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Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Page: 5535

Senator HUMPHRIES (4:53 PM) —Labor have run through the entire gamut of excuses as to why they should not support immediate relief for Australian pensioners. We have heard just about everything. Earlier this week we were told that it was constitutionally impossible to pass a bill to provide pensioners with $30 a week. Today we have heard that the system of paying pensions is very confusing and that you cannot just give people money because it is a bandaid solution, so you cannot adopt this idea of giving people $30 a week to solve an immediate, real problem. We have heard that nothing is required at this point in time because the Liberals did not do anything about this problem. The unstated part of the argument is, ‘Therefore, we are entitled to do nothing about it as well for quite some time.’

Now we have had the extraordinary contribution from Senator Pratt to this debate that, if you give pensioners $30 a week, they might go backwards. I am confident that if I rolled into a senior citizens club in this town or went to an aged-care facility and said to people, ‘Would you like to give go backwards to the tune of $30 extra a week?’ they would say, ‘Yes, we will take our chances, thank you.’ Hands would go up for going backwards. I do not know where those arguments were cooked up, but they do not hold a lot of water.

Let me put this simple proposition to those opposite: if you think that there is more work to be done on this question, some sort of review of the kind that you have specialised in since coming to office nine months ago, by all means go ahead and do that review and work out what you think is the right solution for a long-term problem. But, at the same time, honour what you said in this place and elsewhere this time last year when you initiated the inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into the living standards of older Australians and do something immediately to address the real problems that older Australians are facing now. The two courses of action are not inconsistent. There is no way that adding $30 into the pockets of aged pensioners in Australia is going to detract from a longer term review of how you structure pensions in this country. The two are perfectly capable of sitting together. I would suggest that that would keep faith with the urgency with which you people approached this issue only this time last year. A lot changes when you cross the floor, go onto the other side and take the Treasury benches, but the urgency and immediacy of that issue seemed to magically disappear in the course of that transition.

Senator Arbib —What did you do in 12 years? Nothing.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Senator Arbib has interjected that we have done nothing in the last 12 years. Senator Arbib, I appreciate that that is the line you have to run because you have been told that that is the corporate line.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Senator Humphries, please direct your comments through the chair.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I appreciate that that is what they have all been told to say. It sounds really good for the listeners at home who, if they are not pensioners, perhaps would not know what has happened in the course of the last 12 years. But the fact is that that line is simply not true; it is a myth.

This coalition was responsible for probably the most significant lift in the real value of pensions that we have seen since the pension system was introduced decades ago. For example, to mention only one of the initiatives that the coalition took in government, had we not indexed pensions by reference to MTAWE as well as the CPI, pensions today would not be around $273 per week for single pensioners; they would be just on $200 a week. That was the difference that our decision made. Are you telling me that that was not real action? Are you telling me that those pensioners did not benefit from an extra $73 per week? Of course they did. It made a real difference to those people—as did our decisions to change the income test withdrawal rate for pensioners earning money on top of their pension, to introduce a utilities allowance in 2005 and to modify the assets test taper rate in 2007 to allow people to have more assets and still receive a pension. All of those things made a real difference to pensioners. Were they enough? Clearly, in light of the present evidence about the pressures on older Australians, they were not.

I would ask members of this place to look outside the square in which they are operating at the moment and consider what people in this community who are doing it tough might think about the debate we are having today. Would they be impressed with our arguments about the constitutional validity of this motion or the potential for it to confuse the review of some other government program taking place in the bowels of the Treasury? No, I do not think they would be impressed by that at all; they would be impressed by action.

I invite the Labor Party to share the passion that they had last year for doing something about the pressures facing older Australians—the sort of people who are cutting corners in their standard of living, the sort of people who are entering into reverse mortgages to effectively borrow against the value of their homes in order to be able to take advantage of the capital in their homes to spend money on their standard of living today, the sort of people—

Senator Pratt —People like my mother.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Well, if you know about that, Senator Pratt, then support the action. Come over here, cross the floor and sit over here, and do something about it. It is within your power. Allow your colleagues in the other place to exercise a free vote about what they think. I am sure plenty of them have constituents who are pensioners who are telling them that $30 a week right now—forget how it would affect a review—would be very, very nice to have in their purse or wallet when they go to buy groceries or put petrol in their cars every week. That is the challenge I put out to you: share the sense of mission you had when you initiated that inquiry last year, when you said there was an urgent problem facing Australia, to deal justly with the standard of living of pensioners. If you do that then you will support the motion we put on the table today to actually make a difference to the lives and standard of living of older Australians.