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National Press Club -

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12:30 PM
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VOICEOVER: Today at the National Press Club, is the age pension enough to do what it's meant to? Three organisations have examined the pension and concluded it's not adequate. The panel of Everald Compton, Jo Toohey and David Hetherington discuss their findings in today's National Press Club address.
[Bell rings]
DAVID SPEERS: Good afternoon, welcome to the National Press Club and today's Westpac address. I'm David Speers, political editor at Sky News and a director here at the National Press Club. Today's address is titled the Adequacy of the Age Pension in Australia. Now age pensioners were spared a cut yesterday, at least new recipients of the age pension, the deal between the Government and Labor on budget savings decided not to impose this particular cut, cutting the clean energy supplement from new recipients of the age pension, but the question remains - is the age pension adequate to provide a - well, an acceptable standard of living?
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Our three guests today have been working for the last year on this report that they're releasing today, it's called Adequacy of the Age Pension in Australia. Our guests are Everald Compton, the chairman of the Longevity Innovation Hub, Jo Toohey, the Chief Executive Officer of the Benevolent Society, and David Hetherington, the Executive Director of Per Capita. We're going to hear from each of them on this, well, very important issue for our 1.5 million age pensioners in Australia.
Everald Compton is going to speak first about why they've decided to put this report together. Everald.
EVERALD COMPTON: Thank you Chairman David and friends. The age pension in Australia is clearly inadequate; that's an indisputable fact and the Government of Australia has to face up to that fact. We've spent a year preparing this report on the adequacy of the age pension. As Maurice Reilly just pointed out, we should have called it The Inadequacy of the Age Pension, but a bit late to get it to the printers. But this report stems from a long history of the age pension in Australia being a political football. Back in 1908, two fellas who had been Prime Minister of Australia, each Fisher and Deakin, got together in a minority government and agreed that there should be an age pension They set the age at 65, because that's the age when they reckoned that most people would be dead, and they were going to give the age pension to anyone who survived.
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The equivalent medical age of that now is 85. The pension since that time has been always decided by politics. Deakin and Fisher set it at 26 pounds a year, because that's all they could afford to pay, there wasn't any other scientific description about it. And down the years, governments have adjusted the pension according to whether or not they needed to make an adjustment to win an election or to meet a crisis like a depression or a recession, but they have never done a scientific study of what it costs a pensioner to live day by day. They just follow economic indices, but no one has followed Granny Smith around and find out what she spends Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, every month, every six months, every year.
We set out in this study to do exactly that, and we held focus groups across the country and town meetings where pensioners could come along and express their view on what it costs them to live, and it's without the slightest doubt that pensioners in Australia have a struggle to live, and that's an indictment on a prosperous nation, such as we have. So we've come with the prime recommendation that there has to be an age pension tribunal, an independent tribunal set up by an Act of Parliament, that takes the whole pension out of the Budget and out of political and election places and have a small tribunal with a small professional staff who every six months will decide what the pension should be, and make adjustments for that and Parliament would have to accept that. They'll have no trouble in doing that because they've got a similar tribunal for their own salaries and they never question it when it comes up.
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Now, the prime thing that we will be asked is how are we going to pay for this? The Treasury is broke, there is no money there. The facts of the matter are that we have lifted in this report eight areas in which the Government could either save money or raise money by additional revenue, but there is much wasteful expenditure, many policies that quite simply, turned around, could finance this. We reckon the recommendations we've made would cost two billion a year. We've listed eight billion in savings that governments could make, and one of the ways to do it primarily is to cut out much of the middle class welfare that exists in this country that doesn't exist anywhere else, and that particularly includes corporate Australia who get more welfare than any pensioner ever thought about getting.
Now, we found, as we went around the country, that there were some significant things which my partners Jo and David will outline. Anyone who retires without owning their own home is in dreadful trouble. If you get to retirement on a pension, you are in real strive because of the extraordinarily and ridiculously high real estate prices in Australia. Most pensioners can't go to the dentist, they can't afford it, therefore they eat soft food because they can't eat hard food, and many pensioners are giving up their phones and their computer, they simply can't afford the $40 a month, and so we're entering into an age of technology where pensioners are going to be cut off from essential
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medical services if they're going to come buy phones and computers.
I just want to say this - we intend to relentlessly pursue this issue. It's one thing to present this to the Press Club. The Government hopes that by 3 o'clock this afternoon everyone will have forgotten about this. I just want to let them know that in whatever short years I may have left on this planet, I am going to relentlessly pursue them until this issue comes to hand. They will not have one single private waking moment that we don't follow this.
Because there are millions of reports up in that building covered by cobwebs that have spent millions and millions of dollars on, that no one has acted upon, and this is not going to be one that gets cobwebs. We are at a point in Australian history where the pension has to be handled properly for the first time. Let me close then by just thanking some people who helped us. It has been great for The Longevity Hub, and Benevolent Society, the oldest charity in Australia, if you don't know that, and Per Capita to work together on this, it's been a great team. I particularly want to mention the great work that Kirsty did, Kirsty Nolan from The Benevolent Society who got a great team together and put in many, many hours and Warwick Smith, who helped David write that report did an extraordinary job. But we had great help from organisations like National Seniors and Chris from National Seniors is here today. We had help from
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COTA, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and many organisations who got this all together. We're going to form them all into a team to relentlessly pursue governments.
We've come to the point in the history of Australia where the pension has to come out of politics and it's got into the- get into the area of human justice, of the justice that a pensioner is entitled to have in this country, and as Gough Whitlam would have said, if he was up here, it's time.
DAVID SPEERS: When Everald Compton is on the warpath, both sides of politics should watch out. Thank you very much, Everald. Jo Toohey is going to tell us a bit more about the real pressures of living on the age pension.
JO TOOHEY: Thank you. And thank you, Everald. He is always a hard act to follow, I think. For most of us here today, you know, life can be pretty challenging and complex at times. I mean, we think about the fact that maybe we've got to get the kids off to school or we have bills that we've got to pay when we get home, we might call a trades-person because we've got an issue that needs to be fixed in the house, and we don't hesitate to book one in for the next week. The fridge packs it in, we need to buy a new fridge, we go out on the weekend and we buy a new fridge. For nearly 1.5 million older Australians in this country, many of them people that we know, many of them members of our own family, these daily challenges are actually hugely amplified.
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For this group who rely on the age pension as their sole or main source of income, the very ordinary demands of contemporary Australian life place so much stress on their finances that many of them are teetering constantly on the edge of poverty and deprivation. This has enormous impacts on their health and wellbeing. For this group, for example, a trip to the dentist is impossible. Eighty to a hundred dollars just for a check-up or a clean from a dentist, and the issue that you have is that out of their pension, they have to pay all the basics first. So doing things like going to a dentist is actually seen as an extraordinary event.
For comparison, I can tell you that the full base age pension is $794.80 per fortnight. Now, if you are earning the minimum wage for a 38 hour week, you will earn $1345 per fortnight; that's double the age pension. If you are fortunate enough to be getting the average weekly earnings, you will get $2320 a fortnight. And then again, if you're the lowest paid member of Parliament, you can enjoy at the very base rate, before any loadings or benefits, $7655; that's ten times the age pension. I don't think these numbers make sense to anybody in this room. The poverty line in Australia is $851. So the bottom line is, if you're a single person, you're receiving the age pension and you're not entitled to rent assistance because you own your own home, which is quite possibly falling down around you, and government tends to make the assumption that in fact most older people own their own home, then your living income is $56 below the poverty line.
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One-third of the 1.5 million pensioners who live solely on the age pension live at or below the poverty line. So we know that some pensioners, as Everald described, whose teeth are in poor conditions, routinely are putting their meals in blenders so in fact because they cannot afford to visit the dentist. We also know that others are switching off their hot water for three to five months over the summer period because they can't afford the electricity bills and to save money. Others are actually taking breaks from meals, splitting meals into two or three portions so they can actually stretch them out over a 24 hour period, all in order to save a precious few dollars.
I'm the CEO of Australia's first charity, The Benevolent Society and we're a non-religious, not-for-profit organisation that believes in a justice society where all Australians can live their best life. As Everald has already outlined, we were one of the partners in this research, together with Per Capita and The Longevity Innovation Hub. This research project tells us about the dire and unacceptable situation facing Australian age pensioners, and it tells us much more, as David Hetherington will soon outline. But we also know what it's like to be an older person relying on the age pension because we actually see it every single day. As providers of government funded home support services and affordable housing for older people, we are in people's homes 52 weeks a year. It's what we've been doing for the last 200 years. We have been advocating for older people since the turn of the last century, and we will continue to do so.
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I can also say for me personally, with over 20 years' experience working in the age care sector, that I'm only too familiar with the experience of people who enter residential care simply because they're not coping, they are trying to maintain a home and care for themselves. Older people can stretch a dollar like no other. I know my mum can stretch a dollar like nobody else. But they give up things for that. They give up the things that actually give our life quality and meaning. As an organisation, the Benevolent Society believes it's our role not just to provide physical and emotional support but to speak out and advocate on behalf of those citizens in our society that are most disadvantaged. It's what we do and what we have always done.
Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, our former president Arthur Renwick proudly led a five year campaign which resulted in the introduction of the old age pension in New South Wales in 1901. That was the first of its kind in the world. That's a sad indictment that here I am today actually talking about it again, 100 years later. It's patently clear to us that Australians who rely on the current age pension are the most disadvantaged in our society today and need to be heard. Pensioners in this country should not have to suffer the substantial deprivations that you will find outlined in the pages of the report that you've all seen today. It's intolerable that Australians relying solely on the age pension have so little money that they must often choose between food and medication, or put dinner in the blender because they can't afford to go to the dentist. How would we feel if it was our parents? They live solely on the pension, they have a house, but
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had to choose whether to eat dinner or skip medication. We do not accept this. We are a rich country - the fifth richest in the world according to the OECD - and yet we are allowing a third of our age pensioners to live at or below the poverty line.
We talk about retirement incomes but the debate is outrageously skewed to the top end of the spectrum. We chatter about the $1.6 million superannuation transfer balance cap but that affects less than 1 per cent of superannuation fund members. That level of debate renders the experience of pensioners invisible. These are people who are struggling to find $400 to cover the sort of emergency that most of us would expect to be able to fund several times a year. We believe that every Australian has the right to a decent standard of living and the current base rate of the age pension is patently inadequate. It fails to recognise the contributions that older Australians have made to building our nation, raising our children and contributing to our tax system, and it needs to be increased.
Just because people don't work does not mean they do not bring value to our society or to our communities. It's shameful and unacceptable. Like it's shameful and unacceptable that we have no national agenda, no national conversation around ageing in this country beyond age care services, and lamenting the impact, the economic impact, that older people are having on the Government's health and pension bill. Is this the way we see ourselves as a country? Longstanding citizens, contributors to this country, described and
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catalogued and, to use an accounting term, depreciated for the error of living past 65.
This government has a Minister for Sport, and has a Minister for Regional Communications, and we've got three ministers who are associated with defence. With all the catastrophising talk of baby boomer tsunamis, I would have thought a Minister for Ageing that focused on more than the aged care sector wouldn't be a bad idea. We hope that others will join us in a concerted and sustained effort to fix pension poverty and ensure older Australians receiving the age pension can live with health, dignity, and wellbeing. As one despairing pensioner survivor told us, life is not worth living unless it has some quality. Just surviving is not a good life. Thank you.
DAVID SPEERS: And our final speaker David Hetherington's going to tell us a bit about how they did the research behind today's report. David.
DAVID HETHERINGTON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen; two hard acts to follow there. Everald and Jo have spoken eloquently about the pressing need to shed light on life on the pension and about the case for change. I want to wrap up by discussing three simple points: firstly, how we've thought about what is adequate and what is fair for our fellow citizens living on the pension; secondly, the way forward for pensions policy; and, finally, why the time is right and the opportunity is there and it's ready to be grasped. Firstly, adequacy and fairness. When we
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embarked on this project, my co-author Warwick Smith and I considered whether we could calculate in dollar terms what an adequate pension would be, whether we could price that basket of goods that a typical pensioner would consume, and pretty quickly we realised we couldn't. The last group to try, which was Peter Saunders and a team back at the UNSW back in 1998 stated at the end of their 700 page report that the task was so onerous that they wouldn't wish it on their worst enemy.
But why is this? For the simple reason that all pensioners aren't all alike. Time and again, we make the mistake of putting all oldies in the one basket. We're perfectly comfortable with the notion that kids and working-age people come in different sizes and shapes and colours and faiths, but for some reason, we cast all older people as the granny with the Zimmer frame trundling to the shops, or the old bloke at the bus stop on his way to the club. And if you want living proof of this, try to pick a cover picture for a report just like ours showing pensioners. Everyone looks exactly the same, you can look at all these stock photos and the people look identical and you'll notice that we've gone with a cover without people, and this is why, as Jo has explained, pensioners become invisible. They become invisible in the community and invisible in our public policy date.
The truth, of course, is that older Australians are pianists, and chefs, and carers, and bush walkers, and lifeguards, and teachers, and much else beside. They're as diverse as the rest of our community, and so are
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their needs. Some need money for diabetic strips, others for heating, others to clear the tree roots from the pipes in their house, and this is why you can't say that a particular basket of goods worth $437 a week with all the supplements is exactly right for all of them. One person's frugal comfort is another's luxury. One person's need for an afternoon of respite care is another's needs for incontinence pads. So, rather than a blanket approach, we've had to think about the adequacy of the age pension, the fairness of the pension in different ways, and having looked at the data, and having sat in focus groups around the country, the unavoidable conclusion is that the pension is not adequate for a decent standard of living in Australia today.
Now, it might be adequate for the idealised circumstances that some might hope for on the pension; if you're in good health, if you are living as part of a couple, if you own your own home. But this describes only a minority of pensioners, less than 40 per cent. Many more are single or renting or struggling with chronic health conditions, and it's these people who live in deprivation. If you overlay these circumstances on each other - so if you're single and renting and in poor health, and especially if you're a woman with low private savings - the deprivation compounds rapidly. Now, this describes the situation of hundreds of thousands of pensioners and this is why the age pension is inadequate in Australia today.
So, what's the way forward for pensions policy? As Everald's explained, we're proposing a set of
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immediate interventions to address the most common deprivations. It's dentistry, medical disposables, broadband, utilities, and above all rent. Renting is the single biggest indicator of deprivation amongst pensioners. Pensioners who rent spend over $130 more per week on housing than those who don't. Commonwealth Rent Assistance covers less than half that gap and even that is not available for all pensioners. So, one immediate recommendation is to increase the maximum rate of rent assistance available so as to reduce the income gap faced by renters and to index rent assistance to housing costs which all of us know have grown a lot faster than CPI.
But our biggest proposal is structural. We're proposing an independent age pension tribunal to periodically set the base rate of the pension. The tribunal would be charged with setting a fair pension, taking into account relative living standards and needs of pensioners, and importantly the broader fiscal climate. As I've said, the needs of pensioners are complex and ever-changing, and the current approach, which I would best describe as set and forget with a bit of indexation, doesn't reflect this. The underlying base rate only gets reviewed every decade or two when interest groups kick up enough of a stink. So, we propose taking the base rate out of the hands government and placing the responsibility with an independent body appointed by Government. And, yes, we know the objections but I point out that many of the most important prices in our economy are set by independent, government-appointed bodies. The Reserve Bank board sets the price of money. The Fair Work Commission sets the
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price of labour, and in the same way an age pension tribunal should set the price of basic retirement living.
Another criticism we anticipate is that thorny question of how we pay for all of this, because public debt is a moral crisis, remember? My answer comes in two parts. We are proposing measures that will cost around $2 billion a year, perhaps more, depending on future decisions of the pension tribunal. At the same time, we're proposing revenue and savings measures to pay for these recommendations which total between $8 billion and $10 billion, in superannuation tax concessions, in negative gearing, in multinational tax avoidance, and in tightening assets tests. So, what we're saying is take your pick, take your pick from this $8 billion, fix the pension, and you've still got $6 billion to play with.
The final part of my answer to how do we pay for it is more controversial because I think amongst all the talk of a moral debt crisis, our political leaders have missed the forest for the trees. Australia does not have a debt crisis. That's a front for politicians who want to posture as champions of budget repair on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. For five consecutive years to 2014, Australia had the highest median wealth per head of any country in the world. Yes, things have come off a bit, but we're still in the top five, and we are still a society wealthy beyond the dreams of our parents and grandparents. The foundation of this society was a social contract agreed by those parents and grandparents and as part of that social contract they agreed that a wealthy society like ours should be
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able to afford a decent standard of living for all its citizens. We would all pay our fair share of taxes, we'd provide quality public services, and ensure that no citizen fell into abject poverty or deprivation.
Well, I put it to you that going without hot water or mashing food for lack of dentistry, or divvying up ready meals into three are the very definitions of abject deprivation. This week the Government proposed an Omnibus Savings Bill which included cutting Newstart, pensions, and the energy supplement, all to fix this great moral debt crisis. But where's the morality in placing the burden for budget repair on our most vulnerable? Thankfully, some of this has been watered down after negotiations in the house, but it's just the latest sign that our social contract is withering and unless we take steps to protect it, the social contract will fade into wistful memory. Instead, we should be moving in the opposite direction, tightening tax loopholes to lift Newstart, keep the energy supplement for benefit recipients, provide a decent pension. Per capita we believe that all Australians should share in our Commonwealth because we are all part of that social contract and a fair and adequate citizens pension is part of its renewal. Thank you.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, thank you all very much for the opening remarks there, we'll move to questions. Can I just begin with the central proposition you're putting for a tribunal to set the level of the base rate of the age pension. At the moment it is pegged to a measure of inflation, so what
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would the tribunal actually peg it to? How would it … how do envisage it arriving at the rate of the pension?
DAVID HETHERINGTON: Our view would be a determination rather than a mechanical peg, if I can leap in on this one. You know, the panel within Fair Work Australia that looks at the minimum wage, takes into account both living standards of those on basic wages and the broader fiscal climate, we're proposing a similar set of terms of reference, if you like, for the age pension tribunal. So, it wouldn't be a mechanical ratchet, it would be an assessment periodically of both the fiscal climate, but importantly the material day to day needs of pensioners.
DAVID SPEERS: And that would be, what, weighted to health costs in particular and how fast they're going up for pensioners?
DAVID HETHERINGTON: Health and housing. I mean, I think it's very difficult for us to spend too long here without talking about the housing predicament that pensioners face. As we all know, housing costs have escalated beyond some people's wildest dreams and others' wildest fears and so the housing component for pensioners is really, really critical.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, and just on the tribunal, anyone else want to make a comment there about perhaps its makeup; would you want sectoral representation on it? Who would you envisage sitting on it?
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EVERALD COMPTON: Well, we've suggested that there should be three people only on the tribunal and they should have a small staff. We're not setting up a massive piece of bureaucracy. We would insist that no Member of Parliament or former Member of Parliament should be on it and no one who's openly affiliated with any political party should be there. We need professional people who've got expertise in working on a tribunal that has this particular task and they're independence will be important in the whole matter. There are so many committees of government that are set up that are so loaded politically that the reports they put out aren't worth reading. This one has to be utterly independent and not fear to make a recommendation that politicians may not like. They'll know that the politicians can fire them every three years or something, anyway, but the whole issue is it's got to be an independent professional body that does the job properly.
EVERALD COMPTON: What we've actually said to handle it by supplements where there's a need and Jo and David can handle this but what we've said is just don't give them an extra pension, give them an extra $50 a month to get their computer. Give them some extra rent, give them money to go to the dentist. I think that's the way we're handling it, isn't it?
DAVID HETHERINGTON: That's right. I mean part of the response, as I indicated, it's very hard to put a finger on a number because of the kind of very diverse circumstances that people find themselves in, but we had people telling us that, say, being sent to a specialist is particularly frightening
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because you plan very carefully for that number. We had a lady tell us that she was told she had go to the eye specialist and it was going to be 195 bucks, and she really did some work to kind of shuffle things around within the budget to plan for that. She got there and when she walked out to the reception desk, they give her a bill for 450 and she almost fell off her chair and that sent her life kind of into survival for months and months. Just another indicator, we ask people: what would you do with $50 a week? What difference would $50 a week make to your life? A couple of responses come to mind. One woman said I would save up and go on a holiday. I haven't been on a holiday for 30 years. And we said where would you go? She said, I would go to the Hunter Valley. I have to say I was thinking to myself at the time, we were sitting in Penrith, which is one hour and 10 minutes up the road and she hadn't had a kind of holiday in that kind of radius for 30 years and 50 bucks a week was going to get her closer to that. So, I mean, they are not enormous amounts of money, I suspect by the standards of many of the people in this room. As we said, $2 billion a year would address a lot of the immediate deprivations, again not an enormous amount of money in the context of the Federal Budget. It's hard to put a figure on a number, but 50 is a big change for them, $50 per week.
DAVID SPEERS: Is that roughly what the $2 billion you are talking about would cover, whether it's $50 for the computer or better dental care, or - the $50 would be the 2 billion you are talking about?
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DAVID HETHERINGTON: Probably a little more than 50 if you are going to do broadband, CRA and something like dental.
DAVID SPEERS: They are the priorities? So a broadband connection, better rental assistance and better dental.
DAVID HETHERINGTON: Yeah and a greater awareness particularly around schemes for medical disposables. There are schemes you can access, but a lot of people don't know how to get them. So diabetes kind of disposables, things like that. So it's more than $50 a week if you add those up, but it's $2 billion-plus costing.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay the next question from Ken Randall.
QUESTION: Ken Randall from iSentia. I would like to ask you - you've touched on, each member of the panel in various ways, both in questions and in your addresses, but you've pointed out that in the last 15 to 20 years or so, the atmosphere in funding at Commonwealth level has turned around. Governments have become very averse to death, very averse to increasing revenue, in fact, they're claiming there is no revenue problem it's… So how do you envisage turning this atmosphere around? You talked earlier about the last big turnaround taking almost a generation. You can't wait that long, surely.
EVERALD COMPTON: Do you want to handle this, Jo.
JO TOOHEY: Thank you. Look, I think it comes back to the point I made earlier about if this is not just the political parties
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that we are talking about, this is not just a change in terms of government decisions and policies. When you think about - I was thinking before when we were talking about the asset testing, I was working in aged care when the Aged Care Act came in and all of a sudden there was this discussion around people having to sell their homes which entitled them to move into residential aged care and the Government got scared and it dropped it for a period of time, that's not the case anymore. We're only talking seven or eight years ago. One of the things we have committed to as three different organisations, as Everald said in his address, is that this is not something that we are actually prepared to let go. It is clearly identified in our organisational strategy, for example, that in fact we want an Australia where older Australians can live their best life. When you start to talk about $50 a week or whatever that special number might be that actually makes someone have a decent standard of living, it is also ensuring that older people have a quality of life as well, that in fact can live 20 or 30 years and actually have a decent quality of life. But I think it is the relentless pursuit of this agenda, I think, and actually getting others around the table with us, because one of the things the Government will often take advantage of is in fact whether it be a sector in social services or any particular area that they take advantage of the fact that we are fragmented, that we don't come together as one voice, and that's one of the things we are not prepared to do with this.
EVERALD COMPTON: I think part of the problem is that our governments still think that the world is a battle between capitalists and socialists, and as soon as you show that you've got a
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conscience in anything, you are immediately branded a socialist, and I say to them, the other side, do you mean to say it's not possible to be on right and have a conscience, is that really what you're telling me? Now they are still fighting the old battle between socialism and communism and that died when I was still at school. We are now dealing in a totally different world economy, a totally different democratic situation, and the problem with our governments is they are trying to take us back to some grand old days of the past where everything was lovely, instead of looking at a totally changing world and say how are we going to provide good government in a world that is utterly different to the one we grew up in. I think we need a whole change. Everybody who follows an ideology in the Parliament should be committed to that water at the front of the Parliament in a hurry. I mean, the country is choked by ridiculous ideology and I think we get rid of it.
DAVID SPEERS: Nonetheless, I think you do seem to acknowledge in putting $8 billion in savings to pay for the $2 billion that you've suggested here, that you've go the to cut your cloth for what you want to do here. Can I get you to tease out a bit more what those savings will involve practically? You mentioned middle class welfare being… which element; that's where it gets politically difficult?
EVERALD COMPTON: I reckon we can solve the problem in one hit by removing negative gearing and I don't buy the arguments that either side are using now. Most of the pensioner problems at the moment are caused by the
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fact that housing in Australia is amongst the most expensive in the world, caused by the fact that we have encouraged speculators to get out there and drive the prices up. If we remove that and it means that my house would become less valuable. While I'm happy to wear that, I don't intend to move out of it anyway, but the facts of the matter are that negative gearing has driven pensioners to the brink and that argument has not yet come up before the Parliament.
DAVID HETHERINGTON: Alright, to those I would add super tax concessions, capital gains concessions, multinational tax and a reduction of the asset-free area for home owners. I would also like to just add something to Ken's question about what has changed in this last 15 year period, and I think what's happened is the primary goal of fiscal policy in this country, over that period has been to deliver tax cuts. Even when we've gone into deficit and increased debt, the rhetoric is how do we rebuild that - where do we find the money to deliver the next tax cut? And the logic that's come behind that is tax cut equals growth. What's happened as a consequence of all of that is public services and various safety nets have been winnowed out and that's what leads to the anger that Everald is talking about that has people saying I don't believe what either of the two major parties are telling me about my future and my prosperity and my kids' future, and I'm willing to vote for an independent or someone from outside the mainstream system. And I think you see it with Brexit, you see it with Trump and a similar kind of thing is at play here, I suspect, and that's what we've got to change the conversation around.
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DAVID SPEERS: Our next question from Maurice Reilly.
QUESTION: Thanks, David. I'm sure you just scared some Treasury officials during their lunch today. Two questions if I may. The first question is when you began this journey to do this report, you would have had some preconceived notions about what you might find. What did you find and what surprised you the most or what even shocked you the most? That's probably a question to all of you because it could be a different answer. And the second question is where do we sit internationally? I would assume somewhere in our history this would have been applauded as great social policy. I wonder what our other Western democracies are doing and whether there are lessons in the international sphere that we could bring to the table?
DAVID HETHERINGTON: In terms of what shocked us, I mentioned a couple of them in my remarks, but there was a person who told us that as a matter of course for the best part of the last 10 years, they had disconnected their hot water in October and reconnected it in April, and this is someone in their 80s, willing to live absolutely without hot water for a kind of 6, 8-month block of the year because that was a saving they were able to find. We had numbers of stories about mashing food because of inability to chew. That's probably a couple of the more striking ones on that one from me. Did you guys want to...
EVERALD COMPTON: Well, I went it a town meeting in New England, specifically in Glen Innes and a pensioner lady came in and she went straight for the morning tea and she got
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four or five cakes and put them on a plate and covered them and sat down and she really enjoyed that, and I had Tony Windsor chairing the meeting for me and Tony said to her - I forget her same, let's say she is Sarah. What did you come here for, Sarah. She said I didn't eat yesterday. I had no food. I knew, Tony that you put on good cakes here and that deflated poor old Tony, but the facts of the matter were she said to me that she went to political meetings, to social meetings, everywhere because if she went to those meetings she could at least get a cup of tea and a biscuit which she wouldn't get unless she went there. That's not a good situation, is it?
DAVID SPEERS: How often is that happening, people are going a day without eating because they can't afford any food?
JO TOOHEY: Regular. Regular. Yeah.
DAVID HETHERINGTON: A pretty common one was getting the ready meal, the frozen ready meal and dividing it up so that your meal of the day would be a third of a Meals on Wheels ready meal and the other two would last the next couple of days.
DAVID SPEERS: I think we have time for one final question, once again from Jo Mather.
QUESTION: Hi, I just wanted to ask a little bit about superannuation. I thought that perhaps, was the superannuation system to lead to more people having a comfortable retirement, and has your finding been
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that that system hasn't worked, that it has been a failure?
EVERALD COMPTON: The superannuation system is totally inadequate for the ageing of the population of Australia and if this government had a minister for ageing, they would have worked that out. Most people's superannuation is going to run out long before they reach the life expectancy. These days, if you don't live to be 90, you are almost a social disgrace, but your pension...
But your pension, your superannuation is going to run out before that, and unless we increase the superannuation guarantee, we are going to have an enormous problem here in Australia of meeting what the cost of the pension will be when all those superannuants come off the pension and hit the public purse. We've also got to instil in Australia that you can save money beyond superannuation as well. For the first 60 years of my life I had no superannuation and you set aside and saved money. The art of saving money has become a lost issue in the whole situation, but Australia's superannuation system right now is utterly unsuitable, will not meet the needs of Australia full stop.
JO TOOHEY: Yeah, probably just the final comment I would make is we need to bear in mind we are currently talking about people who are aged between 60 and 90 who in fact don't have superannuation.
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DAVID SPEERS: On that note, we are going to have to wrap it there. We have run out of time. But would you please thank Everald Compton, Jo Toohey and David Hetherington.
DAVID SPEERS: Look, can I thank you all for - well, quite a revealing discussion about the challenges of living on the age pension, but also the ideas you put forward in the report today. We wish you well with all the advocacy that's ahead of you and send you on your way with a book each about our best speeches here in the first 50 years of the National Press Club and also a membership card to welcome you back again. Thanks once again.
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