Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 5254

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (7:41 PM) —I reiterate my remarks about how the government does not believe this is the right process to address quite serious issues that affect pensioners, carers and people on a disability support pension. I think the inadequacies of the proposals have been shown up in the debate. The opposition are struggling to add a group and explain why other groups are not in et cetera, despite the fact that we all know they are linked in the social security system and the payment of the age pension actually impacts on a range of other payments including those we are discussing. I think it just shows that trying to do this sort of policy on the run does not work. It also is the case that they have not costed their propositions. We are spending billions of dollars by upping each other on who should get paid what. It is just a ludicrous situation.

I want to remind people that in the budget the government did for the first time pay the utilities allowance to carers. It had not been done before. We paid the utilities allowance, not at the old rate that had been paid under the Howard government but at the rate of $500. Not only did we increase the utilities allowance but carers for the first time got that payment. So the $500 they did not get before was paid to carers. They got the increase in the telephone allowance and, of course, they got the bonuses which had been paid previously over the last three or four years under the Howard government.

There was the carer payment bonus of $1,000 and those on the carer allowance got the $600 bonus. So most people who were carer payment recipients got a total bonus of $1,600. So there were measures in the budget. The myth has been created that pensioners and carers got nothing out of the budget when quite the reverse is true. As I said, a carer payment recipient might have got $1,600 in bonuses plus the $500 utility allowance for the first time. That is $2,100 on top of their normal carer payment. Not all of them got that but, as I say, those in receipt of the carer payment did receive the $1,000 bonus, the $600 bonus and the $500 utility allowance.

Some of those carers received $2,100 in addition to the base rate pension. That has to be factored into these discussions. People can shake their heads, but $2,100 is the equivalent of about $40 a week. So if you were to wipe out the bonuses for those people and pass the measure brought here, they would be on less. That is how crazy this debate is. Some of those people were to receive $2,100 in extra payments this year, and you are suggesting that they get $30 a week, which will give them less than they got out of the bonuses system. This is the exact point that the government is trying to make. There is fundamental reform needed in pension payments. There are complex issues at stake, including the payment system that grew up under the previous government and that was continued by us. We have said that that is not the way to go; you need longer term structural reform. The Howard government kept on doing the one-off pension bonuses on the basis that they thought the politics of it were pretty good. It was not reform; it was just, ‘We think we’ve got some spare cash so we’ll give you the bonus.’ They never put it in the out years; they never put it in the forward budget estimates. They created expectations it would continue, but they never budgeted for it. So when we came to government last year, there was no money in the budget for the bonuses we paid this year. They had not been budgeted for.

We say those bonuses have been useful—they have assisted pensioners, they have assisted carers—but they do not fundamentally reform the pension payment system. If you like, they paper over the cracks. We are saying we need to have a reform process, a major review of these issues, to see if we cannot find a better way than just using the payment of bonuses to paper over the cracks. We made a down payment in our first budget. We had very little time to prepare for a budget following taking office in early December. In terms of preparation for the May budget, we basically had to have it nailed down by very early in the New Year. So we made a down payment on these pensioners and carers by saying that we accepted they were struggling to make ends meet and that the standard of living that they were experiencing was perhaps not what they should enjoy, and we extended the bonus payments and added to them and said we would do a major review and that we would have that in time for the framing of the next year’s budget. We put on the record our bona fides and, as I say, the pensioners got the increase in the utilities allowance and they got the bonus, so they received $900 extra over and above the base rate pension and they have obviously received indexation. I am not saying that makes them well-off, that it is enough or that it is all you can do or all you should do, but it is the reality. When people talk about it, they have to realise that that $900 is worth about 17 bucks a week, so it is a major component of their income.

But in terms of the carer payment, as I say, here we are, saying on the run, ‘Let’s throw carers in,’ and Family First saying, ‘Let’s double it for couples,’ et cetera. But I point out to the chamber that in the budget, for the first time, those on carer payments got the $500 utilities allowance, so they were 500 bucks better off than they were the previous year. They got the increased telephone allowance and we continued the payments that have been made on a one-off basis—without being budgeted for in the out years by the previous government—of $1,000 for carer payment and $600 for carer allowance, so that some of the people in receipt of carer payments actually would have received $2,100 in bonuses. On my quick maths, that is about $40 a week. So factor that into the debate. Let us have a realistic debate rather than this one-upmanship of trying to outbid each other as if there are simple solutions to these things. There are enormous structural issues involved with changing the basis on which we calculate pensions. There are flow-on effects for tapers and for the tax rates when people work, and it impacts on the family payment system in some cases. This is complex stuff and those of us who have done this legislation in the past and have participated in the detail of legislative debates know how complex it is. Senator Harradine had a good grip on it and a couple of others in the chamber have. I have soldiered on manfully on a few occasions without pretending I have got across all of the detail. It is complex stuff. It is not quite as bad as the Migration Act, but it is getting there.

Let us pause and take a deep breath and admit that this is not the sort of stuff you do on the run. And, while the politics are easy, the public policy is hard. What we have set ourselves is the task of doing that hard public policy work. As I have indicated before, we will not be supporting the amendment and we will not be supporting the bill. By making this contribution, I just point out that people ought to factor in those payments that were made this year that were in excess of the base pension or base carer payments. In fact, if you remove the bonuses and pass the resolution, they would be worse off. That is how crazy this is.