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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2701

Mr HALE (6:51 PM) —I rise today to make my contribution to this debate on the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2009. The passing of this legislation will mean that, from 1 July this year, the adjusted taxable income test for the Commonwealth seniors health card will be expanded to include income from a superannuation income stream with a taxed source, income that is voluntarily salary sacrificed to superannuation and the net financial investment losses. The proposed changes will ensure that CSHC holders with similar levels of income will have the income test applied to them in a similar way because the test that is currently applied does not treat sources of income the same way, and that is what this legislation is all about. I echo what other colleagues have said before: this legislation will treat similar sources of income in a similar way. The change will provide consistency when applying the income test for cardholders. This legislation will bring the entitlement and qualification for the Commonwealth seniors health card into line with the age pension.

The heart of this legislation is about refining the adjusted taxable income test to make it fairer. It is not about disadvantaging senior Australians. Currently, the rules say that if you receive income from a defined benefit scheme—for example, Comsuper or some of the state government funds—it is treated as income. Until recently, my father did a bit of relief teaching. Other seniors I know help out at local shops. When it comes to qualifying for the concession card, the money they earn is counted as income. But income from private retail or industry based superannuation funds or from account based pensions is no longer taxable, so it is not counted as income when it comes to qualifying for the health card. There is a set of rules for one and a different set of rules for another. How is this equitable? How is it fair? We are adjusting the income test. The change means that the seniors health card will be better targeted to those in need of government assistance.

It is worth noting the background of the Commonwealth seniors health card, because those opposite would like to suggest that we on this side of the House are not supportive of older Australians. The Commonwealth seniors health card was introduced in 1994 by the Keating Labor government. The intention of the card was to help those who did not qualify for the age pension due to a lack of residence qualifications or due to the value of their assets. Currently the card is available to all Australians over pension age—65 for men and 63 years and six months for women—who are not receiving income support payments from Centrelink or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and who have adjusted incomes of less than $50,000 a year for a single person $80,000 a year for couples.

There are obviously a number of benefits you receive if you qualify for the Commonwealth seniors health card. I know it is a good thing for the seniors in Solomon and around Australia to have one because the benefits include discounts on prescription medicines through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, bulk-billing with participating doctors and reduced out-of-hospital medical expenses above the threshold set through the Medicare safety net. The CSHC also provides access to the seniors concession allowance, which is a quarterly payment to help with utility expenses. The telephone allowance is a quarterly payment that assists with telephone bills or internet connections. In many cases, the card also gives access to local, state and territory government and private provider concessions such as discount transport, education and recreation.

The latest ABS in census data show that the 12 months to 30 June last year the number of people aged 65 years and over in Australia increased by 67,600—a 2.4 per cent increase. The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over increased from 10.8 per cent to 13.3 per cent between 30 June 1988 and 30 June 2008. All states and territories experienced growth in their population of people aged 65 years and over. In fact, out of all of Australia, the Northern Territory experienced the greatest increase in the number of people aged 65 years and over—a 6.6 per cent increase. In Solomon, we have well over 5,000 vibrant and active seniors.

As we all know, a strong community is one that supports its members and values the variety of contributions that each of them makes. When older people are fully involved in the community there are extra benefits, including passing on cultural knowledge and building strong intergenerational relationships. Talking of strong communities, I will take this opportunity to thank and congratulate the NT finalists in this year’s Australia Day senior Australian awards. Julia Battison, for all her hard work over the years at the Palmerston markets, along with fellow Territorians Coralyn Armstrong, Max Tate and Bryan and Kathy Massey were announced winners of the awards. Lois from the Rapid Creek shops is a friend of mine. She sells socks. Lois is a beautiful lady and I buy my socks from her which supplements her income. I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, I can get you some good quality socks from Lois.

Mr Sullivan —What about the ones that go over your toes?

Mr HALE —You can get those as well. I was an apprentice greenkeeper and, cutting my teeth as an apprentice at a bowling club and then later on at golf clubs, I came in contact with a lot of senior Australians. The lessons you learn around bowls clubs hold you in good stead throughout your life. It was also great helping out at the NT firies seniors Christmas party again this year. The Christmas lunch is an annual event that just keeps getting bigger and better, and I know it is something the senior Territorians look forward to each year. We have a strong representative group at this event. Senior Territorians do some great work.

COTA NT is led by the president, Mr Brian Hilder, the chief executive, Dr Graeme Suckling, and the very hardworking members of the board. They do a great job for the seniors in Solomon, along with the NT Advisory Council on Ageing and the Office of Senior Territorians. I know from getting around the electorate that seniors in Darwin and Palmerston are a lot happier with what our government has done for seniors after the 12 years of neglect from those opposite. It is not just the seniors in Solomon; you just have to look at press releases put out by the Council on the Ageing, the national peak seniors body, to see what they think of our government’s investment in senior Australians. A COTA press release headline from last year was ‘Broadband for seniors gets the thumbs up’, another headline in November was ‘COTA gives Rudd a tick regarding the pensioner bonus payments’ and another in December was ‘PM again delivers for seniors’. The last headline was in relation to the new transport concessions when seniors travel interstate. I will quote from the Executive Director of COTA Over 50s, Dr Geoffrey Bird, who said:

This means that seniors travelling interstate can now access cheaper fares on local public transportation.

Seniors from the Northern Territory can enjoy discount travel to Sydney, including a ‘seniors’ ferry ride around Sydney Harbour.

I know senior Territorians will enjoy the concession benefits when travelling interstate, just like so many other seniors who come to visit the Top End every year.

Australia’s age pensioners received a total of $2.5 billion through the Economic Security Strategy payments as part of the Australian government’s response to the global financial crisis. In December last year, through the ESS, the government made lump sum payments of $1,400 to singles and $2,100 to couples to provide a helping hand during the economic hard times. Four out of every five of the 2.8 million Australians aged over 65 benefited from those payments. Around 290,000 older Australians will benefit from the government’s $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan. Self-funded retirees who paid tax in 2007-08 through investments or other income and part pensions—even $1 of tax—will get a tax bonus of up to $900. In total, excluding normal indexation, the Rudd government has provided an additional $2,337 in assistance to single pensioners and $3,537 to pensioner couples since coming to office.

The latest numbers show that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who are applying for the pension and the number of people who are eligible for the pension. The numbers went up to 3,000 per week in December compared to around 2,000 per week in October. This reflects the significant impact of the global financial crisis on our pensioners and self-funded retirees. That is why, more recently, our government is supporting senior Australians through other financial measures. For example, we announced the release of regulations that give effect to the government’s decision to halve the minimum payment amounts for account based pensions for the financial year. The regulations reduce the minimum payment amounts for account based, allocated and market linked pensions by 50 per cent for 2008-09. This temporary relief addresses concerns that the minimum draw-down requirement for the financial year was based on account balances last year, when equity values were higher. Part rate pensioners paid under the income test, with financial investments mainly in term deposits, shares, managed investments and other accounts, may receive an increase in their pension payments to reflect the reduction in their assessable income. These actions are a decisive move by the Australian government to ease financial pressure on senior Australians. I commend the bill to the House.