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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 129

Senator GREIG (6:20 PM) —For the Senate's information, the reason that the Democrats' amendments as revised have just been circulated a second time is simply that there was a technical glitch in the process. Because the amendments deal with the production of increased moneys, there is a constitutional hiccup, so they have simply been rephrased as requests rather than amendments, but the intent remains the same and the process remains largely the same. I seek leave to move together the Democrat requests for amendments (1), (2), (3), (7), (8) (9) and (10) on sheet 4431 revised.

Leave granted.

Senator GREIG —I move:

That the House of Representatives be requested to make the following amendments:

(1) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 22), omit paragraph 1061T(a).

(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (cell at table items 1 to 4, column 3), omit “$100”, substitute “$200”.

(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (cell at table item 5, column 3), omit “half”.

(7) Schedule 1, item 22, page 12 (lines 11 and 12), omit paragraph 118OA(1)(a).

(8) Schedule 1, item 22, page 12 (lines 19 to 24), omit subsection 118OA(2).

(9) Schedule 1, item 22, page 13 (cell at table items 1 to 3, column 3), omit “$100”, substitute “$200”.

(10) Schedule 1, item 22, page 13 (cell at table item 4, column 3), omit “half”.

Statement pursuant to the order of the Senate of 26 June 2000—

The effect of the amendments will be to allow an increase in the number of people eligible for the utilities allowance provided for by the bill, and the amount of the utility allowance payable under the bill.

These increases will have the effect of increasing expenditure from standing appropriations and the amendments are therefore presented as requests.

Statement by the Clerk of the Senate pursuant to the order of the Senate of 26 June 2000—

The Senate has long accepted that an amendment should take the form of a request if it would have the effect of increasing expenditure under a standing appropriation. These requests are therefore in accordance with the precedents of the Senate.

These requests for amendments go to the qualification for and payability of utilities allowance for pensioners and veterans. We Democrats cannot understand why the government would consider that only older Australians are having financial difficulties with increased energy bills or why the government would think that carers and disability support pensioners, for example, as well as disabled veterans, somehow have a greater capacity to save for these difficult bills.

The government has only to look at the recent pleas by welfare agencies, including VCOSS and the Salvation Army, which report that income support recipients are coming to them in their thousands seeking urgent assistance to pay electricity bills. For some, their bills have gone up by hundreds of dollars each year, despite careful consumption. Deregulation of the energy market, together with large energy tariff increases, has placed a significant burden on all low-income Australians. Over the last 12 months electricity prices in some states, as I said in my speech in the second reading debate, have increased by some 30 per cent, such that the average quarterly household electricity bill is now close to $1,000. The large increase in supply charges, together with higher fixed charges, including service to property charges, means that low-consumption consumers—that is, predominantly low-income customers—shoulder a disproportionate amount of these costs.

Welfare agencies report that the exorbitant cost of energy supply causes low-income Australians to sometimes resort to desperate measures, including going without heating or cooling and so on. Disconnections, as I said, are on the increase. I read recently of a family in which both parents had lost their jobs some time ago and were in receipt of income support, and they were simply unable to find the $65 a fortnight for energy supply. Their child, a student, was doing homework by candlelight. The utilities allowance is not adequate. Also, it is only given to those of age pension age.

The carers association recently reported that energy costs are a significant burden for family carers, particularly those who provide care in the home for family members with chronic illness or disabilities or for the frail aged. Family carers use some 14.5 per cent more electricity on average than other households. Over the last 12 months carers have experienced electricity price increases of around 30 per cent. There is no more capacity for carers or other social security or veterans' income support recipients, including those unable to work because of a disability or with young children, to save for increased energy bills. The Democrats believe that they are equally deserving of assistance. Nor is the amount of $100 adequate. Our requests for amendments provide that an annual amount of $200 per income support recipient is more reasonable. Even that will not pay the energy bill, given that in some states the average quarterly household bill, as I said, is now approaching $1,000. But it will go some way to minimising the danger to health and safety for those for whom disconnection may well become the only option.

The Democrats do not object to the seniors concession allowance of $200 per cardholder per year. We recognise the contribution that self-funded retirees have made to the community and the economy by being in a position to fund their own retirement. Many are on lower incomes than the seniors health card limits of $50,000 for a single and $80,000 for a couple. The estimated value of concessions varies with use, but conservative estimates put it at at least $700 per year. Alarmingly, however, this bill sets up an inequitable position, where each member of a self-funded retiree couple receives $200 concession allowance per year. In other words, it pays the single rate to each person. But the utilities allowance that a pensioner couple and a veteran couple receive is only half of the single rate.

Our requests for amendments will not take anything away from self-funded retirees. As I said, we value the very real savings they make to the Australian economy. But we are concerned that, after years of promises by the government, they still do not have concessions. Low-income pensioners are not so by choice, many because of disability, education, location, family heritage and employment disadvantage. Simply because they did not have the opportunity to acquire hundreds of thousands of dollars for their retirement, they are not second-class citizens, and we do not view them as the undeserving poor. Our requests for amendments simply treat pensioners and members of a veteran couple the same as the members of a self-funded retiree couple when it comes to determining the annual rate of allowance, whether it be a utilities allowance or seniors concession allowance.