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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5219

Senator HUMPHRIES (3:14 PM) —It is worth reminding those opposite that in debating the motion moved by Senator Bernardi we are talking about the plight of pensioners in this country. I wonder what the Australian pensioners listening to this broadcast today—and there would be quite a few of them, as we know—are thinking, with the sort of conversation that has gone on today in this place, about the priorities the parliament has with respect to their needs and the crisis they are facing with the cost of living.

Senator Feeney may be interested in hammering the issue of the Prime Minister’s overseas travel but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the fact that pensioners in Australia today are doing it tough. I would like to refer to the language used not by this side but by the now minister, Minister Macklin, when she introduced, in the second half of last year, the motion for an inquiry into the cost-of-living pressures facing older Australians. At that time she said that Australian pensioners were doing it tough and that they wanted action. They wanted something done about this issue. The inquiry was held. Members of this place were part of that inquiry and they found that there was a problem. They found that pensioners needed some reconsideration of the base level of payment of pensions in this country. We particularly, in that inquiry, drew attention to the problem of single pensioners vis-a-vis the amounts being paid to couple pensioners.

We are proposing today to do something about that, to make something change and to deal with that issue. We have put on the table a comprehensive and immediate response to that problem because we accept, as we did last year when this inquiry was moved and we agreed to it immediately, that we need to act on this question. Australian pensioners are doing it tough. The question is worth asking, ‘What has changed for those pensioners in the last 12 months?’ What has changed is that the government announced in their budget earlier this year that they were going to make certain payments or allowances available to pensioners—but, of course, that was simply to put on a different footing payments that had been made by the previous government. The question is perhaps more pertinently phrased, ‘What are they not doing?’ What is this government not doing about pensions and their adequacy in this country? What they are not doing is addressing the question of the rising costs of groceries. Nobody in this country who looks at the GROCERYchoice website would attain any benefit from looking at that site as to what they should do to bring down the cost of purchasing groceries each week.

The government are doing nothing about petrol. Even if the government’s deeply flawed Fuelwatch scheme were to be actually implemented by this place, we know that it would cut out those cheap Tuesdays. Who uses those cheap Tuesdays to get low-cost petrol in this country? Pensioners do. That is going out the window if your Fuelwatch scheme happens to get up and, of course, that is a very serious blow to those people who rely on those sorts of measures to get cheaper petrol. They are pushing inflation up through a range of measures in this budget and this is going to increase the cost of living for people across the board. They are also forcing hundreds of thousands of Australians—again, it is very likely primarily pensioners in that group—out of private health insurance by pushing up the cost of private health insurance premiums. Up to one million Australians could be leaving private health insurance as a result of the measures this government is taking. Pensioners will, no doubt, be foremost among that group.

I want to address this myth—this myth the Labor Party perpetuates—about the former government having done nothing to deal with the pensioners. Today the single age pension stands at $273.40 per week. If it had not been for the decision that the coalition made in 1997 to adjust pensions by reference to MTAWE—not just to the CPI—that rate would be only slightly above $200 per week. In other words, $72.80 of the $273 or so that pensioners receive today is attributable to our decision to adjust pensions by reference to MTAWE. That is what we did. What have you done, and what will you do? I suggest you look at the proposal put on the table by the coalition and you back it—because that is a real measure to make sure that pensioners in this country are able to take advantage of a real change to benefit their standard of living, and it is a real measure of action in this area.