeks. We must ensure that we are not at the risk of the sorts of inaccuracies that were identified in the recent Australian National Audit Office performance audit of Centrelink's assessment of age pensions, which noted error rates of 13.5 per cent. It would be a pity to impose any level of inaccuracy at all, let alone levels of inaccuracy of that size on payments to nearly two million Australians.

The Democrats do not oppose the $300 payment, but it must be pointed out that this payment of $600 million in one month is only marginally less—about $170 million less—than the entire net four-year budget funding allocated to the whole welfare reform program. The mockery that welfare reform was to be the centrepiece of the budget is further enhanced by the fact that, whilst more than $600 million is being paid to older Australians in one month, only $76 million is being spent over the next 12 months on all of the welfare reform measures. The one-off payment, whilst not undeserved by older Australians, totally disregards the needs and financial difficulties of all other Australian income support recipients, including the unemployed, sole parents, the disabled and students, many of whom are obliged to survive on income support levels that are lower than the age pension. We certainly do not begrudge the payment, but it needs to be pointed out that the fact the payment is being made is a recognition that many older Australians have been struggling with extra hardship in recent times due to a range of things. Not surprisingly, the opposition is focusing on the GST but, as I indicated in my second reading amendment, there have been a range of government cutbacks, increases in petrol prices, user-pays charges, deregulations and privatisations, all of which have had impacts on age pensioners as well as others.

The key point is that these are having impacts not just on older Australians but also on people throughout the community. I think disability support pensioners and age pensioners are experiencing equal difficulties and hardships. There is no extra assistance for disability support pensioners either through this payment or through other measures in the budget, and there has been a lack of acknowledgment on the part of the government of the extra hardship that that part of the community also feels at the moment. This can only strengthen people's cynicism that this measure is for electoral purposes and is not a serious policy attempt to address the areas of greatest social need. Disability pensioners have no extra income and they do not have any extra assistance in this budget, but they often have extra costs as a consequence of their disability. This again highlights the things that were not in the budget. Aspects of the McClure welfare reform review were not picked up by the government. The review recommended providing extra specific assistance for disabled people in recognition of some of the extra costs that the disabilities can impose upon them.

The Democrats appreciate and acknowledge the contribution older Australians have made and continue to make to society. Indeed, through their efforts many are able to fund their own retirement, albeit at a low or modest level, and it is this group which receives the benefit of the one-off payment of $300. The government is ignoring the reality that disability support pensioners suffer from the impact of government policies and GST price rises in the same way as pensioners and that, because of their disability, they are less able to participate economically in many cases. The financial disadvantage of a 65-year-old Australian should not be worth more in compensation than that of a 55-year-old disabled person, particularly one who will not have access to superannuation because they have not been able to compete in the employment market.

I have circulated a second reading amendment on behalf of the Democrats, which I am disappointed to hear that the ALP will not support. I do not understand the procedural argument there. I did not see why moving this amendment should delay passage of this bill one way or the other. It should not hold it up at all. All it will do is more firmly express the Senate's view that the needs and financial difficulties of other income support recipients are being ignored by this government and have been ignored in the overall budget. I will press this amendment. I move the second reading amendment on behalf of the Democrats:

At the end of the motion, add:

“But the Senate is of the view that the making of the one-off payment only to Australians of age pension age:

(a) disregards the needs and financial difficulties of all other Australian income support recipients including unemployed, sole parents, the disabled and students, many of whom are obliged to survive on income support levels less than the age pension;

(b) ignores disability support pensioners in particular, who suffer the same impact of GST increases and market force price increases, for which the GST compensation was inadequate, and who, because of their disability, are unable to participate economically; and

(c) further disregards the disadvantage suffered by older unemployed Australians on income support, who have not reached age pension age but who have needs and financial difficulties identical to Australians of age pension age”.

I will now turn to some of the other legislation. The Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Assistance for Older Australians) Bill 2001 has three principal elements: exempting superannuation as an assessable asset from the social security means test for people aged between 55 and the age pension age, extending payment of the telephone allowance and increasing the income limits for qualification for the seniors' health card. That is another area where the government is painting something as a major initiative, a significant reform and a great commitment, but it is simply repairing the damage that it has caused in the past.

The measure to treat superannuation as an asset for unemployed Australians when they reach the age of 55 was introduced by the government in their first budget. The outcome since that time, since 1997, has been that, for many unemployed persons 55 and over, dependence on government and income support was possible for only 39 weeks, notwithstanding that their average duration of unemployment is around 104 weeks. Thereafter, any superannuation or rollover assets they had put aside for their retirement were taken to be assessable assets, and this frequently resulted in the cancellation of entitlement to an allowance. It had the further effect of forcing a person in receipt of Newstart or any other income support payment to approach their superannuation fund for the release of an income stream for current living costs, even though they wished to continue to work. They were not able to make further contributions to the fund if they subsequently found a job. So it was simply not consistent with the policy objective of maximising financial independence. Superannuation has been promoted as the 21st century savings vehicle for retirement, and the opportunity of adding any more savings to a superannuation fund was relinquished once and for all once the superannuation fund was opened to provide an income stream.

Given the relatively tight level of the assets test, many individuals have been financially very disadvantaged by the assessment of their superannuation. This cut across the advantages that could be gained by maintaining and adding to their savings in the super fund until retirement. It has been a poor retirement income policy. It has had bad effects. The Democrats are pleased that the government has reversed it, but again it is simply to repair the damage that previous policies have caused, as is the $300 payment, which is an attempt to try to alleviate some of the hardship already caused by this government and its policies. Just putting back what you have taken out can hardly be seen as a great leap forward. Nonetheless, we obviously support the reversal of negative policy decisions and will support this measure.

It is worth noting, similarly, that the largest single expenditure item in the so-called welfare reform package—the introduction of a working credits scheme—is a version of the earnings credit scheme that was previously in place but was removed by the government. Again, this simple action of repairing damage is being portrayed as a significant reworking and reform of a welfare system that does need significant improvement. Without doubt, there is a growing degree of hardship within the Australian community for a variety of reasons, many to do with the economic policy directions set by both the major parties in this place. We do need a fundamental shift. The budget has failed to deliver that, both in direct fiscal policy and in the broader policy framework.

The government supports measures to do with telephone allowance and measures which increase the income limits under which a person can qualify for the seniors health card. This will provide self-funded retirees on modest incomes with the opportunity to access a seniors health card. The Democrats note that it is a great pity that similar attention was not paid by the government in the budget to other disadvantaged Australians who, through no fault of their own, are particularly vulnerable to long-term unemployment or who, because of disability or significant social disadvantage, will be denied the ability to contribute to superannuation to attain low, let alone modest, levels of income in their lifetimes. The unacceptable admission and acknowledgment by the government that it is prepared to settle for an increase in unemployment must be pointed out and condemned repeatedly.

I would also like to speak on the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001. Because we are debating all these bills together to enable them to be rushed through, I am not speaking as extensively as I would like on this particular bill. As the veterans spokesperson for the Democrats, I think it is important to acknowledge the value of this measure. It is a once only payment of $25,000 to various veterans and to widows or widowers of veterans, prisoners of war and civilians who were interned by Japan between December 1941 and October 1945.

It is appropriate to take the opportunity to acknowledge the more than 22,000 Australian men and women who were taken prisoner by the Japanese, some for up to 3½ years. These service personnel and civilians suffered in the most horrific conditions imaginable—indeed, probably conditions that are unimaginable to most of us. They endured starvation and extremely 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, during which more than 2,000 Australian and Allied prisoners of war died. The names of these areas—Changi and Burma—are synonymous with the horrors visited upon Australian prisoners by the Japanese during World War II. By the war's end, more than 8,000 Australian POWs, 36 per cent of those taken prisoner, had died. Of those that came home, today they are all over 80 years old, and only a little over 2,000 remain. They are currently dying at a rate of about 10 a week.

This measure is worth noting in terms of the value of perseverance for people. We are dealing with an issue which is close to 50 years old and which calls for special compensation and extra assistance for Japanese POWs, who have been around for a significant time. Many people over many years have been frustrated by the lack of action such as this by governments of both major parties, but perseverance has paid off in this case. The government is to be commended for this measure but, more particularly, the veterans, their supporters and their families, who have fought so hard for measures such as this, are to be commended. Their perseverance and persistence should also be acknowledged. Everyone in this place will be aware of the stories told by constituents—who are now mainly very frail—about the terrible time in Japan, and all members of the public will be familiar with the books, films and images from that time. It is often very hard for someone of my generation to comprehend the suffering that people went through. This is, for all generations, one small and significant way of acknowledging the courage and the experience of these people.

The unique nature of the Japanese internment of Australians and those of other nations has been recognised since the 1950s, when those who had been held became eligible for modest payments from Japanese assets made under the provisions of the 1951 San Francisco Treaty of Peace with Japan. In the intervening years, the RSL and former prisoners of the Japanese unsuccessfully pursued the issue of additional compensation with Japan. More recently, British, New Zealand, Dutch, American and Canadian POWs successfully campaigned for their governments to make similar payments to the payment contained in this bill.

The Democrats acknowledge that veterans of other campaigns were taken prisoners of war, and we are now making an exception for the Australian veterans who were held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War in recognition of the unique circumstances of their collective captivity. We support this bill in recognition of their unique ordeal. We particularly welcome the payment being extended to the surviving widows and widowers of former prisoners, acknowledging those who lost their spouses to the POW camps or who supported their partner on their return from the war.

Bearing in mind that many veterans, citizens and their widows are now aged and frail, the Democrats call on the government to provide the maximum level of assistance to enable claims to be made by entitled persons. Australians do owe a debt to those who went into captivity in South-East Asia and, whilst due administrative process must occur, the ability to claim entitlements must not be muddied by myriad complex obligations. I note some of the questions that Senator Schacht raised in his contribution and I hope that those are addressed by the government. I hope the extreme haste with which this measure is being introduced by the government does not lead to unintended glitches in the administration and distribution of this payment. We should all do what we can to prevent that from occurring.

I should note that, despite praising this measure, there are still other significant aspects and concerns from the veterans community which were not addressed by this government, particularly the ongoing insistence on treating veterans disability pensions as income under the social security income test for age pensions. That is one of the major concerns of the veterans community. It would have been, in a budget that was talking about welfare reform, the ideal time to address that longstanding anomaly. It is a concern of the Democrats that once again that has failed to occur. Nonetheless, we support the measures that are contained in these bills because the Democrats believe that in large part they are repairing damage caused by this government. (Time expired)