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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5236

Senator SIEWERT (3:48 PM) —I believe I was talking about the Senate inquiry into the cost of living pressures on older Australians and the diminishing quality of life that older Australians on the pension were facing. The report also says:

Unmet needs and insufficient services for facilitating in-home care have further constrained the ability of many older people to participate in the community and is increasing the potential for deterioration of health and well-being that could have negative implications for public and personal health costs.

The report also noted:

Income levels, even at a safety net basis, must sufficiently accommodate the need of older people to participate in social and community activities.

It goes on to say, and this is a particularly important point:

Further, supporting the health and well-being of older Australians will have the corollary benefit of reducing the burden on governments for health care costs, aged services and community service provision.

So in other words: from a moral, ethical or rights point of view, even if we did not care about providing an increase in pensions from the perspective of giving pensioners a decent quality of life, the economic rationalists would think that the better approach would be to provide for an increase in the base pension rate so that we can meet pensioners’ basic health and wellbeing requirements because that will reduce the cost of the so-called burdens on the health system. When they do not have a sufficient quality of life, obviously their health outcomes become poorer. As I said, I think even economic rationalists can see that argument: you are better off investing a dollar now than two or three dollars later.

In its conclusion, the report also pointed out a number of very important points. It said:

Whilst we may have seen an increase in the real value of the pension, the committee remains unconvinced that this level is sufficient to maintain a basic, decent standard of living.

Here we are talking of ‘a basic, decent standard of living’. It goes on to say:

Further, other factors, such as the decline in the value of concessions and the trend to user-pays systems, appear to have eroded the purchasing power of the pension and shifted costs on to individuals, including those who may not necessarily have a capacity to pay.

So not only have we seen the increasing cost of fuel but the cost of groceries, transport et cetera has also gone up. Because the value of concessions is going down, this is putting extra costs on the capacity of pensioners to pay. The committee heard many, many harrowing stories of pensioners not being able to make ends meet: not calling out for help as early as they should do; not being able to afford to heat their homes; not being able to afford to buy their grandchildren presents, which greatly upset many people that they were not actively able to participate—they felt they could not actively participate in their family life because they did not have the financial resources to do so. They also talked of shame. They felt very strongly that they felt very strong shame that they were not able to afford things and that they had to ask—they thought—for handouts. As I view it, the community has a responsibility to provide a decent quality of living for these people who have literally helped to build this country.

The committee also noted that one-off payments had been provided, and the government have pointed out at length that they have provided some one-off payments. However, the committee also said that they were conscious that one-off payments signal a problem without providing a long-term solution to address that problem. We have heard that many times from pensioners, that these one-off payments have not been sufficient to deal with the ongoing issues.

The report also pointed out that those most at risk are single pensioners, and especially women, who receive the maximum age pension and those that are in private rental accommodation. They also pointed out that other groups in financial stress in the face of the increased cost of living are those with severe disabilities or chronic illnesses and those in residential aged care. Similarly, older people who have been receiving pensions for some period, especially those over 85, struggle because certain costs that have been deferred become necessities, such as house maintenance, appliance replacement costs and increasing medical bills. So you have got increasing pressure on pensioners who have no other way of being able to provide for these services. Again the committee heard of people whose houses were literally falling apart because they had not been able to maintain them. We also heard stories of people who had become widowers or widows going from a married rate and having to survive on the single pension and being unable to do so because they are still meeting the costs of a family home or shared expenses are now being met on the single pension.

There is absolutely no doubt that these people are struggling. We have also heard that the government accepts that there is a problem. The government accepts there is a problem, but, ‘It’s okay, you guys, you can wait till we have had our review, till we have worked out just how much you’re in poverty, and then we’ll think about maybe putting up the base rate of the single pension. But you sit there and wait.’ When I was growing up I heard of the never-never. That is when you used to buy things on hire-purchase. My mum used to call it putting things on the never-never. I sort of feel it is the same thing here. ‘You are never, never going to get the pay rise. We are putting you on the never-never. Just keep waiting and you may someday get a review of the pension.’ But by then these pensioners—real, living human beings—would have been struggling in straitened circumstances for a very long time. That is not to say that they have only been struggling over the last nine months, because, believe me, the evidence the committee took was largely under the previous government and coming out of the previous government, so these people have been struggling for a long time. Now what we are hearing is that pensioners are being told, ‘Wait until we have done the review and then you will get your increase in the pension.’ No, that will not happen straightaway, because the government will need time to consider the review, and that is going to take a considerable period of time. So they will be on the never-never even longer.

If we had not had the $31 billion tax cuts, the government could have chosen to invest that in our social infrastructure in Australia, in their programs of social inclusion. I would have thought that making sure pensioners have a decent quality of life would have been one of the key tenets of the social inclusion agenda. As I was saying, the committee found that, in order for people to be able to have a decent quality of life and be able to meet their basic living costs, it is essential for them to be able to participate in the community and in its social life. So what would you have thought the government would have been investing in? You would have thought they would have been investing in social inclusion for pensioners, for people who actively need to be facilitated into our community. You would have thought that they would have invested the $31 billion tax cuts in something like that. But before you run away with that idea, we also have to remember that the coalition promised $36 billion, I think it was, in tax cuts, so they were not exactly thinking of investing in the pensioners’ futures and pensioners’ pay rise at that time during the federal election, were they? Who were the only people talking about it then? It was the Greens who have been talking about this for over a year.

The Greens will be moving and have circulated amendments to include in the pay rise for pensioners disability pensioners and carers, because these people are also struggling. It should be noted that disability pensioners did not get the bonus payment. They are getting extra utility payments the same as age pensioners but they did not get a bonus payment, so they are struggling as well. Again I have had a large number of emails to my office outlining the difficulties that people on disability pensions face. So we are moving to increase the base rate for single disability pensioners as well, of whom there are 464,230 in this country, as we understand it from the latest figures. We will also be moving to increase the base rate for single carers, of whom I understand there are 51,304 in this country on the latest figures. We believe this will relieve a small part of the burden that these people face. But $30 a week is a very important fillip to help them start meeting the cost of living and start addressing what we believe is a decent quality of life.

I have not heard one person in this place say that we should not be aiming for a decent quality of life for people who are struggling to make ends meet. We need to remember that many of the people we are talking about are in the lowest part of the social wellbeing index, particularly carers. They are consistently in the lowest stratum for the social wellbeing index because of the stresses that they face caring for their loved ones but also because of their lack of income. They are struggling to make ends meet as well as trying to care for their loved ones, as are those on disability pensions struggling to deal with their disability, struggling to make ends meet and also struggling to pay for their equipment and for their accommodation. More often than not they cannot get adequate accommodation, adequate support for finding a job or adequate support to stay in a job. Again, you could not say that these people are very high up on the wellbeing index. They are struggling to make ends meet on pensions that have not been significantly increased or indexed to meet the cost of living.

One hopes that the government will see reason and see that this increase is the least they can do to help people who have been struggling for years to try and make ends meet and who have now reached crunch point. It has come to the point where they will come out and they will voice their concerns. As I said earlier, these are a generation of people who have not wanted to tell others of their hardships and have not wanted to complain. So it says a lot that they are now having to come out and complain and lobby so hard for what is a very modest increase, when you consider the costs of living that they are bearing, the above normal increase in the cost of living that they are facing and the fact that they have not had a significant real increase for many years.

We support, and in fact the Greens initiated this campaign in this place, a $30 a week increase for pensioners, but we will be moving an amendment to ensure that this increase covers those receiving the single disability pension and those receiving the single carers pension. We commend our amendments to the Senate.