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Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Page: 5490

Senator ABETZ (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. Why did the government deny single age pensioners an immediate increase of $1,000 per year given the revelation that Treasury actually modelled that suggestion before this year’s budget, as shown in this document?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —What this government did when it met to consider its first budget was consider the adequacy of the rate of pension paid to pensioners, people with disabilities, carers and our veterans. In doing so we had formed a judgement previously that the rate of support for those persons provided through the social security system was such that many of them were doing it tough, that the income support they were getting was not allowing them to cope with the financial circumstances that they faced in a way that we thought was appropriate. So, when we sat down to frame our budget, the government took a decision to provide an immediate down payment to those pensioners, carers, people with disabilities and veterans to try to increase the disposable income that they had as a result of that budget.

Senator Minchin interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Despite the interjection from Senator Minchin, we actually made bonus payments and new payments to pensioners in excess of what had been provided by the previous government. The best example of that is the utilities allowance, which was increased from a payment of $100 or so to a payment of $500—a $400 increase. That was made and paid in the budget. We also paid a bonus payment of $500, which had been paid the previous year by the Howard government—I concede that—but which had not been budgeted for in the out years. It was a one-off payment which had no budget allocation in the out years when we came to government. We had to find the money, because it was not budgeted for.

The average age pensioner was $893 a year better off out of the budget. That is effectively an increase of $17 per week. We did that as a down payment, but in doing that we acknowledged that it did not adequately address the concern that rightly existed about the income support provided to pensioners; that it did not fundamentally address the issue of the rate of the pension and the package of benefits that is paid to pensioners; and that more fundamental reform was required rather than just paying one-off bonuses. Within months of coming to government we paid the extra money in the form of the utilities allowance and the $500 bonus and committed to a major review of the pension, a major review of the fundamental underpinnings of that pension and the rate that is paid. We realised that serious public policy work needed to be done and we set about doing that serious public policy work.

As the Senate is aware, in February the report coming out of the review will be available—and the secretary of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is leading that work as part of the broader taxation review. When we get that information the government will then make a decision as to which way to move forward. As I say, in the meantime, we provided a down payment in our first budget within months of coming to office and we have undertaken the serious public policy work that will try to address the very justified concerns pensioners have about the standard of living that is affordable to them under the current income support payments.

Senator Abetz —Mr President, I seek leave to table the Treasury document to which I referred in my original question.

The PRESIDENT —Is leave granted?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —No, Mr President. The normal courtesies are that the opposition senator makes the document he intends to table available to the opposition so that we can look at it before it is tabled. If Senator Abetz wants to follow the normal courtesies, Senator Ludwig will get back to him within minutes and, if it is okay, we will give leave then.

Senator ABETZ —Mr President, I am sure that Senator Evans and Senator Ludwig have been poring over that document all morning with great embarrassment, but I will give them another look at it so that it can be tabled. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Why won’t the government simply do the right thing and grant Australian pensioners a $30 per week increase?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I actually have not had the advantage of seeing the FOI document.

Senator Abetz —‘I’m not interested’—that would be right!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —No, Senator, I am more interested in the public policy issues than stunts. All I know about cabinet decisions on an increase to the pension is that in 11 years the Howard government did nothing. We know that Mr Brough took a proposal to the Howard government cabinet and that some of the senators opposite decided to do nothing. What we have done is embark on fundamental reform of the pension system. That will occur, and, in the meantime, we have paid a down payment to pensioners to assist them in the short term. We are serious about reform of the pension and we are serious about assisting pensioners, and we would appreciate support from the opposition on serious public policy issues rather than a continuation of stunts.