Monday, 2 December 2019
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading
The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 is yet another example of this coalition government's attacks on pensioners and people on welfare. This bill contains more cuts to vulnerable Australians. There are three parts to this bill. The first part is to increase the residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years. The second part is to stop the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks overseas for Australian pensioners who travel overseas. And the third part of this bill extends the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, to youth allowance and to other allowances.
The thing about this bill is that it's not a new bill. It's not a new bill at all. It was first introduced by this coalition government in 2017. It was a bad bill then, it's a bad bill now and it will continue to be a bad bill. The government want to punish pensioners. It's not enough that they demonise people on welfare. It's not enough that the Minister for Social Services claims that people on welfare will be spending all their money on drugs and sending their money to drug traffickers. That's not enough, no. They also have to attack people on welfare with every part of their breath. This bill will rip $185 million—think about that—from who? Not from big business, not from those who aren't paying their taxes—no: $185 million will be ripped from Australian pensioners.
This government has proven itself to be the enemy of Australian pensioners. It has tried to cut the pension and increase the pension age in every budget, including in three budgets when the current Prime Minister was the Treasurer. In the 2014 budget it tried to cut pension indexation, which would have meant that pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. That cut would have ripped $23 billion, again, from the pockets of Australian pensioners. Also in the 2014 budget the government cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions. Again in the 2014 budget—wow, that 2014 budget was a doozy—it axed the $900 seniors supplement and, in that same budget, tried to reset deeming rate thresholds that would have seen 500,000 part-pensioners made worse off.
What do we have in 2015? This government did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. What about 2016? In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of their plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks—the same plan that they're trying to pull with this bill. But also in the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. By their own figures, that measure would have left over 563,000 Australians, who are currently receiving a pension or allowance, worse off. Over 10 years, in excess 1.5 million pensioners would be worse off. On top of all of that, this government has spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70, and it took five consecutive rate cuts before it even adjusted the deeming rates—and only then after a concerted campaign and pressure from seniors groups and from Labor.
This bill, as it is, will have a differential impact on migrant pensioners—people like my mum. My mum's a pensioner. She's been in Australia for 50 years. For most of those years she worked as an aged-care worker. It is quite well known that my mother actually nursed former Prime Minister John Howard's mother in her final days. She was very close to Mrs Howard at that time. I believe my mother's earned her pension, as have many other Australian pensioners and as have many migrants who came to Australia and worked hard in building Australia, building the infrastructure that we need and looking after our elderly, like my mum did. They've earned their pensions.
In my electorate I've got pensioners from the United Kingdom, from South Africa, from Portugal, from Macedonia, from Greece and from Italy. Every now and then, they like to go back to their mother country. They like to see their extended family. My parents spent 50 years here, and not once did we have any family come to visit us. They spent 50 years away from their sisters, their brothers, their nieces, their nephews, their great nieces and their great nephews. That's not unusual for migrant families who come here. It's not unusual for them to want to go back and visit their extended family and reconnect with their extended family. So this bill cutting the pension for six weeks away is going to differentially impact on them.
I've already had migrant pensioners from my electorate come to tell me just how much this is going to affect them. I've had them in tears telling me that they really want to go back, but six weeks is not enough and they're not going to be able to afford to go back if their pensions are cut after six weeks. Think about this. Many pensioners are older, they're frail and they have health issues. For some of them, it's a really long way to travel. For some of them, it's a 25-hour aeroplane trip. When they get there, they want to be able to spend as much time as they can there. In other cases, they might go there and there might be circumstances which keep them there. This is a really unfair measure that's going to differentially impact on migrant pensioners across all our electorates.
When the member for Barton was talking about this particular part of the bill, the member for Goldstein interjected. I'd like to challenge the member for Goldstein to actually go out and talk to some of the migrant pensioners in his electorate and ask their opinion of this bill, because I'm pretty sure that the migrant pensioners in his electorate—people who came here 30, 40, 50 years ago, who worked hard, who contributed to the Australian economy in so many different ways, as well as to our social fabric, and who deserve the pension that they are on—will have something to say about this to the member for Goldstein.
One of the other things that this bill does is seek to increase the liquid assets waiting period, which is currently at 13 weeks. It's currently at 13 weeks for people with modest savings. We believe that 13 weeks is long enough. I want to talk here about what this means for people in the electorate of Cowan who have found themselves on hard times, who have found themselves relying on the social welfare safety net—something which Australia should be very proud of and which we are very proud of. There aren't a lot of countries in the world where, if you lose your job or if you find yourself on hard times, you don't have to suffer in many of the ways that people suffer in countries without the robust welfare program that we have here in Australia.
In my electorate, people aren't waiting 13 weeks to get a job. People, many of them over the age of 50, who have found themselves retrenched after many years of working for an organisation or company, are waiting, on average, 22½ weeks to get a job. That is the average waiting period in the northern suburbs of Perth. In the north-east it's 25.9 weeks. These are the longest job queues in the state. People in the electorate of Cowan who, for reasons beyond their control, lose their jobs and find themselves reliant on our social security safety net aren't getting jobs within 13 weeks. They are waiting, on average, well over 20 weeks.
What does this bill mean to them? Many of those in the northern suburbs are also suffering high household debt and mortgage stress, which means they have very meagre savings, if any, because all of their wages are being spent on rent or on keeping a roof over their heads and keeping their families heads above water. This means that those who have any kinds of assets may have to sell those assets just in order to be able to survive until they find a job. These aren't people who want to be on social security, the people who this government seeks to demonise with every breath. These are people who are trying to find work. These are people who have worked, who have paid taxes, who have contributed. Maybe they've worked two jobs, maybe three. But the state of the economy at the moment means that they simply can't find more work. Many of them are older workers and they simply can't find more work and are having to wait over 20 weeks until they find a job. Putting in this liquid assets waiting period also means that, after 13 weeks, after people have run down their savings, they may be forced to sell their homes, they may be forced out of their homes, they may be forced into poverty. If they lose their home, if they lose their car, if they're forced into these situations, then finding employment will be just that much more difficult.
This entire bill is nothing but a cash grab. And it's really telling that a number of bills that we've seen this government introduce over the last few weeks have all been about reaching into the pockets of the pensioners, of people on welfare and of people on Newstart, and it seems to me that this government is reaching into the pockets of the wrong people. It seems to me that this government is trying to reach into the pockets of the most vulnerable.
Labor cannot support this bill. We cannot support this government continuing to demonise and to hit and attack pensioners and people on welfare—this is who they are; this is in their DNA; this is what this government stands for.
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.
It's telling, isn't it? The government will not show up to defend their own legislation. And why would they want to speak on this bill? The first thing I say to the House is: don't be fooled by the Orwellian title. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 is a bill to cut the age pension. This is a bill to cut Newstart. It's not about payment integrity. They may as well call it, as the member for Macquarie was saying, the 'Drive up poverty bill'. Only a government led by a cheap, failed marketing guy could come up with 'payment integrity' as a description for a bill that cuts the age pension and cuts Newstart.
What this bill does is cruel. It cuts the age pension supplement to pensioners who are overseas for six weeks or more. It takes $185 million from the pockets of pensioners. That equates to, I think, for someone on the single base rate of the pension supplement, a grand total of $11.88 per week for that single pensioner. Well done to the government; well done you. Even for this government that is a mean-spirited, nasty little cut. The main targets of these cuts, of course, are pensioners with families living overseas, many thousands of whom reside in my electorate—people who came to this country in the 1950s and 1960s from Greece, from Italy and then later from Serbia, from Vietnam and from all over the world, who've contributed to this country for the whole of their working lives. They've paid their taxes. They've put in, and now they might want to visit their families overseas in retirement. They want to spend quality time with their families even later in their lives, but this government's bill makes it harder to do so.
Many people might listen to this and think: 'How many pensioners can afford to go overseas for six weeks? If they can afford that, surely we can take $11 off them.' The truth is that, if you're a pensioner, you would have to save up for a very long time for the flights to get overseas, so it makes sense to go and stay with family for two, three or four months. Often people travel to care for the grandkids overseas, when a new baby is born, or for a sick relative. Indeed, in that regard—I talked about this at a recent seniors morning tea I had—people were horrified. The government hasn't told people about this bill; it's been buried in the background on the Notice Paper for some years now.
But it's not just migrants; it's people born in this country, because we're a globalised society now. Children of pensioners move overseas and get jobs, fall in love, get married, live in London or wherever they may be and have children. And, of course, the pensioners of Australia want to go and visit their children and connect with their grandkids. Pensioner are not rich. Staying for two, three or four months means saving for airfares. Often, of course, those airfares are paid for by their kids, but they still have the bills to pay at home when they're not here. They still have the council rates. They still have the electricity bills, most of which are the connection fees for many pensioners.
So why is the government doing this? They're cutting $11.88 a week from vulnerable people for a few weeks of the year to save $185 million by attacking pensioners. And yet this very year the government voted themselves a tax cut of $16,000 a year. That says everything you need to know about the government's priorities. Everyone on the government benches gets a tax cut of $16,000 a year, and now we're debating a bill to cut $11.88 from pensioners.
This is a government with the wrong priorities. Their budget surplus that we hear so much about is built entirely on these kinds of cuts and on attacking the most vulnerable people in Australia—the $1.6 billion cut to the NDIS, for example. Now, there are two possibilities: possibility 1, that the Liberals are just mean and don't care, and possibility 2, that they think now the election's out of the way they can get away with it. Well, the truth is, I think, probably both are true.
The fact that pensioners travel overseas for an extended period of time is the reality of life in modern Australia. This is the kind of society we are now. Pensioners don't just sit at home, government, waiting to die. They go overseas to see their grandkids, to be with family and to visit the place they have not been able to go to for 40 years. And, yes, they might want to stay for four months in the village where they were born and grew up. Cutting the pension in this way is an attack on the Australian way of life. You may not see it, but we will make sure that every pensioner, if this bill passes, knows.
The Liberals' efforts to cut the age pension are not new. This in fact is the third time they've tried to make this cut to the age pension supplement. In 2017—I'll give them this—at least they were a bit more honest. The bill that was buried in at that point was called the omnibus savings and child care reform bill—at least it had savings in the title. In 2017 they also introduced, astoundingly, another bill that sat on the Notice Paperthis time called payment integrity—but it was never debated. The Liberals have been too scared to debate this bill the whole of the last term, even though they had this cut to the age pension sitting on the Notice Paper for years. Of course it died on the Notice Paper in the last parliament but, like the political necrophiles they are, they just couldn't stop themselves and reintroduced it to the House—reanimated it.
Let's just record for the House the Liberals' age pension cuts—the history thereof. In 2014 they tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant that pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. In 2014 they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. In 2014 they also axed the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees for receiving the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. In 2014—that was a good year for them, wasn't it?—they tried to reset deeming rates thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. In 2015 they did that famous deal with the Greens political party to cut the pension for around 370 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by fiddling the pension assets test. Not stopping there, in 2016 they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners—again, this was the early version of the plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. In 2016 they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures—this is their own admission—showed that this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off.
They then spent five long years trying to increase the pension age to 70. I think when the current Prime Minister did in Malcolm Turnbull he freaked out because he realised that wasn't exactly popular in real Australia and they dropped that one—it may well return. And then they took five consecutive RBA rate cuts before they even adjusted the deeming rates, and that was only after a concerted campaign from seniors groups and Labor.
This bill, though, doesn't stop there. It is not just a bill to cut the age pension; this bill attempts to cut Newstart, astoundingly. It's hard to actually understand where they think up this nonsense. At a time when almost everyone in Australia except those opposite understand that the rate of Newstart is too low, at just $40 a day, and even the Business Council of Australia, those well-known socialist lefties, say Newstart has to be raised, what do the Liberals do? They cut Newstart in this bill.
To be clear, there is no public policy rationale for increasing the liquid assets waiting period for people who lose their job or are made redundant. This a cash grab from vulnerable Australians, pure and simple. Again, in a year when the government voted themselves a tax cut—everyone opposite got a tax cut of $16,000 a year from the government—their answer now is to try and cut Newstart to prop up the budget surplus.
The Liberals are proposing to take money from workers experiencing unemployment, who are Australia's most vulnerable people, because currently there is a maximum waiting period of 13 weeks for people with very modest savings, if they're made redundant or lose their job, to access Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy. This bill would double the waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks; that's six months. The government wants vulnerable people to wait six months to access basic support through Centrelink. Applicants therefore would be forced to spend down what meagre savings they might have before being eligible to receive a payment.
Now, a savings buffer is incredibly important for the financial resilience of everyday Australians. This bill would force people to eat into their emergency savings. What happens, then, when the car breaks down? What happens when you need to pay a rental bond because you lost your last house and have to move? What happens when the fridge stops working? What happens when your suit pants rip before a job interview? The government might as well call this, if they were being honest, the 'Drive up payday lending bill' or the 'Drive up poverty bill', because that's what it will do.
As the Senate inquiry made clear, these changes will particularly impact unemployed older Australians—men between 50 and 65, and people who have received redundancy payments. We know what the government's doing. They've always loved demonising people on welfare, people on Newstart, summoning up that old stereotype of the dole bludger and making people think that just about everyone claiming unemployment benefits is somehow a dole bludger. They know that's not true. It is not true. The integrity mechanisms within Centrelink stop just about all of that happening. Of course there are a few people who rort the system, and they should be caught and they should be dealt with. But the vast majority of people on Newstart are on Newstart because they cannot get a job and they need the support to survive. These cuts don't help people to get back on their feet. They just push vulnerable people into desperate situations and further isolate them from support.
The Department of Human Services—just to put some numbers around this—expect that these cuts would impact 13,800 Australians annually, and that 11,000 Australians would be forced to wait an entire six months, if they got made redundant, before they could access Newstart. It's a continuation of six years of cuts based on the Liberals' obsession with attacking ordinary working Australians doing it tough and their ideological obsession with punishing people because they are poor. This is a bill to cut the age pension and to cut Newstart, and they should be honest, at least, and call it that.
This Liberal government has never seen a group of vulnerable people that it didn't want to target. It's a government in search of a policy agenda, it's a government in search of a reason for being, but it's never a government in search of a group of Australians to target and it's always, always, vulnerable Australians that it sets its sights on. This bill targets pensioners. It targets young people looking for work. It targets older workers who have lost their jobs. It targets people at a time in their lives when they need assistance, not punishment. It targets people who have worked hard, who have paid their taxes, who want to go and see their family who live overseas or perhaps support sick family members who live overseas. It targets hardworking vulnerable Australians in their time of need.
If you feel like you've seen this Liberal government trying to make these cuts before, if you feel a bit of deja vu, it's because you have seen it before. These cuts to allowances for pensioners and other people who need them were bad when the then Treasurer, now the Prime Minister, announced them in the 2016-17 MYEFO. They were bad when he put them in the 2017-18 budget. They were bad when they were introduced into the parliament in 2017 in what was called, ironically, the payment integrity bill. And they're bad now. At least the 2017 Liberal government were apparently too embarrassed to bring on for debate a bill ripping $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners. They introduced it, but they didn't bring it on for debate. Not so the Morrison government—no, this Morrison government is apparently not at all ashamed of trying to bring in more cuts for vulnerable Australians, more cuts for middle-aged and older Australian workers, more cuts to Newstart, more cuts to pensions. It is not at all ashamed of its legislation which would make life even harder for Australians who are already doing it tough.
So here we are, debating what is still called the payment integrity bill—and you might ask yourself if everyone in this chamber understands what the word 'integrity' means, particularly those on the other side—and Labor is opposing it because this is legislation which would make it even harder for Australians who are already doing it tough to get by and would punish Australians simply for wanting to live their lives. Australia has had the slowest growth in a decade. We have stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and declining living standards. What do the Morrison government have as a plan to address the floundering economy and make life just that little bit easier for the people in my community of Dunkley who are struggling to pay the bills on their low wages? Businesses are finding it difficult to find customers who have enough disposable income to spend, and people right now are working out how they're going to pay the out-of-pocket costs for their health care and the aged-care costs for their parents and their loved ones; how they're going to pay for child care so they can go back to work; and how they're going to find stable, secure and well-paid employment. What do the Morrison government have as a plan for people in my community? Nothing. But they do have this bill—an old, bad idea to rip money from the pockets of pensioners and those looking for work. They have a plan to make it worse, not better.
This bill cuts Newstart—have no illusions about that. It will force Australians who are desperately trying to re-enter the workforce to eat into their meagre savings before they can access income support. I am deeply concerned about how this government's attempts to make people who have lost their job expend their meagre savings and assets before they can access Newstart or sickness allowance and will impact on older workers in my community in Dunkley. As I go around my community, when I'm not in Canberra—when I'm at home every day; when I'm out holding seniors' morning teas for 650 people in a week; when I'm talking to people in the local malls and shopping centres in Langwarrin and Karingal; when I'm at the shopping strips in Carrum Downs, Frankston North and Monterey; when I'm holding community drop-in clinics at the community centres at Orwell and Belvedere—I am constantly faced with stories of men and women in their 50s and older who simply cannot find work. Sometimes their parents approach me and say that they're retired and should be enjoying their life, but they're spending their days worried sick for their daughter or son who's 55, has worked their entire life and has been made redundant, not through any fault of their own, after they have paid their taxes and done the right thing, because their employer has gone out of business or because the changing nature of work means that the job they're doing is no longer needed. Sometimes they've lost their job and they can't get back into the market, because of age discrimination. I am told about people who, in desperation, have taken their age off their CV and managed to get interviews, but then for some reason they don't get the job when people find out how old they are. It's a real problem. Sometimes it's simply because the economy is floundering and there just isn't enough work for everyone who wants it. They might get a job, but they certainly wouldn't get enough hours and it's not secure.
Every day across my electorate of Dunkley I meet people who want to work and people who need to work to support themselves and their family; people who have taken course after course to try to reskill, to try to upskill, to try to get themselves in a position where they can find a job; and people who need a federal government that will back them in, not one which attacks them with cuts to allowances. Of course, we know that this is an issue across Australia. We know that middle-aged and older Australians who are re-entering the workforce find it particularly difficult not just in my community. It's because of the structural barriers to finding a job and the age discrimination that we know exists. Again, we know that it's not just in Dunkley that older workers will need to retrain and upskill and will need to spend more time on further education. If you're lucky enough to live in Victoria and you want to do one of the courses that the Labor state government has made free, you can do it at TAFE, but for too many Australians—many, many Australians across the country—that further education costs money and it's often money that they don't have. The number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart has skyrocketed by 45 per cent under the Liberal-National government. Over 55s represent the largest cohort, or over a quarter, of all Newstart recipients. This bill attacks those very people, make no doubt about it.
Currently people claiming Newstart, sickness allowance, Austudy and youth allowance—because young people aren't left out of this list of vulnerable Australians who are attacked—have to wait up to 13 weeks to access the payments if they have liquid assets, for example, savings or a redundancy payment, which are over $5,500 for a single with no dependents or $11,000 for someone with a partner or dependants. These are hardly enormous sums of money. The existing waiting period at these levels is a week and increases up to a maximum of 13 weeks for liquid assets of $11,500 for singles or $23,000 for those with dependants. What does this government want to do? It wants to extend the maximum liquid asset waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for people with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles, or $36,000 for couples and people with dependants. Again, they're hardly staggering amounts of money, particularly when you're talking about having to pay unaffordable rents, rising electricity costs, childcare costs, healthcare costs and education costs—let alone putting food on the table. But it's not just cash in the bank, of course, that liquid assets are made up of. The government's own department says liquid assets include: some payments made, or due to be made, by a person's last employer—including redundancies that haven't been made; amounts deposited or lent to banks or other financial institutions, whether or not you can access it immediately; assets given to a son or a daughter in some circumstances; loans to other people and compensation payments.
This bill means that applicants will need to spend down more of their assets before becoming eligible to receive a payment. As many of my colleagues on this side of the House have said before me, this is just mean. It is mean-spirited. It will not help anyone to find a job. It does nothing to help people find a job. There is no rationale for increasing the liquid asset waiting period for people who lose their jobs or who are made redundant, no rationale other than a cash grab, no rationale other than taking money out of the pockets of workers just when they need their savings the most.
The current waiting period of up to 13 weeks is long enough. Some people find another job in 13 weeks. But it is really important that those who don't aren't forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home. They're not able to meet unexpected expenses. They can't do the things that they need to do to keep on looking for a job. They have to spend their time wondering how they are going to feed themselves, feed their family and pay their rent as well as trying to stay strong when day after day they're putting in job applications and not getting jobs or when day after day they're going to work but they can't get enough hours. They have to be on Newstart because their job isn't enough for them to survive.
We need people to be able to concentrate on how to get a job and how to help themselves to get qualified to get a better job, not being made vulnerable to unexpected expenses, unaffordable housing and simply not knowing how they're going to get by day-to-day. That financial buffer is really important. It is really important. This bill just wants to erode it. This government just wants to erode it.
How can it be the case that we can have a government that wants to have more people in a position where they've eroded all of their savings and they get put on Newstart and they're expected to live on $40 a day? The current rate of Newstart is not enough to live on and it is not enough to support people looking for work. It is time to raise the rate of Newstart. This government should be raising the rate, not cutting Newstart.
I recently sat down with volunteers from St Vincent de Paul conferences from across my electorate of Dunkley. They asked me to support their call to raise the rate. I support them absolutely. St Vincent de Paul conferences across Dunkley have assisted almost 10,000 people over 12 months in my electorate—5,500 adults and 4,000 children—with food, household assistance and other assistance totalling $360,000. These are good people volunteering and putting their hands in their own pockets to help vulnerable people. They came to my electorate office in Frankston to tell me that they are seeing that the number of people on Newstart who urgently need assistance to supplement the current meagre rate is on the increase, and they are desperately worried about how they're going to be able to continue to help those people and everyone else who needs help.
St Vincent de Paul—like ACOSS, like the Business Council of Australia, like social welfare and business groups across our country—are calling on the government to increase the rate of Newstart. They are right to do so and it is time to do so. It's not just unemployed people needing Newstart; it's also the underemployed. More than 1.1 million Australians are underemployed. Over 130,000 Newstart recipients actually have a job. They just don't earn enough or receive enough hours to escape having the payment. Employers are receiving an average of 19 applications per vacancy advertised. And, to our shame, three million, or one in eight, Australians live in poverty and one in six children, or three-quarters of a million, live in poverty.
At a time when Australians are doing it tough, when the economy is weak and getting weaker, these cuts to the pension and Newstart are not only cruel and vindictive; they are reckless. The name of this bill is so ironic. How dare a government that brought us robodebt try to talk about payment integrity? My constituent Graeme Howarth, from Carrum Downs, called my electorate office last month about having an age pension robodebt of nearly $7,000 and how Centrelink wouldn't help him. Centrelink gave him the run-around and didn't know where the debt came from. So he started to pay it back. We told him: 'In order to get your robodebt looked into, you have to put in a formal appeal. Call the robodebt appeal line.' He did. Lo and behold, Centrelink have cancelled the debt and are refunding the amount he's already repaid. It's toxic. It's flawed. The government has had to admit it. It's time to completely scrap robodebt and look after vulnerable Australians instead of targeting them.
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, to join my Labor colleagues in opposing this bill and supporting the amendment moved by the member for Barton. I was very pleased to be here for my friend the member for Dunkley's contribution and to hear the passion with which she spoke about the people who are going to be adversely affected by this bill and by so many decisions and failures to take decisions by this government. It's her attitude and the attitude of my colleagues that should be brought to bear when we think about our social services legislation. She really nailed this bill, in a nutshell, at the end. The use of the word 'integrity'—often used by this government, much talked of by members of this government but oh so very rarely upheld—we saw in question time, yet again, today.
Let's think about the ensuring integrity bill, which, happily, failed to pass the other place last week. It's union-busting legislation under a different name, the disastrous robodebt debacle. We on this side of the House remember that that was introduced, again, in the name of so-called integrity. And today we have the payment integrity bill, which is code—and not very convincing code—for more cuts to pensioners and Australians who are looking for work.
At the same time, the Morrison government has failed, conspicuously, to ensure integrity on its frontbench, with the minister for emissions reduction embroiled in a police investigation. We still await, much later than we were promised, steps towards a national integrity commission. Those of us who have been in this place last week and today for question time see why a national integrity commission is so urgently needed and why members of this government are in no rush to move on with this critical aspect of restoring real integrity and trust to politics and decision-making in Australia.
This bill was of course first introduced in 2017. As my colleagues have noted, it was bad legislation two years ago and it continues to be bad legislation today. The bill incorporates a number of cuts that were originally contained in the 2017 budget, and these really go into three categories. The first is increasing residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years. I want to touch on this now, because, in doing so, this bill introduces a very significant change to the principles of our social security system, as the Bills Digest notes. By setting a lower residency requirement for those with residence in Australia during their working life and those without long periods of income support receipt compared to those who do not fit these criteria, the measure adds, for the first time, an explicit link between working and paying income tax and qualification for a pension payment. This is the sort of change that should follow considerable public debate, not be introduced in this manner. Of course, this change of principle has a very, very significant practical effect and, I would say, a very significant discriminatory practical effect, which I will touch on further. But this question of the change in principle is an important one and it deserves to be properly attended to by members of this government. Perhaps in doing so they could also have regard to the very, very thin statement of compatibility with human rights, which really fails to touch upon this issue in an adequate way.
The second limb of the bill is to stop the payment of the age pension supplement after the recipient has spent six weeks overseas, and the last one is to extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances. This bill will rip over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners, including older Australians who just want to visit family overseas or who need to spend an extended time overseas caring for relatives or grandchildren. In our multicultural society, particularly in my electorate—and, I'm sure, in the electorate of the member for Greenway—this is an essential part of life. It is not a luxury, as government members seem to believe it should be. Of course, on this side of the House we know that portability of the pension is, has been and should continue to be a cornerstone of the Australian social security system. Migrant pensioners who've worked hard in Australia, who've built a life and raised a family here, should be able to get the pension. Making people wait longer to get the pension will only force some older Australians to go without, struggle or live in poverty.
These cuts are an area of great concern to me, as the shadow minister for multicultural affairs. I've been approached by a wide range of stakeholders who've expressed their serious concerns with these proposed cuts to migrant pensioners as well as many other constituents. The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia said that the changes in this bill are discriminatory, as I touched on before in reference to the statement of compatibility with human rights. They said:
... the extension of the residency requirements for qualification for DSP and age pension and the removal of the pension supplement after six weeks of travel overseas disproportionately impact culturally and linguistically diverse communities and are therefore discriminatory in nature.
FECCA went on to say:
Every dollar counts when you're living on the age pension so it is punitive and cruel to take away that additional amount just because someone, for very good reasons, is having to spend an extended period of time overseas.
Indeed, I know many older migrants in my electorate of Scullin who save up for years to go on one last big trip back to Italy or Greece or Turkey to visit family and loved ones. These are Australians who've worked hard and deserve this support when they reach the pension age. The St Vincent de Paul Society said:
By increasing waiting periods and reducing access to support payments, the proposed measures would further erode an already fragile social safety net, contributing to inequality and disproportionately impacting on people on low incomes. Such proposals are morally, socially and economically indefensible.
Labor understands this. We also understand that these pensioners have worked hard all their lives and fundamentally deserve dignity in their retirement. The last thing they need is to be treated like a burden by this Prime Minister, by his Treasurer and by the Minister for Government Services, with the completely inadequate rationale in his second reading speech, which seems to have no regard whatsoever for the human beings who will be impacted by this legislation if we do not stop it in this place. Let's not forget the extraordinary and contemptuous contribution from the member for Goldstein, one of only two government members who participated in this debate—someone who, again, seems to have no regard for the human beings that are the subject of this bill before the House.
I want to also speak briefly about the enhanced residency requirement for pensioners. The Department of Social Services has indicated that approximately 2,300 people each year would be required to wait longer before becoming eligible for the age pension or the disability support pension as a result of increasing the required period of residence from 10 to 15 years. Again we see here, put very simply, the Morrison government trying to find budget savings at the expense of older migrants. It will be older migrants in Australia who face difficulties as a result of extending the residency requirements. This isn't fair, and for this reason Labor will not support it.
Unfortunately the record of the Liberal and National parties when it comes to protecting pensioners leaves plenty to be desired. These parties in government have tried to cut the pension and increase the pension age to 70 in every budget, including in those three budgets when the now Prime Minister had the job of being Australia's Treasurer. It's a particular obsession of his, it would appear. We recall that in the infamous 2014 'lifters and leaners' budget the Liberals declared war on Australia's social safety net. They tried to cut the pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners were forced to live on $80 a week less within a decade. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of pensioners in Australia. In the 2014 budget they cut a billion dollars from pensioner concessions, supports designed—and very necessary—to help pensioners with the cost of living. Also in the 2014 budget they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees in receipt of the Commonwealth seniors health card. Also in the budget—there's more!—the Liberals tried to reset the deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part pensioners made even worse off.
It didn't end in 2014. In 2015 we saw the deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of this plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks, showing no understanding of the realities of life for so many older Australians with family overseas. Again in in the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to over 1.5 million Australians through scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show that this would have left over 563,000 Australians currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years in excess of 1.5 million pensioners, as I said, would have been worse off through this.
On top of this they spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. It took five consecutive rate cuts before they even adjusted the deeming rate—then only after a concerted campaign through those seniors groups who work hard to represent older Australians, including older Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, joined by the Labor Party, and we were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. You know what? The Prime Minister was sitting around the cabinet table when these decisions to take the axe to pensioners were made. He can't run away from any of these cuts. He can't run away from his record over the last six years. He owns all of these cuts, and Labor will continue to hold him to account for them and for their impact on the lives of too many Australians.
This bill, as the member for Dunkley was touching on earlier, will also cut Newstart by extending the liquid assets waiting period. This bill, in so doing, will force Australians who are trying desperately to re-enter a tough labour market to eat into their savings before they can access income support. It will force into poverty, before they can access support, middle-aged men—men in their 50s and 60s who have worked hard all their lives, paid the taxes and done the right thing—who have recently been made redundant. What good does this do? What good does all the aspirational language we hear from government members do? Currently people claiming Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy must wait up to 13 weeks to access the payments if they have liquid assets, savings or perhaps a redundancy: over $5,500 for a single with no dependants, or $11,000 for someone with a partner or dependants. The government now wants to extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for people with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples and people with dependants. But they've advanced no rationale for increasing this for people who have lost a job or been made redundant.
While many will find a job within the 13-week period, it's important that those who do not are not forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home or unable to meet unexpected expenses. In other words, a waiting period that is too long or a threshold that's too high will be counterproductive to any reasonable approach to the public policy priority here of helping people get back on their feet. In fact, this will make life harder for these people and their families.
Income support means support for retraining. It means being able to keep the car on the road so you can look for work and keep paying the rent or the mortgage. The Parenthood have condemned this bill, saying that extending the liquid assets test period is a measure which is:
... designed to put vulnerable people in an even more desperate position than they already find themselves. Making people wait six months for income support is dangerous and risks leaving people with absolutely nothing.
The National Social Security Rights Network went on to say:
The social security system is not fit for purpose if it erodes people's ability to deal with one-off and extraordinary expenses. Measures like this, which undermine people's savings, can have the effect of pushing people into improvident lending practices and a range of other negative situations, which are of concern to the community, government and parliament.
So it is quite clear that this bill is unfair and would push vulnerable Australians into poverty.
What the government should be doing is seeking to grow the economy and to lift people out of poverty. Instead, they are disgracefully taking money out of the pockets of pensioners and workers made redundant out of no fault of their own. Under the Morrison government we know that Australia is not as it should be and that Australia's economy is not where it should be. We have the slowest growth in a decade, stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and significant structural unemployment as well as declining living standards. After all of this, the government has no plan for the economy. All the government seems intent on doing is making unfair cuts, impacting on some of the most vulnerable Australians and impacting also in a discriminatory way on migrants. There's no plan to increase Newstart, no plan to tackle poverty and no plan to boost economic growth or productivity. All we have in this Prime Minister is an ad man without a plan.
It seems that the Liberal Party think it's a good idea to reintroduce their failed bill of 2017 into the parliament again. This bill was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now. It's no surprise, therefore, to see that our speaking list today includes a mere two members of the government prepared to come in and defend the legislation they are putting into this House compared to a long, long list of Labor members who are prepared to stand here and argue against its introduction.
The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 proposed by this government is specifically targeting those groups who require the government's support. It is targeting pensioners, it is targeting unemployed Australians and it's targeting anyone trying to access Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy. There is no-one on this side of the chamber surprised to see these attacks begin again. But it is a little ironic that a party which, during the recent election, claimed to be such huge advocates for retirees are, therefore, trying to make changes to the pension, which will force retirees to wait longer to access their pension.
What happened to: a pensioner's 'reward for a lifetime of hard work should always be a long, healthy and dignified retirement'? Those are words from those opposite, and yet, today, we've got this government confirming, by bringing in this legislation reintroducing the 2017 legislation, that they were empty promises made to retirees in May. The government said that they would support retirees' independence and dignity. They said they would ensure their savings are protected. They said they'd not undermine the value of their home, and they said they would protect and expand access to self-managed super. Isn't it ironic that this same party is making changes which would cease pension supplement payments entirely once pensioners have been out of Australia for six weeks?
This will affect not only pensioners currently in Australia but also pensioners who are already travelling overseas.
Older Australians who want to visit family overseas, or who simply want to travel after finally having the time off to travel, will be negatively affected by this legislation. It's just extraordinary. I think of the pensioners in my electorate. I think of the years and years of hard work. I think of the time and effort put into raising families. I think of them looking forward to the horizon, where they're going to retire, where many of them will have a chance to go home and visit families that they haven't seen for possibly 20 or 30 years, or perhaps they will be called back to look after a relative who is unwell. For them to realise that this government thinks their travel should be limited to six weeks or they will have their pension reduced because they are out of the country is a punishment. It is a punitive measure for those people who have spent years and years working in this country and raising their families. This government would determine that the trip of a lifetime, which is going to cost these people a lot of money in their minds, should be limited to six weeks. So, I have to tell you, if I were saving now for this once-in-a-lifetime trip overseas, I wouldn't want to fork out for those airfares for a mere six weeks. I certainly wouldn't want to do it if I hadn't been to my home country for decades. This government is choosing to curtail their travel or curtail their pension—that is their choice.
The portability of the pension has been a cornerstone of the Australian social security system, and the pension supplement is critical. By ceasing pension supplements entirely when pensioners are out of Australia for six weeks, the government is punishing pensioners. They are preventing Australians who need to go overseas to visit family or care for relatives, or who just want to take the trip of a lifetime, from doing so.
By increasing the residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 years to 15 years, the government is forcing 2,390 people to wait longer to receive pension payments. That's an assessment annually—10 to 15 years, a 50 per cent increase. It's extraordinary the lengths this government's going to, really, to affect their budget bottom line at the expense of pensioners.
We know that older migrant Australians will have to become more reliant upon their families to support them. However, young families in Australia are facing so many financial pressures of their own, it's not practically viable for them to fully financially support their older relatives. If you think about that in the context of stagnant wage growth, if you think about that in the context of increased childcare costs, if you think about that just in terms of the increase in cost of living—is this how devoid of ideas the Liberal Party has become? They're trying to achieve their so-called budget surplus by ripping over $185 million out of the pockets of Australian pensioners.
And there's more. The bill is also proposing to extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks. There is no obvious policy rationale for this decision. It is simply a budget decision designed to flatter the government and hurt Australians by not allowing them to access their pension or Newstart or youth allowance for up to 26 weeks where liquid assets are involved. What does it mean? It means that those who claim Newstart, sickness allowance, youth allowance and Austudy must wait up to 26 weeks—that's six months, double the current time wait time—to access their payments if they have liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples or those with dependants. This means that in order to even be eligible to access the payments they need people are going to be forced to spend down their savings—spend down what I would term minimal savings.
It seems the government is suffering from cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they claim that government support such as Centrelink exists to make those who access it self-sufficient in the future. Yet, on the other hand, they propose measures which will inevitably result in people being forced to spend down their current savings. It just doesn't make any sense, because spending down savings reduces people's financial independence. We know that we've got an issue at the moment in this country with payday lending practices and people taking out incredibly high interest loans. Reducing this savings before accessing social security may lead to an increase in the people becoming dependent on those loans. How do we achieve the aim of future self-sufficiency when bills such as this one serve to achieve the opposite?
The bill will impact on older Australians. They are the ones who form the largest group that currently endures the liquid asset waiting periods. This bill means that these older Australians may have to wait double the wait time they currently have. Increasing the waiting times for seniors applying for the pension will leave them to struggle and increases their likelihood of living in poverty. Think about that in tandem with the stories that we're hearing in our electorates and in our offices every day—stories of people's perception that the waiting times for the pension are increasing anyway, because they're not getting a response once they complete their application process. It is taking much longer, up to six months, for people to receive their first pension payment, and now we're going to have the liquid assets increase as well if this government gets its way.
The bill also impacts on students. Of course our students are going to be disinclined to save in order to support themselves through study if saving means that their ability to access youth allowance is impeded. This creates an absolute disincentive for our students who are on youth allowance. This creates a disincentive for them to save while they possibly get work over the summer and put a handy few thousand dollars aside. This disincentivises that process.
According to the Department of Social Services, 13,800 Australians are going to be affected by this bill each year. Eleven thousand of these people will be required to wait the full 26 weeks. On average, people would have to wait an additional 11 weeks before receiving their initial payment. The bill unfairly targets those who need government support the most. Is this how the government is planning to achieve their so-called budget surplus: by picking and choosing vulnerable groups to target? They not only have tried to cut the pension; they've also tried increasing the pension age to 70 for the past five years. They have a track record in this space. Again today we see that they're going to continue to target pensioners.
If we have a look at the time line of events, we see that, starting with the 2014 budget, they tried to cut the pension indexation, which would have left pensioners to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. So, an actual reduction in the pension was proposed. This would have caused an unfair cut of $23 billion that would have been reaped from pensioners across Australia. In the same year, 2014, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions and axed the $900 seniors supplement. In 2016 this government tried to reduce the pensions of 190,000 pensioners with their plan to limit overseas travel to six weeks, and here we have it back again. They tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. Why is it that Australians who are reliant on social services are left to wait? We're hearing about it every day from people who live in our electorates. Originally they were expected to wait one week. This has increased to 13 weeks of waiting for their liquid assets. There is no rationale behind this, as increasing the liquid assets waiting period will only leave people more vulnerable. This does the complete opposite of what this government had originally stated in its campaign before the election. It doesn't help people get back on their feet; it drives people towards poverty.
The government is trying to prevent individuals from having the financial buffer we all need in times of hardship. It is important that those who have savings are not forced to run down their accounts to the point of losing their homes or being unable to pay for everyday expenses. When I think about the liquid assets test, I'm often thinking about the women who are coming to see me. They are over 50, have lost their jobs and are still trying to pay a mortgage off, and they're looking at me and saying, 'I've got some savings where, if I get Newstart and I can use some of the savings, I can see a way where I can possibly pay the mortgage into the next four-month period.' Those plans will be washed up here. The buffer will be ripped from under them. The buffer will be absolutely ripped from under people at the worst time of their lives, and this government is going to tell them to spend down all of their savings before they can access the support that they've worked a long, long time for, assuming they might never need it but knowing and being comforted by the fact it was there if they did.
We need to see this legislation in the frame of our current economic situation. We've got a Liberal Party desperately looking for something to do, or so it seems today by their bringing in this legislation. They should start by paying some attention to the economy. We're currently facing wage stagnation, declines in productivity, higher unemployment, declining living standards and high underemployment. We've got two million Australians looking for work or for more work. Those are some things the government could put on their to-do list this week. They are all issues which need urgent attention, yet we are not hearing anything about that from the government. Instead, we are seeing this bill, designed to rip money out of the pockets of pensioners, a bill which will cause people to eat away at their savings and a bill which will create more stress for those who are currently looking for work. There is nothing in this bill that will create more jobs or grow the economy.
The government need a plan to fix the economy. They need to be paying attention to the things that this country needs them to do instead of sitting around a table brainstorming how they might hurt pensioners again this week and instead of coming up with ways for people to take a longer period of time to access social security. Let's cut to the chase—that's what this is about. They're saying: 'If you go overseas for longer than six weeks we're going to take part of your pension.' If you're a young person on youth allowance who's managed to put some savings away to buy a car, potentially, one day when you have finished studying and might need that car to get work, they're saying, 'No, you need to spend that down before you can access youth allowance.' If you're a young person with some savings from one job and you lose your job, the government want you to spend down those savings before you get any kind of support. So you can forget about paying your rent; it's home to mum and dad. That's what the government see as the future for young people. This bill pretty much bells the cat that the government need to pay more attention to what Australians expect them to be concerned about and stop bringing back legislation that has already failed in this place.
This bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, would rip over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners, and this pathetic government calls it the payment integrity bill. This bill is not about integrity; it is an attack on Australian pensioners. It is yet another cruel and dishonest grab for cash by the Morrison government from those who can afford it least. There is no low this government will not stoop to in trying to squeeze money out of those who are struggling to keep up with the cost of living, which continues to go up under this government.
The so-called ensuring integrity bill was not about integrity either. It was an attack on Australian workers. The government think they can fool the Australian people by slapping the word 'integrity' on a piece of legislation. They have been trying the same trick for years. When the current Attorney-General oversaw the expansion of the so-called Online Compliance Intervention program, or robodebt, as Minister for Social Services in 2017, he said that was about ensuring integrity too. As recently as last week, the current Minister for Government Services repeated that ridiculous assertion. Any suggestion that the robodebt scheme ever had anything to do with integrity was blown out of the water after key aspects of the scheme were ruled unlawful by the Federal Court last week. And yet, after over two years and thousands of illegal debt notices being sent to vulnerable Australians, subjecting them to emotional trauma, stress and shame, the Liberal government still have the gall to say that this unlawful program is about 'ensuring the integrity of the welfare system'.
From the very beginning, this government's robodebt scheme has been an extortion racket. It has only ever been about extorting money from Australian citizens to prop up this government's shaky budget. You can slap the word 'integrity' on an extortion racket, but it doesn't change the fact that it's an extortion racket. And now the same government, the government of robodebt, is proposing rip money out of the pockets of Australian pensioners in the name of integrity. You couldn't make this up. This Liberal government has no integrity; it never has. The Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues should stop talking about integrity and start acting with some. The Prime Minister could make a good start by standing down the member for Hume from his cabinet position. This is the member who's currently under police investigation for having used a forged document as part of a pathetic attempt to embarrass the Lord Mayor of Sydney. The member for Hume's imbecilic attempt to embarrass the Lord Mayor of Sydney exploded in his grinning face, and the soot from that exploding act of idiocy by the member for Hume—
This is a second reading amendment, Deputy Speaker, which I'm well within the terms of. This bill is about integrity, according to the government. I understand when members opposite don't like members of the Labor Party talking about integrity, but that's precisely what I'm talking about. I'll go back to the soot from the exploding act of idiocy by the member for Hume: it has not only covered him; it has also caked the face of the Prime Minister.
I appreciate what the member for Isaacs is trying to do, but it's still not on the substantive matter of the bill. Equally, I think he's reflecting in an unparliamentary way on a member of the chamber. On his earlier remarks in relation to the member for Hume, he would be quite right to withdraw in the interests of the House.
I commend to those opposite, who seem to be troubled by the lack of integrity in their own government, the fact that we have an amendment before the House which is to this effect:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
(1) declines to give the bill a second reading;
(2) notes that, in every Budget, this Government has tried to cut the pension or increase the pension age to 70;
(3) further notes that the cuts to Newstart in this bill will hurt redundant workers and push them towards poverty; and
(4) criticises the Government for its cruel cuts to pensions and social security".
I'm talking generally about the integrity that this government does not have and won't get by adding the word 'integrity' to this bill or any other bill or any other program that this government thinks it can claim integrity for when it does not have any integrity. And chief among the proofs that this government doesn't have any integrity is its disgraceful performance in circling around to protect the member for Hume, which has now tainted the Attorney-General after his performance in question time today. We can understand why the Attorney-General might have kept silent last week, when the member for Hume and the Prime Minister were questioned about the scant—
The member for Isaacs has just sold himself up the river, because he's just read out the amendment and he's not even speaking to the substance of the amendment. How about he speaks to the substance of the amendment and the bill and refrains from reflecting in an unparliamentary way on the member for Hume.
I'm being entirely relevant to a bill that has in the title—and it's staring all those in this House in the face, because it's up on the screen—'payment integrity'. And I'll say again: the government does not create integrity by putting the word 'integrity' in the name of a bill. The government does not create integrity or act with integrity by using the word. They tried it last week with their ensuring integrity bill, which was voted down in the Senate and which had nothing to do with integrity and everything to do with attacking Australian workers and attacking unions. This government would not know integrity if it fell over it. It is entirely apparent in the way in which it has circled around to protect the member for Hume. This is the same member for Hume who's still got questions to answer about the alleged illegal poisoning of critically endangered grasslands on a property partly owned by—guess who?—the member for Hume.
I fail to see how grasslands have anything to do with this bill. The member for Isaacs is clearly flouting your direction, Mr Deputy Speaker. I asked him to return to the substance of the amendment, which he just outlined so well himself.
I certainly will continue to be relevant, as I have been up until now, to a bill which has within it this term 'payment integrity' when all it is actually about is ripping money off pensioners.
This government lacks integrity. I can say to this House that one can understand why the Prime Minister might be reluctant to sack the member for Hume. If the Prime Minister started sacking ministers who lack integrity, there'd hardly be anyone left! Would he have to sack Senator Cash, for example, for her refusal to cooperate with an Australian Federal Police investigation into the leaking of sensitive information about police operations—leaks that came from her own office? Would he have to sack Senator Cormann for his lack of integrity in accepting free overseas holidays from Liberal Party donors and failing to declare them, linked to the whole shady Helloworld travel scandal involving former Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey? And what would have to be done about the integrity—or lack of it—of the Minister for Home Affairs in this government, a minister who's so incompetent and so negligent in his duties that he had, in his words, 'no sight' of the payment of $423 million by his own department to a company called Paladin that was based in an empty beach shack on Kangaroo Island, all without an open tender or other transparent process? Why didn't that Minister for Home Affairs—or indeed the Prime Minister, who presides over this sorry mess—show any interest in protecting the integrity of that payment of government money?
Or what about the integrity of another payment of government money that the same Minister for Home Affairs mysteriously awarded in the form of a $591 million contract to a private Brisbane based family company to run garrison and welfare services on Nauru without an open tender or a transparent process?
At the risk of repeating myself, once again, I've listened carefully to the remarks of the member for Isaacs and, with the greatest respect, I cannot see how they in any way relate to this bill. I'd ask you to bring him to the substance of the bill or sit him down.
Thank you very much, Deputy Speaker. You couldn't make up these examples of the lack of integrity of this government that thinks that by labelling a bill 'integrity' it somehow confers integrity on this government or confers integrity on its legislation. The Attorney-General, who's the architect of 'ensuring integrity' for unions, has appointed dozens of his Liberal mates to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That situation has become so bad that a review of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by a former High Court judge whose report the Attorney-General sat on for seven months recommended that all future appointments to the tribunal be made on the basis of merit.
I say again, Deputy Speaker: you couldn't make this up. Under the third-term government that we have here, Australia has the slowest growth in a decade. We have stagnant wages. We have productivity in decline. We have record household debt. We have high underemployment and declining living standards. But nothing in this bill would create jobs or grow the economy. And there's nothing in this bill that would create integrity—just the one word in the title. It's pathetic to see this government thinking that it can claim integrity or confer integrity simply by using the word.
Just to remind members, this government went to the election promising to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission, and according to the Prime Minister the government's been working on the establishment of a Commonwealth integrity commission for nearly two years. So, where is it? Of course, even if they did bring it forward, the Liberal Party's preferred model for an integrity commission is a joke. As many experts observed at the time, when the Prime Minister made his policy announcement, the integrity commission's the kind of model you announce when you don't want an integrity commission. Putting to one side the many problems with the Liberal Party's understanding of integrity, I ask again, where is the integrity commission that the government has promised? It has been two years and we've seen nothing.
Stop attacking pensioners, stop attacking Australian workers and stop extorting money from vulnerable Australians. Instead, try to introduce legislation that actually does what it says on the label. A good start, if you really wanted to act on integrity, would be to introduce a bill to establish a national integrity commission that is worthy of the name.
I also rise to speak against the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 but speak in support of the amendment that was moved. I know a lot has been said about integrity. I would imagine Crosby Textor consulting services probably had some focus groups working overtime to work out how you get bills passed in this place with a minimum amount of fuss. It does seem there is overuse of the word 'integrity' in various bills being introduced here. It does seem passing strange to include in the social services legislation amendment 'payment integrity'. I'm not sure about those opposite—but maybe it is true because so few participate in this debate—but if they look around their electorates they will find that they have many, many people who are going to be captured by this so-called Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019.
The Labor Party opposed this bill when it was originally introduced in 2017. We opposed it as it was a bad bill then, and it is a bad bill now. We will stay opposed to this legislation as is being introduced, because what it is seeking to do is make it more difficult for some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
We will always move to hold this government to account. We will not let the government get away with the savage cuts—unfair cuts—to Australian pensioners, families and the unemployed. These people need people to stand up for them. They need champions. They don't need what this government is doing now, which is effectively going to rip $185 million away from some of the most vulnerable members of our community. History shows that time and again the Liberals', and this government's, notion of fairness is absolutely misplaced. As the former CEO of the Catholic Social Services, Father Frank Brennan, known to most of us in this chamber, put it:
Our tax and transfer system is critical to ensuring a fairer Australia … Placing the burden of budget repair on those who can least afford it, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and businesses, is wrong morally and economically.
I think he's right. It is absolutely shifting the burden. No-one is going to say that a surplus is not a good thing, and no-one is going to say we should not move towards budget repair, but making the burden to be borne by those least able is not a fair way to start and certainly takes this government and its members a long way away from their pre-election rhetoric.
Accordingly, there are significant problems that I see with the bill. It certainly adds to a growing rate of poverty in this country. It's estimated that 2½ million people, or 13.9 per cent of Australians, are currently living below the poverty line, as accepted by an international measure. I also note the report produced by the Australian Council of Social Service titled Poverty in Australia, which clearly points out those living on this arrangement and those living on Newstart are being punished by this government for, in the main, reasons that are of no fault of their own.
Australians are entitled to know they are being let down by this government. It is a government that had much to say before the election about welfare, particularly looking after pensioners, but has done little since then other than introduce the social security integrity bill, which, as I said, is going to be responsible for taking about $185 million away from the most vulnerable people in our community.
Schedule 1 of the bill introduces a tighter residential requirement for eligibility to receive the age pension or disability support pension. Currently, people who are not born in Australia must have an aggregate of 10 years of permanent residency before becoming eligible for the age pension or the DSP, including a continuous period of at least five years. This bill proposes to increase the residential requirement to a period of 15 years. Applicants could continue on a 10-year residency requirement if they satisfy the self-sufficiency test introduced in the bill, which includes that they have not been in receipt of an activity-tested income support payment for more than five years of a continuous 10-year period. It's basically saying that they weren't on a disability support payment, they weren't on Newstart, they weren't retrenched—all those things come into it. It is such a broad-brush approach to take to some of the most vulnerable people in the community. As I said, these are people who, through no fault of their own, may find themselves unemployed. They might suffer a disability that prevents them working. They might be retrenched—which, regrettably, is a common occurrence for people aged 50 and above in my community and, no doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, in your own community. In particular, people in blue-collar jobs who leave employment at 50 or above are not finding further employment, so they've been relegated to Newstart. The simple fact is that the bill we're talking about today impacts the application of these payments.
It affects my community more, because, as most people in this chamber know, I represent one of the most multicultural communities in the country and one which is also heavily made up of direct refugees. Many of them come to this country with all sorts of issues that need to be worked through, and they're very hardworking when they can get a job. But what we are finding more and more now is that, with barriers to employment, particularly language capability, they are being laid off, and it is very difficult for these refugees and first-generation migrants to do anything other than apply for welfare.
It's not just about the contribution that the first generation make to this country. We often talk about some of the community events we attend, and if you look around you see all sorts of people with different faces and from different backgrounds—as indeed your own, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough—and whose forebears have come here from the four corners of the globe to make this their home for two reasons, fundamentally: a better life for themselves and a better life for their families. It's also about what their offspring go on to achieve in this country.
Immigration is one of the things that have made our country great. To think that we are going to penalise those at the sharp end of this, those of the first generation, those who are struggling to support families—and, if they enter into welfare arrangements, if they go on the dole or on Newstart or, regrettably, disability support, that can trigger a mechanism that prevents them from being able to access welfare payments, as this bill proposes. This legislation, to me, is fundamentally un-Australian. This is just so fundamentally against what we stand for, what we should all stand for, and that is the betterment of our respective communities.
I note the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council in Australia points out that Australians with migrant backgrounds generally retire with the lowest superannuation because they're predominantly in low-paid employment during their working lives. They could have been talking about people in my electorate of Fowler who came as refugees to this country—women who have worked in sweatshops, people working in labouring jobs. That is precisely a description of people who will not have great savings in superannuation. And, as no doubt the government is aware, many people from those backgrounds are working in the black economy, where they aren't being paid anything in superannuation. The government has been very lax to date about going out and capturing those employers who are flagrantly breaking the law in respect of their superannuation commitments and, in effect, ensuring that people retire without adequate superannuation cover. That is an impact on many of the migrants in our community. Migrants also face a significant barrier to employment because of the nonrecognition of their overseas qualifications and—what is becoming more and more apparent—very discriminatory hiring practices these days. Retiring with lower superannuation means that those Australians of migrant backgrounds are more likely to require income support in older age, compromising their independence and forcing them to rely on family members for support.
We also oppose basing eligibility for income support on previous receipt of a payment. As the Australian Council of Social Service states:
Unemployment is a structural issue, not an individual issue. This proposal will disadvantage people who live in areas of high unemployment or who have been retrenched. It will also penalise people who have undertaken study.
Again, many aspects of that quote could be speaking for people that I represent in my community.
Schedule 2 of the bill removes the pension supplement paid to recipients of the age pension or DSP if they've been out of Australia for six weeks or longer or immediately upon their permanent departure. Mr Deputy Speaker, I don't know about your electorate, but mine is very much a migrant community, and I have members of my migrant community regularly visiting overseas, particularly to see sick relatives or, more likely, to attend funerals of friends and family. In many instances, for various cultural reasons, that will take six weeks or more. To reduce the rate of the pension on that basis is certainly going to impact on people who are still doing it relatively tough in our community. The Refugee Council of Australia raised a significant concern about the amendments in schedule 2 of the bill, as they say they unfairly affect new migrants, particularly refugees, who are often obliged to travel overseas for reasons such as family reunion or to fulfil caring responsibilities for elderly family members who may be sick or dying—which, as I say, is something that I have been regularly informed of in my office.
Schedule 3 of the bill will extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for claimants with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples with dependants. In my electorate the predominant industry used to be light manufacturing, although it's been hard to find any existence of it over the last five years. Most of the people in that industry have been retrenched. Hopefully they received a redundancy payment in their retrenchment. Knowing that they will be struggling to find another job in that predicament, I hope that they're being prudent in how they manage their payments in that regard. But to require them now to spend down their redundancy payment before they're going to be eligible for assistance is once again putting the onus for budget repair—which is what underpins all this—on those who can least afford it.
We should be happy if people are taking a forthright view to helping to manage their own financial affairs, not trying to penalise them for maintaining a level of savings that can accommodate repairs to a vehicle or house, or other things that may require their immediate assistance, rather than simply going back to some financial agency to borrow money on probably an exorbitant interest rate, because the government, by the way, hasn't done much about short-term lenders at this stage. We need to actually take some responsibility with this legislation. We need to ensure that it's not those who can least afford it who are forced to pay for it. (Time expired)
I also rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019. I join my colleagues in opposing this bill in its current form. In the first instance, the bill is mean-spirited, illogical and cruel to hardworking Australians. We already know that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have a skewed perspective on social services. When this bill was first introduced in 2017, it was a bad bill then, and it's still a bad bill now. If it's passed, it will do three things to vulnerable Australians. First, it will increase the residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years. Second, it will stop the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks of that person being overseas. And, third, it will extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances.
The Prime Minister will rip $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners, punishing pensioners who have worked so hard for all of their lives and are entitled to their pension. This is not just out of the blue. In 2015, the freshly-minted Treasurer, Scott Morrison, made comments stating that the age pension should not be regarded as an entitlement for all. The Treasurer also outlined the then Turnbull government's vision for an overhaul of the country's retirement income system by both reducing expenditure on welfare payments and limiting the amount of revenue foregone through tax concessions. To that comment, and in strong contrast to those particular views, I say to the pensioners in my electorate, and indeed pensioners across Australia: the pension is not a privilege, unlike what the then Treasurer, the current Prime Minister, stated. It is not a privilege and it's not an entitlement; it's a right and you have worked for that right, you have earned that right to the pension. You had a social contract with the government of this country, you paid your taxes, you worked hard for decades, and the pension is part of that contract.
Let me talk about a particular demographic of migrants: migrants who are now pensioners—people who migrated to Australia post World War II in the fifties and sixties; people who came here and helped build this country into the wonderful country it is today. They worked hard in factories, in business or the post office. My dad worked for Australia Post. It's a common story; it's not a unique story. Millions of Australians who came to this country to build a better life for themselves and their children worked so hard, paid their taxes and were great citizens of this country. They built up this country. They're at an age now where they're receiving a pension. Instead, the Prime Minister is making people wait longer for the pension, forcing older Australians to struggle even more than they already were and to go without.
Pensioners won't be surprised by this bill. They're not fooled by this government. It's in this government's DNA to cut pensions. The Prime Minister, in 2015, when he was doing such a fantastic job as Treasurer, tried to cut the pension and increase the age of entitlement. In every budget that this government have passed they have tried to cut welfare payments.
In 2014 the government tried to cut pension indexation—a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of every single pensioner in Australia. In the infamous 2014 budget, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. Again, in that same infamous budget, they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees in receipt of a Commonwealth seniors health card. They also tried to reset deeming-rate thresholds—a cut that would have seen 500,000 part-pensioners made worse off. These are facts. I don't think you can dispute them. The other side can't dispute them.
In 2015 the coalition did a deal with the Greens political party to cut the pension for around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In the 2016 budget, they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel by pensioners to six weeks. We fought that at the time—I remember. They also tried, in that budget, to cut the pension for over 1½ million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. By their own figures it would have left worse off the over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or an allowance.
We now before us have a bill that, in its current form, will punish pensioners who want to visit families overseas or need to spend time caring for relatives or grandchildren. You might be someone who has worked for 40 to 50 years in this country and you're now on a pension, and you want to go to Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Vietnam or wherever it is you migrated from, for the Northern Hemisphere summer. Is this government really saying that someone who's 80 or 75 or whatever it might be is going to get on a plane and travel to the other side of the world to visit family—having saved up for years to make this trip—for just a couple of weeks, after the time they spent getting there? Is the government saying that they have to get back on the plane and come back or their pension's going to get cut? Is that what you're saying? Are you telling tens of thousands of Australian pensioners that they can't visit their family, their friends, loved ones, sick ones, for a couple of months in the Northern Hemisphere summer? You're going to cut off their pension—a pension which they earned through the taxes that they've paid and through the decades of hard work and toil that they have gone through to build their lives in this country and in the social contract they made with this government. You're going to cut it because they want to go overseas for a trip in the twilight of their lives, in their retirement. That's what you're telling them. It's an absolute disgrace. It was a disgrace when the government tried to pass it a couple of years ago, and it's a disgrace now.
I can tell you, all the pensioners in my electorate were up in arms. When I went to the Italian pensioners club, and to the Greeks, the Lebanese and all the different migrant groups, they were absolutely shocked that the government would be trying to do this them after all the work that they've put in.
There's also nothing rational about the government wanting to increase the liquid assets waiting period for people who have lost their jobs or been made redundant. It's just another attempt by this government to take money out of hardworking Australians' pockets when they need their savings the most. It's nothing but another cash grab by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer.
People who have probably very modest savings already have to wait 13 weeks—a waiting period that is already long enough—and now they're going to have to wait 26 weeks. That's six months. It's half a year. Some people will find a job within that period, but some won't be that lucky. In particular, as the previous speaker, the member for Fowler, was saying, people who are of an older age group or demographic, who have limited English skills or who might have worked for decades in a factory find it more difficult now to get another job. It's important that we note that these people shouldn't have to run down their life savings to the point where they're vulnerable to losing their home or other important assets or are unable to meet any unexpected expenses. At that age in life, there are a lot of unexpected expenses that come up around health and so on.
This bill will unfairly affect older Australians. It's already difficult enough for them to re-enter the workforce, given their situation. I don't understand it. I'd love to get an explanation from one of the government speakers on the bench as to why they think it is so important to take money from people who are already doing it tough. They are already doing it tough. You've got to have, if you lose your job, somewhat of a buffer so you can support yourself and your family as you re-train or look for work. This bill is just going to make it harder for those people. But isn't it a wonderful way to prop up the government's surplus! Along with going after the most vulnerable people in society with their robodebt scam, along with underfunding the NDIS by billions of dollars, they've said, 'Oh, let's go and rip some more money from the most vulnerable people in our society so we can tell everyone we have a surplus.' That's what the government are doing. Stopping the payment of pension supplements will give the government $154 million. The changes to the liquid assets test will give them another $105 million.
As I said, mine is a very diverse electorate, and there are people in my electorate who are going to be absolutely horrified by this bill. In my electorate about 48 per cent of the population either were born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas. It's a very diverse electorate. A lot of people migrated to my electorate post World War II. A lot of Greeks, Italians and Lebanese people came to call Australia home. These are people who will be disproportionately affected by this bill, by this law. All of them, as I said, go back to their country of origin to visit family. They're retired now. They go back and visit people they have not seen in years or decades. They save up and do this special trip. Are you telling me you are going to cut their pensions after they've saved to go away and visit family they haven't seen for years and that they will lose their pension because of this trip? These are older Australians who have worked hard. They deserve a break to visit family or to even go on a holiday overseas for more than six weeks. At that age, it takes you a couple of weeks to get over jet lag anyway. Are you then going to jump on a plane and come back before you've even had time to spend time wherever you were going? Of course, every dollar counts when you're living on the age pension. A lot of these people have worked all their lives. They have one property—the house that they bought in the sixties or seventies. It's their family home. They worked in factories, they worked hard and this is what this government wants to dish up to them. It's an absolute disgrace.
While this government is busy worrying about its budget bottom line, literally taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the pockets of pensioners and workers who have been made redundant through no fault of their own, while this is all going on, we have seen stagnant wages, the slowest growth in a decade, productivity in decline, high underemployment and declining living standards—all under a coalition government, the supposed great economic managers. What a myth! What spin that is, because the facts don't add up. The facts give you a completely different picture of this government. The facts give you a picture of incompetence, underperformance, meanness of spirit and an obscene obsession with going after money from the most vulnerable people in our society.
On top of all that, they have no plan going forward. They don't even know what their next step is. They have no plan to turn the economy around. The Treasurer keeps holding on to the rope of monetary policy, which is fast running out, refusing to look at any fiscal policy. It's all about political tactics. That's what it's about. It's about trying to wedge us and blame Labor—'We can't govern this country in any meaningful way, so let's just blame the opposition. That makes more sense.'
There's nothing in this bill that will help vulnerable Australians. Everything in this bill will punish those vulnerable Australians. It will rip money out of the pockets of pensioners and vulnerable Australians who have been made redundant and are looking for work. It's an absolute disgrace. This is why we on this side opposed this bill in the past and oppose this bill today.
Nobody does Christmas cheer like the Liberal and National parties. Here we are a couple of weeks before Christmas, and their gift to the pensioners of Australia is a pension cut. If you walk through a shopping mall anywhere in Australia at the moment the bells are ringing with Christmas carols, but the present that this government has got for people who are down on their luck is to deny them a job search allowance. Really? You have never found a more mean-spirited, petty, pea-hearted, thimble-headed initiative from this government than what we see before the House today.
We oppose the bill, of course; it's not the first time we have. We oppose the bill. It was first introduced as a part of the 2016 budget when Malcolm Turnbull was the Prime Minister. Now, he got woken up and he dropped it, and so should this ad man who's running the country at the moment. It should be dropped, because it simply does not make sense.
You might recall a few months ago there was a fair bit of noise in this country about retirees. You couldn't bump into a Liberal Party politician without them waving a placard at you, saying: 'We're going to fight for retirees. We've got the interests of retirees at heart, and we're going to fight for retirees.' Obviously, they didn't mean all retirees because in this bill they've singled out one group of retirees, and they've lined them up and they're going for them. Of course I'm talking about migrant retirees or retirees who've got a relative or family overseas. They're the ones that they've lined up. They're the ones that this bill has squarely lined up to ensure that they're going to cut their entitlements.
This bill means that your age pension supplement will completely stop after six weeks overseas, if you're on a holiday overseas. It's a terrible proposition. In a community such as mine around 26,000 people were born overseas, and many of them, particularly once they hit retirement, like to go back to the old country, to visit relatives, to catch up with a cousin—maybe it's the last time they're going to see that person before they pass away; maybe to go back to care for an ageing relative; or maybe to go back for a lengthy period of time to warm their aching bones in the Mediterranean sun during the heart of an Australian winter. And what does this government say? 'If you're there for six weeks fine, but if you're there for six weeks and one day we're going to cut your pension.' It's miserable and should be knocked off. It doesn't make sense.
I have so many residents in my electorate who come from the United Kingdom, who come from the Republic of Macedonia. There are close to 1,600 people who were born in the Republic of Macedonia, and when they retire they like to go back there regularly. Because there are so many people from Macedonia, I thought I'd inquire into some of the pension arrangements that exist between Australia and Macedonia. Something stood out that just did not make sense. You would know, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, that Australia has around 30 pension agreements, social security arrangements or treaties, if you like, between Australia and other countries: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Macedonia as I've already mentioned. These treaties have a commitment between one government and another. If our citizens, or former citizens, have moved to another country and go and reside there, there's a knock-for-knock arrangement where we agree to pay a pension arrangement or a social security arrangement with another country. And when their citizens come to live here, their government supplements their pension or their retirement payments for their citizens who've come to live permanently in Australia. Under the agreement we have with the Republic of Macedonia—and I'm quoting directly from the Department of Social Security's website:
Australia will treat somebody who resides in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—
that's actually offensive to most people who come from Macedonia; they've got to update their web page or just abbreviate that to Macedonia—
as being a resident of Australia, so that the person can lodge a claim for an Australian Age Pension.
Australia guarantees to pay Age Pension indefinitely into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, provided the person remains otherwise qualified to receive it.
Now, I want you to think about that for a moment, because what's quite clear here is that if you go over there permanently, if you move from Australia to Macedonia, to Great Britain, to Denmark or to any of these other countries that we've reached a pension treaty arrangement with, we'll continue to pay your pension. You can go over there to live and we'll continue to pay the pension. But don't go there for six weeks and one day, because we'll cut off your pension.
It does not make sense. The only conclusion you can get is that this miserable bloke over here is against holidays. That's the only conclusion you can take from this absurd arrangement, where we will continue to pay a pension if you go and live overseas permanently but not if you go over there on holidays. Do you realise that that's what you're about to vote for? It is an absolutely absurd proposition. And believe me, the migrant communities know exactly what's going on here. They can still hear the echo from six months ago, when every Liberal and National Party coalition member was running around the country saying, 'We will stick up for retirees,' who now know that when this government said they were going to stick up for retirees they didn't mean them. They've squared them up, they've lined them up—six weeks and one day, and you're off your pension. It's not right, it's not fair and it doesn't make sense.
We know that the economy is lagging. There are almost two million Australians who either are looking for more work or are unemployed. It is a pretty tough time of year for those people. They're going into the Christmas period. They're seeing the ads up in the shops. If they've got young kids, maybe last year they had a generous Christmas and this year they're thinking it's not going to be so flash for them, can you imagine what is going through their minds when they realise that under this miserable government the waiting period is going to be extended and the government is going to ensure that it is going to be that much harder, during this Christmas period, for them to get access to job search allowance? Through changes to the liquid asset test, the payments that they may have got through a redundancy payment, the government is lifting the bar to ensure that they're going to have to run down that small stock of capital that they may have before they gain access to Newstart.
If I'd got a redundancy at this time of year, I'd know that it was going to be pretty damn tough to get a job over the next few months—not the best time of year to be going and looking for a job. The bills are coming in, but the number of job adverts isn't going up. It's going to be tough. This government's about to make it harder. And those people who have a modest redundancy payment that this government's going to make them run down through the changes envisaged in this bill are probably thinking to themselves: 'I've got my car rego coming in; if I don't have my car, I can't go out and look for a job. That's a big grumpy bill coming my way in a few months time. I've got the kids going back to school in a few months time; I'd better put some money away to ensure that I can afford to put school shoes on their feet, have a bag for them to carry their lunch in to school and ensure that they can turn up to school again next year, just the same as every other kid.' But this government's miserable answer to people who are finding themselves down on their luck at this time of year is to say, 'We're going to make it even harder.'
It's a miserable bill from a pea-hearted, cold-minded opposition that don't know what it is like to be struggling, and it should be rejected. Nobody does Christmas cheer like the coalition. We've got to knock this bill off, because it's the wrong bill, directed at a group of Australians who deserve and expected so much more from this group.
Centre Alliance does not support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 in its current form. And, although there are elements of this bill that we may be willing to consider with the government, the flaws in the bill would need to change substantially in order for it to garner our support.
There are three schedules to this bill. Schedule 1 is the enhanced residency requirements for pensioners. We can somewhat understand the government's desire for people to be residing in this country for a substantial period of time and, indeed, in their working years prior to receiving a pension. Schedule 2 I'd particularly like to make note of, and I have some real concerns here. Schedule 2 seeks to stop the payment of the pension supplement. I know what Labor said about stopping the pension but I think there is a bit of hyperbole over that. It's about stopping the pension supplement for people who are receiving the disability support pension or the age pension once they are overseas for six weeks.
The purpose of the pension supplement payment is to assist pensioners with their utility, telecommunications and medicine costs. Centre Alliance recognises that there should be some limit to this payment where a person is overseas for an extended period of time or they've chosen to permanently relocate overseas. However, we believe cutting the supplement after a mere six weeks is unfair. Centre Alliance will continue to have conversations with government about this. I think it's really important to recognise that for many pensioners, once they enter the age pension phase, in particular, return to their homeland often once, and they often do it for a substantial period of time. Sometimes it's for relieving other family members, in their homeland, with caring responsibilities. So we would really urge government to reconsider the six-week cap on this. We can understand if a person moves permanently overseas, because those supplement payments were designed to assist with the specific costs of living in Australia. But to cut it after six weeks, we feel, is grossly unfair.
Schedule 3 seeks to double the period a person will wait to receive a range of Centrelink payments if they have liquid assets over certain thresholds. Centre Alliance is opposed to schedule 3 of the bill. We believe Australians should not be penalised for having accrued savings at the time of becoming unemployed. The government's proposed policy would create a greater perverse incentive for people to quickly spend their savings or otherwise distort the allocation of their personal funds, to different asset classes, in order to fast track a Centrelink claim. COTA, the Council on the Ageing, is particularly concerned about this schedule. As a party we, instead, welcome and encourage Australians to continue to take individual responsibility for their financial futures, noting that the normal income and assets test for Newstart, youth allowance and Austudy will remain in place regardless of this proposal.
In closing, we understand that the social security aspect of the budget continues to grow. That is an accepted part of the fact that we have an ageing population, and we understand that the government is seeking to shape and reshape funding and how they allocate funding, with respect to that budget line. However, Centre Alliance will not be supporting this bill in its current form. We will continue, though, as always, to have an open door to government to see how the bill can be improved.
I rise to enter the debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, yet another piece of Orwellian legislation. This government seems to invent weird titles to these bills to try to make itself relevant or mean anything. I want to start by commending the member for Barton and the members of the opposition who have spoken in today's debate. I think it is important that we place on record our concerns.
The old saying 'A leopard never changes its spots' is spot-on when it comes to how the government deal with pensioners and retirees in this country. Despite the government talking a big game and talking up their credentials around support for older Australians, the proof is always in the pudding when it comes to the impacts of what they are trying to do here. We've heard from a number of speakers about the wide range of voices that have concerns around this bill—organisations, peak bodies, individuals and, now, members of the opposition and the crossbench, who have also raised significant concerns.
Vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians will be worse off as a result of this legislation. Only two government speakers have had the guts to actually speak to this bill. I often say about the government: if their legislation is so good and they're so proud of it, why doesn't everyone get up and speak about it? I don't understand why, if people are in government, they don't get up and say, 'This is why we’re doing it.' It is on every single bill. If I were a member of the government, I'd just want to go in there once and say, 'Can someone explain to me why we don't ever speak on bills?' Never, ever is there more than one or two speakers. Why? It's so weird. I can tell you now that, if the Labor Party ever has the privilege of being in government, I'll want to sing from the rooftops about what we're doing. It's common sense, right? I can see the member for Mallee over there saying: 'I guess he's right in some ways. I don't know the answer to that.' But she's a good person and she may have the answer and she can tell me one day when we're in a lift together.
This legislation will have a huge impact on pensioners and those on Newstart. It was first introduced in 2017. It was a bad bill then and it's a bad bill now. All the bill does is introduce cuts to vulnerable Australians, including increasing the residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years; stopping the payment of the age pension supplement after the recipient has spent six weeks overseas, as we've heard from a number of speakers—and I want to touch on that, representing a multicultural and diverse community myself; and extending the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances. All up, it will rip around $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners.
These cuts were announced by the then Treasurer and now Prime Minister in the 2016-17 MYEFO and the 2017-18 budget. There was even a third iteration, in the last parliament, which was the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2017, which the government never brought on for debate. The only word I can think of when it comes to these sorts of cuts by the government is 'obsession'. This is a deep-rooted obsession whenever things aren't going their way. At the top of their list are pensioners and vulnerable Australians—people who are doing it tough, day in, day out. This government want to hit them even harder. On this side of the House, we've fought against these types of cuts before, and we will keep fighting against them, because it's the right thing to do. Where is the fairness in targeting those who have the least to give? Pensioners are our oldest Australians, who've worked hard their entire lives. They have built this country. They've saved and scraped every penny and dollar. And now this government and this Prime Minister say: 'That's not good enough. We're changing the rules.'
If passed, this bill will significantly impact older Australians who want to visit family overseas or need to spend an extended time overseas caring for relatives or grandchildren. It is simply not good enough. Migrant pensioners who have worked hard in Australia and have built a life here should be able to get the pension. In my electorate there are 60,000 people who were born overseas—a very large multicultural community, including a very large Vietnamese Australian community. Family is central to the Vietnamese community in this nation. They value their intergenerational links, and it is a beautiful thing to be part of and to witness—families supporting each other, back in Vietnam and here in Australia. This is part of the Australian fabric, because we are a multicultural society, and of course it is widely expected that people will return home to their place of birth to spend time with their family. But this government doesn't agree that this is a fact of life for many migrant pensioners.
Portability of the pension is a cornerstone of the Australian social security system. When the pension is your main source of income, consistency and reliability of the pension are absolutely fundamental to live week to week, and making people wait longer to get on the pension will only force some Australians to go without, struggle or live in poverty. I'd like an explanation from the government on why these changes are necessary. What is the reason behind this? Are they saying pensioners are ripping off the system, that it's too generous or that we feel that people shouldn't go to see family after six weeks? Just say it. Admit it. Don't hide what you're doing to pensioners behind these weasel words.
We've seen enough over the last 6½ years to know that going after pensioners is in the DNA of this Liberal-National government. They've tried to cut the pension and increase the pension age to 70 in every budget. We heard the Treasurer maybe a couple of weeks ago talking about people working longer—all the shifty, weasel language trying to soften the electorate up. We know it's been their policy for more than five years to increase the pension age to 70, and you can bet your bottom dollar that secretly it still is. Why on earth would bills like this continue to be brought before the House?
I want to say that, when its comes to the Liberals and Nationals, the number of ways they've attacked pensioners and tried to get their hands in pensioners' pockets make a long list. I'm glad the second reading amendment has been moved by the member for Barton, because I want to place on record again these deep cuts that the coalition has tried to deliver to pensioners.
In the 2014 budget they tried to cut pension indexation—a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. This would have been ripping about $23 billion from the pockets of all pensioners in Australia. In the same budget they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. They axed the $900 senior supplements to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. They tried to reset deeming rate thresholds—a cut that would have seen around 500,000 part pensioners worse off. The next year, the Liberals 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. They followed it up in the 2016 budget when they tried to cut the pension for around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. They also tried to cut the pension for over 1½ million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show that this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off, with this number increasing to in excess of 1½ million pensioners being worse off in 10 years time. So it's crystal clear that this government will go to any lengths to target pensioners when they're looking for money.
This leads me to the disgraceful practice I spoke about in the House last week: the robo-debt program run by the government and last week found to be illegal by the Federal Court of Australia. I want to underscore the importance of this, as my office, like many others around the country, has been inundated with calls and emails from pensioners coming in with letters that have been sent from this government, telling them they owe money and, 'If you don't pay up, we're coming to get you.' These families and pensioners—grandmothers and grandfathers—have worked their entire lives, paid taxes and done the right thing only for this greedy and selfish government to use some sort of back alley type of behaviour to scare people into paying money they simply don't owe. I said it last week and I'll say it again this week: not one of the members of the government has the guts to get up and say: 'Look, we oversaw a program that was wrong. We apologise'. 'Sorry' is always a hard word to say, but when I grew up I was told that, if you made a mistake, you were man enough to own up to it and you apologised.
I don't know why this is all so hard for the government. I don't know why it's all so complicated and it's all so difficult, because this happened. This isn't spin. This isn't made up. And the best we get from the government on this issue is to say, 'Well, Labor sort of said it was a good idea 8½ years ago'. Imagine telling that to someone in my office who was given a debt of $6,000. Imagine telling someone, 'I know you're a pensioner and you don't owe a dollar, but we're going to make you prove that you don't.' Is it any wonder that we found out that what the government was doing was illegal?
When it comes to pensioners, people seem to be scared to the bone and don't know what to do, so it's no wonder this government is bringing in legislation and nobody wants to speak about it. You can see the financial pressure that pensioners are under. You can see the financial stress and strain of the cost of living. We've got the highest energy prices that this nation has ever seen. Now, in the seventh year of this government, we're seeing everything go up and up and up but we're seeing cut and cut and cut from this government when it comes to pensioners.
It wasn't long ago that we learnt from a leak that the government was around $600 million short on its budget savings and was looking for ways to catch up, which involved capturing pensioners and other sensitive groups with robodebt. We know that was in place, but we also know that Newstart is central to this piece of legislation. I want to talk about this briefly in the time remaining. People currently claiming Newstart, sickness allowance and youth allowance must wait up to 13 weeks to access the payments if they have liquid assets—for example, savings or a redundancy payout of $5,500 for a single with no dependant or $11,000 for a person with a partner and dependants. Under this legislation we are debating—well, this side of the chamber is; that side of the chamber is too afraid to get up and defend its actions—now the government wants to extend the maximum liquid assets waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for claimants with liquid assets of more than $18,000 for singles or $36,000 for couples and people with dependants. It's not just cash in the bank. According to the department, liquid assets include some payments that are made or are due to be made by the person's last employer; amounts deposited or lent to banks or other financial institutions, whether or not the amounts can be withdrawn or paid immediately; assets given to a son or daughter in some circumstances; loans to other people; and compensation payments.
As the member for Isaacs indicated in his address to the parliament today, this is a government that is in search of every nook and cranny of pensioners' pockets and of those doing it tough. We know that, for middle-aged and older Australians, re-entering the workforce can be particularly difficult. The largest single group of people on Newstart is not teenagers or people who the government would like to frame as 'leaners' or whatever their revolting language is about people social welfare; it's people who are 55 years old. We know many middle-aged and older Australians have recently been made redundant from industries that they've spent their whole lives working in. They will require a bit more time to retrain and upskill. So what does the government want during this time? It wants to make it harder for them to receive the support they need. The number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart has skyrocketed by 45 per cent under this government. The cost of essentials is skyrocketing, electricity prices are increasing and child care has become unaffordable under this government. Rather than this bill coming in here to make life easier, it's making it tougher for those who can least afford it.
I simply say this to the government. First of all, start defending your policies; actually get up on your feet and explain to the Australian people why you are making these changes. If you're a government backbencher and you were proud of this legislation, you'd be advocating it. You'd get up and say, 'This is what we believe in.' Second of all, if you can't do that, stop attacking pensioners and those on low incomes. Go back to the drawing board and start coming up with policies that will actually help Australians, not hurt them.
I rise to oppose this bill. It was first introduced in 2017. As the member for Barton has said, it was a bad bill then and it is still a bad bill now. It has as much to do with the integrity of social security payments as the defeated 'ensuring integrity' bill had to do with protecting Australian workers: absolutely nothing. Hopefully this misnamed bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, will meet the same fate. This bill contains more cuts to vulnerable Australians who simply can't afford it. It will increase residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years for those born outside Australia; stop the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks overseas; and extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances.
If there is one consistent theme from this government it is their absolute commitment to be Robin Hood in reverse—that is, rather than taking money from the rich to give to the poor, this government consistently takes money from the poor and struggling in order to give it to the wealthy. We've seen that billions, the bulk of the tax cuts legislated last year, will flow to those on incomes of over $100,000 a year and disproportionately to those on incomes of over $200,000 a year, but those on social security get none of this largesse. In fact they are being asked to pay for it to keep the budget in surplus. Catholic Social Services Australia said in 2017:
… this Bill places 'the burden of budget repair on those who can least afford it, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and businesses, [which] is wrong morally and economically.'
It if implemented, this bill will rip out over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners. You have to ask: why does this government want to punish pensioners? Why do they want to make it harder for older Australians who want to visit family overseas or to spend an extended time caring for relatives or grandchildren? Migrant pensioners who have worked hard in Australia and who have built a life and a family here should be able to get the pension; they shouldn't lose the supplement simply because they go overseas for an extended period, often through no choice of their own. Making people wait longer to get the pension will only force some older Australians to go without, struggle or live in poverty.
Of course, pensioners won't be fooled by this government. Attempts to cut the pension and social security are the raison d'etre of this Liberal government. They have tried to increase the pension and increase the pension age to 70 in every budget, including in three budgets where the current Prime Minister had the job of Treasurer. In the 2014 budget they tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within ten years. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of Australia's pensioners. In that budget they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living—and they also axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. In the 2014 budget the Liberals tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen 500,000 part pensioners made worse off. In 2015 the Liberals did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. They also tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show that this would have left worse off over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance. On top of this they spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. To top it off it took five consecutive interest rate cuts before they even adjusted the deeming rates, and then only after enormous pressure from seniors groups and from Labor.
So this bill is part of a history of attempts to cut pension and other social security entitlements. Part of this bill is aimed at stopping the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks overseas. Currently the pension supplement is reduced to the basic rate once a recipient has been overseas for six weeks. This bill would cease payment of the pension supplement entirely once a recipient has been out of Australia for six weeks or immediately upon a permanent departure. There are no grandfathering arrangements for these changes. They will apply immediately upon the commencement of the schedule, even to pensioners who are already overseas.
In the 2017 Senate hearing, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council said:
For the individuals who have to survive on the age pension, that additional supplement is critical. They would have also suffered in terms of having to save up to go overseas in the first place and probably for a long period of time. Every dollar counts when you're living on the age pension so it is punitive and cruel to take away that additional amount just because someone, for very good reasons, is having to spend an extended period of time overseas.
What was true in 2017 is still true today—the federation regards this proposal as 'unfair' and 'discriminatory', and so do I.
The bill also seeks to extend the period needed to qualify for age and disability pensions from 10- to 15-years residence for those born outside Australia. As a result of the change, around 2,390 people will have to wait longer for the pension. This means that, at best, these people of age-pension age will be able to access a special benefit equivalent to Newstart allowance. This will mostly affect people who have moved to Australia close to the pension age, perhaps to be with family. This change has no policy rationale except to make a saving from recently arrived migrants of pension age.
The Federation of Ethnic Communities Council told the Senate inquiry in 2017:
...older migrant Australians will become more reliant upon their families to support them...but as with any family, young people now in Australia...have to move often in order to secure employment, and they're not often in a position to take care of their older relatives, either practically or financially.
Part of the new requirement will be that a person must not be in receipt of an activity tested income support payment for more than five years of a continuous 10-year period. This introduces a dangerous new precedent. As ACOSS has said:
… it starts to introduce an approach to social security which says that, because you had to come here for help in the past, you've had enough.
The National Social Security Rights Network's experts on our social security system told the Senate inquiry in 2017:
The Australian system is based on residence and need. It has a very strong emphasis on residence already. Most of the older migrants who have the misfortune to need to access our system within the first 10 years in Australia are covered by an assurance from their families. So there is no cost to the taxpayer because the money is recovered from the family. So it's hard to see the case for strengthening the requirements. It's particularly hard to see the need or benefit that comes from introducing income support history into the test. It's a departure from a very fundamental principle.
Labor sees no need for such a change. It is unacceptable.
Finally, I turn to the aspects of the bill which propose to effectively double the liquid assets threshold and the waiting time for Newstart and other payments for couples from around $11,000 to $36,000 and from a maximum waiting time of 13 weeks to 26 weeks. In other words, applicants will need to spend down more of their assets before becoming eligible to receive a payment. As a result, they will be less able to make financial commitments, such as pay for a bond or a rental property or replace a broken appliance as they will not have sufficient savings to do so.
The Department of Social Services estimates that around 13,800 claimants would be affected each year by the extension. Of those, the department expects that around 11,000 would be required to wait the full 26 weeks and, on average, people would have to wait an additional 11 weeks before they would start to receive a payment. There is no rational for increasing the liquid assets waiting period for people who lose their job or are made redundant.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, this is nothing but a cash grab and is taking money out of the pockets of workers at the very time when their savings matter the most. The current waiting period, up to 13 weeks for people with modest savings, is already more than enough. While many people will find another job in the 13-week period, it's important that those who do not are not forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home or are unable to meet unexpected expenses.
A longer waiting period is counterproductive. It means people have less money to seek employment, undertake retraining, keep the car on the road—indeed, simply to deal with the emergencies that life throws up. If a person's circumstances spiral because they run out of savings, if they lose their home or their car, this just makes it harder to get back into employment.
During the Senate hearings in 2017 into this same bill, St Vincent de Paul said:
By increasing waiting periods and reducing access to support payments, the proposed measures would further erode an already fragile social safety net, contributing to inequality and disproportionately impacting on people on low incomes. Such proposals are morally, socially and economically indefensible …
The government should be stimulating the economy and lifting people out of poverty, not taking money out of the pockets of pensioners and workers who have been made redundant through no fault of their own. Nor should they be punished—punishing those who go overseas for longer than six weeks after having contributed to our society for many years.
It seems like this government's only plan is to improve the budget position. Under this government now in its third term, Australia has the slowest growth in a decade—stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and declining living standards. The government needs a plan to turn the economy around to make it grow, but all we see are constant efforts to take money away from those that can least afford it. Rather than develop a real plan to revitalise the economy, the government has simply recirculated the same bad idea. This is why Labor, quite rightly, opposes this bill—a bill that gives integrity a bad name.
I, too, rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 and to say that Labor opposes it. I say so because it's an unfair bill. It is a bill that attacks hardworking Australians who have worked all their lives. They've paid their taxes, they've contributed to this nation, they've built the foundations of this nation and now we're taking away from them—people who have worked so hard for us to be in the position that we're in today as the generation after them, through their hard work, through their blood, sweat and tears. Today what this government is doing is attacking those very people that have given us the benefits of the great Australian dream and great Australian life.
As I said, the bill is an attack on the most vulnerable Australians in our community. This is the same old government rhetoric that pensioners won't be surprised about. Because the history of this government from 2013 onwards at every single budget has been to attack and cut from pensioners, whether it be through the assets test, making them work longer or cutting their pension when they go overseas—a whole range of things have been put in place by this government which attacks pensioners. From 2013, that first budget under the Abbott Liberal government, through the Malcolm Turnbull Liberal government to the Morrison government, it's an unfair bill, and a bill that this side of the House will not stand for.
I want to put on record that we, on this side, are sick of seeing our pensioners being used as political footballs at every budget. It is unfair to treat people in this way. I know that pensioners in my electorate are telling me that they're sick of it. They've told me over and over again at street corner meetings and stalls that I set up at shopping centres. I hear it time and time again. They tell me that they've worked hard, they've done the right thing their entire lives, they've brought up kids and are now looking after grandkids. And what does this government do? It comes in and pulls the rug out from under them. They're made to feel like a burden by this very legislation before the House today. They're made to feel like a burden, a cost and a nuisance. That's what this bill is doing. We shouldn't have it.
These people, as I said, have worked hard all their lives. They've contributed to our society and our economy, and they deserve better. As I said, this is the history of this government: the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison's government record on pensions is nothing short of a disgrace. In every single budget the government's handed down, they've proposed cuts to the pension. There have been proposals for cuts to the pension at every single budget. They want to call themselves the friend of pensioners—that's what they were championing in the 2019 election campaign. The reality is that it's completely the opposite; they are the enemy of pensioners through these cuts. You can see it at every budget. This government wants to raise the pension age to 70—the oldest pension age in the developed world. If you're a bricklayer or a plumber or you've worked in manufacturing, your back is gone by the time you're 50, let alone 70. How are these people meant to work at that age? With manufacturing closing down in our state—we've seen the closure of GMH and Mitsubishi—the majority of those people are still unemployed or working in jobs with lesser pay and lesser conditions.
This bill proposes to rip over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners. This will specifically hurt those people, and it will specifically hurt another group of pensioners—migrants who came to this country many years ago and made Australia what it is, a wonderful place to live, through their hard work and their commitment to Australia. It will particularly impact on older Australians who want to visit or go overseas for a holiday for an extended period. They may need to spend an extended period caring for family; they may have parents on their last legs; they may have children overseas who are having children themselves, so they want to visit their grandchildren or other relatives; or they may just want to go back to their homeland in their twilight years for a short time. What is wrong with that? You've worked your entire life, you've paid taxes, you've contributed to this nation and you decide to travel in your old age. That is the Australian dream. There is nothing more Australian than wanting to travel and spend time seeing other countries and doing other things in your old age. Why should those people be penalised by this government for doing what everyone else in this country has done for years? If they went to Brisbane or the Gold Coast or Cairns or WA, it would be fine. Why not overseas? What's the difference? It is their right—in the days they've stopped working because they've contributed and paid taxes all their lives—to be able to pick a place, travel to it and stay as long as they like. They've contributed and done everything for this nation. So this bill is extremely poor when it comes to looking after pensioners.
The portability of the pension is a cornerstone of the Australian social security system. Migrant pensioners who have worked hard in Australia and have built a life and a family here should be able to get that pension. Proposing to stop the pension supplement for pensioners who spend more than six weeks overseas is an attack on anyone that wants to travel overseas. This nation is made up of people from every corner of the world who migrated here—whether pre-war or post-war, refugees who have worked under the conditions and rules of the land—knowing that one day when they retire they may want to return and have an extended holiday, see family and just do the things that they couldn't do whilst they were having their life here in Australia. This bill will prevent that. It will prevent people from having the freedom to travel.
This will affect pensioners, especially in in my electorate, from the Greek community, the Italian community, the Chinese community and the Arabic community who spend time visiting family on a regular basis—and there is nothing wrong with that. As I said, they've worked all their lives—and many have been here for 50 years, 60 years, 30 years, 40 years—and they've paid their taxes. It is their right to have the ability to visit the people that they love—family they were estranged from because of poverty or war or whatever situation brought them here—and to spend time with them. Six weeks is a very short, minimal time. I know people who go overseas every few years for three months, and rightly so. They can afford it. They worked; they've got the money to do it. Why not? Why is this government preventing that? What is it that's so bad in that? No-one from the other side can give us the answer.
Returning home for an extended holiday is a dream for many older people—to spend time there with family and friends and to enjoy the things they enjoyed when they were kids, perhaps not seeing the poverty stricken land that they left but seeing it with the hindsight gained from having lived in Australia all their lives. It is wrong to do this to those people. Yet this government wants to take that very right away from them with this bill. They want to punish Australians who have lasting connections to their heritage in perhaps another country.
Cuts to pensioners are nothing new from this government. In every single budget, the Treasurer, this Prime Minister, tried to cut the pension and raise the pension age to 70. The government's own figures show this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years, in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would be worse off under this government. This government is hanging our pensioners out to dry, yet again, and it is the history of the last few years that this government's been in place. When these people should be enjoying their twilight years, they're fraught with fear that their pension will be changed, that there will be new legislation that will take something away from them and that they will be under attack. Why should they be living in fear? They've constantly been under attack.
This government will not be getting away with pulling the wool over the eyes of age pensioners and hardworking Australians. It shouldn't be able to do that, and it won't. The Prime Minister likes to say that he's all about the quiet Australians—he's the most out-of-touch PM in history with this bill. This nation is made up of people from every corner of the world, with a lifelong dream, for many of them, to visit their homeland and stay for three months, six months or maybe even 12 months, in many cases, and it is their right to do so. If the Prime Minister really cared about the living expenses of vulnerable Australians he wouldn't be trying this yet again, as we've seen, to deliver a pension cut.
It's sad to say, but this is a government that really has it in for pensioners. This government should think again. They have a very short memory. They will not get away with this. I remember in 2014 when the Liberals tried to cut the pension indexation and leave pensioners $80 a week poorer over 10 years. And I remember when this government tried to reset the deeming rate thresholds. Changing that would have negatively impacted half a million part pensioners. We also remember when the government changed the assets test and shifted the goalposts on hundreds of thousands of pensioners who had carefully planned their retirement. They had carefully planned their retirement, with a few assets—perhaps part pensioners—and that rug's been pulled from under their feet. Almost 100,000 pensioners lost their pension and many more had their payments reduced, many hundreds in my electorate.
Let's look back at 2017 and the attempt by this government to do the very same thing. They wanted to cut the pension after six weeks of being overseas, and here we are again with this same bill. They backflipped and said these cuts were gone for good. Well, they're not gone for good; they're here again today, because this government has it in for pensioners. There's one thing we know: you can't trust this government when it comes to pensioners.
What I see in this bill is a government that's still trying to make life harder for pensioners, for Australians that work their entire lives. This is not fair and it is not a reasonable bill. Lo and behold, these cuts haven't gone from the last budget: here they are again. In 2013 former Prime Minister Abbott promised no changes to the pension. That's what he said on the eve of the 2013 election: no changes to the pension, no changes to health, no changes to education. What have we seen? We've seen billions of dollars cut out of those three areas. But why the pensioners, the people we admire the most in our community, people who have worked so hard? Why are we attacking these people? It is not fair. We saw those broken promises, and we've seen them continuously. They couldn't be trusted then and they can't be now.
We on this side recognise that many Australians are doing it tough, especially pensioners. It's particularly true for income support recipients, such as old-age pensioners. History has shown, time and again, that the government doesn't understand them, it doesn't understand the fairness, and, if it did, it wouldn't be proposing bills like this here today.
I, unfortunately, am not thrilled to be rising to talk about the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, as this is a bad bill and does not deserve the support of this place. I hope that the other place, as they did with the ensuring integrity bill, sees to it that it does not pass the other place.
Before I go into some of the parts of the bill, I am sure that when those opposite and their members got into this place, got elected, and managed to get the great privilege of being a part of this great parliament, these sorts of bills—when they won government—wouldn't be the things that they do in their day, that when they wake up, cutting funding from pensioners doesn't get them out of bed. I don't think that anyone on that side would have woken up this morning and said, 'You know what? We really need to take money off the pensioners, because that's going to make this country better, that's going to deal with the problems that face Australians today.' Yet that is what they do. For them, that's what government is all about. Government is about cutting. It's about cutting down services. It's about being punitive towards ordinary Australians. Yet none of them are willing to stand up and speak on this bill. I think it says a lot about the sort of quality of legislation that this government is putting in this House when it is only the Labor Party who are standing up and speaking against it. No government member is speaking for it, because it doesn't fill them with pride to talk about cutting pensions, it doesn't fill them with pride to talk about how to take money away from those vulnerable Australians and it doesn't fill them with pride to talk about how to squeeze every last dollar out of our welfare system.
It's hardly surprising given the leadership of the social services minister. She said:
Giving [people] more money would do absolutely nothing ... probably all it would do is give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money.
That is the social services minister. That is the person who is in charge of Australia's welfare system, our social safety net—something that I think is a great part of this country that says no Australian will be left behind, that we will be there as Australians to support you, that being an Australian is a thing of privilege, and it is a wonderful thing and we don't let Australians and fellow Australians suffer without support.
Yet they keep bringing these sorts of bills into the House. They keep bringing these sorts of bills that Joe Hockey would have been proud of—a punitive bill that is all about taking money away from pensioners. This bill will rip over $185 million from pensioners. This is not money that the government needs. This is money that the government is choosing to take off pensioners in Australia. Specifically with regard to those who have worked in Australia, who have given their time—many of the pensioners who are living in my electorate especially are ones who came here as migrants, who came to this country with very little and who have built a life here in this great country. For the small opportunity that we have given them, they have given back to this country far more. My grandparents were some of those people. My grandparents were pensioners. My grandfather somehow always had enough in his pension to give little gifts to his grandchildren. These are the sorts of people from whom this government is trying to rip out that little bit of funding to get them through the week.
It was particularly nice. I hear the interjection from the front bench. I would come across a house with a family that had either an Italian or a Greek sounding surname. It was honestly my favourite stop because I was always greeted politely and respectfully. I can't say that was how I was always greeted at the doors, but the hospitality that was shown to me really demonstrated the wonderful communities that have been built here in Australia and the wonderful pensioners who live here. It was clear from my conversations with them that they had a deep appreciation for what this country had given to them and the hospitality that it had shown. Many of their families have ended up in multiple locations. Some kids have joined them here in Australia, many of them have families and communities overseas, and yet this government wants to penalise pensioners who spend a few weeks perhaps looking after a grandchild, perhaps supporting one of their children or perhaps going back and seeing the family they had left behind in other countries. The only inspiration and the only motivation for this government is to be cruel and to be punitive and to take $185 million out of the pockets of Australian pensioners.
The government have form. As the previous member clearly reminded us all, before the 2014 election the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no cuts to the pension, no cuts to the ABC and no cuts to the SBS, and what did we see? We saw cuts, we saw cuts, we saw cuts, we saw some cuts, and, to wrap it up, we saw some cuts. It's good to see that the Liberals haven't lost their form when it comes to cutting. They're still very, very good at it. It's probably what the Liberals do best. They know how to cut with the best of them. In 2014, they tried to cut the pension indexation. While the whole world moved around Australia's pensioners, the government tried to say to them, 'You don't need any extra money to be able to afford all the things you did this year. You don't need a little bit extra to pay for your increasing bills or your increasing food costs. No, you can deal with it.' They did that to the ABC as well. Unfortunately they were successful in cutting the indexation on the ABC, squeezing out all of the funding they possibly could. Their list of cuts in this area is long and distinguished. I won't go into many of them. But, on this auspicious day when we mark the unholy alliance between the Greens political party and the Abbott conservatives around voting down the CPRS in 2015, we all remember the famous deal that the Greens did with the Liberals to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by changing the pension asset test. The Greens, in their world of unicorns and kale fairies—
Mr Morton interjecting—
I'm going to pay for that one—don't understand the needs of the people who have come to this country. It is the same motivation that we see in this bill. It is the same motivation in saying to those Australians, 'It doesn't matter that you've had a go, it doesn't matter that you've put your heart into this country, it doesn't matter that you've put your back into this country, it doesn't matter that you came to this country with nothing and you set up a life for yourselves, it doesn't matter that you paid your taxes for decades, and it doesn't matter that you as Australians have given more to this country than we could have hoped for.' It says to them: 'In your retirement, in your last few decades when you should be enjoying everything that this country has to offer, we are going to squeeze a little bit out of each of you.' It is a shame and it does not deserve our support.
But this has been a theme since we've come back to this parliament. For the six months that I've been a member in this place there has been an agenda of cruelty, an agenda of punitive approaches by this government, one after the other, where they are trying to squeeze money out of the welfare system, where they are trying to punish the most-vulnerable Australians, where they are sending debt letters to thousands and thousands of Australians who don't owe a single dollar to this government and then tweet about it in the most absurd way, saying that they want to build an 'ontology of capabilities across government'.
Well, they haven't achieved much through this bill. This bill is pretty damning, but the minister did achieve, I think, one of the highest ratios on Twitter, with 1,138 comments, compared with only 94 'likes' on his 'ontology of capabilities across government' tweet. It was quite an extraordinary tweet, and I hope his advisers at least change his password so that he's not allowed to tweet anymore, because it would be better for the entire country if we were spared his tweets. But it would also be better for the entire country if we were spared his punitive policy of sending vulnerable Australians robodebt notices. It would be better for the entire country if we were spared the sort of legislation that we see week after week from this government, looking to squeeze money out of our social services system, looking to squeeze money out of the most-vulnerable Australians. It would be better for this country if this bill, the 'payment integrity' bill, went the same way as the 'ensuring integrity' bill, defeated in the other place.
They are very quick to label all their bills as being full of integrity, yet they are very slow to bring any integrity to the way in which they conduct themselves. This bill should not pass the parliament. I do not support this bill, and it should be defeated in the other place.
I rise to make my contribution to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, and I oppose this bill with a sense of deja vu. The coalition government first tried to introduce this bill in 2017. It was a bad bill then, and now, two years later, nothing's changed; it's still a bad bill. Dig a little deeper and the details of this bill are so cruel and miserly that they would actually make Scrooge blush and are a shame at this time of the year. This bill seeks to increase the residential requirements for age and disability pensioners by five years. It stops the payment of the age pension supplement should they want to go overseas for more than six weeks. Allowances such as Newstart and youth allowance will now have to have the liquid asset test raised from 13 weeks to an impossible six months.
People who, through no fault of their own, are made redundant are now going to be cruelly punished. There is no rationale for increasing the liquid assets waiting period for people who lose their jobs or are made redundant. Let's face it: how many times do we see workers lose their jobs, be made redundant, and then find out that superannuation has not been set aside and all their other entitlements aren't paid? The government, on top of that, is now going to make them wait even longer to get something back. For people who lose their job and are made redundant, having a financial buffer is incredibly important. It allows them to make changes to their lifestyle if they need to, and it allows them the space to keep their mental health in check. Yet this government says, 'If you want a go, you get a go.' Again, this government says one thing but seemingly is doing quite another.
Being made redundant and being unemployed is not some form of punishment for moral failure. Social security is a safety net. It is what this country should be most proud of—supporting people when they need it most. This government is alienating these people, who have no other option but to turn to the safety net.
In every budget since 2014, this government has tried to increase the pension age to 70. Let's not forget about the axing of the $900 seniors supplement for self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card, nor forget the deal that was done with the help of the Greens last year to cut $12,000 from the pension to over a quarter of a million pensioners by changing the assets test. I have seen many pensioners who could not be counted as well off for whom this change has meant significant issues for them and their partners.
In 2016, right as energy prices were causing families and pensioners to go into debt and skip much-needed heating, what did the government do? It scrapped the energy supplement for new pensioners. Our pensioners, who've worked hard to build this country into what it is today, who contributed so much, are being financially choked by this government and the Treasurer. In fact, it took the government until the cash rate was at one per cent to change the deeming rate—a deeming rate that was set for a cash rate of 2.25 per cent, a rate we hadn't seen since April 2015, and that is just appalling. How you could not have done something about that earlier is really beyond belief, given that the only people that were winning out of that were the big banks, and look at what we've seen in the last week about what they do.
This government does not want those pensioners, of which a high number are migrants who helped build this country, to be able to visit their families overseas. We all know that it's a long way to go to places like Italy and Greece, where a majority of my constituents originally hail from, so you want to be there for some time. Many of the constituents that I see in my electorate office think this will be the last time they will be well enough to go. They want to say goodbye to family and friends, and they want to reacquaint themselves with the places of their childhood, which ultimately many of them left in really awful circumstances, just after the war or in the early fifties. They were coming to this country because they wanted a better life for their families. It's hard to speak to those people, in my electorate, at least, who have spent the best part of 30 or 40 years growing the food that we put on our tables—the tomatoes, the eggs, the chooks—and see in their eyes that they can't afford to go back and see brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews they left behind. Some of them have been saving up for this for the last 15 or 20 years. I really don't know what to say to those people, because this is not the Australia that I grew up in and it's not the Australia that we want for our future either. The government just doesn't seem to have an appreciation for the long years of hard work these pensioners have put into the country.
We've got a disgraceful list of age-care abuses, banks ripping off our elderly, and robodebt that isn't actually true also ripping off our elderly. Now the government is dipping into its pile of failed legislation to have another go at our aged Australians. All this is at a time when we have a stalling economy and a government and a Treasurer asleep at the controls of a fly-by-night operation. They have no ideas of their own, so they're looking to the failed ideas of their conservative colleagues abroad: austerity. The Treasurer seems to be grasping desperately at cuts, cuts, cuts but has no plans to save the stalling economy. At the risk of being heckled by those opposite, the last time we had an economy that looked like it was going to have problems, we as a government made a decision to create jobs for people. That kept us much better off over the global financial crisis. It's something that this government needs to think about again.
For hardworking Australians who find themselves redundant and out of a job, their savings can make the difference, enabling them to retrain and get back on their feet quickly. We all know that Newstart does not provide enough money for people to pay the rent, feed and clothe themselves and get to job interviews. The little money you have means you aren't able to do your best at these job interviews if you're thinking about other things.
The government seems to have no plan for the economy. It has been two years since this bill was sent away from this place, and it really should be sent away again. We find ourselves firmly in a rotating door of failed coalition policy. This bill is nothing but a nostalgic look back at the coalition's worst hits. Since being elected in 2013 the government has been determined to destroy everything that is good and decent. We need to stop this bill now; we need to think about our vulnerable Australians and we need to make sure that this bill is stopped.
I start my remarks today by noting and remembering that it was Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, who entrenched in our founding principles, the very basis of the modern Liberal Party, the important principle that we support those who are in need, that we take care of the most vulnerable in our society and that we do our very best to make sure that people in times of great need, in times of crisis, receive the financial support that they might need to keep going, to provide them with dignity, to make sure that they can look after their family and look after themselves until they get back on their feet. That was, as I said, one of the fundamental parts of the platform of the original Liberal Party when it was formed back in 1944-45—that we have a great responsibility to look after those people in need in our society.
I'm very proud of the work our government does in order to do that. We do it in a range of ways. We're doing it through the National Disability Insurance Scheme, we do it through the age pension and we do it through unemployment support as well. I know that we spend billions of dollars supporting Australians, especially those in need, each year. As a government we need to make sure our spending is fair, sustainable and doing what it was intended to do—that is, support people in need. Especially when they're on income support, we're doing our very best to ensure we can help them get back into the workforce. On this side of the House we believe that the best form of welfare is a job. We need to make sure our welfare system is fair and sustainable so we can continue to fund it, because it does cost the nation billions of dollars every year. Taxpayers, hardworking Australians around the country, help to provide support for those less fortunate on welfare and through the age pension. I understand the forecast figure for our social security and welfare system is more than $180 billion, or one in every three dollars the Commonwealth spends, which is a very large figure.
The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019 reintroduces three measures designed to improve the integrity and sustainability of the welfare payment system. It does this through enhancements to the residency requirements for pensioners, changes to the payment of the pension supplement for permanent departures overseas and temporary absences and an increase to the liquid assets test waiting period to increase self-reliance. The financial impact of these measures is significant. Taken together the measures in the bill are estimated to improve the budget bottom line by some $291.5 million over the forward estimates. As I said, we have a responsibility to carefully manage our finances, our budget, because it is taxpayers' money. It is not the government's money; it is money that is earned and then paid through taxes by hardworking Australians. And I believe they do so willingly because they believe that we all have a responsibility to help those in need. I think we see that in the incredible response from Australians around the nation to the bushfire tragedies and the tragedy of the drought, and the incredible generosity of hardworking Australians to help out those in need. I think that's also echoed in their willingness to help support people who may need welfare, the age pension, to make sure that they are able to care for themselves and their families.
The three measures I've outlined that are included in the bill make changes to improve the long-term sustainability of our welfare payment system while maintaining appropriate support for those in need. So, in terms of the enhanced residency requirement for Australian pensioners, we are making sure that people have gone through a range of requirements before they're able to qualify for the age pension.
I note that Australia's residency requirements are quite generous when compared to the qualifying contribution periods of time required by other countries in order to receive the age pension. For example, among other OECD countries, Austria has a requirement of 15 years residency before people can qualify for the age pension, and Poland has a requirement of 20 years residency. So that's quite a long period of time and an indication of what comparable OECD countries require.
This measure reinforces and strengthens the resident's connection required in order to receive the age pension or the disability support pension. Currently, to qualify for the Australian age pension or disability support pension, a person must have been an Australian resident for a total of 10 years with at least five of those years being continuous—that's the length of time that they have lived without interruption in Australia. There is no requirement for those 10 years to be during a person's working life to be able to qualify.
This measure strengthens a resident's connection that's required before a person can be granted the disability support or the age pension. This means that, from 1 January 2020, to qualify for the age pension and the disability support pension people will be required to have 10 years continuous Australian residence with either five years of this residence during their working life or greater than five cumulative years residence not in receipt of an activity-tested income support payment. There are other provisions that will apply if they don't meet these requirements.
The bill also makes changes in relation to the pension supplement, which is a payment designed to assist income support recipients with the cost of living in Australia. The pension supplement combined into a single payment is the value of the telephone allowance, utilities allowance, pharmaceutical allowance and the GST supplement. The basic amount is equivalent to the former GST supplement which was introduced in the year 2000 to compensate income support recipients for increases in the cost of living associated with the GST.
It seems obvious that residents who are overseas long term or, indeed, even permanently—people who have left Australia and moved overseas permanently—are unlikely to be impacted by the GST in Australia because they're no longer living in Australia. So there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to continue to compensate them for the impact of the GST in Australia while they are overseas, which, as I said, seems quite obvious. So, for anything other than a short-term absence, there will be changes to their payments. This measure reinforces and strengthens the residence based nature of Australia's social security system and will help to ensure the system remains sustainable into the future.
As I remarked at the outset, we do spend billions of dollars on welfare support, the age pension and the disability support pension each and every year so that we can support people in their times of need or in their retirement if they are no longer able to work. Although, I do note I have many people well past the age of requirement and well past the pension eligibility age in my electorate of Boothby who are still running successful small businesses, who are still self-employed and who are really proud of the fact that they're still working, paying taxes and making a wonderful contribution to our nation. Their stories are really impressive, and I just commend them today for the contribution they have made to our society and the contribution that they make to their fellow Australians through their hard-earned incomes and the taxes that they pay, because they help to support people who are less fortunate than themselves.
Currently, the pension supplement is reduced to the basic amount after six weeks of temporary absence from Australia or immediately for permanent departures. Under this measure in this bill, the pension supplement will cease altogether after six weeks overseas for a temporary absence or immediately for permanent departures, as I just noted. The measure will apply to both recipients already overseas and recipients departing Australia after the commencement date. I note that the bill also makes changes to increase the maximum liquid assets test waiting period, and I think others have remarked on this previously.
I, again, just want to acknowledge that we believe it is very important to make sure that we support those in need. As I said at the outset, it is one of the fundamental, formative tenets of the modern Liberal Party of Sir Robert Menzies that we as a society have a duty to care for people who need our help in times of need, and that's what we continue to do. I am delighted to commend the bill to the House today.
The government are committed to ensuring our welfare system is fair and sustainable so we can continue to support those who need it most. This bill, the Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, reintroduces three measures that will help to maintain the longer term sustainability of the system. The first measure in this bill will, from 1 January 2020, strengthen the residency requirements for the age pension and the disability support pension, or DSP. Currently to qualify for the age pension or the DSP a person must be an Australian resident for a total of 10 years, with at least five of those years being continuous. Under this measure, for a person to qualify for the age pension or the DSP they will be required to have 10 years continuous Australian residence and either five years of this during their working life or greater than five cumulative years residence while not in receipt of an activity tested income support payment. Where a person does not meet either of these requirements they will need to have 15 years of continuous Australian residence. This measure reflects community expectations that people should demonstrate an appropriate residence connection to Australia before testing eligibility to receive taxpayer funded payments.
The second measure in this bill will cease payment of the pension supplement for recipients outside of Australia after six weeks for temporary absences or immediately if the recipient has permanently departed Australia. This measure will commence on 1 January 2020 and will apply to both recipients already overseas and recipients departing Australia after commencement. The pension supplement is a payment designed to assist income support recipients with the cost of living in Australia and there is no economic reason to continue to pay recipients while they are overseas for any time longer than a short-term absence. Pensioners will once again be able to receive the pension supplement once they return to Australia.
Finally, this bill will also increase the maximum liquid assets test waiting period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks for new claimants of youth allowance, Austudy, Newstart allowance or sickness allowance. This increase will commence from 1 January 2020. This measure reflects community expectations that people who can support themselves should do so before relying on taxpayer funded income support. Only the maximum length of the liquid assets test waiting period is changing. No changes are being made to the existing reserve amounts, liquid assets test waiting period calculation, range of exemptions or hardship waiver rules.
The measure will only apply to claimants with high levels of liquid assets and greater capacity to support themselves in the first instance. Those with low to modest levels of liquid assets will not be affected by this measure. All three measures which are included in the bill will make sensible changes to improve the long-term sustainability of our welfare payment system while maintaining appropriate support for those in need. I present to the House a correction to the explanatory memorandum.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
(1) declines to give the bill a second reading;
(2) notes that, in every Budget, this Government has tried to cut the pension or increase the pension age to 70;
(3) further notes that the cuts to Newstart in this bill will hurt redundant workers and push them towards poverty; and
(4) criticises the Government for its cruel cuts to pensions and social security".
So, the immediate question is that the amendment moved by the member for Barton be agreed to.
Mr Speaker, given the rule that you're seeking the call when you cover your head during a division, the member for Flinders is clearly seeking the call, and I just ask that you give it to him!
I say to the Manager of Opposition business: his knowledge of history is right. Before you just put iPads over your heads, there used to be top hats! That's true. But the member for Flinders is not seeking the call. But it would probably be a good idea if he didn't wear a cap into the chamber! The question now is that the bill be read a second time.