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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5239


Senator MILNE (4:01 PM) —I rise today to support an increase in pensions of $30 a week. I will start by reflecting on who the pensioners we are talking about are. This is the most generous generation of Australians being treated in a miserly way by one of the most self-serving generations of Australians. Let’s go back. These are the frail aged, who were born in the 1920s, post the First World War. They lived through, in their youth, the Great Depression and then they saw service again in their families in the Second World War. Our most recent pensioners, who reached the age of 65 recently, were born towards the end of the Second World War.

These were people who did not have the money to go off to university in most cases. Yet did they complain when we decided that it was important to put the next generation of young people through university? No, they did not; they encouraged that to happen. These were not a generation of people who had a government put aside money for them for their superannuation for their retirement years. These were people who were brought up in hard times, served this country twice through two world wars and lived through the Depression, as I said.

In the case of women in particular, they were entering the workforce, if they indeed ever did enter the paid workforce, at a time when it was customary in Australia not to employ married women. Many people in this parliament will recall that women did not get equal pay in Australia until the seventies. So there were women who, for example, trained to be teachers or nurses and who went to go back to work and of course were not able to because people did not employ married women at that time. Equally, across most of Australia women were encouraged to be at home, to be the homemakers, and there was no idea of paid maternity leave, paternity leave or any of that. It was expected that women in that generation would manage the household and help to bring up the children. They paid their taxes as PAYE earners for most of their lives for the most part.

Now, in return, what do they get from this nation, which has never had such a great surplus and such wealth as we have now? They get a generation of politicians—and I am going to talk about the Howard years—who say that they want to cut the corporate tax rate so that it is as low as possible to maximise company profits as greatly as possible. There are CEOs retiring from companies on a handshake of $33 million, more than most of these people or anyone they knew earned in their entire lives. We are seeing a generation which says, ‘We need to cut taxes for the highest level of income earners,’ and this occurred throughout the Howard years and was kept on by the Rudd government in this year’s budget—$31 billion worth of tax cuts, a large number of those to the rich.

The Greens were the only people in this parliament to say we should not be cutting taxes for the rich and we should be using that tax money to invest in infrastructure, to improve pensions and to improve the lot of health and education in this country. But of course that did not get up; that did not suit the mood. All we saw during the Howard years was the base rate of the age pension get left behind in terms of average weekly ordinary time earnings or the consumer price index—indeed, any way you wish to look at it the pension got left behind.

I would like to reiterate the point that my colleague Senator Siewert just mentioned that it is women who are living longer. It is in many cases frail and aged women who are then left as widows to try and manage a household where previously there were two pensions coming in, including the married couple pension, and where one, often the wife, is left to manage with exactly the same fixed costs as previously but only the single pension on which to manage. It is because they cannot manage that many of them go prematurely into aged care. That is a downward spiral for many people because it is an emotional wrench that often leads to physical difficulties and emotional stress, which then lead to the downward spiral for many of our older women.

These are also the women who for a large part of their lives did not manage the books in the family—often it was their husbands who managed all the income side of things. Many of them are left with a history of never having gotten their driver’s licence, for example. It is time, as a nation, to actually put some thought into what this generation we are talking about gave of their lives and their health—their health during the wars and the Depression and their commitment to building this country. Now they are frail and aged and do not have superannuation. They did not have the same opportunities that they sacrificed a great deal for so that we could have those opportunities. Then we turn around and say to them: ‘Oh well, we don’t think we can afford it. We can actually put it off and look at it through the Henry tax review and we will maybe review it next year and you might get something in next year’s May budget, if you are lucky.’

We are running a $22 billion surplus and we are talking about no more than $1 billion, from what I understand from the figures, that would go into supporting an increase of this kind for single age pensioners and for people on disability pensions. Running a budget surplus of $22 billion, if we cannot put $1 billion towards helping people who are living in poverty, whose self-respect and dignity is being undermined by the fact that they cannot manage no matter how hard they try, then it does not say much about this country—it does not say much about us being a caring country, a compassionate country. It does not say anything about our sense of justice. If ever you wanted to talk about social justice in this parliament, this is a social justice issue. Around the world people are looking at this issue of intergenerational equity. We see intergenerational equity as what we might pass on to our children. But I would also like to think about intergenerational equity in terms of how we look after our aged community, because that is also about how we see fairness and how we see justice and how we try to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

We have pensioners in Australia who are going to bed early in the evening because they cannot afford heating; people not eating fresh fruit and vegetables to maintain their health, because it is too expensive; and people who are reducing the amount that they eat in order that they can give their families something for Christmas. This is the reality of the people we are talking about. Can you imagine the stress on an older person who has prided themselves throughout their lives on developing and keeping family bonds getting to the point where they feel like they cannot extend any generosity to their families in the seasons of Christmas or Easter and also who then feel like they have become charity cases? There is a lot to this. It is not just about the money in terms of the $30—and, frankly, $30 is going to go nowhere, but it is a start—it is not just about goods; it is about dignity and it is about fairness and it is about justice.

While I am on that I also want to address this issue of equity in climate change, because we know that under an emissions trading system power prices are going to go up and we know that, because of the underlying increase in the price of oil, petrol is going to go up. The people who have fixed costs and no capacity to increase their income in most cases are these pensioners that we are talking about here. We should be looking at what the Greens have put forward: we need to go out and retrofit the nation’s homes to give people full insulation, solar hot water and permanently reduce their energy costs.

I am aware that, under Prime Minister Howard, instead of introducing an increase in the pension he gave a cheque for a utilities allowance, which worked out to about $8 per pensioner per week. So it was nothing like the $30 that we are talking about now. But, if on top of a rise in the pension we went out and put solar hot water systems on the nation’s houses and started to put them out on the houses of the most vulnerable first, we would make a permanent saving. One-third of people’s power bills is hot water. So to actually take away that cost for people would be a tremendous contribution to them. But if we put in full insulation, then it would also take the edge off what they are going to have to try to do to keep themselves warm or keep themselves cool. Who are the most vulnerable when Australia experiences extreme heat waves? It is the young and the old. We have already seen an increase in the number of deaths due to heat exhaustion as a result of climbing temperatures, and that is going to continue.

We have a situation where we do not have adequate public transport so that people who can no longer drive can move around in Australia’s cities. So we need to do a whole package of things. This should not just be seen as, ‘Oh well, we’ll try and give them $30 and then forget about it.’ We need to actually think about this constructively, because if we retrofitted the nation’s houses with solar hot water and full insulation, we would be creating a huge number of jobs. We would be rebuilding the manufacturing sector in Australia, because you would need to build plants to roll out the solar hot water technology on a scale unprecedented in Australia. I note today with great pleasure that we have the ACTU coming out with several of the NGOs and agreeing that what Australia should do to embrace the green revolution in technology and to deal with climate change is to retrofit the nation’s 7.4 million homes, as the Greens have been suggesting.

So this can be a win-win situation all round. We can actually do something to make life more comfortable and cheaper, and start with the most vulnerable first, and at the same time create job opportunities and boost our manufacturing sector. So I think this debate is important. It is something that the Greens brought on here in the Senate last year. I note that when we put this motion last year it was not supported by the coalition. I heard earlier Senator Barnett from Tasmania talking about how worried he is about pensioners in Launceston. Well, he was not worried about pensioners in Launceston last year when he voted down the motion to increase the pension nor apparently when he was supporting the tax cuts for the rich but no increase of the pension for the poor. However, I am glad that that has changed and I am glad that this parliament seems to have had an insight into just how difficult it is and that the opposition will be supporting an increase in the pension to Australia’s most vulnerable, particularly those single age pensioners and our disability pensioners.

We should also be increasing what carers get paid around this country. There are so many vulnerable people, and it is hard to believe, in a country with the wealth that we have, that we cannot be more generous. I find that a matter of justice, as I said. It defies the Australian tradition of the fair go. It is almost, in my view, a lack of respect and appreciation for what this generation of Australians have done for this country so that we can be the free country that we are. Because a number of these pensioners, having also given war service, have suffered physical ailments and mental problems as a result of that war service—and their families have suffered in the course of trying to cope with that as well. So I would like this parliament to reflect on the idea that the people who have been most generous to us through the sacrifices they have made are the people to whom we as a parliament have been the meanest. Let us hope that this changes as a result of this move initiated by the Greens, campaigned for by the Greens, now supported by the coalition—and hopefully supported by the government. At last we might see this beginning. It should only be a beginning because an increase of $30 a week is a long way behind where it needs to go.