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Government considers lowering the age at which older unemployed people can receive the pension

PETER THOMPSON: After the second World War, Ben Chifley's Labor Government released a White Paper which became the lynch pin for the pursuit of full employment as a major national priority. Now Paul Keating has committed his Government releasing a White Paper on employment but it isn't being created in such an optimistic atmosphere as the post-war boom. One option being considered to help older long-term unemployed people is to further lower the age at which they receive the pension. During the election campaign the Government announced that a provisional aged pension would be introduced for men at sixty, the current qualifying age is sixty-five. This morning the chairman of the Caucus Committee which is overseeing the development of the White Paper, Wayne Swan, has told AM that the pension age could now be lowered even further than sixty. Mr Swan spoke to Catherine McGrath.

WAYNE SWAN: Right round the world the problem of the long-term unemployed has got deeper and deeper through successive recessions. I think it's very clear that as the economy moves out of recession, as it continues to grow, there's still going to be a large number of Australians on the sidelines. So the sorts of assumptions that we've had in the '80s about employment growth will not apply to the '90s.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well looking at the people, who are, as you say, on the sidelines, how are they going to be treated in the future? If we look first of all at older unemployed people in Australia, perhaps over fifty-five, how should they be treated or what are the options for looking at how they're treated?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, I think the Government initiative announced in the election campaign for a provisional aged pension for men aged sixty to sixty-five just recognises the situation of their place in the workforce. It is simply cruel to hound men in that age bracket to go out and look for work week after week when there is really no prospect in the current labour market and no prospect in the future of those men being able to secure full-time employment. So, I think that the provisional aged pension for that group is very sensible because it recognises current labour market realities.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, what about men who are say then aged fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven? How should they be treated, do you think?

WAYNE SWAN: All of that is going to be on the table. I think we have to look at the labour supply side of the equation as well as the job generation side of the equation.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: You obviously have some ideas though. How do you think they should be treated?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, one of the options is to treat them in the way in which we are proposing to treat those aged sixty to sixty-five but really ....

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Drop the age for the pension?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, that is one of the options but it may not necessarily be the way to go. That's why we have to have a White Paper, that's why we have to have all of the options on the table. You see, in 1945 when the paper on full employment came down it was a very radical document and it really coloured our thinking for the next forty years and I think it's about time we had another serious look at the state of the labour market and what our objectives are and what all of the policy alternatives may be.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, looking at other sections of the community, are you going to look at people who live in particular regional areas of Australia that have high levels of unemployment and will there be a special consideration for them?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, one of the roles of our committee is a public consultation role so I think that we will be looking not only at regions but also at groups. I mean, we will be receiving submissions. It's very important that the community is involved in this process.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, if one option being considered is dropping the age where people qualify to the pension to below sixty, perhaps fifty-five, is there any consideration of particular areas of Australia that people there may not be considered to have a very high chance of ever getting a job and so therefore maybe redefined as well?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, I wouldn't want to pre-empt the deliberations of all of the committees involved. Our committee has a very important role in terms of public consultation. If people have views in particular regions or particular groups have views about their future our committee can facilitate hearing their views and putting them to Government.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: But, what about those with jobs, Mr Swan? Do you think they should carry more of the burden?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, I believe everyone in the community has to be concerned about the future of work and about the long-term unemployed. The social costs of long-term unemployment are quite horrendous and they are well documented.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, do you believe that those with jobs should contribute financially then?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, I think those people with jobs have been contributing financially.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Should there be perhaps an extra tax though to help the unemployed?

WAYNE SWAN: Well, that would have to be one of the options to be considered in the long term. But I don't think we should be pre-empting the deliberations of the committee or of the expert committee in the preparation of the White Paper. I think all the options need to be on the table but I don't believe that people can simply say that Australians over the last few years haven't made significant sacrifices.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, just ....

WAYNE SWAN: They have and we do have a very strong commitment to a social welfare system, a very strong commitment to an existing set of labour market programs and so on. All of those programs are funded very significantly by the taxpayer, especially the low to middle income earners in this country. So, they do already make a significant contribution.

PETER THOMPSON: Wayne Swan, the chairman of the Labor Caucus Committee which will oversee the White Paper on employment.