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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5242

Senator COONAN (4:17 PM) —I am very pleased to sum up the debate on the coalition’s Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008. I think what is clear from the contributions that we have heard in the Senate today is that there is not much room for dispute that Australia’s single age pensioners are finding it virtually impossible to live on the basic pension of $273.40 per week as indexed. I think it is also a fair summation to say that everyone agrees that $30 a week, whilst not in itself a panacea, would certainly give a helping hand to some of the most vulnerable pensioners that this country needs to make provision for.

I just want to say at the outset that it was interesting to hear the comments of Senator Xenophon from South Australia, who agreed with the coalition that it is clear that there is a great deal of urgency and concern in the community about the issue of pension increases and how pensioners are doing it tough. I thank the senator for his thoughtful contribution to the debate. Similarly, there was Senator Fielding, with his opening comments that pensioners are doing it tough and that for the Senate to delay or wait further to have a debate on the pension would be sending pensioners the wrong message. So I thank also Senator Fielding for his thoughtful contribution.

I have listened very carefully to what the Greens have had to say. If you strip away some of the criticisms, I do think it is very important to point out that there appears to be a fundamental failure to recognise that there was a Senate inquiry into the cost-of-living pressures for older Australians, which reported in March this year. So I do not think it is fair to say that we have not had a Senate committee inquiry into this bill. There has been a very extensive one. It is certain that the report called on the government to listen to older Australians’ concerns. When it comes to Senator Evans’s contribution, it was very interesting because he made a number of complaints about the coalition but really did not address with any particularity what it is that the government is going to do as a matter of urgency to help the most needy and vulnerable pensioners. Instead we had a fairly longwinded discussion about how there was need for serious thought, balance and all of the usual things that Labor are saying these days as they conduct committee after committee—but we never see any action for it.

I think it is also fair to say that what is extraordinary, when we are having this debate about whether the most vulnerable Australians should be receiving an additional payment of $30 a week, is the spectacle today of the globetrotting Prime Minister off to New York, leaving in his wake this serious, unresolved problem of justice for single age pensioners. I think it is also fair to say that the government’s contempt for pensioners is clear. (Quorum formed)

I was talking about the PM jetting off to New York, leaving in his wake this serious unresolved problem. It does seem that, while he has a plan for the UN, he does not have a plan at all for Australia’s pensioners. The government’s contempt, I think, for pensioners is shown by the procession of ministers—shall I say a conga line of senior government ministers, to quote an expression of a former Labor leader—who have solemnly assured us that they could not live on the single pension. Indeed, this is a serious failure of leadership when you have the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and other senior ministers who say that they cannot live on the single pension and admit that there is a problem but have comprehensively failed to address it. What sort of government is it that actually admits there is a problem but does absolutely nothing to address an urgent need?

It is difficult, I think, to believe that the government is sincere. I would not level that at Senator Evans—he is a sincere man—but he came in here feigning some concern. He, of course, sat at the cabinet table and accused me and other senators on this side of sitting around the cabinet table looking at this, but when the Rudd government considered an 83-page report by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and an 11-page Treasury report in April this year, it somehow or other could not quite bring itself to give the plight of pensioners a proper consideration in the budget. I think it is patently clear that the government is intent on ignoring pensioners and the plight that they face.

There is a report in the Sunday Tasmanian that, no doubt, would not have escaped Senator Brown’s notice, where a lifetime member of the Labor Party asked for pensioners to be given a fair go. She appealed directly to the Prime Minister, and she said that he ‘all but ignored’ her. The chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Bishop Christopher Saunders, in response to a question on ABC Radio on 17 September about the urgent plight of pensioners and whether the government should act now, said:

It seems to me that, if someone is at your door and they’re in dire straits and they need help, it is better to help them there and then rather than say, ‘Listen, come back next week when I’ve had time to write a letter about it’.

Senator Crossin —Come back in 10 years!

Senator COONAN —It seems to me to be urgent. Of course, we have had a report—although from the interjections opposite I am not quite sure whether or not it is a correct report—in the Australian Financial Review that, in fact, government backbenchers are getting increasingly concerned about the government’s failure to act to do anything for pensioners and have endorsed the push for extra financial assistance to aged pensioners.

Before I go on, Senator Evans also complained about the number of questions, which focused on pensions, that were asked of him in his capacity as the minister. That prompted me, over the time I was out of the chamber—which was only a few minutes—to look at how many questions Mr Rudd asked on pensions in question time when he was Leader of the Opposition. The grand total of that is two. I also looked at how many questions the opposition spokesperson on seniors, Ms Macklin, the member for Jagajaga, asked on pensions in question time. That was none. Compare this with the performance in the House of Mr Abbott, the member for Warringah, in just nine months of opposition, when he raised the issue of seniors with the government eight times in question time. This sort of counting of questions, I think, may not go all that far but certainly does answer the claim made by Senator Evans that, somehow or other, this indicates either interest or lack of interest; the coalition wins hands down.

Various speakers have attempted to accuse the coalition of failing to act to assist pensioners when we were in government. I utterly reject this claim, and I want to come to the various things that we did when we were in government. It is quite an interesting list. First of all, the decision taken by the coalition government in 1997 to link the age pension to growing incomes—25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings—rather than the cost-of-living increases, the CPI, means that pensioners now directly share in the benefits of a stronger economy and in the significant increases in wages since the coalition came into government. In 1997—this was a terribly important step—the coalition government legislated that the age pension be set to at least 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings or increased by the CPI, whichever was the greater, and the coalition government increased pensions at two per cent a year above the rate of inflation. It was our government, of course, that introduced the utilities allowance to assist pensioners with the cost of utilities such as gas and electricity. The first payment was made in March 2005. Of course, to further encourage workforce participation—which I assume everyone in this chamber would support—the coalition government increased the amount of the age pension that a part-rate pensioner can receive above the income-test-free area by reducing the pension income test withdrawal rate from 50c in the dollar to 40c in July 2000. We also passed legislation to halve the assets test taper rate. From 20 September 2007, pensions are only reduced by $1.50 instead of the previous $3 per fortnight for each $1,000 worth of assets above the allowable assets limit. These achievements, of course, meant that we had consistently addressed these issues and had a very strong record in government.

Moreover, what is important, since we lost office, is the rise in the cost of living. The overall cost of living has increased by 4.5 per cent in the 12 months to June 2008. The last opportunity we had to do anything was in the last coalition budget; the setting of that budget is now close to two years ago. It is interesting that the overall cost of living has increased by 4.5 per cent in the 12 months to June 2008. Since the election of the Rudd government, I am sorry to say, the cost of milk has increased by 3.6 per cent; the cost of jam, honey and other spreads has increased by 3.62 per cent; and the cost of fuel has increased by 14.5 per cent. What all that tells us is that it is incumbent on the Labor government to address these increased cost-of-living pressures that have become manifest, increasingly so since they took office.

The increase in cost-of-living pressures makes the need for immediate relief even more compelling than at the end of 2007—with the last coalition budget in May of that year. During 2007 the now Prime Minister went around Australia promising to do something about the cost-of-living pressures. He led pensioners to believe he would do something about the cost of petrol and the cost of groceries. But, less than a year since the Rudd Labor government came to office, we are seeing the skyrocketing prices that I have detailed. Mr Rudd went to the election promising to ease the cost of living, but Australians are in fact worse off today than they were under the coalition government. If the Rudd government were serious about helping out people on pensions, they could fix it right now.

I want to deal with a couple of ill-founded criticisms that have been made in the course of this debate that may be based simply on not understanding what the bill does or not understanding its factual basis. The first is that Senator Evans suggested that this bill would add to the various pressures on the pension of the income tested rate. However, it is clear from an express provision in the bill that the bill will isolate the additional $30 per week from the income tested rate. The additional $30 per week is not added on for the rate used under the income test, and it is not used for other purposes—for example, setting the daily care fee in a nursing home. I think it is important to make that point.

The second criticism, also made by Senator Evans—and it has been a bit of a mantra for the government since they have had to come to terms with the fact that this coalition does not stand for increase taxes, particularly increased taxes that will be inefficient and for which we said the government had no mandate at the time of the election—was that the government, in effect, cannot afford to make this provision, this additional $30 payment for single age pensioners, and the coalition should not be seeking it, on fiscal grounds. What this ignores is that, due to the careful fiscal management of the former, Howard government, the Rudd government has inherited a massive surplus of some $94.4 billion over five years, with this year a surplus of $21.5 billion. The government, if it chose, could certainly reorder its priorities and responsibly allow this relief to single age pensioners now.

It will not affect the outcomes of either the Hamer review or the Henry review. There are certainly no budgetary constraints on making this immediate additional $30-per-week payment to affected pensioners—and we are calling upon the government to do so because this is a matter that deserves urgent consideration. As they have acknowledged that none of the higher echelon of the government—ministers, from the Prime Minister down—could live on what we are asking pensioners to live on, it requires urgent attention. The government cannot wait a couple of years—until the Harmer review wends its way to making its report and then the Henry review gets around to it—before, hopefully, making some provision in the 2010 budget.

In my view, Australians expect any competent government sitting on a large, inherited surplus to be able to walk and chew gum. They should be able to provide for pensioners. That is part of the brief when you are in government: you have to look after those who need to be looked after in circumstances where that need is demonstrably clear.

Finally, I want to deal with the suggestion that there are a lot of other pension recipients and classes of pension recipients who should be included. In answer to that, we acknowledge that there is always more that can be done but there does need to be a first step. I do understand and, to some degree, sympathise with the senators who have raised their desire to include in the coalition’s bill other categories of pensioners in addition to single age pensioners, the 928,834 pension recipients to whom this benefit is directed. But, at this stage, the coalition’s point of view is that we have to take the first step—and I do believe it is in the right direction—to assist the Australians who are the most vulnerable. We do recognise that there is a need for more support for carers and people with disabilities. This call for an increase in the single age pension is a step towards addressing the immediate needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, given that age pensioners are not eligible for some of the extra benefits that, for example, disability support pensioners currently receive. It is, I think, critical to understand that the single age pension, compared to OECD rates, has been relatively low. This increase would bring them to slightly above the OECD average when compared to the couple age pension.

The total of 928,834 pensioners includes 857,229 single age pensioners, 700 widow B pensioners and 70,907 single age service pensioners. It will provide a $30-per-week boost as an additional payment that is on top the income tested rate of the base pension. So the coalition calls on the government to expedite further consideration of the needs of all pensioners—let us not leave anyone out in what we are asking the government to do—who simply cannot wait until 2010 for a comprehensive and thorough response to their needs.

The government in my view needs to address the needs of close to one million Australians who the Prime Minister can help with this particular bill that supports single age pensioners. I believe they should do just that. It is, I believe, a national disgrace to have to admit that there is a problem as basic as meeting the essential needs of Australia’s most vulnerable aged people. The government must not dither and hide behind reviews any more while the most vulnerable are living under unbearable financial stress. This is not a matter for a committee and it is not a matter for a delay; it is a matter for leadership. I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Fielding be agreed to.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.