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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4125

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (12:25 PM) —In almost all cultures across the globe, there is an enormous emphasis placed on respecting the elderly. The younger generations understand that the benefits and luxuries which they presently enjoy and take for granted are built on the hard work of, and sacrifices made by, those older than them. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘Raise your children to care for the elderly.’ Just as the younger generations were cared for by the older generations when they were young, so too is it incumbent on them to care for the elderly when they grow old. But, for all of our great achievements as a nation, we fall hopelessly short on looking after our pensioners. All too often in our country, those who cease to be productive members of the workforce are considered to be a costly and burdensome expense rather than a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to be treasured.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the pension reforms announced by the Rudd government in this year’s budget and contained in the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform and Other 2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. Australian pensioners asked for a tiny increase of $30 a week, hardly an outrageous request by anyone’s standards. Certainly this did not seem unreasonable when the government had no issue in granting its politicians a $90 per week increase in the electoral allowance. However, the government has come up hopelessly short. While this bill does go some way towards fulfilling a promise to Australia’s long-suffering pensioners that their dire position will improve, it is really only single pensioners who have been looked after. Married pensioners have missed out yet again. They have been given a token increase of $5.07 each a week. That will barely get them a loaf of bread and a litre of milk. It will do nothing to alleviate their financial stress or go towards helping them make ends meet. What this really is is hush money. It is a pathetic $5.07 per week in hush money so that our nation’s elderly do not rally again publicly, as they did last year, and demand proper treatment from the government of the day. It is pathetic, and we owe it to our pensioners to call this $5.07 per week what it really is: pathetic.

There seems to be a misconception with this government that married pensioners share a home so living for them must be easier or cheaper. Is it cheaper to shop for two? Is it cheaper to cook for two? Try telling that to Vin and Shirley Grant, a married couple from Glenroy who rely on the government pension to survive. I have spoken with them on numerous occasions and even protested together with them in the Melbourne CBD. I have heard firsthand how tough it is to live off the married pension. They are just one example amongst hundreds of thousands across Australia who are forced to scrape together every cent just to pay the bills each month. Perhaps the Treasurer should have spoken to them before he hurriedly threw together a bill which ignored their plight.

The Rudd government is sending pensioners a clear message here, and it is a disgraceful message, that you are better off getting divorced and becoming a single pensioner if you want to survive under this budget. Stay together as a husband and wife and get an extra $5.07 per week or get divorced and collect six times that amount—$32.49 per week each. For a government that boasts how well it supports working families, this is the most antifamily policy there could be. It is all the more disgraceful given that this is the same government that refuses to put an end to the excessive superannuation entitlements of our politicians—a rort which costs our country millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money each year. So, while the Treasurer will walk away from parliament one day with a pension of more than $100,000 per year for the rest of his life, he asks our married pensioners to get by on a tiny pension that now includes a measly $5.07 extra per week.

Last year, in May, the Treasurer stood before parliament and declared that the new budget would deliver Australia a $21.7 billion surplus. Instead, one year later, Australians were left to digest the shocking news that this forecast budget surplus had been replaced with a $57 billion budget deficit. I do not blame the Treasurer entirely for the sharp turnaround of events. I understand that this deficit was largely a result of matters outside the government’s control. However, I do want to highlight one point. One year ago, when everything was looking rosy, when businesses were booming and tax revenues were flowing into the government’s coffers, one group was still missing out: our pensioners. At a time when Australia looked set to reap in $21.7 billion, the government could not even find the money then to help Australia’s ageing population. Our pensioners were forced to stand outside Flinders Street Station and take their tops off in front of everyone just to have their voices heard. I think this sums up quite clearly where our pensioners sit in the eyes of the Rudd government—way down at the bottom of the list. This is the same government which in the very same budget speech declared:

Foremost in our considerations are the Australians who work hard, pay their taxes, and demand little more than a fair go.

Mr Prime Minister, our pensioners are these very people that your government speaks of. They are the ones who have worked hard over the years, paid their taxes to support each and every one of us and now stand before us and ask us to treat them with the decency which they deserve. A higher pension payment is, therefore, not simply a monetary question. It is a question of morality. It is about what is right and what is fair. How we treat our pensioners sends a message to our children about how we expect to be treated one day. It sends a message of how much we value our older Australians. Let me tell you, the message we are sending at the moment is not good. Family First want the government to deliver on its promise of real pension reform—pension reform which goes towards helping everyone, both single and married pensioners. Of course Family First will support this bill, but we will keep on fighting for our married pensioners until this message is heard loud and clear by the government.