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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21819

Senator JOHNSTON (2:51 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Patterson. Will the minister outline to the Senate how the Howard government is providing greater opportunity and choice to mature age Australians? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank Senator Johnston for the opportunity to answer his question. I know it is an area in which he is very interested. We believe that there has been a need to create opportunities and choice for mature age Australians and it is something that the Howard government has taken very seriously. The government's retirement income policy is designed to provide opportunity and choice. In particular, mature age Australians should have the opportunity and the choice to continue participating in the work force or to re-enter the work force.

Participation in the work force in a full-time job or in a part-time capacity in mature years assists Australians to maintain their social contacts and networks, to live healthier lives—and the research data show that—and to be more likely to be in a better financial position when they choose to go into full-time retirement. The Howard government acknowledge the enormous contribution that mature age Australians make to our community. But we do not only acknowledge it; we believe in assisting them to have more money in their pockets and easier access to concessions. If the state Labor governments actually sign on so that people can have concessions for travel, older people will have the benefit of other concessions as well.

But the most important thing we are assisting in giving them is opportunity. We have given Australians the opportunity to be in about 1.3 million more jobs than existed when Labor was in government. This has not been isolated to younger people. If you look at the unemployment rates in 1996 for people aged 45 to 54, there was a 6.2 per cent unemployment rate. In 2004 it is 4.1 per cent. Under Labor, unemployment rates were 8.5 per cent for people aged 55 to 59. What is it now? It is halved at 4.2 per cent. If you look at people over 60, under Labor they were on the scrap heap. Seven per cent of them were unemployed. Now unemployment is 3.6 per cent. So we have given older Australians and mature age workers much more choice and much more opportunity to be in jobs. The Howard government have put in place policies to assist mature Australians who choose to continue to work past 65, contrary to the political scaremongering and the political cheap shots peddled by Labor—

Senator Sherry —Work until you drop!

Senator PATTERSON —and peddled over and over by Senator Sherry. The government's view is that individuals are the best ones to determine their own retirement and they should not be told by the Labor Party when they will retire. The government encourage people to take advantage of the concessions provided for superannuation by making additional voluntary savings or deferring their retirement. The Howard government have also put in place other policies which will improve the living standards of retirees. We have linked the pension to male total average weekly earnings. That is total average weekly earnings, for the benefit of Senator Sherry.

Single pensioners are now $43 better off under this government. Every fortnight they get $43 more because we have indexed the pension to MTAWE. We have reduced the tax burden on people over 65 through the senior Australians tax offset, allowing eligible single older Australians to earn up to $20,500 without paying income tax. That gives them a tremendous opportunity to put away and save for their retirement. If you choose to work and you are eligible for the pension and work beyond the pension age, you can be eligible for a tax-free lump sum of up to $28,000 under the pension bonus scheme. The Attorney-General has introduced Commonwealth age discrimination legislation, and the Prime Minister, in community and business partnerships, is now looking at how we can encourage business to employ more mature workers. But when we look at alternative policies, there are none. There are three choices. (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Could the minister further expand on employment improvement for mature age Australians and alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Thank you very much, Senator Johnston. As I was saying, the Prime Minister's community and business partnership is working with business to find ways to encourage businesses to employ more mature age workers, a very important point in giving more people the opportunity to have jobs. When we look at the Labor Party, what have they got? There are three choices. We have Mr Swan with no policies at all. We have Mr Latham with his $8 billion super blooper—and if that were extended to all pensions it would have been a $17 billion super blooper. Then we have got the tax trio—Mr Ferguson, Mr McMullan and Ms Plibersek—telling the truth, I suppose, about what Labor is going to do, and increasing tax. We are about choice and opportunity. The biggest choice for older Australians is between this government, delivering genuine opportunity and real choices, and the opposition, with no policies, budget blow-outs and increased taxes.