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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14568

Ms BURNEY (Barton) (10:22): We have just had a motion in the House pointing out clearly just how incompetent or cynical—I can't decide which one—this government has been in relation to this energy payment that was announced in the budget last night by the Treasurer to apply to certain people on welfare payments but with the bulk of people on payments, including people who are on Newstart, not being eligible. Within the course of just over 12 hours, the government has had another look at this—and I would love to be a fly on the wall at the department at the moment; that would be an interesting exercise—to see whether to include people on Abstudy, Austudy, double orphan pension, Newstart allowance, parenting payment, partner allowance, sickness allowance, special benefit, widow allowance, wife pension, youth allowance or veteran payment. But most significant, as I said, is the Newstart allowance. It is a very cruel thing that the budget that was announced last night did not include these categories of people on various welfare payments.

It behoves me to point out to the House just what the history of this government has been in terms of the energy supplement. The energy supplement is something that has been attacked by this government over a long period of time. For 834 days, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million pensioners, as well as for recipients of Newstart, youth allowance and other payments, by scrapping the energy supplement. Now we see, six weeks out from an election, a one-off payment of $75, and slightly more for other recipients of the energy supplement—a one-off payment. That is not an excuse for the lack of an energy policy; it is a simple, cynical exercise, six weeks out from an election.

But the fundamental point to make to this House and to make clear today is that this government has a long history in opposing and trying to scrap the energy supplement. The energy supplement was designed to help vulnerable Australians with the cost of power bills. Scott Morrison's plan would have cost a single pensioner $14.10 per fortnight or around $365 a year and would have cut $21.20 a fortnight or around $550 a year from couple pensioners. This wasn't a plan for a one-off cut but for a cut every fortnight, every year. And Labor opposed these cuts and committed to reverse them. It is important that we remind the House of this government's record on the energy supplement.

What we saw in the budget the Treasurer announced last night was the complete abrogation of looking after the most vulnerable in our community, and the leaving out of enormous swathes of those who are doing it very, very hard. Then the Labor Party's amendment was circulated. And, magically, by 7.30 this morning, the government had adopted that amendment. They had seen that they had made an enormous mistake—through cynicism or incompetence—and, surprisingly, they added Newstart and other payments to the one-off energy supplement.

I will reiterate what I said earlier. On 9News last night, the Treasurer, when he was asked directly about extending the payment to people on Newstart, didn't say yes. I remind people that this is what he said: 'Well, Newstart does go up twice a year. It's indexed. But, importantly, the majority of people on Newstart move to another payment or move off Newstart within 12 months. They hopefully go into work, and many have been doing that.' It was a very different script this morning, wasn't it, everyone? The Treasurer told ABC Radio:

Well, a couple of things. Firstly, the energy supplement will be extended to people on Newstart.

And Sabra Lane said: 'It will be?' and Josh Frydenberg said: 'It will be.' So there is an enormous difference between what the Treasurer presented to this House and the nation last night and what has been brought in by this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment) Bill 2019, the second reading of which we are debating.

I also think it's really important to point out to this House that not only has there been an enormous slip-up, an extraordinary mistake, made by the government in not including the groups of people that I've mentioned, including people on Newstart, in the one-off energy supplement—the budget last night did not include those people, and, by 7.30 this morning, of course, they'd been included—but also we cannot ignore the fact that there has been a huge NDIS underspend. In fact we are looking at something like $1.6 billion of underspend towards the budget bottom line in terms of people with disability. I think this is an absolute disgrace, and there is no other way to describe it; it is an absolute disgrace.

Over five years, the government has not had the capacity to roll out the NDIS. There have been five ministers in five years, and it seems to me that none of those ministers has actually committed themselves or got their head around some of the issues with the NDIS. And the fact that there would be the cynical move to use $1.6 billion in underspend, intended for people who are eligible and deserving of those finances, to prop up the projected budget 'surplus' is a disgrace. It is not an achievement. That is the only way I can describe it.

Let us not forget that this government has an enormous history in trying to cut the age pension. Pensioners will never forget that in every single budget the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has tried, time and time again, to cut the age pension. In 2013 Prime Minister Abbott promised that there would be no cuts to the pension, and yet in 2014 the Liberals tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would have been forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. In that very same 2014 horror budget—and we will never forget it—the Liberals slashed $1 billion from pensioner concessions, supports designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. In 2015 the Liberals did a deal with the Greens political party to cut the pension to 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In 2016 the Liberals tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. For over three years the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has refused to review and adjust the deeming rates, while the Reserve Bank cash rate has fallen from 2.25 per cent in February 2015 to 1.50 per cent today. For two years the Liberals planned to scrap the energy supplement, cutting the age pension to 1.5 million pensioners, and for four years the Liberals tried to raise the pension age to 70. Labor has fought each and every one of these cuts to the age pension—tooth and nail.

I will finish up my comments by saying that, try as they may, the government can't gloss over their gaping lack of energy policy with the energy support payment—the one that they're trying to rectify. They will have to admit there has been a massive mistake made in the budget that was presented by the Treasurer last night. After six years they continue to be at each other's throats over energy policy. Thirteen energy policies over six years! The Liberal coalition government are more interested in tackling each other than tackling climate change or energy prices. Since the Liberals formed government in 2013, wholesale energy prices have doubled. In contrast, Labor has a comprehensive plan to boost renewable energy and put downward pressure on prices. We do have an energy policy.

In closing, I go back to where I started. There was a massive, cynical, incompetent, political—call it what you want—mistake made in the Treasurer's presentation of the budget last night in terms of the one-off energy payment. They forgot Newstart, youth allowance, Austudy, double-orphan pension, parenting partnered payments, partner allowance, special benefits—the list goes on. I have read them into Hansard. And then, magically, the Treasurer is admitting that people on Newstart will be included in the energy supplement. I say to this government: it is cynicism unbridled, and the Australian people will not be fooled by what has taken place in this budget over the last 12 hours.