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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6301

Mr SULLIVAN (1:22 PM) —It is wonderful for me to stand here and represent my constituency as we debate the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform and Other 2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. If I may, at the beginning I will join the Dutch auction that seems to have been carried out in the chamber today on the number of pensioners that each member represents in their electorate. There are 23,216 age pension, disability support pension and carer payment recipients in the electorate of Longman. Part of the reason for that is that the electorate contains the most beautiful parts of Moreton Bay, Bribie Island and Deception Bay, which is a very popular retirement area. A large number of retirees come to the coast where I am and there is an increasing number of retirement communities as well as aged-care facilities.

I was with the Minister for Ageing just last week as we opened a new aged-care facility at Deception Bay, Eden on the Avenue. There is a rich life provided for retirees in our area. There are active senior citizens clubs, the University of the Third Age, bowls clubs and the wonderful retirement activities of boating and fishing, which we offer in great abundance. Not only does our area provide for senior citizens or older Australians but they contribute thoroughly to the kind of community that we have, particularly through volunteering. I was very pleased to recently acknowledge the contribution of a large number of senior Australians from our area through the Longman Volunteer Awards, which were given out during Volunteer Week. I was very pleased that last Friday one of our more active seniors, Ces Conte, who is 82 years old, received a special award from the Minister for Ageing.

The reforms that this bill encompasses—and there are many; lack of time today means that I cannot cover them all in my speech—include flexibility, fairness and simplicity. Those are key elements of this bill. In fact, I have written down here: ‘This is the most significant reform to the pension system for 100 years.’ The reform that took place 100 years ago was, of course, the introduction of the pension system. That is saying quite a bit but I believe it is true: this is a series of very significant reforms.

The review that was undertaken by Jeff Harmer, the secretary of the minister’s department, came forward with a number of key findings. I think it is important that they are enunciated here. The first finding is that the single full-rate pension should be a priority—that the relativity of that rate to the couple pension is too low. The second finding we should highlight is that the payment of existing supplements and allowances should be integrated by including them in a single pension supplement or the base rate. We all know the dangers of putting them in the base rate, given the proclivities of some of our state colleagues. The pension supplement was the way to go. Another finding is that the pension changes should be tied to the actual cost of living faced by pensioners. I can tell you that many of the items that appear on the consumer price index calculations are not items that pensioners buy regularly and are items that decline in price over time. In fact, their cost of living is well above the CPI. The new measure that is being introduced is important. The last finding that I think is really important for us to be well aware of is that pension increases should be targeted to those who have little or no private means. So the less you have for yourself the better it ought to be for you through the pension system.

There has been an amount of toing and froing across the chamber during the course of this debate. In fact, we have been accused of taking too long to make these changes and that they are long overdue. I had to sit through a number of speeches that told us that the member for Higgins, Mr Costello, was a man of great vision. Such was his vision that we are now dealing with matters that those opposite believe are well overdue and have taken too long. Importantly, I say this: I commend the member for Warringah on his contribution with regard to the increase of the age at which pensions will be paid for some years into the future. I thought that he was quite well informed with regard to that.

Part of what we have done is split the payments that individual people will get into two. In my own mind I call them part A and part B—joined together you get ‘araldite’, which is hopefully stronger income support for people of pension age. The base rate fortnightly pension is to be increased and a pension supplement is the gathering of a number of payments that people get. This will make it not only simpler for Centrelink to administer on our behalf but simpler for people to understand what they are going to receive. It will be indexed twice yearly. The pensioner and beneficiary living cost index is a magnificent new measure. I am sure that, once it is put in place, a great deal of benefit will flow through in indexation measures to pensioners as a consequence.

The pension rates have, importantly, established two things. The first is that the single age pension is being set at two-thirds of the pension rate for couples. I know this because all of them are represented in my community. I know that all of the organisations that represent senior Australians and pensioners have been calling for it for some time. The second matter is the increase of the benchmarking against male total average weekly earnings to 27.7 per cent.

I would like to talk very briefly about how I believe that the new work bonus system will be of great benefit to those people who take on pensions from 20 September and also to indicate that there has been, through the transitional arrangement provisions, a great deal of concern about the fact that they might have been better off under the old system and were being forced onto a new system. The transitional arrangements have reduced that concern as expressed by people in my electorate.

I think that it is important that I say at this time that, try as we may as a government and as members of parliament to get out correct information about what is happening here, we are sometimes prevented from doing so by the media. I would like to give a gong to an ABC journalist in Brisbane who used her time on the airwaves to tell all the pensioners in my electorate that we were removing the utilities allowance from them forthwith, which of course meant that my office had to do a great deal of work in relation to that.

Mindful of the time and the need that we have to move this bill through this chamber so that it can go to the other place, I will restrict my comments to those above, other than to mention what I thought was probably one of the most telling comments about what is being done here by our government. It is from Ian Yates of the Council on the Ageing. He said:

… years of unfair treatment for single age pensioners had been recognised and large steps taken to rectify it.

…            …            …

The new pension system is simpler, which is most welcome …

I am more than happy to commend this new system to the House.