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Monday, 2 December 2019
Page: 6542

Ms BURNEY (Barton) (12:39): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 and move as an amendment to the bill:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"the House:

(1) declines to give the bill a second reading;

(2) notes that, in every Budget, this Government has tried to cut the pension or increase the pension age to 70;

(3) further notes that the cuts to Newstart in this bill will hurt redundant workers and push them towards poverty; and

(4) criticises the Government for its cruel cuts to pensions and social security".

Labor opposes this bill, just as we have opposed the previous iterations of these same old cuts. I also note that we have another bill with 'integrity' in its name before the parliament—funny that. It's becoming a bit of a joke, because, whenever the word pops up in a bill title, the Australian public can be sure that the contents of the bill will have not a shred of integrity. Certainly, these old cuts do not.

These old cuts, as I said, were first announced by the then Treasurer and now Prime Minister in the 2016-17 MYEFO and then again in the 2017-18 budget. There was even a so-called payment integrity bill in 2017 in the last parliament, which was the last vehicle for these cuts. It was a bill which the government never brought on for debate, but here we debating a bill which the government simply should not be putting forward. It is as if the government has absolutely no legislative agenda at all, and bringing this back for the third time demonstrates that.

The bill contains more cuts to vulnerable Australians. Debating a bill which the government simply should not be putting forward is what this chamber is doing at this point. There will be more cuts to middle-aged and older Australian workers, more cuts to Newstart, more cuts to the pension and more cuts to Australians doing it tough. It has been barely six months since the election, and this tired old government is turning to its tired old tricks—more cuts.

The bill will rip over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners. It will, in particular, impact older Australians who want to visit families overseas or need to spend extended time caring for relatives or grandchildren. It will disproportionately impact on migrant pensioners who have worked hard, paid their taxes, done the right thing and contributed so much to Australian communities.

Portability of the pension is a cornerstone of the Australian social security system. It is something that is very much part of the social security system in Australia that we should all be proud of. Migrant pensioners who have worked hard in Australia and who have built a life and a family here should be able to get the pension. Making people wait longer to get the pension will only force some older Australians to go without it and struggle or live in poverty. I remind the government that cuts to pensions not only impact on pensioners themselves; these cuts are felt by the families too—the sons, daughters and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, cuts to pensions are nothing new for this government. But pensioners will not be fooled. Cutting the pension is in the Liberals' very being. In every single budget as the Treasurer, the current Prime Minister tried to cut the pension and tried to raise the pension age to 70. In 2014—way back then—the Liberals said that there would be no cuts to pensions. Then, in the 2014 budget, they tried to cut pensioner indexation—a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of every single pensioner in Australia.

In the 2014 budget the government cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the costs of living. In 2014, they axed the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. In 2014, the Liberals tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen 500,000 part pensioners made worse off.

In the 2015 budget the Liberals did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks.

In the 2016 budget they also tried to cut the pension to over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years, in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off. On top of this, they spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70.

More recently, we saw the government finally adjust the deeming rates after five consecutive rate cuts. The government uses deeming rates to calculate the level of a person's pension, assuming a rate of income from savings whether or not pensioners actually earn those returns. However, since March 2015, the Reserve Bank has cut the cash rate to a record low of one per cent. For years, Labor campaigned for the government to adjust the deeming rates to more accurately reflect the rates of return that pensioners can reasonably expect to receive on secured investments. And, for years, the Liberals and Nationals had to be dragged kicking and screaming about pensioner groups and Labor. Only recently the Prime Minister and his Liberal-National government adjusted the rate to three per cent. Seniors groups know that this is simply too little too late.

The government has short-changed pensioners. It has propped up its budget on the back of hardworking pensioners. Then, of course, the Prime Minister shamelessly went on to spruik this deeming rate adjustment as an $800 pensioner bonus. This, of course, was until he was caught out by his own figures. Less than one per cent of pensioners will receive anywhere near this amount. In fact, the figures actually show that nearly half of pensioner couples will receive less than $130 per year. That's just 36c a day. After waiting more than four years for the Prime Minister to do something about the deeming rates, this latest revelation simply adds insult to injury.

Pensioners have every right to feel concerned and to feel conned, and pensioners won't forget the Morrison government is continuing to profiteer by gouging pensioners with unreasonably high pension loan interest rates. The Pension Loans Scheme allows pensioners to top up their pension by borrowing money against the value of their property and then repaying the loan at the time of the administration of their estate. The scheme currently charges pensioners an interest rate of 5.25 per cent. Since the government took office, the cash rate has fallen from 2.5 per cent to an all-time low of 0.75 per cent. But the government hasn't changed the pensioner loan interest rate at all. It is up to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to justify how they continue to gouge pensioners by charging these unreasonably high pension loan interest rates. The Morrison government has displayed rank hypocrisy, accusing banks of profiteering by not passing on the cash rate but doing the same to pensioners.

Labor has fought each of these cuts to the pension tooth and nail, and Labor will oppose the Liberals' and Nationals' cruel cuts to the pension in this bill. To top it all off, we know this government has a fundamentally wrong idea about the pension and social security in general. The Minister for Social Services has described the pension as 'generous' and has said that giving people more money would do absolutely nothing and:

Probably all it would do is give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money.

Can I be explicit about this particular measure in relation to the age pension. It is particularly going to hit very hard people who migrated to Australia in the post-war period who take time out whilst they can to visit relatives overseas. It's going to particularly affect the Greek community, the Macedonian community, the Italian community and people who came out here to help build the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Of course it's not limited to those groups, as the member for Cowan has said. But it will particularly affect people who, whilst they can, want to go back and visit their relatives, go back and meet their grandchildren, go back and see their children, in many cases. It will mean that they can only go for six weeks, and after six weeks this bill will bring in the taking away of the pensioner supplement. It is particularly going to affect communities that have come to Australia, have been proud Australians, have committed themselves to this country, have paid their taxes and have worked hard, and they should not be penalised in this way. It is also going to be a change for people who have become citizens of this country in that they will have to now wait 15 years instead of 10 years for the age pension. That is the insidious nature of this particular piece of legislation.

This bill is also about cuts to Newstart. This bill will force Australians who are trying, desperately, to re-enter the workforce to eat into their savings before they can access income support. Middle-aged men in their 50s and 60s who have recently been made redundant, who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes and done the right thing, will be forced into poverty before they can access support. Currently, people claiming Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy must wait for up to 13 weeks to access the payment if they have liquid assets—for example, savings or a redundancy payout. It's over $5,500 for a single person with no dependants and $11,000 for someone with a partner or dependants. The existing waiting period at these levels is one week and increases to a maximum of 13 weeks for liquid assets of $11,500 for singles or $23,000 for those with dependants.

The government wants to extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks—that's half a year—for claimants with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples and people with dependants. Let us be clear what this means. There is an expectation that people who have been made redundant, who are at the age of 45, 50 or 55, will find it very difficult to gain employment quickly. The statistics tell us that, absolutely, people in those age groups are taking from two to three years to find other work. And they all want to work, let me assure you.

It means that if there is an emergency in the family—like sickness, like the car needing replacement, like removal, relocating or retraining—the expectation is that there will be no support from the government. The support will come in the form of you having to use all your assets and that redundancy payment before you can even qualify for a social security payment. How is that fair? How is that right for people who have worked all their lives in an industry that's often closed—for example, the car industry in South Australia—through no fault of their own? The industry has closed or relocated. People in those positions, with a modest redundancy payment, will not be able to gain access to social security for half a year. I don't understand how people who have worked their whole lives, who have contributed their entire lives to this country and the tax system, should be forced into that terrible situation. The psychological pain that some of these people will be going through is absolutely enormous.

A liquid asset is not just cash in the bank. Liquid assets include, according to the department:

some payments made or due to be made by a person's last employer,

including redundancies yet to be made—

amounts deposited or lent to banks or other financial institutions whether or not the amount can be withdrawn or repaid immediately …

So there may be no assets at all sitting in a bank account—

assets given to a son or daughter in some circumstances,

loans to other people,

… … …

compensation payments.

They're the payments where the expectation is that you have to run those payments down before you're eligible for support from the government. This means that applicants will need to spend down more of their assets before becoming eligible to receive a payment. This is plain mean-spirited. There is no logic. There is no reasonable explanation of these changes other than money gouging. There is no rationale for increasing the liquid assets waiting period for people who lose their job or are made redundant.

This is nothing but a cash grab, taking money out of the pockets of workers at the very time when their savings matter the most. The current waiting period of up to 13 weeks is long enough. While some people will find another job in a 13-week period, it is important that those who do not are not forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home or are unable to meet unexpected expenses. We know that for middle-aged and older Australians re-entering the workforce can be particularly difficult. They face structural barriers to finding a job, as well as workplace age discrimination. We know that middle-aged and older Australians who have recently been made redundant from industries that they have spent their whole life working in require just a bit more time to retrain to upskill.

I saw on television how things are going in South Australia in relation to the car industry. On the ABC, they were speaking to older workers who find themselves in very difficult circumstances. I draw people's attention to that show. Many of these people may need to spend time on further education. The number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart has skyrocketed by 45 per cent under the Liberals and Nationals. The over 55s represent the largest cohort, or over a quarter, of Newstart recipients. This is critically important to understand. I note that the member for Goldstein is leaving. It's a hard fact to understand that the profile—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): The member for Goldstein, on a point of order?

Mr Tim Wilson: The member should refer to members by their title. I'm the member for 'Goldstein'.

Ms BURNEY: It's spelt the same way. We know that middle-aged and older Australians who have recently been made redundant from industries they have spent their whole lives working in require just a bit more time to retrain to upskill. They may even need to spend more time, as I said, on further education.

As I mentioned, the number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart has skyrocketed, and the number of people over the age of 55 are now the largest cohort, over a quarter, of Newstart recipients. A waiting period that is too long or a liquid assets threshold that is too high is actually counterproductive. It doesn't help people get back on their feet; it pushes people towards desperation. For people who lose their jobs or are made redundant, having a financial buffer is incredibly important. It means being able to support yourself while retraining, being able to keep the car on the road so that you can look for work and being able to keep paying the rent or mortgage. If a person's circumstances spiral because they run out of savings, if they lose their home or their car, if their whitegoods or fridge break down or if a family member gets sick, this just makes it harder to get back into employment.

Australians are already doing it tough as it is. The economy is weak and getting weaker. And this government has no plan to turn things around. Many Australians can't remember the last time they received a pay rise. Wages are stagnant, yet the cost of living is leaving Australians with less. It is more difficult to find a secure job with decent pay and adequate hours. Over 1.1 million Australians remain underemployed. Over 130,000 Newstart recipients, or more than one in five, actually have a job; they just don't earn enough or receive enough hours to escape the payment. The Anglicare Jobs availability snapshot 2019 shows that there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers, with employers receiving an average of 19 applications per vacancy advertised. We are reminded that three million, or one in eight, Australians live in poverty. One in six, or three-quarters of a million, children live in poverty. These are people in the electorates that we all represent. They are not just statistics; they are real people.

At a time when Australians are doing it really tough, when the economy is weak and getting weaker, these cuts to the pension and cuts to Newstart are not only cruel and vindictive but also reckless. Not only does the Prime Minister not have a plan for the economy, for jobs, to lift vulnerable Australians out of poverty; he is cutting support to Australians who need it the most. These cuts to the pension and to Newstart will not only be felt by older Australians and Australians doing it tough but mean they have less to spend on the basics and the essentials and less to spend at local businesses, which means local businesses will have less to spend on pay rises or on hiring more staff. Those on Newstart and the pension, but especially those on Newstart, are more likely to spend their payment. The government should be growing the economy and lifting people out of poverty, not taking money out of the pockets of pensioners and workers who have been made redundant through no fault of their own.

Under this third-term government, Australia has the slowest growth in a decade, stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and declining living standards. The government needs a plan to turn the economy around, not more empty political tactics. There is nothing in this bill that will create jobs or grow the economy. It is vindictive and reckless. All it will do is rip money from the pockets of pensioners and those looking for work. As I have said, just look at the litany of very good dissenting reports from when Australian Labor Party senators looked at the 2017 version of this bill. We already said:

The committee heard evidence from a wide variety of community organisations that the changes in the Bill are unfair, and would result in groups of Australians facing significant financial pressures.

Catholic Social Services Australia said that this Bill places 'the burden of budget repair on those who can least afford it, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and businesses, [which] is wrong morally and economically.'

The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia said:

… the extension of the residency requirements for qualification for DSP and age pension and the removal of the pension supplement after six weeks of travel overseas disproportionately impact culturally and linguistically diverse communities and are therefore discriminatory in nature—

making a very salient point—

… older migrant Australians will become more reliant upon their families to support them ... but as with any family, young people now in Australia … have to move often in order to secure employment, and they're not often in a position to take care of their older relatives, either practically or financially.

The National Social Security Rights Network said:

The Australian system is based on residence and need. It has a very strong emphasis on residence already. Most of the older migrants who have the misfortune to need to access our system within the first 10 years in Australia are covered by an assurance from their families. So there is no cost to the taxpayer because the money is recovered from the family. So it's hard to see the case for strengthening the requirements. It's particularly hard to see the need or benefit that comes from introducing income support history into the test. It's a departure from a very fundamental principle.

In relation to the assets waiting period, the Australian Council of Social Services told the committee that:

... the latest HILDA data shows that a full 25 per cent of people who are unemployed are already being deprived of two or more essential items. In addition, the evidence shows that about 12 per cent of people at the moment could not raise $500 in the event of an emergency.

Catholic Social Services of Australia also made the point—the very important point—that:

Even with savings of $36,000 ... for a person with dependants it would not take long to expend these savings. For example, using the Household Expenditure Measure, a person with two dependants in the ACT, renting and having a basic lifestyle, would need a minimum of $21,792 over a six-month period. This assumes there are no contingencies such as medical bills—

and the sorts of things Labor is very much concerned about. They went on to say:

This leaves this household financially vulnerably with a small buffer to manage contingencies whilst on income support.

I'll finish up my contribution by once again reiterating that Labor moves the amendments circulated in my name that go to declining to give the bill a second reading; notes that this is a recurring theme from the government; notes that cuts to Newstart in this bill will hurt redundant workers and push them towards poverty; and, finally, criticises the government for its cruel cuts to pensions and social security. As I said, Labor opposes this bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Clare: The amendment is seconded, and I reserve my right to speak.