Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS: Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015 - Second Reading

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (17:52): We are debating the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015 tonight. It is a complex piece of legislation. I defy anyone in this chamber to actually try to understand the social security system and to understand the full impact of the pensions process. We are debating this particular piece of legislation here tonight. In my experience working with the Community Affairs Committee it is the first time we have had a bill, one that purports to save over $4 billion for the government, without having any chance for public consultation and an inquiry to give people an opportunity to put forward their views and ask questions. It is even worse than that, because, as you would know, this afternoon the Senate Community Affairs Committee brought down its report on this piece of legislation. Yes, we actually had the opportunity this morning to work through the report on this piece of legislation-when we only had documentation put through by the department today in response to letters, and we had information coming through only at the last moment. We were actually asked to sign off on a committee this morning where we had not even fully read the draft committee report, because the process has been so truncated.

This piece of legislation is important, and it needs to have strong consideration. We had limited time given to us to call for submissions. Early in June the inquiry was declared and submissions were called for. People in the community did not know exactly what the process was. There is a standard expectation for people who work with our committee regularly-and many of the submitters who came through on this piece of social services legislation are regular submitters to a process. So they put forward submissions on the understanding that there would be time for this to be considered. There was no concern that a process would be put in place that would not allow a couple of weeks to look at the process, to look at the submissions, to exchange information and to have a public hearing.

What happened in this place is that last Tuesday we actually had a discussion around the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, where we moved an amendment from this side of the chamber to say that we thought this bill required a longer time for consideration. We had a short debate. We do not like to take much time up for that, because we do not need to have a lot of time on these issues. What we need to have is a transparent process. We had that debate and there was an agreement by the chamber that there would be an extension for the Senate Community Affairs Committee to consider this piece of legislation-well, it is not even this piece of legislation, because I understand a range of amendments have come through from the House this morning relating to this bill, which was a bill that was looking at a number of elements of legislation around pensions, one of which had a time frame that had urgency.

But my understanding is that what we are going to be debating in this place tonight is not that bill. It is a new bill that has actually taken everything out of the original legislation and just focused on the asset-saving component of the original legislation. So, particularly given that, there would have been an expectation, as this legislation does not have an implementation date until January 2017, that there would be an opportunity to have public discussion and some debate and exchange around the intricacies of what will impact on thousands of pensioners in our nation. No-one disputes that fact. This will impact on thousands of people who are currently receiving part or full pensions, and the result of this legislation will be to take that away from them. Even allowing for the very short time that the Community Affairs Committee had put this up on their website and called for submissions, there were already 11 organisations that had given quite detailed submissions, including one personal one-and we have all had that augmented, because many of us have already received quite personal emails from people who feel as though they will be affected, talking about how they believe this legislation will impact on them.

At this morning's meeting the Senate Community Affairs Committee put forward their recommendation that this bill be approved-in fact, it was not this bill; it was actually the wider bill, but they put through a recommendation that the bill be approved. The meeting was early this morning. The house finished their debate about lunchtime. We waited for that committee report to be put into the chamber about two hours ago. So now, we end up looking at the process and seeing where we are going. This is not an effective way to operate. The way that the decision was changed to give an extension to allow for public consultation was an open vote in this place. It was given so that we would come back and have the debate in this place in the first sitting of August, after giving time during the July period for a committee hearing. Then, on Thursday, we had a notice of motion here that effectively changed it back to having this debate here today.

I have not seen that before. It is a novel approach. I cannot argue that the chamber voted for it, but it was passing strange that something for which it was agreed to have a consultation process, a public hearing, engagement, and a chance to have a look at the details and the impact in the community was rescinded and we now have a debate this afternoon. We know the result. We have seen that in the media. We know that we are going through the motions in this place. We know that there has been a deal done between the government and the Greens that this will be finalised this afternoon. In fact I found out about this deal last week after we had had the discussion around the community affairs extensions. That is when I found out to my surprise that there had already been an agreement in the media, in the wider community, that this was going to go ahead. Whilst I am never sure how they operate, Mr Acting Deputy President Seselja-you may well know how these deals are discussed-my understanding is that the deal is that this bill will be done very quickly. It will be done this evening or tomorrow, so then there will be an ability for a period of consultation on the tax white paper over several weeks, which will take in issues of pensions and ageing in Australia.

That could be a very useful thing. It does not really help the people who this bill refers to-the pensioners who will lose their part and full pension. Any discussion that will take place in a white paper discussion around tax at some time in the future will actually be tacked onto the end. My understanding is that this white paper has been evolving over a period of time. This expanded time, which will be the salvation of our community, will not have any value for the people who, as a result of this legislation, will no longer have access to pensions and will have significant questions about their future income.

Those significant questions have already been identified in the submissions that we have had before us. A number of organisations and a number of people have put forward questions. Under a standard process, as you would understand, these questions would be put forward. There would be a time for consideration, and we would have discussion back from the department. But that did not happen. We got public submissions, which raised issues, issues from different groups: the industry super organisation-I will give them their formal title; it always sounds more impressive-Industry Super Australia put in two submissions with a number of questions; the Committee for Sustainable Retirement Incomes-a number of questions also; and also a number of organisations had particular views about public sector superannuation and the future.

On that basis, the normal expectation would be that they would put their submissions in. We would have discussions with the department-and I have to admit: the department provided a fulsome original submission, which set out what the bill did and I appreciate that. Then it put forward a second submission in response to an email from you, Mr Acting Deputy President Seselja, as chair of the committee. And then, splendidly, we got one this morning as well, which was particularly useful when we were actually being asked to sign off on a committee report. The final submission from the department came through this morning at about the same time as I saw the draft committee report.

It is difficult to understand why there is such urgency-why this deal that has been done between the government and the Greens to get this piece of legislation off the agenda-to have this passed quickly so that the changes to people's processes will be done and understood. I just do not understand why it is so necessary to have that in the bag today or tomorrow.

I can always understand when you have time urgency that processes are put in place in this place so we cooperate. We might whinge a bit, because we have not got enough time. But when you have a bill which, in effect, is going to take processes away-between 200,000 or 300,000 pensioners will no longer be in the pension system-I would have thought that considering that that is not going to come into play until January 2017 that there would be some more time for consideration.

One of the things that interested me most in the department's submissions to us was that they talked about the fulsome modelling that they had done-I do not know when the modelling was done-in response to some of the issues that were raised about the timeliness of the changes, the impact of the changes on different percentiles of pensioners and a particular issue about the impact on women. These things were raised in submissions, and we got responses from the department that said that the issues were not real: that it was not standard practice for the kinds of things that were in the submissions about people maximising their income and perhaps harming their lifestyle to save money and ensure that they stayed on the pension. We were told that those things were not accurate.

We were also told that the impact into the forward years, which was a particular issue raised, of these changes was not just now but over a 10-, 20-or 30-year period. The departmental submissions said that in fact this was not true and that they had done modelling that indicated that these things were either not accurate or were not to the extent that had been put forward in the submissions provided to us.

There is just one issue there: we did not get any of that modelling. That was the kind of thing that would have been particularly useful, if we had had the opportunity to have a Senate inquiry to see exactly what modelling was done and how it was done. We did have in the submissions from Industry Super Australia and also from the Committee for Sustainable Retirement Incomes access to direct modelling that they had done in conjunction with partners.

I am prepared always to compare evidence and exchange information. I am disappointed-in fact I am more than disappointed; I am frustrated and angry on behalf of the people who will be impacted by this piece of legislation-that we have not had the opportunity to have the fulsome discussion, examine the information and have the standard operation of this place, which is to bring information before the senators and to work with them so that we can see the balance of the arguments and ensure that there would be an opportunity to make realistic assessments of these arguments and that we are doing our job. We have not been able to do this on this piece of legislation, and I am disturbed by the fact that we have not had that opportunity. This has been an underlying principle of the way that the Senate community affairs committee has operated. There has always been a view that that committee actually works effectively together. We do not always agree. And there could well be value in the process that is before us in this legislation. But we will not have the opportunity to do that-we will not have the opportunity to weigh that up-because the deal is done. The situation is now in place that the tapering rates will change; there will be a stronger tapering rate to pull back the access to pensions for people with assets above a certain amount.

The purpose of the legislation, I am led to understand, is to be more fair. Well, it is difficult to see, when we have actually had the experience we have had with discussions around pensions in this place over the last 18 months. We looked at the budget changes that were promoted by this government in the last budget, looking at the pension system. Those were also put before this place and the community affairs committee. It was argued that those changes would be fair and would ensure that our pension system would be safe into the future. We did not accept that particular argument at that time, and, as a result of the Senate committee process, we were able then to have, over a period of time, public hearings and discussions with the community and arguments that built up to say: 'No-the arguments around indexation that were put before this place and before the Senate after the last budget were not fair and they were not the appropriate way to look at making sure that our pension system was sustainable.' And the government agreed with the recommendations that came out of that. The government saw that there was a lack of support for this process in the community and in the Senate. And the reason that that was able to be identified was the process that we had in place to scrutinise the proposals and to scrutinise the legislation. That has been denied to us in this process.

So now we have another batch of legislation. 'No, no, no,' the government says; 'what we did last time was not fair. This time, we are going to make it fair. We are only going to change pensions for people who are wealthy-who are well off and who have significant assets.' That is the proposal that we have in the legislation. And we have evidence from organisations such as ACOSS and welfare rights organisations to say: 'Yes, this is a movement forward; this should be considered.' I acknowledge, from looking at the information we have, that the people who are being impacted by this legislation are not those who are totally reliant on the pension. They never have been. That has not been the client group to which this legislation applies. But the blanket statement that these people are completely wealthy and that their security will be intact by putting this legislation in, is-in my opinion and the opinion of a number of people who have submitted to this particular process-not understood or accepted.

That is why we, on this side, are not supporting this legislation. We think that these pensioners should be supported and that any change to the pension system should not be done in such a piecemeal way. That has been mentioned by a number of the people who submitted to this particular process, truncated as it was, such as National Seniors and COTA. A number of people have put forward that this is not the way to look at our pension system. You should not just identify one group and, in one sweep, just change their processes without interacting and consulting with them and working through what the real impact will be.

There is not understanding of these changes. But the deal that has been put in place between the government and the Greens will mean that it will go-that this is already accepted. Yet there is no understanding of the impact on these people. Their questions have not been answered. Their futures have not been made secure. And they will have to deal with significant changes which will not, in their eyes, be equitable or fair.

A number of the submitters-as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Seselja-compared the circumstances of people who have been affected by this legislation with those of other people who are also currently in the pension system, and their circumstances will be seen as not equitable. That is particularly so around the asset treatment of people who are homeowners, for whom their home is not counted in their pension assessment, and for people for are not homeowners, for whom every asset they have is counted in their pension assessment and can actually take away from them in the assessment of the pension.

So this particular process is not supported by the Labor Party. We are not supporting the changes to the pension in this way. We are particularly not supporting the lack of evidence that has come before us to make an informed decision. When we are talking about savings of the extent that we have before us, we believe that there should be the opportunity for consultation, for examination and for a genuine understanding of the direction of the legislation and of the modelling that went behind the arguments that have come forward, not just blanket statements or a list of figures in a draft, which is what we have got in the departmental submissions. We need to see the actual modelling so that that can be looked at independently to show, as to people who are affected by the changes that are being put in place, whether their futures will be secure and whether the impact of the taper will allow them to have the kind of secure future that we expect. I am not saying that the people who are affected by this legislation are the ones who are at the lowest level, but they should be respected and their information should be shared. (Time expired)