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Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Page: 8452

Mrs ELLIOT (Minister for Ageing) (4:07 PM) —It truly is amazing. We had 12 years of inaction from those opposite—they are all leaving the chamber now. When they had an opportunity to act, what did they do? Absolutely nothing. What has the member for McPherson been doing in relation to these issues in the last 10 years? We see that the member for Warringah, the shadow minister, is not here today. We know that is because he is not interested in pensions; he has made that pretty clear. Indeed, we had 12 years of inaction from those opposite across a whole range of issues. It was not just pensions; there was health care. The only thing we had action on was Work Choices. They were the party of Work Choices; that is what they gave us. But when it came to pensions they did nothing.

But the Rudd Labor government is committed to taking decisive action when it comes to assisting pensioners. There is no question at all that many pensioners are doing it tough. We acknowledge that. Many single age pensioners are struggling to meet rising living costs for things such as rent, petrol and food—we certainly know that. But other pensioners are struggling too, including half a million carers and people with a disability, who only have their pension of $281 a week to rely on. In their rush to score political points, the opposition forgot about two million Australian pensioners. They did not care about them. Carers, people with a disability, wife pensioners and pensioner couples will be excluded from the scheme that the Liberals and Nationals have put forward. What about those people? Where do they rate in this scheme? Absolutely nowhere. The plight of around half a million single pensioners and people with a disability, carers and widows in exactly the same financial circumstances as single age pensioners, living on $281 a week, have been totally ignored by the opposition. What are they saying to them? When they go back to their electorates, what are they saying about those two million people who are being completely ignored?

We know that pensioners need some extra help. That is why we increased the utilities allowance to $500 a year and decided to pay the instalments every three months. It is also why, for the first time, we extended it to the disabled and carers. This fortnight, pensioners, age pensioners, carers, disability support pensioners and veterans will receive their third quarterly instalment of $128 to help with their bills. While the opposition has forgotten about carers and people with a disability and has left them behind, this fortnight, because of this new government, they will receive an extra $128.

The government’s position on pensions has always been clear. In opposition, Labor instituted a Senate inquiry into the cost-of-living pressures facing seniors. Indeed, the first recommendation of the bipartisan—

Mrs May interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! The member for McPherson was heard in silence.

Mrs ELLIOT —The member for McPherson is very keen to hear about the recommendations from the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry, so I will just refresh her on that. Its recommendation was:

… the Government review the suitability of the base pension levels through economic analyses of amounts required to achieve at least a modest standard of living for retired Australians, with particular consideration given to the adequacy of the percentage rate for single older people receiving the age pension compared to couples.

On budget night, the government acted on this bipartisan recommendation by instituting the Henry review of tax and welfare. We understand the urgency of this and that is why we acted. The government has asked Dr Jeff Harmer to complete this matter as part of the Henry review and report back to the government by no later than February next year. The pensions review is well underway with over 600 submissions.

During the Senate inquiry, and since that time, we have received many, many calls from different seniors groups, disability groups and carers groups to improve pensions and payments in those submissions. This range of views shows that the pension system is very complex, and that is why we have to analyse it properly. There are many different positions. Many different proposals are being put forward, and we have to look at them. This confirms that the responsible course of action was to undertake a comprehensive investigation into the pension, not just provide some quick political fix that excludes two million pensioners.

The government is being very responsible and the opposition are playing really cheap politics. The opposition’s private member’s bill was just a very cruel political stunt, an act that pitted pensioner against pensioner. The Liberals and Nationals had 12 years to fix the pension system. When they had the power to act the opposition did absolutely nothing, and now all they can do is play cheap politics with a really important issue for millions of Australians. In fact, when they had a chance to do something last year when they were in government, what did the Howard cabinet do? They voted against raising the base rate of the single pension. We know the opposition are playing cheap politics here, because their proposal leaves behind two million pensioners.

Not only was the bill that the opposition put forward unconstitutional but so many of its policies were also fundamentally flawed. Because of their absolute haste to cobble together this quick fix, the bill they put forward was riddled with flaws. It had not been properly thought out, just cobbled together. The opposition’s proposed increase was not even indexed, and its value eroded over time—yet another mean and tricky Liberal and National parties scheme. It also created serious inequities in the pension system, which was very unfair. They have not been able to explain these inequities or why they have come about. They have just put it all together and so many people totally missed out. They know that people have missed out, they know that there are inequities, they know that it is not fair—but they do not care. They do not care at all that they were misleading Australian pensioners in their rush to score these quick political points.

Unlike the opposition, the government is determined to get it right for the long term. We have made a down payment on reform with some immediate assistance for pensioners. That is why we increased the utilities allowance to $514 a year and decided to pay the instalments every three months. This fortnight, all pensioners—age pensioners, carers, disability support pensioners, widows, wives and veterans—will receive their quarterly utilities allowance instalment of $128 to help with their bills. As well, all single pensioners will this week get the regular pension indexation increase of $15.30. So we have taken immediate action. We have increased and extended the utilities allowance. We have increased the telephone allowance to $138 for those with a home internet connection. We have also paid cash bonuses—$500 to seniors, $1,000 to those on carer payment and $600 in carer allowance—because we know that those pensioners are doing it tough.

But, when it comes to reforming the pension system, we know that it needs a lot more than the quick fix that the Liberal and National parties have put forward. That is why we are having the comprehensive review and why we have had over 600 submissions in relation to it. All these views will be taken into consideration because the government is absolutely focused on reform and on getting it right for the long term, not on a political quick fix.

Earlier, the member for McPherson referred to my seat of Richmond, and I would like to raise the issue of the number of people there who will miss out under the Liberal-National Party scheme. Indeed, there are 17,772 pensioners in my electorate of Richmond who will miss out under the Liberal-National Party scheme. They have been totally forgotten. That is a lot of people. Let us have a look at the electorate of the member for McPherson. How many people in her seat would miss out? It would be 12,652. What is she going to tell those people?

Mrs May interjecting

Mrs ELLIOT —She is saying she cannot do much for those 12½ thousand people. She will have to go back and talk with all of those people and explain it to them. The member for Moncrieff is in the chamber as well. Indeed, in his seat 12,213 pensioners are going to miss out. You can speak to each of those people about that. I raise, too, the seat of Cowper, where we have 19,430 people missing out—a huge number. Even in the seat of the Leader of the Opposition 7,131 people are absolutely missing out because of the unfair scheme that the coalition have put forward.

This government is acting. The previous government were inactive when it came to a whole range of issues—not just pensions but health care as well. They ripped $1 billion out of our hospitals and health care. We are committed to fixing that by putting $1 billion into that and $600 million into elective surgery—

Mrs May interjecting

Mrs ELLIOT —I hear the member for McPherson raising the issue of Murwillumbah hospital. I note that she has raised this issue a number of times in the House. Indeed, the Nationals Senator Fiona Nash has also raised it. I find it quite interesting that they have raised this. As I said before, this government is putting massive amounts of money back into our hospitals after the inaction of the previous government. We also have the $10 billion Health and Hospitals Fund. We are very proud of that commitment.

As the member for McPherson and Senator Nash know, service delivery is a state issue. Maybe the member for McPherson and Senator Fiona Nash think they are in state parliament. We know Senator Nash is keen to run for a state seat and has her eye on the Tweed. That is why she flies into Tweed and flies out again.

Mr Ciobo —Madam Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order on the issue of relevance. It is clear the minister has run out of things to say about pensioners. She is talking about senators running for state seats.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mrs ELLIOT —The issue here is one of responding to the rapidly growing pressures on these people. One of the biggest pressures on pensioners is health care. That is why we have committed massive funds.

Mr Georganas —It’s about dental care too.

Mrs ELLIOT —A very good point has been raised about dental care. That is a huge issue for pensioners. Perhaps the other side should be passing legislation allowing hundreds of thousands of Australians to access decent dental care. The position, particularly in your electorates, is that there are people—hundreds of thousands of people throughout Australia as well—who cannot access decent dental care.

Mrs May —They could under the Medicare scheme that you abolished.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McPherson had her turn earlier.

Mrs ELLIOT —In fact, the previous government abolished the Commonwealth Dental Scheme. You are the ones who left pensioners out there unable to eat because they could not get their teeth fixed.

Mrs Hull —Not true!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Riverina is warned!

Mrs ELLIOT —We have a plan in place to reinstate the Commonwealth dental plan, and if the Liberal and National parties passed that then many hundreds of thousands of pensioners would be able to actually get their teeth fixed. It is shameful that that has not happened. You are stopping those people getting their teeth fixed.

I will also raise a couple of issues in relation to aged care. I am proud to be the Minister for Ageing and proud of the fact that this government is putting in $40 billion over the next four years. Interestingly, the member for McPherson hardly ever raises aged care and issues surrounding it, but we are very proud of our commitment. We have certainly increased funding right across the board. Aged care is one of the growing pressures for many pensioners, but we have a major commitment to it. We have had 12 years of neglect when it comes to aged care. I talked about a number of other issues before, such as pensions and health care, but in aged care as well we are fixing the neglect of 12 years. We are investing more money to have more beds available. Indeed, we have also increased the number of spot checks, and the accreditation agency now has a greater role to make people—

Mrs May —More bureaucracy, more red tape.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McPherson is warned!

Mrs ELLIOT —I make no apologies to anyone in the House for standing up for older Australians when it comes to their health and safety.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mrs ELLIOT —I can hear opposition members mocking. Well, I make no apologies about this. We make sure that older Australians are safe, no matter where their nursing home is. We have increased the accreditation standards as well.

In the couple of minutes I have left, I will talk about how a lot of veterans are being left out under the opposition’s scheme. They have left so many people out, and I listed some of the problems before. The opposition claim that this measure includes 70,000 veterans, but the opposition’s definition means the figure is actually 35,000. So they have left out a heap of veterans as well. A huge number of people have been left out—two million people right across Australia.

The member for McPherson asked earlier about the rally that will be held in my electorate on Friday. I certainly will be there speaking about the very decisive action that the Rudd government has taken since it came into government after 12 years of nothing from the Liberal and National parties. Since we have been in government there has been very decisive action. We have increased the utilities allowance, the telephone allowance and the bonuses that are being paid, and we are having a comprehensive review of our pension system to get the whole process right.

The opposition left things in disarray. They did not care. They cobbled together this political quick fix. But a lot of people are very angry that that little fix left out two million people. They can see through it to what it is. We are committed to taking decisive action. We are committed to getting the system right. We are committed to making sure that we have in place comprehensive reform of our pension and taxation systems, and we are doing it for the long term. All we see from the opposition is this political quick fix approach to things. We are committed to the long term, to tackling the challenges of the 21st century, and one of those is making sure we get this right. (Time expired)