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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 10841


Mr ANDREWS (Menzies) (16:54): Can I say at the outset that the coalition welcomes support for Australian pensioners. They are important contributors and members of Australian society. They are people who obviously deserve the support which this country can provide for them. In fact, the coalition has a proven track record over many years, indeed many decades, of supporting Australian pensioners.

The real income of pensioners increased by 20 per cent under the Howard government—that is, by more than two per cent a year. There were also one-off bonuses paid to most pensioner categories, as well as a utilities allowance which was paid to pensioners for the first time under the previous government. Furthermore, in September 1997, the Howard government legislated to index pensions using the male total average weekly earnings if that index was higher than the consumer price index. This enabled pensioners to keep ahead of cost-of-living increases and to share directly in the wage increases flowing from the strong economic performance of the Howard government of more than a decade.

The Howard government also eased the taper rates, which enabled 300,000 older Australians to receive the pension for the first time or to get an increase in their pension rate. But in September 2009 the Labor government raised the income test taper rate for the age pension from 40c to 50c, reducing the age pension payment by 50c for every dollar above the income threshold that delivers the full age pension income. In September 2008, almost three years ago to the day, the coalition in opposition moved a private member's bill to increase the pension by $30 per week, at a time when figures showed that more than half of elderly Australians were then living below the poverty line. But, rather than support a fair go for pensioners, this Labor government arrogantly labelled the call for a pension increase a 'stunt' and opposed the motion in this place, using its numbers in parliament to defeat it. In fact it was the current Prime Minister who later boasted that she was the one in cabinet who held this up to the light and led the opposition to an increase in pension payment which the coalition had proposed at that time.

I think these things should be kept in context, when we hear the government crowing, as they do today, about how much they have done for pensioners. However, the coalition's pressure at the time eventually did force Labor to finally address the issue in the 2009 budget, but they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that position. They crow now about the increase in the pension, but the reality was that at the time they were very reluctant to actually provide that.

Ms Macklin: You didn't do it. You had 11 years and you did not do it.

Mr ANDREWS: At the time they were in government, when a motion was before this parliament to increase the pension, who voted for it and who voted against it? This side of the parliament voted for it; that side of the parliament to their shame voted against it. So I can say accurately as an observation of what occurred at the time that they had to be shamed into it and were dragged kicking and screaming to make that increase.

The minister has implied that this increase which occurred for pensioners today was more than would have been expected. But the minister had to concede this point this morning on radio station 5AA in Adelaide when Leon Byner said to the minister: 'The increase that people are going to get as of today is an increase that we would normally get anyway—correct?' The minister replied, 'Yes.'

Ms Macklin: Read the rest of what I said.

Mr ANDREWS: The minister then went on to say, 'But we have put a new indexation system in place so there is a little more than they would have otherwise got.' But the implication that this minister is seeking to make all the time is that the whole of $19.50 increase was something additionally given today. The reality is, yes, there has been a minor increase, but not this huge increase that she would like all of us to believe and all the pensioners to believe. It is typical of this government, who use overblown rhetoric and overclaim for things all the time, whether it is about this pension increase or many other matters. Unfortunately, the poor economic management of this Labor government will make it more difficult in future years for pensioners to get an increase in their pensions and live better than they might do at the present time. Let us take some examples. The Labor government introduced a solar panel rebate scheme which saw pensioners try to do their bit by installing solar. But, when excess power from the panels was returned to the power grid, pensioners received a nasty surprise: the Labor government had decided that the rebate or cash discount they were receiving on their next bill was income and therefore would be treated as such for the purposes of calculating pension eligibility. This decision was pursued by the coalition at a Senate estimates hearing and ultimately, after continuous pressure from the coalition, the government backed down and reversed their decision. Here once again was a case of this government robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Pensioners are among the people worst affected by the increases in the cost of living that we have seen in recent years. Under this government, between December 2007 and December 2010, electricity prices across Australia increased by an average of 43.5 per cent. Pensioners are the very people who do not have much flexibility in the use of electricity. If they want to cook something, they have to use electricity—if that is the form of power they use. If they want to keep warm on a cold night here in Canberra or somewhere else in the country, unlike people who are on much higher incomes, they have to pay a disproportionately large amount of their income in order to do so. What other choice do they have? So a 43.5 per cent increase in power bills hits the pensioners of Australia particularly hard. What if they do not use electricity and instead use gas? We have seen gas prices go up over the period from December 2007 to December 2010 by 28 per cent. So there has been a 43 per cent in electricity prices and a 28 per cent increase in gas prices.

Mr Buchholz: They want you to have half a shower.

Mr ANDREWS: 'They have half a shower' is what the honourable member says. I suppose that, if we take that logic to its ultimate conclusion, it means that pensioners might only be able to half-cook their food and so on. On top of all that, water and sewerage prices have increased by an average of 45.6 per cent. Again, who are the hardest hit? Those people who are on limited, fixed incomes—the pensioners of Australia. Health costs, including hospital, optical, dental and pharmaceuticals, have increased by an average of 15.3 per cent across Australia. The price of bread—one of the staples of people's diet—has gone up by 11.6 per cent across Australia, and overall the cost of food has increased by 10.3 per cent across Australia.

With these increases in the cost of living—43 per cent for electricity, 28 per cent for gas, 45 per cent for water and sewerage, 15 per cent for pharmaceuticals and healthcare, 11 per cent for bread alone and 10 per cent for food overall—Australian pensioners are among the people hardest hit, and, of course, the situation will only worsen under the government's carbon tax. This government's carbon tax will only increase the cost of living further for all Australians; but those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners, will be the hardest hit. This unnecessary carbon tax will hurt them, with higher electricity costs, higher grocery prices as well as higher petrol costs, which will mean that the cost of anything that has to do with the production of energy and anything that has been transported at any stage of its production in Australia will go up.

Of course there is a deception in what the government is trying to project on this. We are told day after day, week after week for month after month that only the 500 biggest polluters in the country will pay. The implication is that this is going to be confined to 500 companies. Of course, the government cannot name the 500 companies— repeated questioning aimed at identifying the 500 companies goes unanswered. However, leaving that aside, the implication is that only those 500 companies will pay. If that were right, why would we need this compensation package? If it were true that only those companies were going to pay, that the costs were never going to be passed on to anyone else in Australia and that the poor old pensioners were not going to cop some of the costs, why would we need a compensation package? These questions expose the essential deception of what the government is trying to project to the Australian people.

The reality is that not only are the 500 biggest companies going to pay; they are, of course, going to pass on their costs to everybody in this chamber and everybody in Australia. Most of all, they are going to pass it on to all the pensioners in Australia. The reality is that the best word to describe this government is 'mismanagement'. There has been mismanagement and incompetency all along the line. They were shamed into increasing the pension, and they do not have much to crow about today.