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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5188

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (1:07 PM) —The very fact that there was a wait there to determine if there were further speakers on this bill points to the failure of the opposition itself to be prepared for an extremely important piece of legislation. This is an opposition that wants to control the Senate but cannot control its own business in the Senate. That is why I moved earlier to have the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008 dealt with later in the week. This is critically important legislation—and it is procedurally quite historic as far as the Senate is concerned—and it ought to be given due consideration.

Let me point out to the Senate that the Greens initiated this debate in this place during the tenure of the Howard government—with the coalition in government. We had been increasingly aware of the travail of more than one million pensioners in this country at a time of soaring costs for rent, food, transport, health and for the simple things that make life pleasurable, which many pensioners were going without. So we decided we would campaign strongly on this issue during the last election campaign. Neither the opposition of the day, the Labor Party, nor the government of the day, the coalition, supported the Greens in the election campaign when we were calling for both parties to commit to a $30-a-week increase in the pension.

But we have seen a change, certainly in the coalition benches, and now a proposal by the government to review pensions in the wake of that election because of the rising tide of frustration by pensioners and anger in the Australian community that pensioners have been so neglected for so long, including during the 12 budgets of the Howard government. MPs salaries were rising rapidly and CEOs salaries—and we know about them; millions of dollars per annum, even when CEOs failed their corporations—were going to obscene levels that were not warranted by the performance of the few people who were given that enormous largesse. And, generally, wages in Australia have been increasing at a rate above that of former wage earners, in the form of one to two million pensioners, who contributed so much to this country. The Greens proudly continued to argue that pensioners should get an increase.

I want to pay tribute to pensioners themselves and to their organisations. They do not want to get out on the street and protest. They do not want to have to be haranguing governments, but they saw the most extraordinary double standard brought in by the big parties. During the election campaign both the then Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, committed in the first week to $31,000 million in tax cuts over three years. That was on top of $20 billion in the 2006-07 budget. Over $50 billion in tax cuts was loaded towards the rich end of society. The richer you were the bigger the windfall. Pensioners got nothing.

In the 2008 budget, the first budget of the Rudd government, that was how it stayed. The big end of town got an enormous windfall through the tax cuts, which by the way needed no inquiry, no investigation—nothing at all. It was simply the Prime Minister saying, ‘I am keeping an election commitment where I follow through the Howard policy of fostering the big end of town while the small end of town gets nothing—not a razoo.’ There was a $500 one-off payment—the same as there was in the last Howard-Costello budget. They were saying, ‘Get us through the election on $500 arriving in your letterbox just before the election. Vote for us’—then nothing. It is like the tax cuts, which go on and on with massive amounts of money going to the already rich but nothing going to the poor. And they added a utilities bonus. It was something like—on my quick calculation—a couple of dollars a week to help out with paying bills. And it was at a time when the increase in the costs for pensioners took that away before they got it.

What has happened here is an appalling disregard for people who cannot speak up and are not seen around the halls of power. But there have been huge windfalls for those who have got lobbying buildings just across the way from Parliament House and come in here and have an open door to the office of serial prime ministers and ministers.

This is manifestly unjust—a breakdown, really, in the democratic process, if you consider that everybody is of equal value in the society that you represent. So the Greens have campaigned down the line. Seeing the traction in this campaign, the opposition, Family First and others have come aboard. That is a good thing because, if you are going to develop policy, you have to hear and see the need for it rising in the community.

Today, this has now become so politically potent. With the government saying to pensioners, ‘Wait till next year,’ the coalition have done a 180-degree backflip. At the last election they said, ‘No, we won’t give a $30 increase.’ Now they are saying, ‘We not only insist on a $30 increase; we have to have it today.’ So they circulated a bill, encapsulating the Greens policy, on Thursday and, because of the politics of it, it is before this chamber this afternoon with such rapidity that they cannot supply a second speaker. When the shadow minister sat down after a couple of minutes, which was all she could give to this bill, there was not another opposition speaker to get up—not one. What a travesty.

There is no depth or determination in this matter, as far as this opposition is concerned; it is a political manoeuvre. This is really an indictment of the opposition. I know they are distracted with leadership matters, but we are here seeking leadership on behalf of the pensioners of this country. The opposition, having introduced the bill, cannot supply a second speaker and cannot even get a shadow minister to put 20 minutes into the bill. Having brought on this bill so rapidly, with no time for a Senate inquiry—we will hear about the urgency of it from Senator Fielding; there was no move for a Senate inquiry from him—the opposition suddenly says, ‘We’re going to deal with this through the second reading, and we have an amendment from Senator Fielding listing other pensioners who should be added into this mix, but there will be no inquiry.’

I ask the opposition: should you not at least be costing this matter before the Senate? Where are your estimates of how much this will cost? I moved earlier that, to enable those matters to be at least earnestly looked at, we bring up the three bills which have been costed by the government and have been a matter of considerable community debate and have them dealt with because they are to raise revenue. The revenue would not be the same amount but it would be in the order of some billions of dollars, which could help pay for the opposition’s pension increase.

Do you know what is going to happen? The opposition are going to oppose those bills. They are going to say, on the one hand, ‘Spend $2 billion or $3 billion’—and it may end up being more than that—’to give pensioners what they deserve.’ But, on the other hand, they are going to say, ‘We will not support legislation on luxury cars, on condensate’—this multibillion-dollar windfall for Woodside and other big corporations where the executives get multibillion-dollar take-home pay—’or on the Medicare levy. We won’t support the government getting that revenue, but we want to take out of the exchequer some billions of dollars.’ I say that that is not responsible. I say that, if you are going to deal with an increased expenditure coming out of the Senate, you need to look at how you are going to raise that money. If you do not think it should be through the condensate bill on the big oil and gas corporations, tell us: where are you going to get it from?

I will tell you where the Greens would get it from. Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, you were here when we alone, not Senator Fielding or anybody else, went to the other side of the chamber to vote against the tax cut across the board for the big end of town. We said, ‘Here is more money than is required for these pension bills and it is a responsible thing to put that money aside to pay for these pensions.’ I am going to listen carefully to Senator Fielding to see where he is going to get the money from. He supported the tax cuts; let us hear from Senator Fielding in a minute where he is going to get this money from. He is going to tell us that this is urgent and must be dealt with today, although earlier on he was saying, ‘I support a motion to get it through the second reading.’ The Greens have rescued that dislocation of this process by saying, ‘If you must deal with this bill, let’s deal with it to a determination. If you can vote on it at the second reading, you can deal with the bill.’ I submit, as we did at the outset, that this is back-to-front; this bill should be dealt with after the three revenue-raising bills. But the chamber has determined another way. So there is a challenge to other members of this chamber.

We foreshadow that we will amend the bill to include a $30 increase for single disabled pensioners—pensioners on disability pensions—as well. We put the cost of that, along with the veterans and single age pensioners, at $2.26 billion. I say to all sides of the chamber here, ‘Responsibly look at how you are going to deal with the need to raise that money.’ If you do not like the Greens saying, ‘Take it off the tax cuts of people earning more than $75,000 a year’—which includes MPs—state where you are going to get it from. It is not up to the Senate, I believe, simply to say ‘spend more money’, unless it responsibly says, ‘and here is where we will get it from’. The Greens have already done that. We would revisit the tax cuts for the already wealthy if need be. That is not going to happen, so let’s at least look at the revenue-raising bills that the government has brought in here.

Let me say this: the opposition’s procedure in here today is a debacle. It is extraordinary to race such an important bill, with such a multibillion-dollar price tag attached to it, into the Senate the working morning after it was circulated and then not be able to supply a second speaker to such an important and urgent piece of legislation. I have never seen that happen before in my 11 years in the Senate—not ever—and I have seen some defaults on responsible procedure in this place. But this is an opposition which, for 11 years, turned its back on pensioners and their need to get an increase. It has changed that since the elections and said, ‘Now we support single pensioners getting an increase of $30 until the next budget,’ which is when the Greens hope we will see a $100 increase across the board for pensions. But the opposition supported the tax cuts. They supported the big end of town getting the money as a priority. Now they have brought this piece of legislation in because the plight of pensioners is embarrassing; it is awful. It is just terrible that people out there who worked all their lives for this country have to count their 5c pieces to wonder whether they can afford to catch a bus to visit their children or their grandchildren.

I was in Port Macquarie during the Lyne by-election and a pensioner said to me: ‘We have a little group that meets and we talk about these things. When we go home on these winter nights we go to bed at eight o’clock and listen to the radio because we cannot afford to have the radiator on. It puts power bills up to a point where we can’t afford them.’ That is just terrible in this wealthy country in 2008, but that is the situation that this opposition, which has rushed this bill in today, which cannot supply a second speaker and which could not elaborate in the second reading speech effectively, has now taken to heart. I hope they have taken it to heart and I hope we do get a good debate out of this. I also hope it is not simply one person on each side saying: ‘Vote for it. Get it out of our way. We have done our token observance of the need to address the problems of pensioners, now let us get on with other political matters.’ I sense that is what is happening here. I earnestly say that should not be happening here.

This matter should have been before a Senate inquiry. We have had them in the past but not to address this legislation. The urgency we are going to here prevents that now. But the urgency here does not prevent the opposition coming in to persuade the government to adopt this legislation through the full force of reasoned argument, and that is missing. If the bill were to fail or if it fails in another place should it get through here, it would be because this opposition did not come prepared and was not fair dinkum. (Time expired)