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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 99

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (4:20 PM) —Before I was so rudely interrupted by question time and other business, I was discussing some of the inequities not addressed in the Family and Community Services and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further 2004 Election Commitments and Other Measures) Bill 2005—inequities concerning the issue of family payments and the government’s social welfare system generally. That is why I think Labor remain very firmly committed to the single family payment—the consistent income test for all Australian families. We believe this is the best way to ensure that Australia’s family payment system is fair, consistent and directly targeted at those families who need the most help. Struggling families have every right to demand an explanation from the Howard government about why its policies continue to reward the super-rich at the expense of people who have a genuine need for assistance.

I also want to take the opportunity today to highlight some of the inequities in the new payments for self-funded retirees and aged pensioners that were created last year. Labor raised some of these concerns during the debate late last year on the Family and Community Services and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Election Commitments) Bill 2004. Since that time, a number of Australians have contacted my office and the offices of other members and senators to voice their concerns about the inequality that has been created as a result of these new payments. While the first $200 payment to self-funded retirees was paid immediately upon the passage of the legislation last year, aged pensioners are still waiting for the first instalment of the utilities allowance, which will not be paid until later this month.

But the inconsistencies do not end there. Under the legislation, the full rate of the self-funded retiree payment, now known as the seniors concession allowance, can be paid to both members of a couple provided they have individual Commonwealth seniors health cards. This is clearly inconsistent with the government’s treatment of the utilities allowance, which is available at a couples and a singles rate—the utilities allowance cannot simply be claimed twice by both members of a couple. So an aged pensioner couple on the maximum couple rate of pension of $786 a fortnight receives a utilities allowance of $100 a year, while a self-funded retiree couple can earn up to $80,000 a year, qualify for individual Commonwealth seniors health cards and also receive $200 a year each in the form of the seniors concession allowance. People can draw their own conclusions, but it would seem to me that the aged pensioner couple struggling on barely $20,000 a year is in far greater need of additional assistance—

Senator Patterson —Talk to your Victorian colleagues about that!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —than the self-funded retiree couple on $80,000 a year. This is another classic example of poorly targeted—

Senator Patterson —See how hard it is to talk with someone talking over you, like you were doing in question time?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Minister, if you cannot read your scriptwriter’s questions, don’t blame me.

Senator Patterson —I am just giving you a dose of your own medicine.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Good for you! Grow up, will you. This is another example of the poorly targeted, bandaid assistance measures that have become the hallmark of the Howard government.

Senator Patterson —You will never see things from this side of the chamber. You will never be over here.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —That is probably why the Prime Minister has taken all of your responsibilities off you, Minister. It is very hard to find out what you are responsible for now, because most of your job has gone to Mr Hockey and—

Senator Patterson —Sticks and stones.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I do not know what you do now, except go from one disaster to another—but that is your business.

Senator McGauran —Cabinet: you will never see it!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator McGauran, coming from you! You cannot even do the deputy whip’s job properly! Finally, I would like to make some observations about the government’s plans for what it describes as welfare reform.

Senator McGauran interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator McGauran, I would like to thank you for electing the last Green to the state parliament of Western Australia on the weekend, on National Party preferences! I am sure the Greens and the Labor Party appreciate that. I thought you ought to refer that matter to Senator Abetz; it was a very clever decision! But I digress.

Finally, I would like to make some observations about the government’s plans for what it describes as welfare reform. I say ‘what it describes as welfare reform’ because we all know that the Howard government’s plans are not really about reforming the welfare system to assist payment recipients move into employment. If the government’s record is anything to go by then the proposals it puts up will be about cost cutting, pure and simple. This is all about making it harder for those in need to access payments so that the government can save a few dollars and improve its budget bottom line. The government does not seem to understand that real welfare reform is about making the social security system simpler, fairer and more accessible for the six million Australians who access income support payments each year. Real welfare reform is not about cutting costs by simply making it harder for those in need to access payments. Successful welfare reform should actually develop opportunities for the full work force participation of welfare recipients.

As always with the Howard government, its plans are simplistic and narrow. The narrow, cost-cutting focus of the government’s agenda is best summed up by its failed attempt to limit access to the disability support pension. By now recycling these plans, the government has again showed that it cannot tell the difference between cost cutting and reform. Labor recognise that encouraging people to move from welfare to work is a policy objective in its own right. We want fewer people on welfare and more people in work. By helping people make the transition from welfare to work, we can deliver social and economic benefits to individuals, their families and communities, and the nation as a whole.

I will conclude with some observations on the difference between Labor and the coalition in terms of attitudes to and management of social security. Unlike the government, Labor are committed to a fairer social security system which offers the necessary level of income support for Australians when they need it. We also believe that the social security system should supplement Australians on low incomes, particularly families who face additional costs in providing for children, people with disabilities and people who make sacrifices to care for others.

Labor believe we should support Australians in need but also provide incentives to assist those people with the welfare to work transition. The social security system is most effective when it rewards hard work and increases people’s access to opportunities and skills so they can improve their standard of living. As I have already said, this bill does nothing to address the long-term structural deficiencies in the government’s social welfare framework. By failing to fix these problems, the government has again failed to do the right thing by the six million Australians that access income support payments every year. Labor will pass this bill but will continue to argue for a fairer, simpler and better system of social welfare to benefit all Australians.