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Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform and Other 2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009

CHAIR —Mr O’Neill, while we are waiting for COTA to come on the line, you might like to make an opening statement.

Mr O’Neill —Just briefly, National Seniors is a national membership based group. We have about 280,000 members across the country aged 50 and above, the average age being 61, and about 70 per cent of them are under 70; so we have a wide age range. In terms of the pension issue, National Seniors has been active on the issue for a decade, seeking changes to the adequacy of the pension and, I guess, as part of that, having a particular focus on the single age pension. As such, we welcome the pension reform package; we think it provides a very good first step towards providing a more adequate, equitable and sustainable pension arrangement. We understand the need for sustainability, which was part of our discussions and presentations to the Harmer review and previous Senate inquiries, recognising that, if this were to occur, it would need to be sustainable over time.

I will go to the specific issues that I understand the committee is interested in. On the tapering issue, we would say that, whilst the taper increase is not desirable, it is probably unavoidable—certainly in the context of sustainability—and we think the targeting is probably an important part of that. The Work Bonus scheme, we think, lessens the disincentive there is with earning additional income. Certainly, if it performs in any way, it would be better than the previous scheme, the Pension Bonus Scheme, which failed to operate in any way effectively; it was a bureaucratic mess and simply did not deliver. So we pray that there is a good improvement with the new scheme.

CHAIR —We will just have to see.

Mr O’Neill —We will. We will all be looking carefully at that. We also think the transitional safety net is an important part of what is being proposed there so that people will be no worse off. We support the proposed indexation arrangements. Certainly, in our submission to the pension review committee, we proposed the development of a more robust indexation model—a model for measuring increases. The overwhelming view of our membership was that the existing basket of goodies simply did not apply adequately to what pensioners were spending their funds on and it was missing the mark. So we think this is a good initiative. In addition, obviously the policy of adopting the best of the three is welcome—and I think our membership would be pretty positive about that as well.

On the age pension issue, our view is that, given what is happening globally, that was probably an inevitable move. In addition, I guess it is an important part of sustainability of the pension longer term. As I said at the start, sustainability of pension reform needs to be a key part of what goes on.

With respect to the pension age increase, we say that perhaps the most critical thing is around ensuring that there are jobs available for people. Also, some of the existing ageism and discrimination that exists in the workplace needs to be dealt with. It is no good getting to 2017 and 2023 and changing the rules and there being no jobs. From our perspective, that really needs to be a critical area of activity over the next five to six years, as the case may be. We say that not only government but particularly the corporate sector need to be involved in providing drive and leadership in that regard. The trade union movement and, more broadly, the community need to move on from some community attitudes around ageism as well. Such attitudes manifest themselves particularly in discrimination in the workplace, but they apply elsewhere as well.

A particular issue that we think would provide an important symbol for government to act upon is the current superannuation arrangements that discriminate on the basis of age. Between 16 and 69, there is an obligation for employers to pay nine per cent superannuation; but, once you turn 70, that obligation ceases. A change in that regard would be a very simple but very symbolic gesture to say, ‘The date on the calendar doesn’t matter to the way that we treat you in the workplace.’ At the moment, that distinction is being made but it really does not have any foundation. That is the kind of symbolism that we think would kick along the whole response to the ageism issue.

I guess that is our broad outline. We will be providing a submission after today; we have done a little bit of work already but, given the short notice, you will have it Monday.

CHAIR —Thank you. Do we have COTA on the line?

Mr Yates —Most certainly.

CHAIR —Welcome, Mr Yates. I know that you have done this before, so you know the system. Perhaps you would like to make an opening statement, after which we will go to general questions. Just for your information: in the room we have Senator Mark Furner from Queensland; Senator Rachel Siewert from Western Australia, who is deputy chair; Senator Sue Boyce from Queensland; and Senator John Williams from New South Wales.

Mr Yates —Thank you for that and thank you for allowing us to appear today. We appreciate the reasons for the short notice and I apologise that it was not possible to be with you in person, but we are running a major World Elder Abuse Awareness Day seminar here at the moment. We have provided the committee with a brief written submission—’brief’, given the time.

CHAIR —Thank you. Yes, we have that.

Mr Yates —I will refer briefly to it and just note for the record, of course, that COTA, Councils on the Ageing, is a federation of organisations present in every state and territory. It is a mixture of individual membership and membership of organisations of seniors, which collectively represent many hundreds of thousands of seniors. Like National Seniors, we strongly welcome the pension reform package as a first step. We have been active also over the last decade on these matters and, for a period of time, as a merged body with National Seniors; so we were extremely pleased to open the budget papers in the lockup and find that significant steps had been taken.

As pointed out in our submission, the campaigns that we have been involved in would have liked to have seen a higher increase in the pension and we think even the Harmer review provides a basis for them to have been a bit higher. But a first step is a first step and, particularly for single pensioners, this is a really historic shift.

On the issue of the taper, certainly many in our constituency are not happy about it. But we take the point made just now by Michael O’Neill that a key to the level of the increase that was achieved was the question of sustainability over time. There is a particularly dramatic graph, I think, in the budget overview documents at page 23, to which we refer, which indicates the modelling that Treasury obviously had done on the impact of this increase in the out years, which is what worries them; the impact of the changes to the income test is a very significant proportion of that.

As I said in the submission, while we would prefer not to have had the taper increase, it recognises those fiscal realities. We certainly would have preferred to have had a higher pension increase with a 50c taper than a lower increase with the 40c taper remaining. Briefly, we support the indexation arrangements. We have been pushing for this kind of thing. We will be looking very closely at what the next index looks like and watching how it works.

On the pension age issue, I certainly acknowledge that I think this matter is and will continue to be of some controversy in the community. We accept that the argument of time and the shift in working life and retirement life make this pretty inevitable. We would underline the points made by Michael O’Neill about tackling mature age employment, unemployment and age discrimination in the workforce, and we think the government ought to be taking a lead with this.

The real issues here go to, firstly, people who at the moment struggle to get to 65 and will feel that they have to hang out another couple of years, although many people in those kinds of jobs are struggling already in their mid-50s; and, secondly, those who are long-term unemployed in their 60s who will be on Newstart allowance for another two years. I would remind the committee that, of people going on to a full age pension in recent years without other income streams, 50 per cent have been coming off another Commonwealth benefit, predominantly either Newstart or disability.

In conclusion, we welcome the various provisions of this package, understanding that it is an integrated package that was argued that way through government processes to achieve the very significant lift there has been, particularly in the single pension, even though we would have liked to see both go up by a lot more.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator SIEWERT —We might start where you have just left off. ACOSS also raised with us the issue of the number of people who already will be on some form of income support when they go over to the age pension; other arguments I have heard in the media go to these people very often being, for example, blue-collar workers or those who are ill. I think there are some pretty significant arguments there, although I also understand the argument for increasing the age at which the age pension kicks in. Can you think of a better way to achieve these aims? ACOSS also said that they understood the intent and agreed with the principle. It seems to me that the issue here is really about how you do it rather than necessarily arguing about the fact that, in the longer term, it needs to happen. Can you think of ways in which it could happen differently or where you could help those who are on income support already? The group of people that will be most affected are those who do not have a lot of super, the most vulnerable workers and blue-collar workers. Do any of you have suggestions for how we could still achieve the aim but perhaps make it more palatable and more equitable?

Mr Yates —I will have a go at that first. Our formal position is that the amount of notice that has been given of the increase in the age is fair, but the issues you raise, which are very real and which our constituents raise, are heightened by this. If this shift leads to government taking the issue of mature employment and age discrimination more seriously than has been the case, it will be a welcome by-product. Really, if we have people struggling in the workforce from their fifties onwards due to a combination of those factors that you, Michael and I have mentioned, we ought to be addressing them in themselves and not just because we have shifted the pension age by two years. We need to recognise that we will need to keep people in the workforce; therefore, we have to do much more about promoting the opportunity for multiple careers and for retraining, and for support during those processes, and for redesigning jobs so that they do not lead to people becoming disability pensioner recipients in their mid-fifties. They are the things for which certainly we need a concentrated effort in the corporate sector and the unions, but we also need some federal government leadership on this matter.

Mr O’Neill —I certainly support what Ian has just said. I think the issue of participation rates for people when they are in their fifties is a real starting point as well; lifting those and providing that opportunity for people to reskill or to maintain or enhance their skills so that they can remain in the workforce is an important part of that.

In addition to what Ian has said, there perhaps is a broader issue here of the community not recognising the contribution that older Australians continue to make. In some ways, we are approaching this shift in the demographic with the real focus being on the negative side of it—the cost and the threat that it represents to the community, the economy and society—when there are a whole lot of pluses with it as well that we do not properly recognise. I think the negative perception there just reinforces the challenges that people in the workplace face in terms of discrimination. It also reinforces an absence of action by governments generally on the issue of mature age employment. With respect, very few programs are specifically targeted towards mature age. That is not to say there is not a good foundation for young people—youth schemes, apprenticeships, traineeships and all of that; there is no argument with that at all—but we also need to see some stuff specifically targeted at older Australians. That then goes a little bit to that issue of the kind of symbolism and leadership that Ian has just alluded to. Superannuation change would be a simple starting point.

Perhaps I could share with you one example that we have seen globally, which has been quite instructive, which concerns the UK supermarket group Tesco. That group has 25,000 to 30,000 employees across the UK; it has implemented a major program of greater emphasis being placed on mature age workers and has measured the successes of that. But, looking back over time, its reflections are that it only happened after the managing director took charge and provided some leadership for it to happen. We think the lesson out of that, in part, is that it is time for the government and particularly the corporate sector to stand up and provide some greater leadership on this issue to drive it forward, for the trade union movement to do so as well and then, more broadly, for it to be done within the community. But it does require that leadership to shift those present attitudes.

I will table one document that I want to share with you. We have just released something called Still putting in, which measures the contribution of older Australians in the workplace and the community—in society generally. That is part of trying to shift the perception that it is all about costs and negatives rather than the upside that older Australians do provide.

Senator FURNER —Chair, could I suggest that, if possible, the committee be provided with a copy of that?

Mr O’Neill —I think we have multiple copies.

Senator SIEWERT —I know about this issue already. Our ‘cost of living for older Australians’ inquiry highlighted yet again that a particular group of women, those from the age of about 45 on, have been identified as having very low super. It seems to me that group is one of those that will get caught up with this change. We have been talking about a whole lot of other people as well, but that is another of the groups amongst all of those that I am concerned about. Have you come across that issue and do you have any suggestions about how we specifically deal with that particular cohort there that we know does not have any super? I think average super is $32,000 or something like that, isn’t it?

CHAIR —It is in the thirties.

Senator SIEWERT —It is very, very poor. They are going to be hard hit by this change as well, potentially.

Mr O’Neill —I think that is perhaps a continuation of the disadvantage that older ladies who are currently of pension age are experiencing now; it is a continuation of that.

Senator SIEWERT —That is exactly right, yes.

Mr O’Neill —I think it reflects also on folk who are carers and those who go out of the workplace to provide a care function.

Senator SIEWERT —That is exactly right. It is all those groups that, for various reasons, have not been in the workforce continually. When compulsory super came in, some groups had already been working for a specific period of time. Also, of course, there is that group of carers who, as you have just said, are in and out of the workforce.

Mr O’Neill —That is right. Beyond recognising that the problem is there and it needs to be somewhere within the income transfer system to deal with it, I do not have any specific suggestions.

Senator SIEWERT —I want to go to the issues of tapering. I think you were here for part of the evidence from our previous witnesses who had very strong concerns about the issues of tapering. Mr Yates and Mr O’Neill, you have both said that you would rather not have it than have it, but you do not seem to be overly concerned about it. Would that be a correct summary of your submissions?

Mr Kennedy —Obviously, an element of our constituency would be concerned by this. When it comes to tapering, I think there are three important points. The first is the need to target the increase in the pension, which need was picked up in the Harmer report; we recognise that. The second element is the Work Bonus. So, although the tapering now will take 50c as opposed to 40c, the Work Bonus distinguishes between income that is earned—employment income—and income from other sources. In the past, we have raised the fact that a number of pensioners out there want to top up their low fixed incomes with intermittent, part-time or seasonal work; the Work Bonus allows that to happen. That is one thing that needs to be taken into consideration when we are looking at the broader taper rate changes.

The third and probably most important point when it comes to the taper rate is that there is a transitional safety net in place. I think Ian would agree that we welcome that concession. That means that no transitioning pensioner will be worse off as a result of the guarantee that they will be on a transitional arrangement.

Senator SIEWERT —Following up on that last point: both organisations put the argument that there is a transitional safety net but, once 2013 comes, the proportion of people who are self-funded retirees will be worse off. I think it affects them more. If they have income other than through employment, they will be worse off than if the system had not changed. Have you looked at that?

Mr Yates —Perhaps I could comment on that. Certainly that is true at the margins, but I emphasise what we both said in our opening remarks. We would have liked it to have been higher, but this package was designed to get the highest possible increase in the pension for people who are wholly or substantially dependent on the pension and the key part of the taper is the sustainability of these changes over time. A lot of our constituency would prefer the taper to be at 30c, but you have to live with those realities. I think, as I said in our submission, we would prefer to have the larger increase with the increased taper rather than the lower one with the 40c taper.

Senator SIEWERT —So you are saying that you cannot have everything you want.

Mr Yates —We would love to, but the political reality in the current economic climate is that we cannot.

Senator BOYCE —Mr O’Neill, I was surprised at the average age of your membership. Can you roughly give us a sense of the composition of your membership? How many of them would be people on pensions et cetera?

Mr O’Neill —As I said, we have a membership of about 280,000, aged from 50 to over 100; about 70 per cent of them are under 70. Of the 65-plus category, I would guess that probably 35 to 40 per cent are on a full pension, probably a similar number are on a part pension and a smaller number—maybe 20 per cent—would be self-funded retirees in their own right. That would be my sense of them. Then, of the under 65s, probably 60 to 70 per cent are still in the workplace.

Senator BOYCE —In a part-time capacity?

Mr O’Neill —Yes, part time.

Senator BOYCE —The majority of them would have some sort of income support, wouldn’t they?

Mr O’Neill —Are we talking about the under-65s?

Senator BOYCE —Yes.

Mr O’Neill —Overwhelmingly, they would be in work, either part time or full time.

Senator BOYCE —But would they receive government benefits?

Mr O’Neill —No, no more proportionately than any other part of the community. We have a lot of folk who are still in full-time work.

Senator BOYCE —The other point you have raised here and COTA has raised in its submission is the issue that the increase was not as Dr Harmer’s report would lead you to think it should be. The figure being used nearly two years ago, I think, as being needed then was $30. Obviously $30 now is not worth quite the same as it was then. In terms of a starting point, is $30 sufficient?

Mr O’Neill —We certainly believe that it is. That figure represents an increase in the proportion of a single’s pension to a couple’s pension from just on 60 per cent up to two thirds, which for quite some time has been a goal of our group and I think, with respect, of Ian’s as well. That was an inequity that really disadvantaged severely single pensioners, 65 per cent to 70 per cent of whom were older ladies who, as we just discussed, had missed out on superannuation for a range of reasons over time. We think it had a good foundation for being shifted in the way it has been and I think, in the broader circumstances, it was a fair result across the entire package.

Senator BOYCE —You mention that there is no obligation on employers to pay superannuation for those aged over 70. Do you have a sense of how many would anyway?

Mr O’Neill —I certainly have enough correspondence from folk who do not have it paid to indicate that there is an issue there. I guess, in principle, there is an issue there that we should not have a date on the calendar determining access to employment arrangements.

Senator BOYCE —That leads me to my next question, which is directed to both of you: have your organisations done any work on age based discrimination within government law that should be considered in terms of this inquiry?

Mr O’Neill —I think the superannuation issue is a perfect example of that.

Senator BOYCE —I just wonder whether you have looked across the board.

Mr O’Neill —In more detail? We have looked at superannuation. We have also looked at the state level at workers compensation arrangements, which differ from state to state—

Senator BOYCE —Of course.

Mr O’Neill —but also have an age element treatment within them. I think they are the two that are most prominent in our research to date.

CHAIR —What about COTA?

Mr Yates —We have not done it recently, because it was done some years ago and a lot of age related issues were addressed in both the federal and state arenas, when age discrimination legislation was introduced. But certainly I concur totally with Michael: we receive a large number of representations relating to superannuation provisions—regarding both the over-70s and, in fact, I think at the age of 75, at which point the contributions cease to get an advantage—and workers compensation arrangements, which really are going to be a major problem because we already have many more people working beyond the age of 65.

Senator BOYCE —The point about the 75 is that people over 75 cannot contribute to super in any form, irrespective of whether it is their own money or someone else’s.

Mr Yates —Correct.

Mr O’Neill —That is right. In fact, we will be releasing in the next couple of weeks a paper prepared by the University of Adelaide on mature age employment. It has a great example in it of a medical practitioner who spent a lot of time in regional areas in Australia. He shifted to Adelaide and commenced a practice there at age 75. He has all the AMA qualifications and whatever else. He has his wife as his practice manager. Both of them are over 75 and work full time, and they cannot do anything at all to contribute to superannuation. The reason that he is continuing to work, apart from wanting to do it, is that he has inadequate super from his time in the bush. So he continues to be active and continues to want to work, and the system says, ‘We treat you differently because of your age.’

Senator BOYCE —In fact, we have a system that is almost designed to force him into retirement, haven’t we?

Mr O’Neill —Yes.

Senator FURNER —I will go to COTA’s submission first. In point 4, ‘pension age’, it indicates that, from surveys you rely on, about half of the baby boomers plan to participate in the workforce beyond the age of 65. Both from COTA and the witnesses present here today, perhaps I could get some indication of whether that sort of view is consistent.

Mr Yates —In my hurry to put this together for you in less than 24 hours, I have not cited all sources. However, official government statistics show that the numbers working beyond 65 are on a steady increase; they are off a low base, but they are on a steady increase. In addition, a number of commercial surveys have pointed to varying figures ranging, I think, from about a third to about a half of the baby boomers who indicate now that it is their intention to work past 65.

There are a number of reasons for that. One is that many of those people see no reason why they should stop at an arbitrary age; the age of 65 for many of them will not mean that that is what they need to do for income reasons. Then there are also the people we spoke of earlier who do not have much super and who want to keep working past 65 so they can continue to accumulate a bit more superannuation, and they are fit and able to do so. The third reason, of course, is that, particularly as we move out of the current economic circumstances, we are on a trend line where employers will find they need to attract people over 65 to stay in the workforce in many areas; otherwise, they will not have workers.

Mr O’Neill —I support all of the things that Ian has just said. I have two additional points. Firstly, very clearly, there was a trend to increase post-65 work before the recent economic downturn. That was there already, and we think that will be encouraged and exacerbated by the events of the last 12 to 18 months. Secondly, I think there is an emerging amount of health related evidence that indicates that people remaining engaged and particularly in a workplace environment, with its social contact and whatever else, is pretty good for folk.

Senator FURNER —I was going to go there. Research out there now indicates certainly that people being active and involved in some form of activity contributes to the reduction of illnesses like Alzheimer’s and those sorts of things. Does either organisation have any material or evidence it can rely upon in that respect at this stage?

Mr O’Neill —I think we have some research that we can flick through to you coming out of some gerontologists’ studies that we are aware of in New South Wales; we will find those.

Senator FURNER —Going to this point about discrimination of retirement in the workforce, it is a particular interest of mine; I certainly have been lobbied strongly particularly by police in my state, indicating that legislation is compulsory there to have them retire at sixty. I wonder whether that is consistent across the board in other states and whether there are compulsory retirement ages for police in particular or other professions. I think judges, from memory, might be one area where they are required to retire at a set age as well.

Mr Kennedy —I think it varies pretty much from state to state, but there are certain professions where mandatory retirement ages still apply—the legal profession with judges, as you just mentioned, and police and possibly the armed forces. But we do not have any details of the differences between the states and territories—only that they are different between each state and territory.

Senator FURNER —Turning to the Work Bonus, part of the proposed measures is that the indexation arrangements will not kick in until $500 per fortnight has been earned. How much of that will advantage your members, in your opinions?

Mr Kennedy —The government figures suggest that 75,000 pensioners will benefit from the Work Bonus. At the moment, the proportion of pensioners who work and earn employment income is quite low; it is lower than we would like and it is purely because the income test is a disincentive. So the point we raised previously, and we raised it in our submission to the pension review, is that, now we have this distinction between wage income and other forms of income, we hope that those people that do want to go out and top up their incomes with ‘occasional’ work, shall we say, cannot be penalised unnecessarily for doing so.

Senator FURNER —You did indicate earlier that 60 to 70 per cent of your members are in the workforce. Do you have any estimates of how many out of those sorts of percentages would get some sort of benefit out of the particular proposal?

Mr O’Neill —No, we would be speculating as to what number that might be. There would be 60 to 70 per cent under 70, a proportion of whom would still be working; but, no, we would be playing with numbers there.

Mr Kennedy —A lot of them obviously will be working full time, so they would not be applying for an age pension anyway. We could not give you the exact figures.

Senator FURNER —Is there any feedback from COTA?

Mr Yates —We think similarly that just making this change will encourage people to continue to work part time, which many of them desire to do in a transition arrangement. It is really that half of up to the first $500 a fortnight or $250 a week will not be taken into account. That is a significant consideration, as was argued by my National Seniors colleagues earlier, when you take the whole taper change into account; it changes the financial return for someone who is on a full pension considerably, if they can get some part-time work. So I think it will lead to an increase in people, particularly in their late 60s and early 70s, working part time in many roles in our community that we struggle to find people to work in.

Senator WILLIAMS —Mr Yates, in your conclusion you say, ‘There are areas of significant challenge that must still be better addressed, such as pensioners in private rental.’ Would you like to expand on that, please?

Mr Yates —It is common ground amongst everyone, I think, that pensioners who are in the private rental market are in the most difficulty; the Harmer report confirms that. The Harmer report indicated that there was a need to look at not only the provision of housing, which certainly the government is doing, but also how you might change the rent allowance. In the end, the government has not increased the rent allowance or made any other changes to it. So, even though the pension has gone up, people in the private rental market will still be under the most financial stress of anyone in this cohort. So we think that is something that needs more work and we will be talking with the government about that.

Senator WILLIAMS —Is it still the situation that, when there is a pension rise, we see the rents of those living in state public housing often increasing dramatically, basically giving the pensioner the result of no increase in pension?

Mr Yates —That has certainly been a matter of great contention amongst the constituency. The Prime Minister did write to all state Premiers in relation to this increase, arguing that that not be fully applied, and I know that it has not been in some states. I do not yet have a poll of every state and I do not know whether my National Seniors colleagues do.

Senator WILLIAMS —Perhaps I can take you to one other issue that I have been concerned about for many years, and that is those age pensioners, especially single pensioners, who own their own homes. I come from a country town and housing has been much cheaper, if I can say that, over decades in smaller country communities. I am concerned that local governments always seem to be strapped for money and this goes to the council rates that single pensioners especially have to pay on their residence. Do you know whether many councils give discounts or substantial discounts to pensioners for their council rates?

Mr Yates —There are council rate concession schemes in all states and, as usual, they vary. But also, in recent years, some states have introduced voluntary rate deferral schemes whereby you can defer the payment of your rates against the estate. That has had a variable take-up. In my home state of South Australia, the state government has legislated to ensure that local governments must offer this. I have to say that it has not been hugely taken up at the moment, but I think that might change over time.

Senator SIEWERT —ACOSS has talked also about the preservation age for super. Do you have a comment on that?

Mr Kennedy —We do not have any significant detail into this, but I think one important consideration here is that, if they do increase the preservation age along similar lines as the age pension age increase, we would like to see a long lead-in time. We think that is important because people have retirement plans in place. Obviously, that will allow people who have plans in place to continue under the current system. So we would like to see that concession, if indeed they did go ahead and increase the preservation age.

Senator SIEWERT —Obviously, they planned a long lead-in time for the increase in the age pension age anyway. Do you mean that it should be linked to that?

Mr O’Neill —No. We would be of the view that it would need to be a longer lead-in period, given the impact of retirement planning that folk already have in place; so it would need to be longer. In terms of the most appropriate timing, we are still looking at that.

Mr Yates —Perhaps I can add to that. We need to remember that, at the moment, policy is that the preservation age will step out from 55 to 60. We do not have formal policy on this either, but my intuition is that the community as a whole would expect there to be some gap between the two ages.

CHAIR —Thank you very much to the witness from COTA and also to the witnesses from National Seniors. Once again, we are due to report next Wednesday. If there is something that you think we have missed, please get in contact with us as quickly as possible.

Mr Yates —Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 12.20 pm to 1.22 pm