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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 119

Senator GREIG (5:39 PM) —As its name suggests, the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Election Commitments) Bill 2004 puts into place a series of election promises made by the Howard government. These are all welcome, albeit somewhat inconsistently and unfairly applied—I will expand on that later. Of more concern, however, are the election promises not made by the Howard government to pensioners that, while not in this bill, are nonetheless imminent.

The government did not promise to target disability support pensioners with the clear intent of getting them off DSP, forcing them to compete with non-disabled job seekers in the open job market. It did not promise that they would be targeted for no other reason than that there are too many of them. I could find no such promise in any of the election material, but since the election the government has clearly indicated that DSP recipients are in its sights.

I return to the election promises in this bill. The seniors concession allowance provided by this bill is, I believe, a cover-up of a 2001 unfulfilled promise by the Howard government to self-funded retirees that it would provide them with the same concessions for which pensioners are eligible. Many self-funded seniors have low incomes, but do not benefit from the concessions in energy, rates, water, sewerage and motor vehicle registration costs as do pension recipients. These services are everyday items that form a major part of the household budgets for older Australians.

The Australian Democrats recognise that many self-funded retirees are on low incomes and would benefit by the same concessions offered to pensioners. But when the Howard government made that promise to self-funded retirees—not surprisingly in an election year three years ago—they did not have the agreement of the states, which the government expected to fund 40 per cent of the costs. It is very easy to make a sweeping promise in an election year and then expect someone else to pay for it. It is not surprising that the states and territories did not subsequently all agree. The government blame the states for not paying something they had not agreed to and cover their inability to deliver on a promise by a payment to self-funded retirees. The Democrats support the introduction of seniors allowance of $200 a year for each holder of a seniors health card, but in the end it does not provide self-funded retirees with any concessions and the government have not fulfilled their now three-year-old promise.

The bill provides for a utilities allowance for pensioners and veterans of age pension age. The explanatory memorandum informs us that older Australians can experience difficulties in saving to pay regular household bills such as gas and electricity and that this payment is introduced to provide assistance in paying for those. The Democrats are at a loss to understand why the government would think that only older Australians on income support would have difficulty paying for energy bills. Energy tariff increases have placed a significant burden on all low-income Australians. Over the last 12 months electricity prices in some states have risen by 30 per cent. The average quarterly household electricity bill in some states is now close to $1,000. Privatisation of energy supply together with high fixed charges, including service to property charges, mean that low consumption customers—predominantly low-income customers—shoulder disproportionate costs. This utilities allowance is totally inadequate in its amount and also it is given only to age pensioners.

Has the government not read the recent report of the Carers Association which states that energy costs are a significant burden for carers who provide care in the home for family members with chronic illness or disabilities or for family members who are frail aged, and that over the last 12 months carers have experienced electricity price increases of 32 per cent or $80.96 a quarter? The answer is not to blame excess use. Low-income Australians are, in some cases, already going without heating, cooling, lighting and appliances in a desperate effort to offset energy price increases. Centrepay arrangements do not make bills cheaper; they simply spread the financial difficulty. Disconnections are increasing at an alarming rate. Children do homework by candlelight, go without hot meals and are unable to bathe. This bill ignores the need of sole parents, people with a disability, carers and the unemployed.

In the media last week it was reported that key welfare agencies will band together to force action on crippling power bills, which they blame for the death of at least three elderly people, and the disconnection of several thousand needy households. We Democrats believe that the government must take greater responsibility for the welfare of its disadvantaged citizens. The utilities allowance must be extended to all disadvantaged Australians.

While the government is prepared to pay each member of a self-funded retiree couple $200 per year concession allowance—that is, $400 per couple—it has decided that this is not the case for married pensioner couples. They will only receive the single rate of utilities allowance for a couple. That directly discriminates against those whose disability, health, education or other disadvantage has prevented them from accumulating wealth.

In a further example of discrimination against the disadvantaged the government has decided that, while self-funded retirees can receive their first instalment in December of this year, pensioners and veterans must wait until March of next year. The Democrats call on the government to be consistent in its approach and to treat members of a couple the same, regardless of whether they are self-funded retirees or pensioners. It is unacceptable for the government to determine that self-funded retirees, who may have incomes of up to $80,000 annually, need concession allowances at a higher rate and sooner than age and service pensioners and veterans need the utilities allowance paid to them.

We Democrats welcome the increased flexibility for carers brought by this bill in increasing the number of hours that a carer may spend in work, training or study without losing qualification for payment. Indeed, it is something we have called for over a long time. We commend that. It will not lessen their carer obligations or responsibility—many will still struggle to fit in the extra study or work and to cope with the daily task of caring for a disabled or frail person. But it is a start, and we welcome it.

Most grandparents did not expect to, and certainly did not plan to, raise their grandchildren. For many it just happened and there was no time for decisions. It happened because the children's parents died, were sick, are in jail, used drugs or for any number of reasons were unable to parent the children. Grandparents are robbed of the future they planned but they do not say it too loudly. They mourn the loss of their role as grandparents. Caring brings obstacles, legal woes, financial troubles and emotional issues. They take on the role because they will not stand aside and watch their grandchildren head into foster care.

This bill provides that grandparents on income support payments can access a special rate of child-care benefit, which will effectively mean they will not have to pay the gap child-care payments. Unfortunately, it does not provide additional child-care places, particularly in rural, regional and remote Australia where there are few child-care places. This bill limits the child care to approved care. This excludes relatives, friends or nannies even if they are registered with the Family Assistance Office. For many grandparents this bill will not ease their load because formal child care is simply not available.

We Democrats note that there were some 18 pages of explanatory memorandum detailing the rules and qualifications relating to the special child-care benefit rate. It is not an allowance paid to grandparents and, while we recognise that any benefit must be administered, we ask the government to be aware that these grandparents are a new class of disadvantaged Australians who no longer have spare time in retirement. We do not want compliance with 18 pages of obligations to present an additional burden for older Australians already burdened while caring for young children.

Finally, we Democrats also welcome the increase in bereavement payments. Bereavement payments enable the survivor of a veteran couple to adjust to the single rate over a 12-week period at a time when expenses are high for funerals. It now recognises the above general rate having been received by the deceased veteran or member and is calculated in the rate of bereavement allowance. Regrettably, it does not apply to same-sex partners, who after the death of the veteran experience the same grief and loss and the same financial disadvantages as those of heterosexual couples. We Democrats will be moving amendments to the bill in the committee stage to address what we see as deficiencies and make it fairer for more disadvantaged Australians.