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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 37

Senator JOHNSTON (2:51 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Patterson. Will the minister inform the Senate how the Howard government is delivering on its election commitments to provide extra support to senior Australians? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —I thank Senator Johnston for his question. I am pleased to say that when you run a strong economy and when you manage the budget responsibly you can actually give social dividends to the community—to carers, to families and to seniors. From late next week, over 280,000 self-funded retirees with a Commonwealth seniors health care card will begin receiving their first $100 instalment of the new $200 seniors concession allowance promised during the election. From March next year, over 2.2 million people of age pension age will begin receiving the first instalment of their new utilities allowance payment of up to $100 a year for singles and $50 for each member of a couple. The new utilities supplement builds upon the pension payment reforms that the Howard government has delivered which set the maximum single rate of pension to at least 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings.

As a result, since March 1996 single and partnered pensions have increased by 37 per cent, which represents an increase that is 15 per cent above inflation. Single pensioners are now $43.80 better off a fortnight and couples are each $37 better off a fortnight than they would have been under Labor's indexation policies.

I am proud to have implemented and delivered the first of our commitments following the election which helps grandparents who are primary carers of their grandchildren. From 1 November, the work, study and training test was waived for access to child-care benefit for grandparents who are primary carers of their grandchildren. On 1 January 2005, those grandparents who receive income support will also be eligible for up to 50 hours of approved child care free of charge for each child—a significant assistance to grandparents with the primary responsibility of caring for their grandchildren.

I have already delivered my commitment to improve opportunities and flexibility for carers. We have increased the number of hours that carers may spend in work, training or study without losing qualification for carer allowance. I am also pleased that all state and territory ministers at the recent ministerial meeting accepted my initiative to help ageing carers plan for the future of their sons and daughters with disabilities—an issue that confronts many older people. In addition, following the Australian government's offer of $72½ million, the state and territory ministers agreed to negotiate mutually acceptable arrangements to meet the respite needs of carers who are over 70 years of age and care for an adult son or daughter or sons and/or daughters—sometimes there are two adult children for whom they are caring.

On top of this, from April 2005 the government will increase the private health insurance rebate to 35 per cent for people aged between 65 and 69 and to 40 per cent for people aged 70 and over. These are all recent measures—either in the last budget or commitments in the recent election—to assist older Australians. You can do these sorts of things only when you run a strong economy, when you do not borrow against the next generation to pay for the current older generation.

In 2001, the Australian government offered the states and territories funding to provide concessions for self-funded retirees with Commonwealth seniors health care cards—concessions similar to those held by pension concession card holders. The offer was based on joint funding where we would pay 60 per cent and the states would contribute 40 per cent. Most state and territory governments ignored the Australian government's additional offer of funding. I was not prepared to wait and we delivered. In some cases, states and territories are stripping concessions from pensioners. In Victoria, for example, pensioners have lost part of their motor vehicle concession.

Last election, the Labor Party tried to hoodwink the Australian public with their Medicare Gold policy—a policy which the incoming president of the Labor Party has called a `turkey'. Let me remind you that this policy is stuffed. It is a stuffed turkey and I hope it disappears over Christmas with the rest of the Christmas turkeys. (Time expired)