Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (One-Off Payments and Other Budget Measures) Bill 2008
I am happy to inform the House that the opposition supports the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (One-off Payments and Other Budget Measures) Bill 2008, but I should also inform the House that this is the bonus that almost never was. This legislation resulted from intense pressure brought by the opposition on the government after it was extremely credibly reported that the government was intending to scrap the bonuses which this legislation now delivers.
Back on Friday, 7 March this year, the Australian reported on its front page, as senior sources confirmed, that the payments were to be scrapped. It said:
Treasurer Wayne Swan told a business lunch the Howard government had engaged in the “old politics” of pork-barrelling, leaving the incoming government facing the need to make dramatic budget cuts to reduce the inflationary pressure that was driving up interest rates.
We now know that there were no dramatic cuts in the budget and there has been no serious fight against inflation in this budget. But we do know, because that particular report in the Australian made it very clear, there were strong forces inside the government that did want to see these carers and seniors bonuses scrapped.
Not only do we have that report, but we also had on the same day the Sydney Morning Herald reporting:
The Federal Government faces criticism from carer groups after it decided not to match a $1600 bonus payment made to carers by the Howard government in recent years.
A spokeswoman for the Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin, confirmed the decision last night saying it was part of the Government’s plan to cut spending.
And when that day the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs was specifically asked about this, she was reported by AAP as saying:
Ms Macklin refused to rule anything in or out in the budget, but said the government understood the difficulties faced by carers.
If the government had been committed all along to paying these bonuses, why were these very well-sourced reports that they were not appearing in at least two credible newspapers and why did Minister Jenny Macklin refuse to say that the government was totally committed to paying the bonus when she was given that chance?
The government faced a storm of controversy, as you would expect, over its decision at that point in time not to pay the bonuses. At that point in time the Prime Minister was off on one of his many overseas jaunts. When he was finally contacted he said that this was something that would be dealt with in due course. When he finally came back to parliament he said that the minister was investigating how the system could be improved, saying that ‘one-off payments and bonuses were an inadequate way to deal with welfare on a long-term basis’.
So let me make this absolutely clear. First of all, the government is paying these bonuses reluctantly. It is only paying these bonuses because Jenny Macklin won a guerrilla war inside the government, against the minister for finance. The second point I make is that it is only paying these bonuses temporarily. As the Prime Minister himself made clear, and let me quote it again, ‘one-off payments and bonuses are an inadequate way to deal with welfare on a long-term basis’. So the carers and the seniors of Australia need to know their bonuses are not safe under the Rudd government. They have only got the bonuses this year because of the opposition. And there is no assurance whatsoever that these bonuses are going to be paid in future years.
I want to make it absolutely crystal clear that the carers and the pensioners of this country are doing it tough. They are not doing it as tough as they might otherwise have been because of the decisions that the Howard government made and the regular payments of these bonuses over the last few years. They are not doing it as tough as they might otherwise have been because of the massive surplus that this government inherited, thanks to the good economic management of its predecessor, and thanks to the sustained pressure that the opposition brought on the government to thwart their sneak attack on these bonuses through the minister for finance. But they are still doing it tough, and I commend Carers Australia for pointing out today just how hard it is for pensioners and carers, for whom the cost of essentials is certainly going up at a faster rate than the standard CPI. It is precisely because of this that over the last four budgets the Howard government paid these bonuses; and it is precisely because of this that the Nelson opposition would not stand for any attempt by the current government to terminate these bonuses.
The opposition certainly support this legislation. We believe that we are, in a real sense, the authors of this legislation. We believe that were it not for us this legislation would not be before the House right now. We are pleased to have fought the good fight on behalf of the carers and pensioners of this country. I can assure them that we will be here to protect them against the rapacity of the Rudd government.
I am very pleased to rise to support the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (One-off Payments and Other Budget Measures) Bill 2008 that is before the House. The Rudd government is very much a caring government, and a caring government must always acknowledge the incredible contributions and roles played by the carers, the seniors and, indeed, the veterans who also benefit from this particular piece of legislation, by ensuring that their bonuses are not only paid to them but will be paid by the end of this financial year. I listened with breathtaking incredulity to the speech from the member for Warringah. There was probably only one point that he made, which was his opening sentence, that I would agree with. He opened by saying that this was ‘the bonus that almost never was’—and he is absolutely accurate because, in fact, this bonus was never contained in the forward estimates of the Howard-Costello government. It is very clear that there was no intention by the previous government to continue paying this bonus to these most deserving members of our community.
It is interesting to note that the member for Warringah referred to the fact that these bonuses were paid over four budgets by the previous government. For four budgets they paid a one-off bonus to carers and seniors, and in the middle of preparing a fifth one they had the opportunity to give carers, seniors and veterans a much greater level of financial security in these payments by not continuing them as one-off bonuses but providing ongoing support for them in the forward estimates and future budgets. But they refused to do that. As a result, I find it amazing that the member for Warringah can stand up in this place and criticise the Rudd government for paying these bonuses, saying that we were never intending to do it, when in fact the uncertainty was created by them in the first place.
These bonuses are important because the carers and seniors of this community play an incalculable role in providing support for our overall welfare. We as a government have made it very clear through the budget delivered last night, through the election campaign that was so hard fought last year and in every piece of legislation we have introduced since last November that we are committed to improving the living standards of working families and providing economic relief from the pressures they are facing at the moment. This piece of legislation is one important plank in our commitment to working families because carers and seniors are also members of working families. In fact, if it was not for the incredible contribution that our elderly members of the community have made through the workforce over many years we would not be in the privileged position that we are in today. And if it was not for the carers who are at home looking after those people who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, others would not be able to participate in the workforce. So they are a fundamental part of our working families and they deserve the financial support that the government can give them.
Carers deserve financial support that also gives them some financial security. That is why I am pleased that the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, in introducing this legislation, has made sure that the bonuses will be paid this financial year. The minister will also undertake a review that will look at ways in which welfare and retirement can be supported through ways that are much more certain and that will provide much more financial security than the one-off bonuses that were introduced by the previous government. It is important, when you are living on the breadline and dealing with rising costs of living, battling the increase in petrol prices and going to a supermarket every week and having to fork out more money each time, that the government gives you some level of financial support and acknowledges not only your vital contribution to the community and to the individuals you are caring for but also the needs you have as an elderly member of the community. It is also important that you have some level of financial security and that you do not have to wait with bated breath each budget night to know what your income will be the following week or the following month. That is why it is important to ensure that people receive these vital payments this year, which will give the government an opportunity over the next financial year to look at ways in which it can deliver this financial support in a more effective and a more financially secure manner. I am very pleased that the minister has introduced this legislation. I am absolutely astounded that the member for Warringah was dragged kicking and screaming to support this measure. He said not one word about the invaluable contribution of carers and seniors. He tried to develop some spurious argument that it is this government that does not support them when it was always the intention of the government that he was once a member of to get rid of this bonus.
Another aspect of this legislation which reflects this government’s attitude to carers and seniors and shows that we honour and regard them with the level of dignity that they deserve is that those holding concession cards will be allowed to go overseas for up to 13 weeks of the year without their cards being cancelled. Whilst those cards may not provide support for them while they are overseas, we all know—we talk to constituents every day—the hassle of dealing with forms and bureaucratic officers when reapplying for something that has been cancelled. I believe that this demonstrates that our pensioners are human beings and that they should enjoy many of the benefits that we all enjoy. If they are able to travel overseas for up to 13 weeks without having to relinquish their card, it is quite a significant innovation. I am very pleased that the minister has used this piece of legislation to allow it to happen.
I am pleased that the opposition is supporting this legislation and that they are, for a fifth time, prepared to support a one-off bonus. I hope, though, when it comes to the new initiatives that this government will introduce and when we implement measures that will give financial security in the long term to carers, seniors and those veterans who are entitled to them, that the opposition will also support those initiatives. Those initiatives will not only honour the contributions of carers, seniors and veterans but also give those valuable members of our community the dignity that they deserve.
The Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (One-off Payments and Other Budget Measures) Bill 2008 delivers the government’s commitment to make bonus payments to seniors and carers for 2008. As the member for Bonner said, it acknowledges the role and contribution of carers as well as the role that our senior Australians have played in creating our prosperous nation. New one-off payments will be paid generally before the end of the financial year. They will be tax free and will not count as income for the purposes of social security, veterans entitlements or family assistance purposes. A 2008 one-off payment of $500 will go to older Australians. Each person of pension age or veterans qualifying age who is receiving an income support payment on 13 May 2008, and recipients to that date of mature age allowance, partner allowance, widow allowance, wife pension or widow B pension, will also attract the one-off payment. Around $1.4 billion has been allocated for the seniors bonus payment. Self-funded retirees will also receive a bonus if they are, on that same date, qualified or notionally qualified for the seniors concession allowance. The government has provided around $428 million for the delivery of the carer bonus to eligible carers.
Despite the comments of the member for Warringah, this government is standing by carers, and carers will be paid a $1,000 one-off payment if they are receiving, as of 13 May 2008, either a social security carer payment or a veterans carer service pension. Carers receiving the non-means tested carer allowance in addition to either the wife pension or veterans partner service pension will also get the $1,000 one-off payment. Any carer receiving the carer allowance will be paid a separate $600 one-off payment for each eligible care receiver. Approximately 606,500 bonus payments will be made to 430,000 care providers as a result of this Rudd government initiative. A further measure introduces a limited non-cancellation period for social security or veterans entitlements concession cards while the cardholder is overseas, which will result in a significant improvement of concession card arrangements. There are around 600,000 temporary trips outside Australia taken by concession card holders. These new rules will allow cardholders who leave Australia for up to 13 weeks to retain their cards while overseas rather than requiring that the card be cancelled from the day of departure.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.