House debates

Thursday, 17 June 2021


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021; Second Reading

9:43 am

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that:

(a) these changes are necessary due to the tens of thousands of Australians who remain stranded overseas, including many Australian pensioners; and

(b) Australian pensioners stranded overseas have been let down by the Government due to delays in the vaccine rollout and lack of specialist quarantine facilities; and

(2) calls on the Government to:

(a) do more to bring Australian pensioners stranded overseas home by accelerating the vaccine rollout and establishing specialised quarantine facilities; and

(b) not cut the pension".

Pensioners have worked hard and contributed all their lives. They deserve our respect. The age pension is a proud Labor legacy. The first iteration of the age pension was introduced by the Deakin Labor government in 1908. It sought to ensure that older Australians could live with dignity. I was raised by pensioners. They taught me the value of respect. They taught me the value of hard work. They taught me the value of money, the importance of saving, planning and budgeting: a penny saved is a penny earned. That's what pensioners do. They've worked hard. They've helped create the fundamental way of life that we know in this country today. They've looked after us, whether we're children or grandchildren. They budget carefully and they deserve our respect.

Labor will always work to strengthen and improve the pension. Over the last eight years, Labor has sought to protect the pension from the government's relentless cuts to it, and relentless attempts to cut it. Retirement can be an anxious time. All of us understand that. The past year has been a time like no other, with extra health precautions, lockdowns, more time spent at home, reliance on food and grocery delivery services, and the need to purchase additional health products. It's been a particularly hard year for pensioners in meeting their added costs of living, especially those in Victoria—Melbourne, in particular—but, of course, right across the country.

Australian pensioners should be able—and are able—to continue to receive their pension overseas, should they wish. To that end, pensioners with 35 years of Australian working-life residence can receive the full base rate of the pension while overseas indefinitely. One of the great things about the social security system in Australia is its portability. Pensioners with less than 35 years of Australian working-life residence will receive a proportional rate after 26 weeks overseas. Recent events—the COVID-19 pandemic—have seen Australian pensioners stranded overseas through no fault of their own. Temporary arrangements were introduced to allow extensions to pension portability, meaning pensioners could continue to retain the full rate while overseas for longer than 26 weeks. The changes in this bill would enable these arrangements to continue, by providing the secretary with the discretion to continue the full rate in prescribed circumstances. It is the kind of commonsense flexibility that should be built into our social security system.

These changes are necessary for the tens of thousands of Australians who remain stranded overseas, including many Australian pensioners. Australian pensioners stranded overseas have been failed by this neglectful government due to the severe delays in the vaccine rollout and failure to establish specialist quarantine facilities. They are the responsibility of the federal government. Labor has consistently called for the establishment of specialist quarantine facilities. Over a year since the beginning of the pandemic these facilities have still not been delivered. For over a year, the government stubbornly refused to acknowledge—inexplicably refused to acknowledge—its responsibility in quarantine. It has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to accept this responsibility. This is a government that has simply not treated the vaccine rollout with any urgency.

The Prime Minister said it is a race. Well, it is a race. In fact, I've just come from the Aboriginal medical service here in Canberra, having had my second vaccine. It is a race against further variants. It is a race to save lives and it is a race to save livelihoods, as my colleague has just agreed. It is a race that Australia is losing. Stranded Australians are paying the price, including Australian pensioners who are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic due to their age and health status.

Of course, this is not the first time pensioners have been let down by this government. Pensioners will never forget that before the government took power it pledged not to cut the age pension. But at the first opportunity they had, and over the past eight years, the government has cut, or tried to cut, the pension time and time again. Labor will consistently fight this. Labor has fought every single one of these cuts tooth and nail. Cuts to the pension are part of the government's thinking, part of the government's being and part of the government's DNA. As recently as August last year, the government was caught out by Labor on the pension freeze for 2.5 million pensions. Labor fought the government's disrespectful and cruel pension freeze. The reality is that pensioners plan for their twice-yearly indexation. One is on 20 March and one is on 20 September. The freeze took effect in September, and they made pensioners wait until the October budget before announcing any kind of relief.

We have also seen the government try to short-change pensioners through the pension deeming rates mechanism. Let me assure you, pensioners understand deeming rates very, very well. Deeming rates are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets, typically savings, for the purpose of determining their eligibility under the income test for a pension. The upper deeming rate in Australia at this point in time is 2.25 per cent and the lower deeming rate is just 0.25 per cent. If you are single, the first $53,000 of your financial assets has a deeming rate of 0.25 per cent applied. Anything over $53,000 is deemed to earn the other rate of 2.25 per cent. If you're a member of a couple and at least one of you gets a pension, the first $88,000 of your combined financial assets has a deeming rate of 0.25 per cent, and anything over $88,000 is deemed at the other rate of 2.25 per cent. With the cash rate nearing zero per cent—it's currently 0.1 per cent—it is impossible to see how pensioners could safely earn 2.25 per cent on their savings. With the government deeming pensioners to earn more than they really are, pensioners are receiving less for their pension. Whilst the minister might disagree with that, it is absolutely the case. Pensioners are being short-changed by the government's unreasonable and unrealistic pension deeming rates.

Pensioners won't forget this government's record on cutting the pension. The Liberals and Nationals are obsessed with cutting the pension, attempting to cut the pension in every budget, every year. In 2014, they tried to cut the pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. That is a lot of money, in any terms, and it is particularly a lot of money for pensioners. In 2014, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. In 2014, they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. In 2014, they tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. In 2015, they did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension for around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In 2016, they tried to cut the pension for around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to just six weeks. In 2016, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. They spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. As social services minister the member for Cook—the current Prime Minister—tried to cut the pension, and we will not forget that. As Treasurer the member for Cook tried to cut the pension, and as Prime Minister the member for Cook has also tried to cut the pension.

In conclusion, there have been eight years of cuts to the pension by this government, and the government has only acted when it's been caught out on its cuts. Our pensioners deserve better than that, and Labor will continue to protect the pension. We will continue to fight the government's cruel cuts to the pension, and Labor will always ensure that pensioners continue to live with the dignity and respect they deserve.


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