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Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Page: 5652

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (18:32): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment and Pensioner Concession Card) Bill 2017. I speak in support of this bill because it is the very least this government can do for pensioners, given their ongoing campaign against our most vulnerable. This government continues to give with one hand and take away with the other. This is not a win for pensioners, but with this government in power pensioners must take whatever crumbs they are thrown.

Schedule 1 of this bill provides a one-off energy assistance payment to recipients of the aged pension, disability support pension, single parenting payments and veterans' payments. It provides $75 for singles and $62.50 for each member of a couple. Labor will of course support the one-off energy assistance payment, but it beggars belief as to why the government would be proposing this when it still wants to cut the energy supplement.

The energy supplement is worth far more to pensioners, and yet the government want to cut it. Maybe they think pensioners will not notice they are losing the energy supplement and just feel grateful that they are getting this one-off energy assistance payment. I do not believe pensioners in my electorate of Paterson believe that, and they will not be fooled. Yes, they will happily take the one-off energy assistance payment to compensate for the rising cost of energy—which, again, is this government's fault. Clearly, there is no definite energy policy to guide investment certainty, and we have seen the fallout of that again and again. Pensioners are well aware that they are likely to lose the energy supplement and they are really hopping mad about that.

I had 250 pensioners at the Maitland Town Hall recently, and at the top of their list was the cost of living. They asked: 'How are we going to make ends meet? How are we expected to live?' They said, 'They keep eating away at our pensions.' Every single person who filled in a survey in the Maitland Town Hall for me that day ticked the cost of living as a concern for them.

And there's the rub: that word 'fair' has entered the government's vocabulary again, since the recent budget. Well, no-one is convinced that this government knows the meaning of the word 'fair', and no-one is convinced that this budget is fair, least of all pensioners and least of all pensioners in my electorate of Paterson. Let's be clear on this Energy Assistance Payment, because the pensioners in Paterson certainly are. This is a shallow, pathetic and not very convincing attempt to distract Australians from the fact that this government still wants to cut the energy supplement, and it does not have a cohesive energy policy—not for the manufacturers, not for consumers and not for our pensioners.

Australian pensioners particularly deserve better than this. Australian pensioners are doing it tough. They tell us all, every day. Australians who receive income support are doing it particularly tough. What kind of heartless government wants to give with one hand and take with the other? It really is quite insulting, and people know it is. They know that their standard of living has slipped. This once-off Energy Assistance Payment will be worth $75 to single pensioners—that is it. Yet the government wants to take $365 a year by removing the energy supplement to new pensioners. A once-off $75 is not the same as $365 every year to keep the lights on, to keep the heater on, to keep the hot water on.

Pensioners in my electorate of Paterson have already told me that they are holding off putting on the heater. They get out the knee rug, they put on an extra jumper, just trying to keep warm as the weather starts to cool, because they know it is going to take so much of the little pension that they have. What choice do they have? Sit there and be cold? What sort of country are we living in? Do we expect our pensioners to huddle in the cold instead of turning on the heater because they cannot afford to? I am disgusted. It should not be this hard for people. This is an outrageous affront to pensioners—our most vulnerable, often. This budget confirms that the government still wants to cut the energy supplement, and Labor will continue to oppose it. Our pensioners would expect nothing else, and good on them for the fight they have put up over it.

Moving to schedule 2 of this bill, the reinstatement of the pension concession cards: well, what a backstep this has been for the government. Once again, the efforts of Labor and the Australian pensioners have prevailed. It is a small victory, but we will take it, and I am sure Australian pensioners will happily take it. They have to take every little bit they can. Eligibility for the pension concession card is tied to eligibility for certain income support payments, such as the age pension and the disability support pension. When the changes to the pension assets test came in on 1 January this year, a number of pensioners who ceased to be eligible for their payment also lost their pension concession card. In fact, around 92,000 pensioners lost their pensioner card overnight on 1 January—happy new year! In Paterson, my electorate, 3,410 pensioners lost their concession card and were worse off as a result of these assets test changes. Nearly a third of them—1,040 pensioners—had their pensions cancelled entirely, leaving them an average of $191 worse off—here one day, gone the next; happy new year indeed.

This assets test change has really distressed pensioners in my electorate. Another 2,370 pensioners in Paterson had their pensions reduced, leaving them worse off by an average of $135 a fortnight. These are not insignificant numbers, equating to weekly income cuts of between $62.50 and $95.50 a week. Those who lost their pension concession card as a result of the assets test changes were issued with a Low Income Health Care Card. Those who were of pension age or older were issued with a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. But these cards did not guarantee the same concessions; they are simply not as good.

When the government first announced these changes to the assets test the then Treasurer, Joe Hockey, promised that nobody—nobody—would lose their concession entitlements. That was the promise that was made. Well, surprise, surprise: the government did not keep that promise. The government did not negotiate with the states and territories to guarantee concessions to pensioners, to guarantee that pensioners and those who lost their pensions would not be worse off. So, of course, when the assets test changes came in on New Year's Day, many people—in fact, 92,000 Australians—were worse off.

As I mentioned, in my electorate of Paterson, 3,410 people—not a small number—were worse off. For example, without a pensioner concession card, people who had lost their pensions were not able to access vital government-funded hearing services. From state to state, different concessions were applied. It was a great big mess and a mess of the government's doing. It is only because of pressure from Labor and from pensioner groups, who have taken the fight up to this government, that the pensioner concession card has been reinstated. It is a big backdown from the government. You can be sure it is not because they are worried about pensioners and worried that it might not be fair; it is only because there was such a backlash and they knew they had no choice but to back down.

Pensioner concession cards will automatically be reissued from 9 October—and not a moment too soon. Thank goodness for that and thank goodness for the efforts of Australian pensioners and Labor. This is a victory—some would say a minor one, considering the government's campaign against our most vulnerable, but it is a victory all the same. The loss of the pensioner concession card was a cruel double blow to many people who had lost their pensions and were on very modest incomes. Certainly many pensioners in my electorate of Paterson felt the pinch. It just goes to show where the government's priorities are. They are not particularly concerned about our most vulnerable. They do not care about those on income support. They do not even really care about middle-income Australians.

Earlier I heard a member say earlier that someone has to do well and that companies have to make a lot of money so that other people can make money. It is not that we do not want people to do well; we would just like it shared more fairly. We do not believe in looking after the big end of town at the cost of our most vulnerable, because that is not the way successful societies work. In everything we do, in everything we think of, we think of fairness. In everything the government do, the message that they propose is that, if we look after the big end of town, somehow miraculously everyone will do well. We propose that if we look after everyone a little better, then our whole country does much better. It is only when the government get caught out and get dragged to the table that they will negotiate for a better deal for pensioners, tossing some crumbs to those people who are seeing their modest standard of living being further eroded.

This government's attack on pensioners is not new; it is not even particularly subtle, but it is sustained—it is a bit like a broken record. In 2014 the Liberals tried to cut pension indexation, leaving pensioners poorer to the tune of $80 a week over 10 years. The Liberals tried to reset the deeming rate thresholds and changes, which would have hit hard half a million Australians. The Liberals shifted the goalposts of the assets test so that hundreds of thousands of pensioners who had carefully planned for retirement were caught out. Almost 100,000 retirees lost their pensions—this was just in 2014—and many more had their payments reduced. If pensioners do manage to scrimp and save enough for an overseas trip to see their family, for example, if the government had its way their pension would be cut after only six weeks away. If you are a pensioner who was born in another country, it would be even worse.

The government say these cuts are gone for good, but we know that they cannot be trusted. The only reason these cuts are not in the budget is that the government know they will not pass the Senate. It is not because the government have suddenly realised the cuts are not fair. The Prime Minister has said so, the Treasurer has said so, the Minister for Finance has said so and the Minister for Social Services has said so. These budget cuts are not gone; they are just lying in wait. The government are waiting for the chance to resurrect them—there is no doubt about that. They have form. In 2013 the member for Warringah promised no changes to the pension. So much for that promise. The Prime Minister is holding to the member for Warringah's plan to increase the pension age to 70. Australians would have to work longer than anyone else in the world before they were eligible for a pension. The Lucky Country? Hardly. Tell that to miners, farmers, manufacturers, nurses, people working in aluminium smelters on potlines and the tradies in my electorate of Paterson.

Now we hear that this government is turning its robo-debt monster on pensioners as well. It wants to claw back $1 billion. What is this government thinking? Australians know that this government has no concept of what it is really like to work at all your life, pay your taxes, do what is asked of you and then be tossed a few crumbs and be told, 'Be grateful; feel lucky. Feel that this government cares about pensioners.' They know that there is something amiss. Then they are hounded by a robo-debt monster!

Labor will support this bill to provide a one-off energy payment to pensioners and to reinstate the pensioner concession card. But we are not fooled, and Australian pensioners are not fooled either. They know that this government does not really understand what our pensioners need. This government uses the word 'fair', but it does not have the will, and I believe it does not really have the wherewithal, to legislate effectively for fairness.