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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5192

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (1:27 PM) —I do want to speak on this bill because I think the issues that underpin it are very important. The issue of the capacity for people to sustain an adequate lifestyle on the age, disability or veterans pension is an issue fundamental to a fair society. It is a really important issue. Millions of Australians rely on their pension payment for their standard of living and that means that the public policy in this area and decisions of this parliament in this area are vitally important to the living standards of millions of Australians.

So it is not something that should be considered in a politically charged atmosphere or for some momentary political advantage. It ought to be the subject of serious public policy debate and serious analysis about the way forward. What we see today is a stunt by the Liberal opposition to try and make themselves politically popular by being able to say: ‘Oh well, we will just give $30 a week to pensioners, pass it through the parliament. It is all fixed, problem gone away.’ Senator Brown makes a fair point that he, Senator Fielding and others have been campaigning and have engaged in this area for a while now, and we had a very good Senate report into the issues. That contribution to the debate has been important. But stunts like this one today do not advance the cause. The Liberal opposition know it is not going to advance the cause, they know it is not going to achieve anything, they know it is a political stunt, but still they persist. They said to us it was urgent not this last weekend but the weekend before. Here we are, 10 days on, before they do anything about it.

I am the Minister representing the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in this chamber and I got asked two questions about it last week. Of all the opposition questions, I got asked two, and they did not introduce the bill as they had promised. They spent their week fighting internally about who would be leader and who would have the spoils of opposition. So they are not serious about it. They are trying to take pensioners for a ride and I think pensioners will see through this, because what pensioners fundamentally understand is that the Liberal-National Party were the government for 11½ years. They had 11½ years to change the basis upon which the pension is calculated and in each of the budgets they brought down they decided not to.

We know from former Treasurer Costello’s memoirs that it went to their last budget. Mal Brough took a proposition to increase the rate of the pension to their last cabinet meeting. Senator Coonan and Senator Minchin were in the room when they voted not to do anything about it. So the people who come into this chamber now and say this is their highest priority, that it is a national disgrace and that we are heartless in not responding are the people who sat in the cabinet room less than 18 months ago and, on the 11th or 12th occasion, took the decision to do nothing about this. The crisis is one they have only discovered in their nine months in opposition. Quite frankly, no-one takes them seriously. I think people acknowledge that this is the lowest of political acts, that they now express concern after 11½ years of doing nothing. So I do not take the opposition seriously on these issues. Their mock outrage does them no credit at all.

The Rudd Labor government accept that there is a problem. We accept that pensioners are doing it tough. We acknowledge that, despite the indexation of the pension, with rising inflation and rising costs more generally Australia’s pensioners are doing it very tough indeed. Those without other income support at all, particularly those who rent privately, do it tough because they are also confronted by rents. People who own their own homes are marginally better off, but those who live solely on the pension and who are in private accommodation are particularly in need. All pensioners are doing it tough and this storm has occurred because government ministers have been honest. When asked, senior government ministers—the Treasurer, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and I—have made it very clear that we accept there is a problem. We accept that it is an issue that was not addressed in the 11½ years of the previous government.

On coming to government, we acknowledged the problem and we accepted our responsibility to do something about it. In the few months while we framed our first budget, we took a decision to make a down payment on the needs of pensioners—not just age pensioners, I might say, but veterans, people on the disability pension, carers and others. We said we recognised their needs, so in the budget we committed in excess of $5 billion over the budget period to increase the income paid to pensioners. We did not fiddle with the base rate because we knew that was a terribly complex piece of public policy that would need to be dealt with properly. We announced that we would pay a $500 bonus to each of those persons on the pension and, in addition, we would increase the utilities allowance by $400 a year.

The Liberal Party advisers may snigger, but we actually made a serious attempt to provide some relief. The $400 increase in the utilities allowance and the $500 bonus adds up to $900 a year, approximately $17 a week if you want to average it out over the period. That was a substantial contribution to try to alleviate in our first budget some of the serious financial pressures impacting on pensioners. Of course, in accordance with the long-accepted CPI indexation of pensions, from the other day—20 September, I think—there was an adjustment in the single pension of, I think, $15.30 a fortnight. Again, it is not a huge amount but a measure which increases the base rate of the pension by $15.30 a fortnight, in addition to the $900 a year, or $17 a week, this government put down in its first budget.

In putting down our first budget we acknowledged that there was a fundamental problem. We acknowledged that, by themselves, these one-off payments were not addressing the underlying problem of the adequacy of the pension and its capacity to keep people in a standard of living which is acceptable in a successful economy. We undertook to include in the taxation review a specific look at the questions of the social security payments—but not just, as in this bill, by trying to pick one out and say, ‘We’ll make a play to the pensioners,’ or ‘We’ll make a play to the veterans.’ In our first budget, we spread the utilities allowance to those that had not been getting it under the previous government. We increased it and spread its availability to carers and to people with a disability. So we expanded the payment to a new group of people as well as adding $400 to the payment. But, as I say, in addition to those measures we have undertaken a fundamental review of the rate of the pension and its role in supporting millions of Australians. That review will report to the government by February, and that will underpin policy that this government will take forward in the next year and obviously also in the budget context.

This is an important public policy area. It is not an area where there should be stunts. The age pension is worth $25 billion a year. It is the single largest piece of Australian government expenditure. The disability support pension is worth more than $9½ billion a year. The carer payments are worth about $2 billion. This is major public policy and major government expenditure that are important to the whole fabric of our society. This is not something you deal with with a stunt—having a private member’s bill done on the run and amending it the day before it comes in. That does not allow any government to responsibly respond.

There are 3½ million Australians on some form of pension. Whatever we do we have to get right. It has to be considered, balanced and fair—and you do not do that with short-term stunts, by trying to ram a private member’s bill through the parliament in a matter of days. You are pretending to do something real, knowing that it will not pass the House of Representatives and knowing that the government has the matters in hand and is trying to respond.

It does the opposition no credit to carry on in this way. After 11½ years of doing nothing, they have huge gall in coming into this chamber and saying: ‘We’ve had a conversion on the road to Damascus; we have suddenly discovered there is a problem and we have suddenly discovered our social conscience. We now think the new government—the government that defeated us at the last election—ought to immediately do a range of things that we were unable to do in 11½ years. We did not rate this as a priority for 11½ years, but now it is a priority.’

I know that this proposition is disarmingly attractive. It rolls off the tongue very easily—$30 a week for pensioners. The Greens were at $60 or $70 the last I heard. Maybe Senator Fielding will up them and make it $100. It is easy to say and it is very easy for minors and Independents to argue. They do not have to balance the budget. They do not have to deal with the complex public policy issues involved. They do not have to make sure that the Australian economy is steady with all that is going on around us in international financial markets. It is a really easy headline. It is really easy to get a clap at a pensioner meeting, but that is no substitute for the serious work of this parliament and the serious work of government in public policy.

We do acknowledge the problem. I will argue strenuously that we made a serious down payment in the budget to try to provide immediate help to pensioners. That serious financial commitment has not been widely understood. That was a failure by us in terms of the politics and selling that to the people, making them aware of what we had done in the budget. But we are taking the issue very seriously. We are trying to deal with the enormous public policy issues at stake.

People ought to understand that the pension is at the heart of Australia’s social security system. Moving the pension has hundreds of knock-on effects in areas quite new to me—and I had the portfolio for a while when in opposition. There are myriad connections everywhere in the social security system and they are very complex. It not only affects the pensions; it affects who comes into the pension net and it affects the capacity of a person on a pension to earn other income. Many pensioners who currently rely on that other income will find themselves taxed at a higher rate if this measure is passed. People’s family tax payments will be affected—

Senator Coonan —No, they won’t. It doesn’t affect the base rate.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator Coonan interjects. She was this morning busily cobbling together an amendment to throw veterans in. Where are the disability pensioners in your bill? Where are the carers in your bill? Forgotten and ignored. People who are just as deserving have been totally ignored.

Senator Coonan —They’re not in yours.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Because, quite frankly, it is a stunt. You know it is a stunt. Senator Coonan, you were at the cabinet meeting when Mal Brough put it up; you knocked it over. So do not come in here and lecture me on compassion. You had 11 years to defend this and you did nothing for 11 years.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Order! I remind senators to be orderly and to address their remarks through the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —It is a complex area of policy. That is why we have put in place this fundamental examination of the issues at stake. That is why we have sought to include the concerns of carers and those on disability pensions and those on veterans pensions—unlike the opposition. We realise that there are a lot of people living on these pensions whose livelihood and standard of living depend on these payments.

We realise that there are a range of complexities that impact on other payments and other entitlements throughout the social security system. It is not simple, but that is not a reason not to do something. Unlike the former government, we actually took on the responsibility of trying to make a difference in this area but we will do that in a proper, measured and considered way. We made a down payment in the last budget—with immediate relief of $900 a year for most pensioners—and we seek to take forward that work in a more fundamental way as the review reports and as we prepare for next year’s budget. Sure, we did not fix all of those problems in the three or four months we had prior to the last budget. We acknowledge that. But the complexity of it means that one is not capable of doing it without serious public policy work.

The opposition come into this chamber now and say to us that they can cut 5c off the price of petrol, they can lower personal income tax rates, they can increase the pension by $30 a week, they can protect luxury car owners from having to pay tax and they refuse to close a tax loophole that allows Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and BP to exploit our mineral resources without paying appropriate taxation. In doing all that, they will demolish Australia’s surplus, Australia’s savings. This is what passes for economic policy inside the Liberal Party these days.

Australians are not mugs, so do not treat them as mugs. Australians know that, in government, the coalition did not cut the price of petrol. They know that the coalition did not increase the rates of pensions. They know that the coalition are snake-oil salesmen. Despite arguing all the time they were in government that they needed big surpluses, now they are in opposition the coalition are saying: ‘We do not need a surplus. Despite the terrible economic conditions that are occurring internationally we do not need any protection against that. We do not need a surplus. We do not need to have luxury car owners pay tax. We do not need to have big oil companies pay tax and, by the way, we can cut 5c off your price of petrol and we can increase pensions.’ Suddenly in opposition they can be all things to all people—all care and no responsibility.

The realities of government are quite different. You have to act responsibly. You have to balance all the other pressures in the economy. You have to try and make good public policy. This government is committed to making good public policy. It is committed to addressing the challenges the economy is confronting, and it is also committed to giving a better deal to Australia’s pensioners, veterans, carers and to those on the disability pension. All of them deserve our consideration. All of them deserve greater support. This government has acknowledged that.

We get criticised now for acknowledging it, but we are honest. We actually believe that there is a problem that that needs to be addressed. We made a serious down payment in our first budget and we have undertaken to do the serious public policy work that will need to underpin any major reform in this area.

Serious, hard public policy work will involve very difficult choices for the government, and eventually very difficult choices for this parliament, but it is not as simple as some would have you believe. Australia’s pensioners are not mugs. They know that the Liberal and National parties did nothing for 11½ years and they know when the coalition come in here now and promise pensioners the world that they are speaking with forked tongues. Pensioners know that you are holding out false hope. They know that you did not do anything for them in government and that when you now say that you can fix all the woes of the world you are misleading them. This is a serious matter and this government treats it seriously but we will respond in a serious, balanced and mature way, not by supporting political stunts.