Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS: Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Seniors Supplement Cessation) Bill 2014

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (17:13): Because of some confusion we have had in this place on previous occasions, I thought it was important that I put on record immediately what our position is: we are opposed to this legislation. Just so no-one gets any confusion, as we have seen in the past, we are opposed to this legislation. We have made it clear for several months now. In fact, we made it clear from when the budget came down that we were opposed to this piece of legislation. There are a number of reasons for that.

I think possibly the core reason for why we oppose it is because we do not think it is fair at this time to make this decision because of a whole range of reasons. Central to that-I am sure you have heard it and you will continue to hear it-is that this is a cut that was not known to the community, the community that had been led to believe that there would be protection and that there would be no cuts of anything to do with pensions. They were told that in public places. They were told that in leaflets. And we know that that is not true. In the case of this particular payment, it is one that our government brought in in 2009-10. It was a part of a range of changes to legislation around the age pension in this country of which we were very proud.

That came after many, many years of lobbying from people across the community who were talking about inequities in the way that pensioners were looked after in our community. They were saying that there should have been a government response to what they felt-and could produce evidence for us, very personal evidence. I think everybody in this chamber probably had visits from and meetings with pensioners and people on DVA pensions. They were coming to see us and they actually had a very successful campaign, which was looking at us and saying they expected more from their government.

And we delivered. In 2009-10 we introduced a range of increases to the aged pension. We also ensured that there were variations on the options for the way the aged pension could be assessed for their increases. Amidst that, we introduced this particular supplement. It was a supplement that was rolling in payments that had previously been made, that were already in the system, and actually addressed a particular claim that was brought to us by people who are ageing-particularly for those people on limited incomes, particularly people on superannuation pensions and DVA pensions, the Commonwealth healthcare card holders, people who were eligible for the Commonwealth healthcare card, which is something that I know is held very dear by very many people in the system-that their income or assets or their particular situations meant that they were not eligible for the aged pension because of the tests that were in place, but they were still on quite limited payments. In fact, now it is on people who have incomes of less than $50,000 a year and who are eligible for this Commonwealth healthcare card.

The Commonwealth healthcare card then gave you eligibility, if you chose to take it up, for this particular supplement. The supplement now is worth almost $900 to an individual pensioner, and for married or partnered pensioner couples, if they have income or earnings under $80,000, they are able to get a payment in this process. We are not talking wealthy people. In fact, one of the things that has come out consistently in our work, and we do acknowledge this, is that there are some people who are very well-off in the community who are still able to access the social welfare system. We do not support that. We believe that our social welfare system should be transparent, it should be focused and it should be looking at the people in the community who have particular needs.

We believe that this supplement fits those guidelines. We believe absolutely that this money, which is paid quarterly in a lump sum, meets a need that has been identified by the community and accepted by the government and the Department of Human Services. So the process is that people get their lump sum quarterly. They like receiving the lump sum arrangement because that actually meets when they need to go through a particular process of paying a bill: they get an account; they are able to have a lump sum on which they can draw. That is the background to the payment.

What this government has done is-it came in on a promise that there would be no effect to the pension. It believed that the community would accept this budget, despite the fact that it broke that promise. And the way it went about talking to the community-and I think this is the thing that was most frustrating for me during this process-was like it felt that if it told pensioners or people who were able in this case to receive the supplement, who were not pensioners but were able to receive the supplement, over and over again that they were not getting a cut, then they would believe it. We saw that with the process around the change in the indexation rates for pensions, which has caused an enormous response from people in the community and organisations who represent people who are ageing in the community. These people feel that not only have they been betrayed, not only have they lost entitlements, but they also feel as though they have been treated without respect and almost as though they are not intelligent because they have been told consistently that there is no cut to the pension.

In fact, we receive that information regularly. We certainly received it in Senate estimates, where we had extended questions put forward by government senators to point out that in fact there will be a pension paid and that that pension will be increased. And no-one argues with that. What they do not accept-and they try to put forward the argument that we are too unintelligent to understand-is that at the moment the way the indexation rates operate for pensions mean that there is an option in the way pension rates are calculated and it gives people, determined by the government, an option at what rate the pension will increase.

The government have removed that. It is in their budget; it is written in their budget. No-one can be confused by it. It says in the budget that in the future it will be CPI. So that is taking away a provision that we brought in and maintained in 2009-10 where people can see and understand what their pension would increase by as they looked into the future. They could make plans around that; they could put together their propositions for how they would live-their expenses and how they would make plans for their futures based on an expectation that, should they continue to meet the eligibility rates for the pension by the assets and income tests that are there, should they meet those eligibility rates, they would expect their pension increase to rise to at least the CPI, but at a higher rate if it meant that there were the propositions for how the model would work for doing that.

The government have taken that away as a budget saving, and have actually said-and this is the other thing: the government have made no attempt to hide that this is a savings measure. And even with my lack of economic skills, I understand that if you are going to have a savings measure, that means money is taken away and brought back to the government, not to the community. So as a savings measure, they know that this change is going to reap savings, but they have consistently said to pensioners: 'No, your entitlements will not change. They will not change at all.' And yet the clear modelling is there, it is public; seniors organisations have done it. There is an expectation that pensioners will lose up to $80 a week over a 10-year period-and they understand that. They have not been confused. They have not been misled by the government consistently saying that there has been no change to their entitlement. They know that they will have less in their pockets than they would have if the change had not gone through. Complementary to that is the legislation we have before us today.

They were told-people on pensions, people who are ageing, people who are receiving DVA gold cards-that they would not receive any reduction in their entitlements, should there be a change of government; they were told that. They actually believed it and then, in the very first budget, along with a range of other proposals that were brought forward, the government looked at reducing entitlements to a whole bunch of people in the community, not just the ageing. This budget is renowned for its ability to attack everybody in the community who had been expecting some form of social welfare support.

We have families. We have young people who are without work. We have older people who are seeking work and, in this case, we have people on limited incomes with an expectation that they would receive the supplement they had been receiving for several years and which they had built into their budget. They had made plans according to the way they expected the system would operate. Without warning, in very quick time, it has been taken away.

At the same time, the federal government decided that they were no longer going to invest money in the Commonwealth concession program, which is a complementary program engaging both the state and federal governments for very much the same group of people-people who are on Commonwealth health care cards, people receiving gold cards, people receiving the pension. At the state government levels, across the states and also at local government levels, this gave them some concessions at the local level. This was not fully funded by the Commonwealth-we know that-but a Commonwealth allocation went into the bucket that was topped up by the states that allowed them to afford those concessions.

Again, not only were there people in the ageing community unaware that this was going to change but the state governments were also unaware. There are continuing discussions, I know, between the state governments and the federal government about how this will operate. Some state governments have said absolutely they cannot continue the concession arrangement if they do not have federal government support; others are looking at short-term maintenance, because they have recognised that people have been deeply traumatised by the impact of this change. The relatively small but nonetheless important contributions to a pensioner's income and personal wealth of concessions on things like motor vehicle insurance, energy and communication costs are of such import to these people but it appears that the government has just not understood.

Certainly what the government has not done is listen because, by talking to the people who have come to me and I know other people in this place, there has been a very concerted effort-from older people across the community, through campaigns and organisations that represent their voices-mounted to encourage people to contact their local parliamentarians of all flavours in both houses to point out the impact of this range of reductions in their fortnightly, monthly and annual income; and that they are already balancing quite difficult economic circumstances while trying to maintain their cost of living, their lifestyle, and how fragile that can be. That fragility has been exposed by these reductions, and these series of proposals put forward by the government in their budget will have an impact.

This one, the abolition of the supplement, happens immediately. This is not like the change to the indexation rates for the age pension or the proposal to increase the age pension age qualification to 70, which has been planned for the future and has been put in the budget with an implementation date into the future. Some of the people I know are thinking they may not reach that stage. If they are looking at their futures now, they may not reach that eligibility where the line passes into the future.

Those proposals and implementation dates are into the future; this one is not. If this passes the Senate and goes back to the House, the next payment of the supplement is due in December 2014-just before Christmas, an important time-and people have already looked at how they will use that money. They know to a cent how much this is worth to them. They also know when the date of payment is and certainly some of the people I have been talking to have already earmarked what that money is to be spent on-whether it is on Christmas or paying off something they have already put in place. They know where that money was going to go. They now know that the government does not want them to have it. The government does not want to have this allowance and it is not offering an alternative. This payment will not be there.

The particular group of people who are impacted by this payment have spoken and are involved in the wider community. They have contacted me and talked about what this will mean to them. They say that they have a restricted income. They have a form of income which is often through superannuation payments or a DVA arrangement. They are working through that process and they have a non-flexible income. It is higher than the pension-there is no doubt about that-but this is about the only form of government support that they get and they treasure it. They see this particular supplement, small as it is in some people's minds-about $900 a year for the 280,000 people across the country who are currently eligible for this supplement and the 50,000 in my state of Queensland alone-as an important amount of money for them.

For us, I would think $800 is less than the travel allowance we receive to be in Canberra a week of sittings; but for the people who receive this supplement-allocated in their budget, an important element of the budget often linked to the Centrelink or the DVA agencies and the gold card-this will be the end of their entitlement. It is causing pain. As I have said, it is also causing anger and frustration.

When this measure was first introduced we said that it was one of the issues that we would not support. This bill was part of the very large omnibus bills that came originally to this place for consideration. We did not support a second reading of those bills, because we had said we would not vote for anything that cut pensioners' entitlement. We made that commitment to them. The commitment made by our leader and by our shadow minister was that we would not support the omnibus bills, so there was no second reading of those bills. The government has come back and reintroduced the No. 6 bill, which we passed earlier this week. No-one pretends that that was an easy bill to pass. It was very difficult and it caused great angst in our caucus as we worked out what things we would support as effective savings. We understand that there are budget issues and that we need to consider every element of the government's budget proposals, and we did that. We said we would support certain issues but would not support others that, I believe, will be the subject of future legislation. This is the first one that has come back. It is very clear that the government is testing us out on this one. They know that we will not support the bill. We have listened to the people in the community who have said that this will hurt them and that it is something they do not want.

In the inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee into the omnibus bills one of the things that were said to us on several occasions was that there was a need to look at issues related to ageing in our community. We were told that there was a willingness in the community to have a 'mature'-I like that comment, when we are talking about ageing-discussion about the cost of ageing and how various parts of the system work together, to see what we can do to plan effectively for what we know is going to be a challenge for the Australian community and the Australian economy. Should there be proposals to change the way the welfare system interacts with the community and the economy, that is the place for those discussions to be had.

I truly believe that there was a lot of very strong engagement during that inquiry to see that we need to look effectively at what is happening in the community as we all age and at the impact that ageing will have on wages, on superannuation, on various entitlements into the future, including very important aspects such as housing. Any change to a supplement which is currently part of the system should be looked at through the lens of such an inquiry. It is not enough just to make a budget proposal, saying, 'This supplement is not necessary.' In fact, I have even heard it said that it is for wealthy people. It is not for wealthy people. We have all heard the comments about lifters and leaners. It has almost become a T-shirt. In fact, I think I have seen a T-shirt where people could tick a box to say that they are lifter or a leaner. I am never quite sure that we know which one should go there. To imply that people in our society who are ageing are not worthy of support and should be labelled as leaners does not fix any kind of effective planning into future for what should occur. This is not good legislation. It will not help our community.