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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2512


Mr PEARCE (1:26 PM) —To follow on from some of the comments of the honourable member for Dobell, he talks about a stark contrast. In relation to this bill there is a very stark contrast, and that is that the government of Australia, his government, will rip the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card off 22,000 Australians. That is the stark contrast. As the member for Dobell leaves the chamber, I say to him: will he go to the Toukley Senior Citizens Club and will he explain to all of those people in the Toukley Senior Citizens Club who lose their Commonwealth Seniors Health Card why he has voted for 22,000 of them to have their card taken away?

This bill, the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2009, in essence proposes to introduce an income test that will now include income from superannuation and include income that is salary sacrificed to superannuation in the income assessment. As the shadow minister for superannuation, I have to say that it beggars belief that the Australian government would be undermining Australians putting money into superannuation, but that is what they are doing through this bill. The Australian government are effectively saying to Australians, ‘If you put money into superannuation, if you are prudent and if you save for your future, we will punish you by moving the goalposts, taking away the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.’ So no longer are the Australian government saying to the Australian people, ‘Please do what you can to save for the future; please do what you can to make yourself prosperous for the future so that you can have a good standard of living in your retirement.’ The government are no longer saying that. What they are saying is, ‘If you put money into superannuation and if you earn money from that superannuation investment, we are now going to punish you by taking away Commonwealth rights under the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.’

It beggars belief that any government would ‘disincentivise’ Australians to provide for their future. Why would they do that? Why would the Australian government say to the Australian people, ‘Don’t worry about your future anymore, because if you have been prudent enough to do that, we’re going to punish you’? What this bill will do if it is passed is to take away the concession card from 22,000 senior Australians. That in itself is a considerable concern, of course, but what is even more concerning is that, really, I think it is obvious that this is only the thin end of the wedge, because in relation to superannuation there are very interesting developments happening right now, and superannuation is a key part of this bill. Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, I know that you are very supportive of superannuation and that you will find it very difficult to justify to the seniors in your electorate why this government is taking away the Commonwealth seniors health card from them.

We see this as very much the thin end of the wedge, because, in relation to senior Australians—in particular, self-funded retirees—and the whole issue of superannuation, we read this morning in the media that the government are now considering axing the superannuation co-contribution scheme that helps low-income Australians. Why on earth would they also want to punish low-income earners? We have this piece of legislation wanting to punish senior Australians, and the government is thinking about axing superannuation co-contributions for low-income earners. Not only that; the government is also contemplating increasing taxes on superannuation investments across the board.

It is a very concerning development that the Kevin Rudd government is, all of a sudden, starting to punish Australians for doing the right thing. For years and years, this parliament and governments of all political persuasions have encouraged Australians to invest for their future. That has been a very central bipartisan approach. Governments of all persuasions have wanted Australians to set aside funds for their future. That is a good and prudent thing to do, and it is a wonderful thing if an Australian can work throughout their life and provide for their future by themselves. It is a marvellous thing. But here is a bill before the parliament today that is now going to punish people for having done the right thing.

What needs to happen is for the government and the Prime Minister in particular to come into the parliament today and guarantee that no senior Australian is going to be worse off into the future, because we have these very concerning emerging developments happening in relation to senior Australians in and around the area of superannuation. The pension review is also going on. We hear of very concerning developments coming out of that about what the government might have in mind in relation to many aspects of the pension. We need to make sure that no Australian is going to be worse off under this government going forward, and that is something that I think should concern all of us.

One of the main aspects of this bill is in relation to the threshold limits that are being adjusted. At the moment, threshold limits are $50,000 for singles and $80,000 for couples living together. This refers to adjusted taxable income and does not include non-taxable drawings from a superannuation fund on which contribution tax was paid when the funds were being accumulated. If this bill goes through the parliament, those threshold limits will remain the same and superannuation drawings from a tax fund will remain untaxed, but those drawings that people have taken will be added to a person’s adjusted taxable income for the purpose of assessing eligibility within the threshold limits. This is at a time when all superannuants across Australia have been suffering average annual losses of up to 20 per cent, and in some cases more, so people’s savings have been plummeting. At a time when people are losing money on their superannuation investment, the best that the Australian government can do is to come into the parliament and introduce a bill that is going to punish and slug 22,000 senior Australians even more. Talk about a double whammy! On the one hand you have people losing money on their investments because of what has been happening, and on the other hand the government is now going to rip away some entitlements from them. This is a double whammy—two things happening at once.

What is concerning is that many of the affected Australians will have planned their retirement in a very prudent and methodical way. They may have got professional advice on what to do. What do we find now? The goalposts are being shifted without any proper explanation. Certainly, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know, like me, that there was no discussion of this whatsoever prior to the last election. So the goalposts are now being moved, and they are being moved for very hardworking people. These are people who have worked hard and who deserve certainty in retirement. I do not believe that they should have to put up with government changes that effectively alter their eligibility for essential services at a whim. This is a government that introduces these bills out of the blue and, at a whim, takes away the entitlements of 22,000 senior Australians who are suffering, as I say, because their superannuation investments are down. Their investments are not attracting the returns that they were whilst the coalition was in government. I think that, as I mentioned earlier, there is something more sinister going on here from the government. This is a total affront to superannuation. This is a complete reversal of what has been a bipartisan approach over many, many years which has sought to promote the need for Australians to invest in superannuation. But now, all of a sudden, we have this change of approach from the government which is extremely concerning.

There will be some very real impacts as a result of this bill. Let’s look at some of the entitlements that seniors currently get under the Commonwealth seniors health card. If we look at prescribed pharmaceuticals under the PBS, Commonwealth seniors health card holders pay $5 per script. After this bill, they will lose that and they will have to pay $31.30 per script. If we look at the PBS safety net, with the Commonwealth seniors health card a senior reaches the safety net threshold when he or she has paid a total of $290 for scripts, and prescriptions after that are free. Now, without a health card, the safety net threshold rises from $290 to $1,141, after which a fee of $5 per script still applies. There is the seniors concession allowance. When they have the health card, a senior is eligible to receive an annual allowance of $500 to assist with payments for essential services for which pensioners are granted concessions. After 1 July this year, if this bill goes through, many seniors will lose that entitlement. There is the seniors bonus payment. Currently, Commonwealth seniors health card holders will receive a lump sum payment of $500 in 2009. If they lose their health card as a result of the eligibility changes in this legislation, they will not participate in any further bonus payments. There is the telephone allowance. Currently, Commonwealth seniors health card holders qualify for a telephone allowance of $88 per year for a residential service. If you do not have the health card anymore, you will not get that $88. There are a whole range of benefits that are going to be impacted.

I think it is interesting to ask the following questions: why would the Rudd government take away benefits to help seniors pay for prescribed pharmaceuticals? Why would they want to punish seniors and take them out of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme safety net? Why would they want to take concession allowances away from seniors? Why would they want to take away bonus payments to seniors? Why would they want to take away telephone allowances for seniors? Those are the questions that the Prime Minister needs to answer. It is all part of, as I say, the very worrying development in and around the area of superannuation and senior Australians which is taking place at the moment. We have serious issues emerging about what the government intend to do in relation to age pensions going forward. They have now flagged the axing of the superannuation co-contribution scheme. They are now saying that they are going to increase taxes across the board on superannuation investments—right at the time when people who have been doing the right thing with superannuation are being punished because of what has been happening across the globe. The government are going to take them and rub their nose right in it. The government’s policies and this bill will make it even worse for these people.

I think it is interesting to stand back and ask: what has happened since the government came to office? There are a number of things that have happened since the government came to office. The economy has gone backwards since Labor came to office. Since Labor came to office, unemployment has risen. Today we hear that unemployment has risen substantially, to a four-year high. More people are out of work and, at the same time, the government is introducing these types of bills to punish people. Since Labor came to office, consumer confidence has collapsed. Since Labor came to office, business confidence has plummeted. Since Labor came to office, industrial disputes have increased. Since Labor came to office, taxes have increased. We hear that there is going to be even more tax now on superannuation going forward. Since Labor came to office, the budget has turned from a healthy surplus to a massive deficit. Since Labor came to office, the level of wealth of Australian households has experienced a significant decline. Since Labor came to office, Australia has been driven further into debt each and every day. You could even add that, since Labor came to office, the Prime Minister has spent more time out of the country than in it—all at a time when senior Australians are being greatly impacted in terms of their savings and the work that they have done over their many years to save so that they can look after themselves.

This bill will hit self-funded retirees most hard. Self-funded retirees are people who have done everything possible on each and every day of their working lives to save, to do the right thing, so that they could be self-funded. Self-funded by definition means ‘without the government’s assistance’. The Commonwealth seniors health card is an initiative that was put in place to support these people and other senior Australians. It is there to help these people who have done the right thing and who have been doing the right thing for years and years. Why would any Australian government turn around and, at the drop of a hat and without any explanation at all, introduce this bill, essentially out of the blue, out of nowhere, with almost no consultation whatsoever? This government is saying: ‘If you take drawings out of your superannuation fund’—in other words, if you actually do get any positive returns from your superannuation fund—’we are now going to add that to any other income, and we are going to punish you by ripping this health card away from you if you now go over this threshold.’

These are people who are drawing money out of their savings over years and years, and we are going to punish them. I say to the older Australians who are going to be greatly impacted by this: do not be fooled, because this is only the start. This is only the thin end of the wedge. Do not be fooled that the Rudd government is going to just stop here because, if the Rudd government can rip away the Commonwealth seniors health card from 22,000 senior Australians, they will not stop there. They will play around with all the limits, thresholds and parameters of one sort or another across the entire social security system. And watch what will happen: they will start to tweak all of this in order to start knocking people out one by one, and it will be like a domino effect. So, to those senior Australians who are going to have their Commonwealth seniors health card taken from them, I say to them: we will fight this. We will oppose this bill. We will not stand by and let the Rudd government just rip your concession allowances, your telephone bill allowance, your concessions in relation to prescribed pharmaceuticals and your senior bonuses away from you. We will not allow the Rudd government to just stand idly by and do that. We will oppose this bill. We will argue against this bill. This is not right. It is morally wrong. This bill is morally corrupt. It is the wrong thing to do.

I call upon each and every member of the Australian Labor Party to stand up in this parliament and justify how something can be taken away from 22,000 senior Australians. Why would you be taking away something, at this time in particular, after everything that has been done by the Labor government since they have been in office? The economy is going backwards. Every day more Australians are losing their jobs. Look at today’s unemployment figures—a four-year high. And what you mob are going to do is just take away this card from 22,000 Australians. It is deplorable. It is wrong. It should not happen. Australians should be encouraged to save for the future, and they should be given incentives to save in their superannuation—(Time expired)