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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 5125

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (3:22 PM) —Senator Williams made some very good points in his first take note speech in this chamber. The first is to remind us of the tough times that are ahead for us, and the second is to invite us to show compassion to people who are finding it very tough living on pensions. But, in reflecting on those two issues, I have to correct the record. I have to address some of the comments that Senator Coonan made in her contribution today because they are simply not true. She suggests that the Rudd government has done nothing in this area. I invite anyone to look back at the budget and at the $900 increase that was delivered through the budget for people suffering in these times and under circumstances related to the pension. As has been indicated on several occasions, the utilities allowance was increased to $500 and the $500 bonus was paid through those measures. So when Senator Coonan says, ‘Heaven help age pensioners,’ we should reflect on how those initiatives compare with what occurred under the Howard government.

One would believe from a lot of the rhetoric coming from the other side that the Howard government have a reasonably responsible history in this area. This is clearly not the case. I will come in a moment to their backflips and stunts in recent months in this area, but let us look at the period of the 12 years of the Howard government—the Howard government that introduced the GST and had to be drawn kicking and fighting to a one per cent increase in base pension arrangements as compensation for the GST. So, yes, pensioners are doing it tough and, yes, their plight is related to current economic circumstances, but it is also related to a 12-year period of neglect under the Howard government.

This brings me now to recent stunts—and I think that is really the only way to describe the way the opposition’s leadership has dealt with this issue in recent months. Back in May we had the shadow minister, Margaret May, suggest that a base increase in the pension would occur. We then had the leader, Brendan Nelson, immediately deny that that was opposition policy.

Senator Sterle —A flip-flop.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —An immediate flip-flop, Senator Sterle. And yet, several months later, we do have it as policy. I wonder what we will have tomorrow when Mr Turnbull, the new leader, decides what he is going to do in this area. What I worry about in the interim, though, is the quality of the opposition in comprehending the complex issues that are involved here. If we have, as we did yesterday, the spokesperson in this chamber, Senator Bernardi, addressing the issue, you would think that all it related to was parliamentary catering. You see no substance in what he offers this chamber or indeed what the opposition generally is offering to this debate—no substance but a very simplistic stunt to suggest that a $30 increase would be appropriate. Well, we know from the pensioners that a $30 increase is often going to be almost immediately absorbed into the other arrangements that apply to their circumstances—pensioners in nursing homes, for example, pensioners in public housing. Most of these increases will simply be absorbed into other arrangements. This opposition seems to not understand anything about effective marginal tax rates. Certainly Senator Bernardi in his contribution yesterday, again referring to this pensions issue, offered no viable alternative.

More worrying than that, if you look at all the questions asked today, they do not seem to be able to grapple with any of the serious issues. Senator Coonan sensibly referred again to the consequences for people’s superannuation arrangements with the economic crisis that is developing, and that was a significant question today. We had the question about the pensions stunt, and we had an important question about delivering hospital services and beds and difficulties associated with state and federal government arrangements in delivering some of these services. We had another stunt question about the Prime Minister’s travel, and we had a question about Cairns building demolition. But there was no question of any substantive nature about what would deliver genuine benefits to people on pensions. Nothing of any substantive nature came forward from the opposition other than the stunt about a $30 increase, which anyone who has been informed of the policy debate in this area for longer than half an hour understands is just a stunt. (Time expired)