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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5197

Senator XENOPHON (1:53 PM) —I indicate that I will support the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008. Currently, government funded pensions and allowances are the main source of income for most people aged 65 years and over. In recent weeks, the media has repeatedly reported numerous stories about how difficult it is for pensioners to live on the level of the existing pension. Consequently, pensioners have to rely on private income to get by. But over 13 per cent of Australians over 65 have no private income to supplement their pension payment.

More than half of all pensioners live on less than $20 per week of private income and most do not have substantial savings or other assets. I note the Australian newspaper on 9 August this year reported that voters saw the aged as one of the top groups of Australians deserving more support from the government. More specifically, the Canberra T imes on 16 September reported figures showing that over 78 per cent of Australians believe that pensioners should get an immediate rise in their pension.

The public concern about this situation and the urgent circumstances facing many recipients who are struggling to cope with escalating costs of living were all reasons for my support of this bill taking precedence. This bill seeks to amend the Social Security Act and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to increase the single age pension, single age service pension and widow B pension by $30 per week with effect from 20 September 2008. The explanatory memorandum to this bill states that it will be a first step by the coalition to deliver a comprehensive policy in relation to pensions, income support, veterans’ support and carers over time. I acknowledge the criticism of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, about the coalition’s previous position, but the coalition has now nailed their colours to the mast and they cannot retreat from their current position.

Given the urgency of the situation, I wish to state my support for this bill. While this bill is urgent for all Australians, in my home state of South Australia with a relatively older population this bill is of even more vital importance: 15.2 per cent of South Australia’s population is aged over 65 compared to 13.2 per cent for Australia as a whole. The differential is even greater when you look at the rest of the country.

It is not just, as some claim, that elderly Australians have paid their taxes for many years and now deserve our support. It is also that the experience and contribution of more mature Australians are resources worthy of investment. If we invest in our more mature Australians, we will have people ready and able to contribute to community services put under stress by rising rates of full-time employment. We will have people who can contribute time and wisdom to our communities, neighbourhood networks and future generations.

Older Australians should not have to scrape to get by. They should not be the subject of scorn for their necessary frugality. They should not have their health and vitality sapped by inadequate pension support. We need to look at a range of ways to make life easier for those on the aged pension, not just for their sake, but for all of our sakes. That is why I support this bill.

However, if I have a major concern with this bill, it is that it does not go far enough. I note the concerns of Senator Brown and Senator Siewert’s foreshadowed amendments as well as Senator Fielding’s second reading amendment. I think it is important that, for instance, the 450,000 Australians who are on a single disability pension be considered as well. The price of food, groceries, transport and other bills does not discriminate according to the amount of your pension or the label on your concession card. Neither should we.

My view is that we should deal with this bill. My preference would have been for it to have been dealt with once we have had a chance to consider the amendments, but I understand the will of the Senate in relation to this. I note the government’s position but I think it is also important that we act now to give some immediate relief to the pensioners of Australia. Some would say that the Senate is the people’s house because today we are reflecting on widespread concerns in the community and giving support to those Australians who are struggling with their current inadequate pensions. I support this bill. I look forward to further consideration of this bill. Again, we must send a signal to the community that we need to act with urgency to assist the pensioners of Australia.