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Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Page: 13

Senator BERNARDI (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Evans, the Minister representing the Prime Minister. I refer to the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier today that the government will finally adopt the coalition’s policy to issue a one-off payment to pensioners. I also refer the minister to his answer yesterday, when he stated that this policy idea was one that the government would not be adopting, describing it as ‘a stunt’. My question to the minister is: why was this a stunt yesterday but has suddenly become good policy today?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank the senator for his question. I think he ought to understand that this is part of a very proactive response to a worsening financial crisis. This is a measure that is designed to assist households and pensioners in this time of financial crisis. What we have developed, in addition to our measures to provide support for financial institutions, is a way to boost the spending in the economy and to provide resources to families and pensioners. In that way, we provide a stimulus to economic activity to try to preserve growth in the Australian economy. We have consistently said in this place, as the senator well knows, that in the budget we made a down payment to pensioners, to those with disabilities and to carers—not just to the group that the Liberal Party sought to talk about when they moved their bill in this place but to all those in receipt of those benefits. We made that down payment in the budget.

What we announced today is a further down payment to try to assist those people. It is a comprehensive package that seeks not to discriminate against carers or those with disabilities but to include all those who rely on this support. For the first time, those on disability pensions will receive the bonuses that the government announced today.

We have continually argued that we needed a strong budget surplus to act as a buffer against difficult economic times. All Australians would understand that the financial situation has worsened around the globe. We think Australia is well placed. We think we are much better placed than many other economies, but what we have decided to do is, in a mature, rational and responsible way, to introduce a package of measures—directed at housing activity, at families and at pensioners and carers—that seek to provide a stimulus to the economy and to the household incomes of those groups.

I did reject the policy of the Liberal Party in the ACT—absolutely. This is about a responsible national government taking serious policy decisions, and I would hope that we will get the support of the whole Senate on this measure. These are difficult economic times. The international financial crisis will impact on Australia, it will impact on our growth projections, and we have to respond to that. We have decided not to wait until the evidence of that impact is broadly felt but to take action urgently, early and decisively to try to assist the Australian economy in a serious, planned way that fits in with our longer-term nation-building agenda. We think that these measures, with the measures we announced on the weekend, place Australia in a position where we are best able to respond to the difficulties we confront. We were best placed in terms of the stability of our financial institutions already, but the two measures we announced on the weekend and the measures announced today will help protect Australian families and pensioners against those economic conditions. We make no apology for taking those decisions in the national interest.

Senator Conroy interjecting—

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Evans, resume your seat. Senator Macdonald and Senator Conroy, I cannot hear the minister’s response. I call the minister.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —In conclusion, can I suggest that the opposition support the remaining budget bills, which help to provide the financial capacity to deliver these measures to support families and Australian pensioners. (Time expired)

Senator BERNARDI —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The minister should be under no illusions that we welcome this breathtaking backflip to adopt our policy on pensions. It has exposed the empty rhetoric of the other side in the last few months. My question now is: will the government now adopt our policy to cut the fuel excise by 5c a litre, which would give further relief to all Australian households and would further stimulate the Australian economy?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I can assure the senator that we will not be adopting Liberal Party policies. I remind him that, in 11 budgets, you did nothing for pensioners—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Evans, resume your seat. There is a time to debate this, at the end of question time. That is the proper time—not now. I call the minister.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Thank you, Mr President. As I said, the Liberal opposition had 11 budgets to do something for pensioners. What this government has done is made an initial down payment in its first budget and a further down payment today and we will undertake the fundamental reform to provide long-term security for those people on pensions and other benefits. We are serious about long-term reform. Today is another measure along a journey to restructuring the pension system and providing security for Australia’s pensioners. I urge the opposition to concentrate on that support at this difficult time rather than engage in the sort of empty rhetoric that was contained in the question. (Time expired)