In Parliament

2008 AUG 27 – Questions Without Notice – Economy


August 27, 2008

Mr CHESTER (2.42 pm)
— My question is to the Prime Minister. Following the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that Australians are worse off since the election, why has he done nothing to help pensioners meet the rising costs of groceries, rents and petrol?

Mr RUDD — I thank the honourable member for his first question in the parliament and I extend to him respect for having stood in the chamber for the first time to ask a question.

On the question of pensioners, if the honourable member had listened to the remarks that I just made at the National Press Club then he would know that I went through the fact that we have provided through the budget $7.5 billion worth of additional allocations to pensioners, carers and those on the disability support pension. The way in which that is being delivered in part is through the utilities allowance—which in the past was paid by the previous government and ran, I think, at something in excess of $100 a year.

This is to be increased by a factor of almost $400 to $500 a year, and we have made that now for the first time a consistent annual payment. That represents a large slice of the amount which we paid. Furthermore, there was of course the one-off pensioners bonus that has been the subject of considerable discussion in this place—a bonus which was, on a one-off basis, introduced by the previous government for the two previous budgets, as I understand it, but not prior to that and was never announced as a permanent measure.

The other thing that we have done to assist pensioners is to increase the telephone allowance by some 50 per cent, particularly to assist pensioners with the start-up costs associated with getting an internet connection at home—because often what we find in representations we have received around country is that pensioners, often separated from their kids in this vast country of ours, are looking for a bit of help in getting an internet connection at home, because a lot of correspondence and keeping in touch is conducted that way these days. So that is another practical measure that we have put forward. Also, we have made a separate allocation of funds— from recollection, some $50 million—to various seniors groups and associations around the country to assist them with providing in-house training opportunities for pensioners to assist them with the use of the
internet at home.

These are practical measures which we have sought to help with. But, as I have said at this dispatch box on many occasions, we on this side of the House are fully seized of the fact that pensioners need to have their long-term payments put onto a more secure footing. That is why we have commissioned, through the Henry commission of inquiry, a detailed examination of the future of the tax income support and retirement incomes policy.

That is due to report in the case of retirement incomes policy, or the pensions component of it, by February of next year. Again I would draw the honourable gentleman’s attention to the fact that, in the previous 12 years when his own political party were in office, in coalition with the Liberal Party, I do not recall any fundamental, farreaching reform or examination of the nation’s pension scheme. I just don’t. I would suggest that those opposite who now stand and seek to preach from a high point on this question take a long, cold, hard look at their record on this question.

To assume, as the honourable gentleman has in his question, that cost of living pressures for pensioners have emerged in a matter of the last six to eight months is simply not true. They have certainly spiked in recent times because of factors like petrol and groceries that we have referred to in debates in this chamber, but the increased cost impact on the ability of single aged pensioners and married couples who are pensioners to survive on the basis of the age pension has been a challenge for a long, long time. Anyone who contributes honestly to this debate and any member in this parliament who has been in contact with their local seniors groups would know this from years gone by.

There is an inherent dishonesty in the proposition being put by those opposite, which is that this situation has mysteriously emerged in the last few months. It has not. It has been an emerging problem for a long, long time. The difference is that we have commissioned a mechanism to examine this from the ground up, and it will report by February next year, which will be within 12 months of us taking office. My question to those opposite is: what did you do in 12 years? I do not remember them doing anything in 12 years.

I would say to them: please get your own house in order on this question before seeking to advance a debate like this, and put forward a concrete policy on the future of the pension. I seem to remember a concrete policy being put forward by the opposition on the pension—I think by the relevant shadow minister. It was in a radio interview some months ago. From memory, it lasted about 42 minutes—maybe it was 43 minutes—before being slapped down by the member for Wentworth. If those opposite wish to credibly engage in the debate on pensions, which is a very important debate for those most vulnerable Australians, then I would suggest they get real and put some policy on the table rather than engaging in simply opportunistic politics.

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