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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9334

Ms BURKE (ChisholmDeputy Speaker) (20:57): I rise tonight to speak about the appalling clawback of pension increases perpetrated by the Victorian Liberal government through cuts to the energy concession for Victorian pensioners. This is an appalling thing that is happening in my state as we speak.

Pensioners do not have it easy. Life on a fixed income is a difficult balancing act between keeping a roof over your head and making sure the lights turn on and the house is warm. At the end of the day there is often not much left over and very little capacity to increase your income. Indeed, there is no capacity; you are living on a fixed pension.

The Gillard government recognises the challenges faced every day by pensioners. I am proud to say that this Labor government has delivered the biggest increases to pensioners in Australia's history. Thanks to this government's reforms, single age-pensioners now receive $755.50 a fortnight and couples receive $1,139. Whilst this is an increase, it is still very difficult to make ends meet. The Gillard government also provided pensioners with a lump sum payment a few months ago, and age pensions will increase permanently in March next year by $338 for singles and $510 for couples. We recognised when entering government that pensions needed to be reviewed, particularly for single-income earners, because they do not have the same capacity that couples do to pool together resources. All of this money is to help pensioners keep on top of the cost of living—to stay afloat. It is not to get ahead; it is just to continue.

Let us be clear: this money is not a luxury. It is essential. As I often say to the many individuals in my electorate who complain that they cannot get a pension or a full pension, 'You try living on it full-time and see how you go', particularly if you are living in a rental property, as many in my electorate are, where rents are very high. It is a very difficult thing. So every cent being delivered to a pensioner is a cent they need, a cent they spend.

But across the country we see heartless Liberal state governments reaching into the hip pockets of pensioners and taking this money away. In New South Wales, the Liberals are taking it through public housing rent increases and in Victoria the Liberals are taking at least $11 million off pensioners by cutting their concessions on winter energy bills. Whether it is through higher rent or higher energy bills, the act is the same. It is a racket that is tantamount to stealing from people who need the money the most.

I was contacted a couple of weeks ago by Margaret Marsden, who lives in my electorate, after her power bill arrived. Margaret and her husband are on a full pension and were dismayed on opening their energy bill to find that their winter concession had been cut. This was not something they had been expecting. There had been no advance notice given to them. The Baillieu government was as quiet as a mouse announcing these cuts. In Margaret's own words:

The state government did this behind our backs. There was no forewarning given to us. It was a real shock to see this sudden increase in our bill; it wasn't something we were prepared for. We feel betrayed by the state government. This was a price rise we didn't need and shouldn't have to pay. The whole thing just feels very unfair.

Margaret contacted the office of her local state member of parliament, the Liberal member for Burwood, Graham Watt, to raise her concerns. She was told that her MP would get back to her. That was weeks ago and she has not heard a peep in reply. It is not just Margaret and her husband who are feeling the pain of this sneaky and cruel Liberal Party cash grab.

On Saturday morning I had the pleasure of holding a very cold and wet but nevertheless very informative regular mobile office at the Eaton Mall in Oakleigh. There, I met yet more pensioners who had literally trudged out in the cold and wet desperate to talk to me about the pain being inflicted by the reduction of their winter energy concessions. What they were most aggrieved about was that they had been given an increase by the federal government to offset charges from the carbon price and, with no warning, that has just been taken back by the state government getting rid of their concession. It just came out of their power bills. These people are living pay to pay; they budget everything. So, when suddenly a bill arrives and your concession has been decreased, it is a big hit to the family budget because there is no way to offset it. These people have no other ability to gain any more income.

Two delightful women came to see me—it was freezing and they had rugged up appropriately—and they were deeply concerned at the effect of this price increase on their ability to pay their bills and to keep on top of expenses. Indeed, both of them expressed their complete terror and their complete horror at what they saw around them. They were at pains to say they were not sleeping very well at the moment because they were concerned that the Baillieu government would sell off more public housing stock. They had recently moved into a development that had come about as part of the National Housing Affordability Scheme and were living in terrific apartments in Oakleigh, apartments that you could not afford as a pensioner. They would be no way you could afford to live there and they were terrified that their homes would be sold underneath them.

I was at pains to say I did not believe that that was the state government's intent but these women were so terrified at the stories going around about decreasing and selling off public homes that they can no longer sleep at night. This is highly inappropriate. I share their concerns that we will see housing stock lost in my area. Housing in my area is very expensive—it is quite attractive. The Kennett government did it—the right thing, sell off the stock. Once it is gone, it is gone and you can never afford to buy it back in my neck of the woods.

Why do people want housing stock in my neck of the woods? Because there is transport, there are services, this is where their families and communities live, where their churches are. They should not be forced out just because they are pensioners. I call upon the Baillieu government to assure people in public housing that they are safe, that their housing will not be sold from under them. I am also calling on the Baillieu government to do something about a development called the Gateway lands on Power Avenue and Warrigal Road which has come to a grinding halt—700 houses—because it is caught up in the St Hilliers debacle.

We have all talked about the Ararat Prison, but nobody is talking about a massive housing development in my electorate that has come to a grinding halt. It is concerning that houses will not come on the market. Some of the development was actually privately purchased off the plan by individuals. They are very concerned, and so are the neighbours, because this massive housing development is now sitting there vacant, which is causing quite some concerns about safety. Again, a lot of the locals have been contacting the local Liberal state member and, to date, we have no answers. Indeed, council, at my insistence, have been down there to ensure the safety around this big development. I just do not think it is good enough.

The pensioners who come to see me do not think it is fair. They should not have to shoulder this burden. They do not feel they are being given a fair go, and they are right. This is a government that has proven its willingness to rob money from people who need it most, people who have worked hard all their lives and have a right to feel secure and comfortable in their retirement. This is an age group who never had the benefits of superannuation. They have saved and they have supported their families, but this is how they are living. They are living on a pension and they should not be caused to suffer for it. They are suffering at the hands of a heartless and deceitful state government—a Liberal government that centred its election campaign on reducing the cost of living. What a hollow promise that turned out to be. They could be helping to reduce the cost of living, but they are not.

Let us be clear on the facts on electricity prices. Ninety per cent of the cost of electricity is driven by the infrastructure investment and state regulation. State governments are best placed to help reduce household costs and make it a little easier for people in need. Rather than put the needs of pensioners first and help keep their biggest bills as low as possible, Ted Baillieu's government has reached into their pockets and taken their money. The increased compensation for pensioners from the federal Labor government was there to ensure that they were insulated from any price rises, that they could be confident they could pay their bills and have enough money left over to enjoy a quality of life and actually turn the heaters on. It was not a licence for the state government to slash the concession entitlements that pensioners rely on. Victorian pensioners are being unjustly treated and they are feeling the pain. It is cruel and disdainful and I call upon Ted Baillieu and his government to reverse this awful decision. But I feel that while the Victorian winter is cold—this has been an incredibly cold winter in Melbourne—it is not as cold as the hearts of the Victorian Liberal government.