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Wednesday, 25 November 1998
Page: 707

Mr BILLSON (11:25 AM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your support and guidance on matters of relevance.

The package of measures before the Main Committee today in this bill, the 1998 Budget Measures Legislation Amendment (Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements) Bill 1998 , flow as a direct result of the coalition's 1998-99 budget that was delivered so eloquently and thoughtfully in May of this year by our federal Treasurer.

Despite all that the member for Lilley had to say, a snippet of which actually related to the bill, this bill is actually about beneficial, thoughtful, good-hearted measures from the coalition that have been made possible by a sound fiscal approach. With the budget back in shape, back in the black and back on track, which was the slogan at the time, that provides new opportunities to implement policy measures that help and support those who need encouragement and support.

In my first term as the federal member for Dunkley I spoke often about the importance of the self-funded retiree community and how the coalition government would look after them. That is exactly what happened in the first budget, although not quite to the same degree in the second budget, but very much so in the third budget. This bill we are discussing today is implementing the most recent bits of good news for the self-funded retiree community.

In 1996 we opened the batting with what I call tax justice for self-funded retirees, for those low income self-funded retirees who found themselves treated quite nastily by the tax system when compared to pension recipients, people who arguably were in some cases in an equivalent, if not better, position in terms of the funds or discretionary spending power available to them. Over those two years we have seen that improvement embraced by the self-funded retiree community, and the bill before the House today is a further step in looking after that important section of the Dunkley electorate.

The budget in 1998 included a proposal to extend the Commonwealth seniors health care card to around 222,000 self-funded retirees. I am pleased that a good many of those benefiting from that measure are in the electorate of Dunkley and I am sure they will be pleased that this bill is being introduced today. The thing that troubled a number of them, and troubled them to the extent that they contacted me during the election campaign, was the fact that the Labor Party had been so wishy-washy on many of the government's good proposals, and this one in particular. They were uncertain about what would happen with this measure if the coalition was not returned to government.

I am delighted to see the Minister for Community Services has returned and I can now get right to the nub of my speech. The good news from that election was the return of the coalition. That meant that this measure that had been introduced by the coalition in the budget was certain to receive the continuing support of this side of the House. The bill enacts that proposal and is another step towards turning around the distaste that the Labor Party showed to self-funded retirees. The coalition has been left with the task of restoring an incentive to those people who are in a position to provide for their own retirement.

Something that so often comes up when I speak with self-funded retirees, particularly those who are not at all wealthy, those who are on modest incomes and fending for themselves, is how little encouragement they got from the former government. This coalition government is turning that around and is in vivid contrast to the former Labor government that seemed to detest self-funded retirees.

The 1,500 self-funded retirees in the Dunkley electorate, enjoying the coastal environment of Dunkley by the bay that stretches from Seaford down to Mornington, will benefit from the extension of the seniors health card. Many of them will remember how the complex application procedure for this card under the former Labor government meant that 70 per cent of applicants missed out on low cost pharmaceuticals. Retirees just did not understand what Labor's requirement of ordinary income actually meant. The coalition has now changed the criterion for the card to be taxable income, a simple, straightforward, clean approach, and it is accompanied by vastly increased thresholds.

I listened to the member for Lilley talking about Centrelink. The two Centrelink offices in the Dunkley electorate are staffed by outstanding professionals who work very effectively with us, and where we have a concern or they have a concern we work quite effectively as a team. In fact, as my office is next door to the Centrelink office in Frankston, we often refer to my office as `the complaints desk'. If someone leaves Centrelink unhappy with the service, occasionally we will get a phone call saying, `So-and-so is coming in the front door. Here is the story. Can you help us with this particular matter?' So there is a very constructive and positive relationship between coalition members and Centrelink employees, and I am pleased that my office and I and the local Centrelink staff have managed to work in a cooperative and supportive way through a number of the changes that the government has implemented.

The member for Lilley also talked about tax evasion. I would guide him towards the coalition's tax plan. We are the only team in town actually talking about a comprehensive review of the tax system. I am not quite sure how the Toorak tractor tax or the very short-lived capital gains tax idea—the only two ideas about tax that came out of the Labor Party during the election campaign; those absolutely insightful ideas—would go any way towards addressing the member for Lilley's concerns about tax evasion.

If the member for Lilley is genuinely concerned about tax evasion and draws a rather spurious link between that and the use of taxable income as the basis for receiving the seniors health card, I would suggest to him to get on the train that is actually going somewhere in terms of reviewing the tax system to minimise tax evasion—and that is not your side of politics; that is the coalition. You guys think the tax system is just fine, except for taxes on four-wheel drives and hopping into pre capital gains tax assets of self-funded retirees.

I appreciate the fact that, in the paddock in which he has been grazing and has kept his form—congratulations on your return—the member for Lilley has not heard about those issues that the coalition is tackling head-on. I am sure his support within the caucus for what the coalition is doing will mean that the member for Werriwa is not the only thinker on the opposition benches. So apprise yourself of those tax reforms and what a constructive contribution they make towards reducing tax evasion.

But the link goes further. The member for Lilley was talking about vaguely linking some other related matters that the coalition has had to take to fix up the $10,500 billion bankcard bill the Labor government left for the Australian community. You were in the fortunate situation of having a virtual spending spree in the dying months leading up to the 1996 election, almost a Christmas sale on government outlays, trying to purchase support within the community, and then you left the coalition with the bill and we had to do something about it.

While you were grazing in the paddock we were trying to work out how to pay the feed bill for those millions of people who rely on income support, for those millions of people who rely on government services and for the worthwhile activities undertaken by the Commonwealth. Someone has to pay for it. It is not satisfactory to leave debt and deficit to our kids. That is intergenerational theft.

This government has tackled that issue and, as a result of its prudent examination of expenditures, it is now in a position to introduce worthwhile measures, such as the ones that we are talking about today, that benefit people who deserve the support, warrant the assistance and will benefit from the encouragement the government is providing in these new measures.

Probably the saddest thing I see when I talk with some of the members of the opposition is that they cannot connect policy ideas. The warm-up speech by the member for Lilley, the theatrical overblown angry rhetoric that the Australian electorate are sick and tired of—but he has not heard that message in the paddock either—the dry run for the speech to the CPSU that he delivered as a substitute for a contribution to this debate, ignores the connection between elements of government policy.

While you are talking about your portfolio—and I admire the gusto with which you pursue your responsibilities—there are a whole lot of other interrelationships. A simple one I would ask you to consider is that, if you do not have the cash, you cannot implement the programs. If you do not do the tax reforms that the coalition is supporting, how do you provide for the 2.2 million aged people that will be in this country in the next decade—half a million more than we have now, if my memory serves me correctly? How do you provide for those people? The stuff does not grow on trees; cash does not grow in paddocks.

The interconnection between policy is something this side of the parliament takes seriously. I would encourage the member for Lilley to consider those things and to fold that broader picture into his remarks so that they might be more worth while and so that we might be able to get something out of them.

In terms of the restoration of incentives for self-funded retirees, the proposition put before the government is good news for seniors and veterans. As the Prime Minister said in an interview on 13 May, this welcome extension provides some recognition by the coalition government of how this older age group came from a generation that was often thrifty, saving for their retirement. But we need to put the encouragement and the incentive back for those people so that they can see that by going without, by being frugal in their working life, by perhaps not having that holiday—though maybe I would be encouraging them to have that extra holiday on the Mornington Peninsula and enjoy the Dunkley electorate—by putting that money aside or by putting it in a retirement savings investment account, they will be able to comfortably live on their own means in their retirement. This is something we should be encouraging. This bill is about encouraging that.

Retirees of pensionable age with incomes of $40,000 if single or $67,000 if a couple will receive the Commonwealth seniors health card. These income limits are almost double what they are now. This part of the bill represents a $103 million commitment by the government over four years. The minister will know that $103 million is a big commitment—again, a commitment you cannot make unless you have your fiscal house in order.

The National Seniors Association does excellent work. I know Nancy Field, the representative of the Frankston National Seniors Association and with whom we often have contact, is quite pleased to see that things are happening for the seniors community, particularly the self-funded retiree community. On 15 July, the NSA's Chief Executive Officer David Deans said:

NSA has had great success in lobbying the Federal Government to give older people a fair go.

I think they could probably count this as one of their successes. A second aspect of the bill is a measure that will assist lower income Australians. This bill proposes that the sharers rule relating to rent assistance will be abolished for those who share in boarding house accommodation. This will mean higher levels of rent assistance for residents of boarding houses. The amount of additional spending involved will be $20 million over four years. Again, that is another example of how, if you do not have the resources, you cannot implement these worthwhile measures.

I am reminded of the number of people with intellectual disabilities who are forced to seek some form of supported accommodation in these sorts of boarding house facilities. It saddens me that many are forced to get what is not the most appropriate residential care in these sorts of facilities, and this, I hope, is a measure that will assist those families that have an awesome task of caring for a family member with an intellectual disability. It is one of the issues on the unmet needs reference group that former Minister Smith and current Minister Newman have asked me to convene to look at these issues of unmet needs for disability services. Just by way of example, in the region that I represent there are about 229 people with intellectual disabilities on the supported accommodation waiting list. I think we have nine places through to about the turn of the century, and many of the family members caring for those people have long passed retirement age. It is an important issue and, hopefully, this will make a contribution in the right direction.

Foster parents will be assisted by the bill. Carers who receive family allowance at less than the maximum rate will now be eligible for a health care card to be issued to their foster child, provided the child was previously eligible for a pensioner concession or health care card when with their original family. Almost 4½ thousand carers will benefit from this measure. Again, it is another example of how, if your fiscal house is in order, you can do worthwhile things for our community.

About 900 single carers of foster children will be pleased that the 12-month waiting period for parenting payment will be abolished. Sometimes, for instance, a relative cares for a child, and that 12-month period represents a financial burden that can act as a disincentive for some choosing that courageous and selfless role of a foster parent. To my mind, these people are some of the unsung heroes in our community, and this provision aims to encourage the awesome service and selfless contribution they make not only to their community but to the lives of the young people they take under their wings. They deserve the recognition they are now receiving from the coalition government.

In closing, I would like to return to the self-funded retirees issue. I am mindful of the sometimes awkward situation that early retirees face—those who are caught in the halfway house of being under pensionable age but deemed by other policy measures to be retired. As the government's improved financial position continues in the future, that is an area I would like to see a bit more attention given to. In some instances, we find that these people are treated as if they have retired, for purposes of calculating eligibility to income support; but, when it comes to other retiree related benefits, they are outside the loop.

I hope the minister is taking these comments in the good-natured way in which they are intended. Certainly, down the track there are a few things we could do to recognise either the retired or the not retired status of those people and to look at extending some of the concessions that are available to retirees over pensionable age to that early retiree group within our community. I commend the bill to the committee and I am pleased to see that the opposition is not opposing it. I congratulate the minister on his appointment and the continuing good work that he is doing for the constituency he represents.