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Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment and Pensioner Concession Card) Bill 2017

14 Jun 2017

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment and Pensioner Concession Card) Bill 2017. This government's record when it comes to Australian pensioners is a national disgrace. Australian pensioners helped build this country. Their reward under this government has been an all-out assault on their living standards. For four years, this government has tried to cut the incomes of Australian pensioners. Every step of the way, Labor has been there standing guard to shield Australian pensioners from this government's assaults on their cost of living. Labor opposed this government's attempt to change indexation that would have seen pensioners lose $80 in income over 10 years. Labor opposed this government's attempt to reset the deeming rate thresholds that would have seen 500,000 pensioners worse off. Labor opposed this government's reduction in assets tests that cut the pension for 330,000 pensioners today and will cut pensions for a million retirees within a decade. Labor opposed and opposes this government's attempt to increase the pension age to 70. And Labor opposes this government's continuing attempt to abolish the annual $365 energy supplement for single pensioners—a supplement introduced by a Labor government. Every time this government has assaulted the incomes and conditions of Australian pensioners, Labor has been there to defend them.

Labor is not opposing the bill before the House today. We will not deny pensioners this very modest one-off payment that they will receive as a result of the passage of this bill through the parliament. This one-off Energy Assistance Payment is supposed to assist pensioners with the rapidly and steeply rising cost of electricity across Australia. But let's put it in perspective. It is a $75 one-off payment. That equates to $1.44 a week or 20c a day. The pensioners of Australia who are battling crippling increases in power prices and other costs of living will no doubt be delirious with gratitude. Compare that one-off payment to the $30-a week increase in the pension that occurred under the last Labor government: a one-off $75 payment under the Liberals, a $1,560 pension increase under Labor; 20c a day under the Liberals, $4.27 a day under Labor.

But let's go further. The government expects Australian pensioners to be grateful for this $75 one-off payment when, in July, millionaires will be getting a $16,000 a year tax cut. That is 20c a day for pensioners and $44 a day for millionaires. What about those other battlers—the corporations and the banks? This government wants to give them $65 billion in tax cuts over the next 10 years—20c a day for pensioners, $44 a day for millionaires and $18 million a day for corporations and banks. What a stark illustration of this government's priorities when it comes to the public purse: spend less on pensioners, less on school children, less on apprentices, less on university students but more on millionaires and multinationals.

What is worse is that the government had to have its arm twisted into making even this modest payment. This $75 payment is not a Liberal idea and not a Nationals idea for that matter either. It is part of a deal that the government did with the crossbenchers to get their company tax handout through the Senate. This government's preference would have been to see corporations and banks get a $65 billion tax cut and pensioners get a big fat zero. And a big fat zero is what awaits the more than half a million Australians surviving on Newstart. For some reason that escapes me, they do not receive even this modest $75 one-off payment. Excuse me, but do people looking for work not struggle with power bills? What reason beyond meanness or political expediency can there be to deny people on Newstart this payment? The meanness, the miserliness of this government when it comes to the poor in this nation knows no bounds. Similarly, the largesse knows no bounds when it comes to rewarding the wealthy and the powerful.

 Mr Broad: It doesn't grow on trees.

 Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: I will take the interjection from the member. Money does not grow on trees. Apparently $65 billion grows on trees. You are happy to hand that back to the banks and the corporations. We need to address a fundamental mistruth that this government peddles—that terrible lie of lifters and leaners from this government, that awful labelling of pensioners as a 'burden' on society. Pensioners are not a burden on society. They have helped build our society. Whether in a lifetime of paid work or looking after a home or volunteering for a charity or a school, pensioners are valuable members of our society and they deserve to be treated with respect, and they deserve society's support when times get tough.

No-one in Australia should have to choose between affording food and affording electricity, between affording a pet and affording a car, between affording a gift for a grandchild and affording a day out with friends. We are an extraordinarily wealthy country—a wealth that our pensioners helped create. And we can—and we should and we must—do better. Pensioners are hardly living the high life. The current rate of a full age pension, including pension supplements and the energy supplement, is $888.30 per fortnight for singles and $669.60 for each eligible member of a couple—for singles, $444 a week for rent, petrol, bills, food and everything else. And all of us in this chamber receive close to $300 a night for staying here. So, $444 a week for pensioners to meet every expense they have, when we get $300 a night to cover our motel and a bit of transport maybe—well, no; the Comcars are free—when you talk about money not growing on trees—

 Mr Broad: Are you going to give it away?

 Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Well, you [inaudible] the bill and we will have a look at it. According to a 2016 report by ACOSS, Poverty in Australia, 36.1 per cent of people receiving social security payments were living below the poverty line—

Mr Broad interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Vasta ): Order! The member for Lyons has the call and will be heard in silence.

 Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: including 55 per cent of those receiving Newstart allowance, 51.5 per cent of those receiving parenting payment, 36.2 per cent of those receiving disability support pension, 24.3 per cent of those receiving carer payment and 13.9 per cent of those on the age pension. People are doing it tough when they have to depend on social security.

In my electorate, pensioners Kaye and Barry Smith live in Buckland, and they told the local newspaper that even a 15 per cent hike in power bills—and they are going up more than that, generally, across the nation—will cost—

Mr Taylor interjecting

 Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Well, you talk to some of the people who came to my office today: 250 per cent gas bill increases under your government's mismanagement. A 15 per cent hike in their power bill will cost Barry and Kaye Smith an extra $300 a year, an extra cost that they say they cannot afford. In their words:

We would be struggling to have to take a huge increase in power at this time of our lives …

We have to put away nearly 300 [dollars] a fortnight and that's to cover our gas, our power, our water and our rates and that doesn't cover our private health fund or ordinary living expenses. …

We own our own home, we don't have huge debts but even so we can't take huge power increase considering the pension has only gone up $5 a fortnight each.

There is a $16,000 tax cut coming for millionaires, and five bucks for pensioners. Woo-hoo; you blokes are great! Mr Smith said that the couple already had to stick to a tight budget, and:

If you're careful with your money you can survive but … you can't afford to waste it …

Is that really the best we can do for our pensioners—to give them enough to scrape by on, to pay them just enough to keep them from going hungry? I think we can do better.

But what is this bill all about? It is broken into two parts, a once-off Energy Assistance Payment to 1.7 million age pensioners and people on the disability support pension, parenting payment single and veterans payments—notably, not Newstart recipients—and the reinstatement of pensioner concession cards to more than 92,000 pensioners. First the EAP—well, let's be clear: this bill is a shallow attempt to distract Australians from the fact that this government still wants to axe Labor's $365-a-year energy supplement to new pensioners. We are not going to stop payments to people who need them, and we all know that energy costs are skyrocketing and that this government is simply failing to act.

In Tasmania, residential energy pricing rose by 46.5 per cent from the end of 2007 to July 2016, far outpacing other household economic indicators, like wage growth. Even the Tasmanian Liberal government—not well known for its insight—has listened to the state Labor opposition on skyrocketing power prices that are crippling families and small businesses. Unfortunately, the state liberal government solution is not a long-term policy but, like this $75 one-off payment, it is a politically motivated 12-month freeze on power prices. Tasmanian Labor leader, Rebecca White, says that long-term certainty is needed and I agree wholeheartedly with her. These one-off short-term proposals are not the future solution that we need. Rebecca White could be talking about this government—cynical, short-term decision making on the run that is designed to get passed an election.

Labor will vote for this bill because at the least—and it is the very least—it will put $75 into the hands of pensioners. But if anyone here seriously thinks it is going to be regarded as manna from heaven, they are sorely mistaken. Power prices are doubling and tripling and this payment will barely scratch the surface. It is $1.44 a week, or 20c a day—it is better than nothing, but only just.

The real story of this bill is the government's determination to try to axe Labor's $365 energy supplement to new pensioners. The government will no doubt point to this one-off payment to say, 'See! It's not needed. We're doing something—we're looking after pensioners.' But axing the energy supplement to new pensioners will both create a red-tape nightmare and, worse, entrench inequality. ACOSS notes in its submission to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017 inquiry, where the $365 cut was first touted:

… rather than applying only to new income support claimants, it would apply to anyone who started receiving a payment from 20 September 2016. These people would therefore experience a loss in income. Cessation of the supplement would also create two levels of payment because most existing recipients would continue to receive the supplement. This would create inequity as two people in the same circumstances would receive different rates of payment and would add further complexity to an already complicated income support system.

It is a one-off payment that will not help with the ongoing rises in energy pricing for our communities' most vulnerable.

As for the pensioner concession card, I am very happy to see it come back. It should never have gone out in the first place! On 1 January this year more than 92,300 former pension recipients and 3,600 veterans who received payments lost their pensioner concession cards and their eligibility for payments. In my electorate of Lyons, 1,460 pensioners were made worse off by these cuts, and for two years Labor has highlighted this issue. This government has come late to the party.

It is Labor, boosted by the hard work of Australian pensioners and their advocates, that has forced the coalition into this backflip. So it is a victory, and we welcome it. But it is another embarrassing backflip for this government. The 1 January date was not just about pensioners and veterans losing some or all of their payments, the biggest impact was the loss of the pension card. Without the pension card you cannot access discounted medicines, discounted dental treatment, discounted council rates, discounted water bills, discounted electricity bills, discounted registration, discounted public transport, reduced driver's license fees or a $52 a year subsidy to assist with heating costs. Those all went out the window for people on low incomes because of this government's abject stupidity and meanness. In some cases—in many cases—those changes whacked a couple of thousand dollars in bills onto people who were already on very tight and stretched budgets.

In the 2015 budget speech, then Treasurer Joe Hockey said that anyone who currently had a pensioner concession card would continue to receive a concession card that provides the same benefits, such as subsidised utilities and transport. He said that in his 2015 budget speech. But it turns out that Mr Hockey misled pensioners, and now the government has had to scramble to fix the problem.

We should not be surprised; this is the same government born from the lie that said no cuts to pensions, no cuts to health and no cuts to schools. And yet here we are, four years later, with this disgrace of a government. We are backing this bill—we will welcome any increase in payments to pensioners—but it really is nothing to be proud of.

We'll Put People First.

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