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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 5655

Senator BOYCE (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. I refer to the comments by the Labor member for Leichhardt, Mr Jim Turnour, who said yesterday that he could survive on the single age pension as it currently stands. Isn’t it a fact that Mr Turnour’s insensitive comments are reflective of this Labor government’s disdain for pensioners? And is this the real reason why the government is refusing to support our call for a $30 increase in the single age pension?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) —There has been a lot of political commentary this week on the question of pensions and a lot of debate that I think has not served this parliament or pensioners very well. What the government have made very clear, from the Prime Minister down, is that we accept that pensioners are doing it tough and we accept that the pension is increasingly proving to be not adequate to support a reasonable lifestyle for age pensioners. So we have conceded that in our view there is a problem. In conceding that on behalf of the government, we said: ‘We will make a down payment in our first budget to provide immediate relief to pensioners, to carers, to people with disabilities and to vets. We will make that immediate down payment in our first budget, within months of coming to office, and we will undertake the fundamentally serious public policy work that needs to occur.’ And that is what we have done.

We have increased the utilities allowance from $100 to $500. We have paid $500 bonuses to age pensioners. So we have increased the payments to pensioners by about $900 over the basic pension for this year. We said that was an interim measure as we set about trying to look at how we might reform the pension structure; how we might reform the income support paid not only to pensioners but to people with a disability and to carers and to vets. We have set about that serious public policy work. The payments we made this year have been paid and are being paid. In addition, the indexation payments are being made. So there is some relief going to pensioners. But, equally, the more important task for us is to get the long-term policy right.

I welcome the fact that the opposition, after 12 years in government when they said there was no problem, have had a conversion on the road to Damascus. I am pleased about that because, budget after budget, the former Howard government ignored the plight of pensioners and did nothing for them. While they doled out largesse to international oil companies or luxury car buyers or whoever, they ignored the plight of pensioners. I welcome the fact that the opposition now actually accept that there is a problem; but, as the new government who have acknowledged that something needs to be done about the pension, we have actually tackled it. We have made the down payment. We have set up the review process which allows us to examine all the issues, to engage with stakeholders and to get expert advice, and we will have that report by February next year, which will allow us to factor that into the next budget.

That is where we are at: we have an immediate down payment for pensioners and we have a longer term, fundamental review of the pension to try and tackle this problem seriously. To be criticised by the now opposition for not having solved all the issues in the pensions area in eight months is just ludicrous. They had 12 years in government and throughout those years they did nothing about the adequacy of the pensions—absolutely nothing. People generally accept that this is gross hypocrisy. They ought to help us by concentrating on the real public policy challenge, rather than just pulling political stunts.

Senator BOYCE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. It is pretty clear, Minister, that not all your colleagues do agree with your comments about pensioners. Mr Turnour’s comments are that pensioners should simply ‘make savings when they go shopping and look at specials and look in their bank accounts’. Is Mr Turnour therefore indicating that the government will finally now support our call for an immediate $30 per week increase in the single age pension?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —The member Mr Turnour is one of the most decent people I know and one of the people best connected to his electorate. I am sure he would not offer to throw his pearls before the poor, like the good senator did. Quite frankly, given her record on this matter, she has no credibility at all.