Speeches

Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019

December 02, 2019

I thank the member for Cowan for articulating what a lot of us on this side of the chamber are feeling, and that is that a bunch of people in our community have become easy targets, really easy targets, because they are the most vulnerable people in our community. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, which we do not support, absolutely targets groups within our community when, actually, we should be asking ourselves, 'How do we better support these people?' not, 'How do we kick them while they're down?'


This bill targets two groups of people, the first being age pensioners. On one hand you've got a government who says it cares for older people. We're not seeing a lot of action on that. There is lots of rhetoric but not a lot of action: 10,000 new home care packages is hardly the action we expect to see for protecting that older cohort. We're talking about the same groups of people here, and yet again, on two measures, there is an attempt to further punish people for being old and on the pension. The second group being targeted are people on Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances. Again, they are being targeted because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.


Let's look at the two measures in this bill that apply to pensioners. One is to increase the residency requirement for age and disability pensioners from 10 years to 15 years. I looked at this and looked at the numbers involved and thought, 'This is just mean.' This is just something mean that some bean counter thought up, that didn't take into account who these people are. I'll speak in a bit more detail on that. The second measure applies to age pensioners who travel overseas. Both of these groups are migrant pensioners, people who have chosen to make Australia their home, who deliberately set out to say, 'We want to be part of Australia,' and now that they've been here, they've contributed, they've worked, they are not going to get any of the entitlements that they really deserve. The bill rips out $185 million from Australian pensioners.


The group that I think is so unfairly targeted are people who have built a life and raised a family here. Not a lot of us in this chamber have made the conscious decision to uproot ourselves and go and live somewhere else. Some have come from migrant families. I've spent three years of my life living overseas, and I know the member for Wentworth, who sits opposite, has spent a considerable amount of time living overseas; but, like me, probably not once did he seriously consider relocating permanently. These are people who have made that very big choice, and we won't know all the stories behind their reasons for doing that.


In my electorate, Macquarie, the group who have done this so effectively—the largest ethnic group in the electorate—are the Maltese. They've been here for many years. I'm not suggesting that most of them will be affected by the increased residency requirements, but they will be impacted by the stopping of the payment of the age pension supplement when they go home. When you go home to Malta, you don't just pop over there for a week or two. You haven't seen family for many years. You've been dislocated from those large families. It is very common for people to want to go and spend significant amounts of time, a couple of months, over there. It might not be with only one family member. It's an opportunity to reconnect.


These are people who have worked hard. In my electorate, the work they have often done is the hard yards of producing the vegetables that we eat. They were market gardeners originally; they are now on sometimes quite large farming operations in the Hawkesbury. They are the people who put the fresh food on our tables. As part of what should continue to be the Sydney food bowl, the Hawkesbury is very grateful to the work that the Maltese community have done in ensuring we still have that produce thriving. These are people who have worked hard on the land, and I really don't understand how we can be so mean as to say, 'Sorry, that extra supplement's going to be cut off after six weeks.' You think about the work involved in saving up for this trip in the first place. It isn't something you can do every couple of years. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go home and see even more elderly family members.

I hope that the government has a change of heart on this and thinks about the human impact. I know that's a big ask. I know it doesn't happen very often with this government, but I happen to be an optimistic person and I live in hope. But you need only look at the track record of the government in recent years to see how the government has treated pensioners to see that I am probably being way too optimistic. I watched this government come to office. I lost the 2013 election but then watched very closely to see how this government behaved and, in the 2014 budget, it tried to cut the pension indexation—the cut that would mean the pension doesn't increase as it needs to in order to help people cope with the additional costs that they face. That cut would have meant pensioners would have been forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. It might not sound like a lot to those opposite, not with their pretty hefty packets, but to a pensioner that is a massive amount when the costs of your bills keep going up, particularly for energy. Of course, something else this government has tried very hard to take away from pensioners, and just about everyone who receives some sort of government allowance or concession, is the energy supplement.


Also in the 2014 budget there was a billion dollars cut from those pensioner concessions. Also cut was the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees, who, like any older person, this government is happy to take a whack at if they get some form of government assistance. In the 2014 budget the government also tried to reset deeming rate thresholds. That's a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. While I'm on deeming rates, it was like drawing blood from a stone to get this government to change the deeming rates. I think there were five interest rates falls before the government decided, 'Maybe deeming rates need to be adjusted,' and even then the adjustment was pretty minor. These are the sorts of things we've seen.


In 2015 was the really big blow. This was the decision by the Greens to do a deal with the Liberals so that the pension was cut to around 3,700 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year because of a change in the pension assets test. I have pensioners that are still reeling and still trying to find their way and their footing as a result of those decisions. It didn't stop in 2015. In 2016, we saw the first attempt to cut the pension as part of this plan to limit overseas travel. In the 2016 budget the government also tried to cut the pension for 1.5 million Australians. That was the attempt to cut the energy supplement. I think what this shows—and I could go on—is a pattern of deliberately targeting people who are the least able to find alternative sources of income. They can't just go and sell a wad of shares. They've been forced to downsize and to try to find ways to reduce their costs of living. The reality of that is that in summer they don't always use their air conditioners and in winter they don't always turn on their heating. These are the sorts of challenges that pensioners face right now, even with many of these attempts having been thwarted.


The other cruel blow is that for five years, I think it is, this government has tried to increase the pension age to 70. That's great if you spend your life sitting on a green bench but not so great if you're out there fixing cars or doing anything physical. Construction's the obvious one, but there's also nursing—hard, hard yards there. So this is the attitude that we're up against, and I would really urge the government to think closely about the people who are going to be affected here.


The other thing that's bolted on to this attack on pensioners is the attempt to extend the waiting period for people who lose their job or are made redundant. Now, let's get really clear. If someone has lost their job or been made redundant, they are now going to be asked to wait another—let's see; now I'm even stunning myself in terms of the length of time. Right now it's 13 weeks, and I think that is a long enough period to wait. Any longer than that is really forcing people to dig into the assets that they have. And this liquid assets waiting period, as it is known, is going to have a whole lot of consequences, not just for the person. That person is going to have to dig into their savings for just their normal costs of living. What if medical needs then arise? What if a car needs repairing?What sort of precarious financial position are these people going to find themselves in?
One of the inevitable consequences is that they will turn to shonky payday lenders. They will turn to people who will lend them money at exorbitant rates, and the government have failed to tackle that sector at all. What they're really doing here is driving more customers in the direction of those sorts of shonky lenders. But what it's also going to do—and this is the thing that makes me angriest of all—is make the stress on these individuals and their families even greater. It is already well established that financial stress has mental health consequences for some people, and we're saying to these people: 'We're going to make you suffer financially. You're already suffering because you're not working, not only the financial suffering but the sense of not having a job'—and it's not a great feeling—'and you're just going to have to deal with the consequences of that for your mental health.' It is simply cruel. It is mean and cruel to be doing these sorts of things to groups of people who just don't deserve it. I'd really urge those opposite to go and talk to people who are in this situation and ask, 'What effect does it really have on you?' It might actually be a better question, instead of asking how much harder they can make their lives, to ask, 'What can we do to help you move on from where you are?'


The other thing that concerns me about this is that, for people who've been made redundant and have been given a certain amount of money, the purpose of that often is to assist them in retraining and in working out what direction they want to go in. Yet now we're going to say: 'Just rely on it for the basics. There are no extras there. You're just going to have to dig into that.' In the Senate inquiries into this, some of the evidence highlighted that it will really impact on a particular group of people who've been made redundant—middle-aged men in their 50s and 60s. They've worked hard all their lives, they've paid taxes and they've been made redundant, perhaps because their industry is going through a transition and there's no alternative industry there for them to easily slot into. The people who spoke to the senators described that it will actually force people to go into poverty before they can access any government support. Is that really the intention of this legislation? It's called payment integrity. Should it really have poverty creation in there? I cannot imagine that that is the government's intention. If these are unintentional consequences then I'd really urge you to read the dissenting report from the Labor senators about what the real consequences of this legislation are.


I think this is actually a really good point: we can see that it will be assessed. The money that you have won't just be the cash in the bank; it'll be some of the payments made or that are due to be paid by your last employer; it's obviously the amount of money you've got in the bank, whether you can access that money or not, whether it's on long-term deposit or absolutely available; in some circumstances it might be assets that you've given to a son or a daughter; it might be loans you've made to other people; and it might be compensation payments. All of these will be assessed. It is just plain mean-spirited. It won't just be felt by older Australians and their families; it will flow to local economies like my small businesses in the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains who really need people to be able to spend a little bit of money on that cup of coffee or that haircut.

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