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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 33

Senator WATSON (2:47 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Patterson, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Will the minister inform the Senate how the Howard government’s strong economic management is helping senior Australians? Are there any alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —I thank Senator Watson for his question, a very appropriate question given that this week is Seniors Week in Victoria and New South Wales. It is an appropriate time to acknowledge our appreciation for the contribution older Australians have made to this country, to our economic growth and to the way of life we are now experiencing, and for that of the armies of older Australians who participate in voluntary programs to assist our community, who are caring for grandchildren and who are doing a range of other things to make life better for all Australians.

In times of economic growth and when the government can afford it, this government believe in giving something back to older Australians. We have put more money in their pockets, we have given them better access to concessions and there is greater recognition of their role as carers and as volunteers. It is only through our strong economic management since coming to government that more support is available for senior Australians. We have put a range of measures in place to support them. The Howard government have guaranteed through legislation that the maximum rate of pension be set at at least 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings so, as the economy grows, our age pensioners will share in these benefits. As a result, since March 1996 single pensioners are now $44 a week better off than they would have been under Labor’s CPI-only increase method. Payments to single pensioners have risen by more than $140 a fortnight since the election of the coalition government.

The coalition government have also provided a new payment of $200 a year for self-funded retirees, which is paid in two payments a year—$100 each payment. We have decided to make this payment because the states and territories have so far failed to accept a three-year-old offer from the Australian government to extend concessions to self-funded retirees. We have had that offer on the table for three years, asking the states to assist us in meeting the costs of concessions equivalent to those that pensioners had. The states have failed to do it. These people would have been on a pension if they had not provided for themselves and been receiving those concessions.

So, through strong economic management, we have been able to provide an extra $283 million over four years to assist older Australians. Again it is the Howard government standing up for older Australians. Another example of how the Howard government’s strong economic management is benefiting older Australians is in the government’s new utilities allowance. A commitment from the last election campaign, the allowance will be paid to people of age pension or veterans’ pension age receiving income support. The utilities allowance is $100 per year for singles and $50 for each member of a couple. It will be indexed to the consumer price index, and again those payments are made twice yearly—the yearly payment is made in two lots. I am pleased to say that the first payment will be made next week.

As I have said before, when we came into government, pensioners were paid on a Thursday. We consulted through the International Year of Older Persons—our government’s response to that—and people said to me as I was going around the country doing consultations: ‘I really don’t want to be paid a pension on Thursdays. It discriminates against me. The banks are busy.’ So we gave people a choice of having a payment day. The first payment will be paid on their first payment day after 21 March.

We have given assistance to older Australians who have moved to residential care. From 1 July, accommodation bonds paid by residents entering low aged care will be exempt from the social security and Veterans Affairs’ tests for the person in care. We increased the private health insurance rebate for people aged over 65 and then people aged 70 or over. We have introduced the pension bonus scheme and 80,000 people have registered with the scheme since it began. In 2004 people received an average of more than $11,000.

The Australian government value the contribution of senior Australians. We will always seek to support them. It is only through strong economic management that you can give seniors this sort of increased support.