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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 708

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (8:32 PM) —I thank the member for Shortland for moving this motion on older Australians. We share a common border in some communities that contain some very impressive and dedicated aged communities. I also commend the member for Swan for his contribution. He is a man of great compassion and always makes a good contribution to debates on these types of issues and he did so again today.

My electorate is what Australia is going to be like in 20 years time. Over 25 per cent of the population in my electorate is over 65 years of age. So much of the debate that we hear in the media and in public about generational change and what is going to happen in the future is already happening on the Central Coast of New South Wales. We have some experience of that in fact. The Dean of the University of Newcastle medical school told me that our area is ripe for study by medical schools for the very reason that it is what Australia will look like in the future. The sorts of issues and problems we have in health care and aged care on the Central Coast can be studied because it mirrors the Australia of the future.

Before I get on to a little bit more detail about some of the issues that affect my electorate specifically, I will talk about federal Labor’s record. The member for Swan expressed some disappointment with this government’s performance, and I am a little bit disappointed in him about that. I think he should have been a bit more charitable, because this government has always stood for fairness for older Australians and has done more for older Australians in three years than the previous government did in 12. The Gillard Labor government is committed to a strong and secure economy so it can provide services such as world-class hospitals and aged-care facilities for older Australians. In relation to aged care funding, for example, the level of funding per resident has grown significantly faster than CPI due to indexation and policy changes. There has been a three per cent average annual increase in CPI—6.3 per cent average annual increases in funding per resident from all sources—over the last three years, but there has been a 20.1 per cent increase in income per resident over the last three years. We have put our money where our policy mouth is and made sure that those who are in aged care are being looked after and are being provided with more money than they were in the past.

We have also delivered one of the biggest reforms to the age pension in more than 100 years. Over the last year, our pension reforms have driven increases for pensioners: the age pension is now worth an extra $100 a fortnight for a single pensioner and an extra $74 for couples combined. We increased the utilities allowance by around $400 to provide support for the increasing cost of gas, water and electricity. New pension indexation arrangements will make sure that the pension keeps pace with the cost of living. Federal Labor has increased the single pension from 25 per cent to 27.7 per cent of male total average weekly earnings and will keep the benchmark at this higher level. We have introduced a new pensioner living costs index. Our changes are affordable and sustainable. The Commonwealth seniors card was introduced by a former federal Labor government, and the Gillard Labor government has continued to deliver for self-funded retirees. We have delivered a new seniors supplement for self-funded retirees who have a Commonwealth seniors card, now worth $795 a year. We have also delivered a national transport concession scheme to give state senior cardholders concessions when they travel interstate and provide more senior access to free internet in their community through a national rollout of our broadband seniors program. As part of our economic plan, Labor will also give seniors a tax break on savings accounts. A new, 50 per cent discount on up to $1,000 of interest earned by individuals, including interest earned on deposits held in banks, building societies, credit unions and annuity products, will benefit around 740,000 self-funded retirees and age pensioners.

To help mature age workers save for their retirement, federal Labor will allow individuals aged 50 and over with total superannuation balances below $500,000 to make up to $50,000 per annum in concessional superannuation contributions. This will start on 1 July 2012, and doubles the cap of $25,000 which was scheduled to apply. Federal Labor has also acted decisively to protect self-funded retirees from the full impact of the global financial crisis, providing draw-down relief for three consecutive years as well as economic stimulus payments.

When you compare that to the coalition’s record, you find the comments from the member for Swan quite surprising. The coalition failed to increase the base pension beyond indexation in 12 years. The Leader of the Opposition and the cabinet of the former coalition government actively rejected a proposal to increase the single age pension. When he was shadow minister, Tony Abbott said he thought federal Labor’s pension increase was not affordable—but he will make pensioners pay more for their groceries to pay for his unfair paid parental leave scheme. Tony Abbott’s new tax on thousands of Australian companies like supermarkets, petrol stations and power companies will increase prices for pensioners. Tony Abbott will scrap Labor’s reforms to superannuation, including lower fees, tax breaks on savings and incentives for mature age workers that will give more Australians increased support in their retirement.

The member for Swan quite rightly raised the issue of being able to work and earn money and not have that affect the pension—but it is Labor that has delivered in this area. It is an important issue for Australians generally, as our productivity growth has certainly been low in comparison to OECD standards and much lower than it was 10 years ago. Encouraging older Australians to work is important for the economy and provides opportunities for older Australians to contribute and provide valuable expertise in the areas that they seek to work. Many age pensioners take on part-time and occasional work, and they should be encouraged and rewarded for their valuable contributions to our community.

The work bonus allows pensioners to keep more of the money they earn from part-time work. It disregards an amount of employment income from the pension income test. The work bonus was introduced as part of Labor’s 2009 pension reforms. Many age pensioners want to undertake part-time, seasonal or contract work but are concerned about the impact on their pension. From 1 July 2011 the Gillard government will introduce a new, more generous work bonus for age pensioners. It will increase the amount an age pensioner can earn before affecting their pension. The new work bonus will allow age pensioners to earn up to $250 a fortnight without it being assessed as income under the income test. Under these changes, the work bonus can be annualised. This means pensioners will now be able to build up any unused amount of their $250 bonus every fortnight for up to 12 months. This actively encourages and enables more older Australians to work and contribute to the workforce.

In the time remaining I would like to talk about some local issues and particularly pay tribute to the Toukley senior citizens—with whom I know the member for Shortland has also had a very long and close relationship. Toukley used to be in the electorate of Shortland but is now in the electorate of Dobell. Under the stewardship of Bruce Kirkness at the Toukley and District Senior Citizens Club, we have an activity centre that provides a vast range of activities. It gets older Australians out of their houses, contributing to the community and being active, and they are made to feel part of our local community. At one stage the club had more than 5,000 members and was the largest seniors group in the Southern Hemisphere. It still has one of the largest memberships in Australia. The club does a fantastic job for the people of Toukley, Gorokan and the north of my electorate and those in the south of the member for Shortland’s electorate.

This is an important motion. We need to make sure that we provide every opportunity for older Australians to contribute to the Australian economy. We need to make sure that they are not discriminated against, that they have work opportunities and that they can play a part in our local communities. The member for Shortland should be commended for bringing this motion to the House. I seek leave to table a document on behalf of the member for Shortland.

Leave granted.