Thursday, 17 June 2021
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, and I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that:
(a) these changes are necessary due to the tens of thousands of Australians who remain stranded overseas, including many Australian pensioners; and
(b) Australian pensioners stranded overseas have been let down by the Government due to delays in the vaccine rollout and lack of specialist quarantine facilities; and
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) do more to bring Australian pensioners stranded overseas home by accelerating the vaccine rollout and establishing specialised quarantine facilities; and
(b) not cut the pension".
Pensioners have worked hard and contributed all their lives. They deserve our respect. The age pension is a proud Labor legacy. The first iteration of the age pension was introduced by the Deakin Labor government in 1908. It sought to ensure that older Australians could live with dignity. I was raised by pensioners. They taught me the value of respect. They taught me the value of hard work. They taught me the value of money, the importance of saving, planning and budgeting: a penny saved is a penny earned. That's what pensioners do. They've worked hard. They've helped create the fundamental way of life that we know in this country today. They've looked after us, whether we're children or grandchildren. They budget carefully and they deserve our respect.
Labor will always work to strengthen and improve the pension. Over the last eight years, Labor has sought to protect the pension from the government's relentless cuts to it, and relentless attempts to cut it. Retirement can be an anxious time. All of us understand that. The past year has been a time like no other, with extra health precautions, lockdowns, more time spent at home, reliance on food and grocery delivery services, and the need to purchase additional health products. It's been a particularly hard year for pensioners in meeting their added costs of living, especially those in Victoria—Melbourne, in particular—but, of course, right across the country.
Australian pensioners should be able—and are able—to continue to receive their pension overseas, should they wish. To that end, pensioners with 35 years of Australian working-life residence can receive the full base rate of the pension while overseas indefinitely. One of the great things about the social security system in Australia is its portability. Pensioners with less than 35 years of Australian working-life residence will receive a proportional rate after 26 weeks overseas. Recent events—the COVID-19 pandemic—have seen Australian pensioners stranded overseas through no fault of their own. Temporary arrangements were introduced to allow extensions to pension portability, meaning pensioners could continue to retain the full rate while overseas for longer than 26 weeks. The changes in this bill would enable these arrangements to continue, by providing the secretary with the discretion to continue the full rate in prescribed circumstances. It is the kind of commonsense flexibility that should be built into our social security system.
These changes are necessary for the tens of thousands of Australians who remain stranded overseas, including many Australian pensioners. Australian pensioners stranded overseas have been failed by this neglectful government due to the severe delays in the vaccine rollout and failure to establish specialist quarantine facilities. They are the responsibility of the federal government. Labor has consistently called for the establishment of specialist quarantine facilities. Over a year since the beginning of the pandemic these facilities have still not been delivered. For over a year, the government stubbornly refused to acknowledge—inexplicably refused to acknowledge—its responsibility in quarantine. It has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to accept this responsibility. This is a government that has simply not treated the vaccine rollout with any urgency.
The Prime Minister said it is a race. Well, it is a race. In fact, I've just come from the Aboriginal medical service here in Canberra, having had my second vaccine. It is a race against further variants. It is a race to save lives and it is a race to save livelihoods, as my colleague has just agreed. It is a race that Australia is losing. Stranded Australians are paying the price, including Australian pensioners who are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic due to their age and health status.
Of course, this is not the first time pensioners have been let down by this government. Pensioners will never forget that before the government took power it pledged not to cut the age pension. But at the first opportunity they had, and over the past eight years, the government has cut, or tried to cut, the pension time and time again. Labor will consistently fight this. Labor has fought every single one of these cuts tooth and nail. Cuts to the pension are part of the government's thinking, part of the government's being and part of the government's DNA. As recently as August last year, the government was caught out by Labor on the pension freeze for 2.5 million pensions. Labor fought the government's disrespectful and cruel pension freeze. The reality is that pensioners plan for their twice-yearly indexation. One is on 20 March and one is on 20 September. The freeze took effect in September, and they made pensioners wait until the October budget before announcing any kind of relief.
We have also seen the government try to short-change pensioners through the pension deeming rates mechanism. Let me assure you, pensioners understand deeming rates very, very well. Deeming rates are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets, typically savings, for the purpose of determining their eligibility under the income test for a pension. The upper deeming rate in Australia at this point in time is 2.25 per cent and the lower deeming rate is just 0.25 per cent. If you are single, the first $53,000 of your financial assets has a deeming rate of 0.25 per cent applied. Anything over $53,000 is deemed to earn the other rate of 2.25 per cent. If you're a member of a couple and at least one of you gets a pension, the first $88,000 of your combined financial assets has a deeming rate of 0.25 per cent, and anything over $88,000 is deemed at the other rate of 2.25 per cent. With the cash rate nearing zero per cent—it's currently 0.1 per cent—it is impossible to see how pensioners could safely earn 2.25 per cent on their savings. With the government deeming pensioners to earn more than they really are, pensioners are receiving less for their pension. Whilst the minister might disagree with that, it is absolutely the case. Pensioners are being short-changed by the government's unreasonable and unrealistic pension deeming rates.
Pensioners won't forget this government's record on cutting the pension. The Liberals and Nationals are obsessed with cutting the pension, attempting to cut the pension in every budget, every year. In 2014, they tried to cut the pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. That is a lot of money, in any terms, and it is particularly a lot of money for pensioners. In 2014, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. In 2014, they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. In 2014, they tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. In 2015, they did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension for around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In 2016, they tried to cut the pension for around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to just six weeks. In 2016, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. They spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. As social services minister the member for Cook—the current Prime Minister—tried to cut the pension, and we will not forget that. As Treasurer the member for Cook tried to cut the pension, and as Prime Minister the member for Cook has also tried to cut the pension.
In conclusion, there have been eight years of cuts to the pension by this government, and the government has only acted when it's been caught out on its cuts. Our pensioners deserve better than that, and Labor will continue to protect the pension. We will continue to fight the government's cruel cuts to the pension, and Labor will always ensure that pensioners continue to live with the dignity and respect they deserve.
This bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, is a sad reminder for Australians that the government has failed them. It has left them without a vaccination and it has left them stranded in dangerous and unsafe parts of the world. Without this bill, they would also be left without the financial support which they desperately need right now. That's why Labor supports this bill, but we know that there are huge concerns from the people who this bill affects. People who are trapped because the government has failed to provide them with a vaccine and failed to bring them home deserve so much more from this government.
We can't forget, as the member for Barton has said, that this government cut social security to the bone. It was Labor that gave the largest increase to the pension in more than a century. Over the last eight years, we've seen this government try to cut the pension again and again and again—cut, cut, cut. For more than 20 years, pensioners could expect their pensions to rise as prices rose. That was always something that pensioners could rely on, but not under this government. This government has tried to stop pensioners getting the support they need, freezing their pensions. After pressure from Labor and the community—and pensioners, who don't mind standing up for themselves, because they know that this government won't stand up for them—the government capitulated and gave them two one-off payments. But it's part of a pattern of behaviour from the government when it comes to the pension. The pension payments that we provided to those stuck overseas are more than they would have been had Labor not stood up against this government's mean cuts.
Remember: in 2014, there was the $80 cut from the pension with the removal of indexation; the $900 cut with the axing of the seniors supplement for self-funded retirees; and the $1 billion cut from pensioner concessions. That was just 2014, in the Abbott-Hockey horror budget. But they continued in 2015, because they actually believe in making life harder for pensioners who have worked their entire life. Expecting a secure, stable retirement, pensioners have to worry, every year, about what's going to come from this government in the budget. By changing the assets test, the government cut as much as $12,000 a year for some 370,000 Australians. That wasn't enough. In 2016, they cut the pension for around 190,000 pensioners by limiting their travel period to six weeks, and they cut the pension for around 1.5 million pensioners by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. On the government's own figures, 563,000 Australians were worse off. When it comes to this government and what it might cut, the reality is that anything is possible. After the government has racked up $1 trillion of debt, with no reform plan, I worry that pensioners will be first in the firing line again when this government snaps back to its 'cut, cut, cut' approach to managing the nation's finances.
The government also has a habit of denying things and then, a few weeks later, doing them. I am worried by some very odd and carefully chosen language used by government ministers about the cashless debit card. This card, which has been trialled in a range of communities and has cost the government millions of dollars in terms of its rollout, is now being expanded. We know the minister 'wants to make this mainstream'. Making the cashless debit card—the 'cashless pension card'—mainstream will mean that pensioners lose the flexibility that they deserve in their retirement. Pensioners are worried. I bring the concerns of the pensioners in my electorate into this House. The minister has used some very careful language. The government are so sensitive about this because they know that what they are discussing is wrong. It is disrespectful of pensioners.
Mr Tudge interjecting—
I've got no problem! This government has a problem with pensioners buying a beer. I've got no problem with pensioners buying a beer. They have worked hard, helped build this country and raised their families. If the penalty this government wants to put on pensioners for enjoying their retirement is to restrict their ability to buy a beer or a glass of wine, it is absolutely disgraceful. It is garbage from this government.
We know that older Australians are vulnerable. We know that, when this government talks about expanding the cashless debit card into a cashless pension card, it is something that is of concern to pensioners. This government will now seek to expand this. Think about a stranded pensioner overseas—the people we're trying to help with this legislation. How would a cashless pension card work if you were stuck overseas? Could you use it in the UK? You wouldn't be able to. Could you use it if you were stuck in Indonesia? No. There are huge rollout problems with a cashless pension card, because they have to approve the providers. It's also a huge amount of red tape for businesses in my electorate. Any expansion of the cashless debit card is a huge expansion of red tape for the small businesses in my electorate. Having to go through an approvals process by this government, having to go through—
Ms Collins interjecting—
Mr Tudge interjecting —
The minister at the table is proudly saying that he 'designed the damn card'. Most of us come here because we want to change the nation—we want to build infrastructure, and we want to make sure we leave the next generation better off than the generation that came before. Instead, what this government is looking to do by expanding the cashless debit card is clearly something those opposite know they should be embarrassed about. Until the government can properly rule this out—and I quote the minister again—
Ms Collins interjecting —
Mr Tudge interjecting —
As long as the government say that they want to make the cashless debit card mainstream, with a cashless pension card, I will continue to bring the concerns of my community into this chamber. That's my job—to make sure that we raise these concerns and that the government doesn't continue down this path. My view is that pensioners have made sacrifices. We've all made sacrifices over the last year, but pensioners have done it tougher than most. Before the pandemic, pensioners were making sacrifices. Research that the government commissioned after they started cutting the pension showed this. The research showed that a third of Australian pensioners were experiencing energy poverty. Energy costs have been a major concern for older Australians. Many pensioners spend a substantial portion of their income on power bills.
When this pandemic hit, it showed just how vulnerable pensioners were. I congratulate the McGowan Labor government in Western Australia, who saw that vulnerability and sought to provide a $600 credit to pensioners in my electorate so that they could continue to pay their power bills. Where the income supports that were being provided to pensioners during the pandemic weren't sufficient, the state stepped in. That's a pattern of behaviour that we see time and time again.
The other thing that's important to note is that it's also pensioners and senior Australians who raise concerns about the lack of affordable renewable energy in our grid. Pensioners are people who do that long-term planning. They don't just think about how much money they're going to have this month or next month; they're thinking about the rest of their lives—20 years. Pensioners know that, over those 20 years, the only way they're going to have lower power bills and the energy they need to run their houses and keep them warm is to make sure that we start that important transition towards renewable energy. Otherwise, it's just going to be the same pattern that we've seen for the last eight years under this government—a 50 per cent increase in power bills, pensioners choosing to have cold showers and not put their heating on at night, and not being able to afford to run their air conditioners during heatwaves, as we experience in Perth on a regular basis.
I'll now come to the people who are stuck overseas that we are trying to help. As of 28 May, 35,000 Australians want to get home but can't. Many of them are older Australians; 4,260 of them are classified as vulnerable Australians. So, while we are passing this legislation to help them with financial support, I'd much rather we weren't having this debate. If the government and the Prime Minister had delivered on their promise to get everyone home by Christmas last year, this legislation wouldn't be necessary. It's as simple as that. We wouldn't need it. We need this legislation. It's been six months. It's another broken promise from this Prime Minister.
In India alone, there are more than 11,000 Australians who are trying to get home. Some of them are grandparents who haven't seen their grandkids for more than a year and families who have been separated by the incompetence and laziness of this government. The Prime Minister promised the Australian people in the middle of a pandemic that he would get these pensioners home. The Prime Minister having broken that promise, we finally have some legislation to at least provide them with their pension payments. This is the same Prime Minister who assures us that he is on a war footing in terms of how we're helping people.
Mr Tudge interjecting —
I wonder. We get questions from time to time from people who say, 'How do different people get to the frontbench?' I ask the government opposite: how do you leave the Prime Minister in his job when he has continued to lie and fail the Australian people?
I withdraw. The Prime Minister said that we are on a war footing. But apparently this doesn't apply to the vaccine rollout or quarantine. If it did, we would be making proper use of our defence assets. If Labor was in government, we'd look at things like RAAF Base Learmonth as a priority to make sure we had the capacity to get these pensioners home so that we wouldn't have to send the cashless pension cards and payments overseas. Instead, we could just bring them home. That would also mean that they could spend their pension here in Australia and support Australian small businesses. But quarantine, despite being a Commonwealth responsibility, is not a priority, even though pensioners are stuck overseas saying, 'We want to come home; we want to get back to where we grew up, where we worked all our lives and where we can see our families and our grandkids.' We know that the Halton report recommended a purpose-built facility in Western Australia, but, because this government is so stubborn and so determined to ignore the expert advice, our nation is stuck. Premier McGowan has said very clearly that he would like to see 'a facility next to an international-capacity airport'. It's been suggested that Exmouth or Busselton could be the location. Premier McGowan said:
… there's those sorts of places that are outside of the very heavily populated inner city of Perth, but the Commonwealth shows no appetite.
I just can't understand why you would choose to leave the most dangerous bits of quarantine in the middle of our CBD after we've had so many pieces of evidence that it doesn't work. I know what that means to the pensioners who live in my electorate: they are left vulnerable to these quarantine leaks which we see time and time again. They haven't had their full vaccination schedule. The information coming out of this government is light to non-existent at best, although I understand that every pensioner in my electorate next month will receive a personalised letter from the Prime Minister telling them about the vaccine schedule and why they should get vaccinated. When pensioners need a vaccine and the government's solution is to give them a letter from the Prime Minister, I think that just shows how badly the rollout of the vaccination schedule has gone.
The government has failed when it comes to the confidence that is needed in the vaccine rollout. This is a huge problem that this government fails to address. It's great that we've got this legislation, and it is very important for a very small number of people, but I'd also expect the government to do something for the very large number of people who are waiting for them to actually step up on the two jobs that they should be focusing on day in, day out: quarantine and vaccines. If you get quarantine right and you get vaccines right, we won't need legislation like this and we can bring the pensioners who are stuck overseas home. We can make sure they're spending that money here in Australia and we can reconnect Australian families who have been stuck apart for more than a year because of the incompetence of this government.
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021. I recently welcomed the temporary changes that were made to pension portability, meaning pensioners would be able to retain the full rate overseas for longer than 26 weeks. That was a commonsense measure. Let's not forget that, a year and a half into the pandemic, the government has left 35,000 Australians who want to come home stranded overseas. We've heard it from previous speakers. It's a fact. There was a promise made to bring them home, and they failed on it. They failed to keep their promise to bring them home by Christmas. Not even this government, surely, would be cruel enough to cut the retirement income of Aussies they've left stranded overseas?
While this bill make sensible administrative changes to pension portability, which we support, there are significant and wider problems with the pension that need to be addressed, including by making more concerted efforts to increase the number of countries we enter into bilateral agreements with. That would allow Australians to more freely travel when they can and live in other parts of the world during their retirement or part of their retirement. I know that the government, in the most recent budget, allocated a bit over $18 million to enter into social security bilateral agreements like this with the Republic of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I think Australia should be more ambitious about what we can accomplish with that vast sum of money. But this government's leadership and ambition are often lacking.
I note that Prime Minister Morrison, on his trip to Paris recently, met with President Macron—a very important meeting—and they talked about many important elements of the bilateral relationship. But why wasn't a bilateral social security agreement on pensions on the agenda? I would urge the government to look into developing a bilateral social security agreement with France. I've been contacted by numerous expat Australians in that country who worked and paid their taxes for decades in Australia and are unable to receive their pension. This is despite such a protocol, such an agreement, existing between Australia and 31 other countries, including 21 in the European Union, but not France. France actually has more than 40 such agreements in place with other countries, but not Australia.
It's probably true to say that many members on both sides of this House would agree with the ambition to sign more agreements with our friends and allies abroad when it comes to Australian pensioners being able to receive their pension when they are spending time overseas. What members on this side of the House do not agree with is the government's shameful track record of cuts to the pension and attempts to cut the pension. In a speech in 2015, a freshly minted Treasurer—now the Prime Minister—stated that the age pension should not be regarded as an entitlement for all. Let that sink in. He then outlined the government's vision for an overhaul of the country's retirement income system through reducing expenditure on welfare payments. This Prime Minister rejects in an ideological sense what is effectively a contract between the state and the citizens. Australian citizens pay their taxes all their working lives. They contribute to this country. They work hard and make a tax contribution. They are entitled to a pension in their retirement. That is part of the social contract. It includes things like defence and security, schools and education, hospitals and health care. It's not just a welfare payment.
Labor opposed those measures at the time because pensioners have worked hard and contributed all their lives to make this country what it is today. Older Australians deserve our respect and dignity. But this government tries to push through pension cuts at any opportunity. Many of those in the firing line of the coalition's attempts to cut the pension are migrants to this country who are now pensioners—after 30, 40 or 50 years working hard here, paying their taxes in Australia, building a life here, raising a family here. They should be able to receive a pension that allows them to live comfortably and reconnect with family and friends overseas that they may have left behind to come and build a life in Australia. These older Australians have made a sacrifice in many ways to build a life here in Australia and to become new Australians. They left their families and cultures behind to help build Australia through their work and their contribution. Yet we've got a government that drags its heels on doing all it can to support these people to spend their time with elderly relatives and long-lost friends. It wants to make their income uncertain if, for example, they were to accidentally spend a bit too much time overseas.
Let's have a look at this government's track record and a few recent instances of where they have got their scissors out and tried to start cutting. As I mentioned, the Prime Minister, in 2015, when he was Treasurer, tried to cut the pension and increase the age of entitlement. In the 2014 budget the government tried to cut pension indexation, which would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 less within 10 years. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of every pensioner in Australia. In the 2014 budget they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. In the same budget, the infamous 2014 budget, they axed the Commonwealth seniors health card. In the 2014 budget the Liberals tried to reset deeming rates, which would have made 200,000 part-pensioners worse off. In 2015 the government did a deal with the Greens political party to cut the pension of around 370,000 pensioners by changing the pension assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. These are the people I was just talking about, who go overseas to visit family and friends after a lifetime of work here. The government also tried in that same budget to scrap the energy supplement for new pensioners. And in August last year the government was caught out by Labor on its attempts to freeze payments for 2.5 million pensioners.
Pensioners in this country would not be surprised to hear that the coalition has tried to cut the pension this many times. They are obsessed with it. They have tried to do it in every single budget over the last eight years. Cutting the pension, unfortunately, is in the Liberals' DNA. Building and supporting the pension is in Labor's DNA. When we were last in government we actually increased the pension by $30 per week.
I would like to take a moment to show how this bill has an impact on my local electorate of Wills and the people who live there. It's an incredibly diverse electorate. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just under half of the people in Wills either were born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas. Many of these people migrated in the postwar period—of Italian background, or Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Indian or Pakistani, and many others. These are some of the people who helped build this country. Many of my constituents go back to their country of origin to visit, to see their family, to see friends they haven't seen in many, many years. By the time they get there and the jet lag ends—because it's a long trip; we're far away in Australia—they may actually have to start thinking about coming home again, at around that six-week time frame. That is because the government hasn't done the legwork to build a more comprehensive network of agreements, as I was talking about earlier—social security bilateral agreements—to help them claim their pension overseas if they were to stay a bit longer.
As I said, these are Australians who have worked hard. They deserve that break to visit family and spend some quality time with long-lost friends and family overseas. And just because they're overseas it doesn't mean that their expenses are decreasing. Pensioners tell me again and again that land tax and council rates are rising, that the cost of living for them is constantly rising. Despite this, the government's instinct—its go-to—is to cut the pension to try to rip it away and make life harder for the nation's elderly. It's particularly cynical when you consider that the Treasurer has attempted to stimulate the economy by shovelling billions of dollars out the door, spending money to resolve the government's political problems.
Wouldn't increasing the pension help with the stimulus? Do you reckon pensioners would save this money in their sock drawer? Or would they spend it—on groceries, bills and gifts for the grandkids? Like JobSeeker recipients, pensioners aren't saving their payments. The additional money goes almost directly into the economy, to stimulate the economy—a good use of public money. Yet this government won't even consider it, because it runs counter to their ambitions to dismantle that social safety net that Labor spent so many years putting in place. They won't consider it because ideologically the Prime Minister—publicly—doesn't believe in it, because apparently it's an entitlement. Apparently this type of welfare needs to be ripped away, and government needs to move away from providing that kind of payment to pensioners or the vulnerable. Apparently he doesn't believe in that. And this is a deeply held belief. He doesn't think government should be doing this.
It's a problem, because in recent years we've seen stagnant wages, declining productivity, high underemployment and declining living standards—all under this coalition government. And the government has no plans to really turn the economy around. As I said, the budget that they recently passed was all about spending money on what they perceived to be their political problems—a short-term political budget, long on spin and spending on political problems but short on any real investment in the Australian economy. That's not what a Labor government would do. We would invest in Australia's future while looking after those who helped to build this country.
The age pension is a fundamentally important aspect of this commitment, to ensure that older Australians can actually have a life in retirement that's one of dignity, after so many decades of working and contributing. The pension, Medicare, unemployment benefits, superannuation and the NDIS: these are all policies for the little guy, the average Australian—supporting those who have been doing it tough or who've worked all their life to make their contribution. These are the sorts of defining policies that Australians can trust the Labor Party to deliver if elected to government. And frankly, these are the kinds of policies that the coalition are ideologically opposed to, that they hate; they try to slash them at every opportunity. We've seen this government do that on so many occasions, as I've outlined.
We on this side will not stand silently as this government seeks to cut social services by stealth. We'll continue to put forward the progressive policies that will make Australian lives better and create that fairer society that we should all have.
Of course we know that the pension isn't a welfare payment. The pension is a payment that goes to hardworking Australians—Australians who have often spent their entire lives in jobs that aren't high paying; in jobs that are physically demanding; in jobs that mean they haven't been the Australians that have been able to invest in three, four or five investment properties; in jobs that mean these Australians have toiled day after day to earn enough money to bring up their children to try to give them a better opportunity in life than they had. These are the Australians that are on the age pension. These are the Australians that deserve a government and deserve members of parliament who are always on their side. It is fundamentally disappointing that they don't have such a government right now.
This legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, is needed, and it's supported by Labor because we understand that there are Australian pensioners who are stuck overseas because of the pandemic, because the borders rightly had to be shut, but also because this Morrison government has fundamentally failed in the vaccination rollout, in building fit-for-purpose national quarantine and in the Prime Minister's promise to bring all Australians who wanted to come home by Christmas of last year. So it's with no joy that we rise to have to support this legislation to support Australian pensioners, many of whom have been failed by the government's botched response to its fundamental duties to Australians during this pandemic: the vaccine rollout, the quarantine and the fact that, if you're an Australian citizen with an Australian passport, that should mean something. That should mean that, when you are stranded in another country, your government does everything in its power to get you home, which is not what this government has done.
We know that this government, over the long eight years—it likes to pretend, by the way, that somehow this is a government that is new and fresh and isn't to blame for things that happened over the last eight years. It's not a new and fresh government; it's been in power for eight long years, and we know that over those years this government has tried time and time again to attack Australia's age pensioners, to cut their pension.
Last time Labor was in government, we increased the age pension by $30 a week. We understand working Australians and we understand their needs in retirement. This is a government that understands the words 'working Australians' because it likes to use them, but it doesn't understand their needs and it certainly doesn't understand their needs in retirement. If it did, it wouldn't have needed the opposition to catch the government out last year on the pension freeze for 2½ million pensioners. It wouldn't need the opposition, community members and pensioners themselves to raise their voices time and time again to fight against this government's pension freeze—a freeze that took effect in September. Pensioners had to wait for the October budget before knowing whether they were going to get any kind of relief. And then the relief in the form of the two one-off payments, whilst better than nothing, led to so many members of my community contacting me to say: 'This feels like a slap in the face. This feels like a token amount of money to shut us up because they realised there was a political problem because they weren't supporting 2½ million hardworking Australians who deserve a retirement in dignity.'
We know this is a government that, in the end, views people who receive support from the government—be it unemployment benefits, be it the disability support pension, be it single-parent pensions, be it the age pension—as people who are welfare recipients, as the leaners not the lifters, as the people they look down on and say, 'Well, we're here to help you,' from above, but not the people they live with and understand and really are there to help. How do we know this? We know this because this is a government that introduced a cashless welfare card for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community, because this government thinks it knows better than Australians about how to spend their money. How do we know this is a government that wants to control how hardworking Australians in their retirement spend their pensions? We know it not because Labor says it but because the minister responsible for the aged-care pension, for social services, said it herself. Last year the responsible minister was interviewed by the media and was asked: 'Are you going to roll out the cashless welfare card nationally?' Her answer was that this is a conversation we need to have about the card. She said, 'Well, initially, we thought it was to control people's gambling and whether or not they could drink alcohol and smoke. But now we know it's a wonderful budgeting tool for those people who are on low incomes.' It's a budgeting tool enforced upon them by the government, whether they like it or not. And we know that this government's plan, if they ever get the opportunity, is to roll out the cashless welfare card to pensioners across this country, because the responsible minister said it was 'a broader application for the whole community'.
So, members of my community, every time you hear this government say that any suggestion they want to roll out the cashless welfare card to pensioners is nothing but a scare campaign, remember that the responsible minister talked about this card and its use as being something that would have 'a broader application for the whole community because it's a universal platform'. On behalf of my community, where one in five people are on a pension—disability support, age pension, single-parent pension—in this very chamber last year, on 7 December, not so very long ago, I put this challenge to the minister:
Will the minister say, once and for all, that it is not this government's intention to tell people on pensions, family tax benefits, single mothers supports, carers supports and disability supports how they can and can't spend their money?
The minister didn't respond. Not only did the minister not rule it out, the minister couldn't find words to respond—nor did any minister representing the minister find words to respond—because that's their plan, because we know that this is a government that's spoken to the big four banks and given them money to have a task force to set up the technology. They've spoken to supermarkets and Australia Post about the technology and about their plan to extend the draconian legislation. I asked on 7 December:
Will the minister stand up in this place today and rule out extending the cashless welfare card to other recipients of government allowances?
The answer was resounding silence, because the answer is yes; it could be extended.
Members of my community and Australians across this nation, I can tell you this: a federal Labor government would scrap the cashless welfare card. I will not give up fighting this plan to extend it to age pensioners, because I'm on your side and because Labor is on your side. We all know whose side this government is on, and it's not yours.
The final issue I want to raise before I finish my contribution in terms of pensions and portability is that there is clearly an emerging issue for Australian residents who are also Irish citizens and who receive part of a pension via the Irish system and part via the Australian system. I've had two couples contact me and my office, Thomas and Ursula, and Michael and Joan, who since the UK left the European Union are finding that their Irish pension is now subject to significant bank charges every month. It's so significant, in fact, that Michael and Joan are effectively losing half of one of their pensions every year because of these bank charges. From the investigations that my office has undertaken, it's a result of Brexit. It's a result of banking now being done through the European Union, and charges being levied, but no-one knows whether they're being levied by European, Irish or Australian banks. But these couples are now losing significant amounts of their pensions. It's a serious issue, in that, if it's affecting Irish Australians in my electorate, it's affecting Irish Australians across the country, and it's an issue that this government should be looking at and looking at immediately because, again, these are hardworking Australians who are living on a low income via pensions and they cannot afford to lose even $10 a month through bank fees.
I say from the outset that I support all of those on this side who have spoken before me, particularly in terms of their sentiments about our senior Australians, always remembering that these are the people who built our nation. They worked hard, they raised their families, they paid their taxes and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and they also deserve to be able to access services when they need them—all things they're not getting from the Morrison government.
Labor have said we will support the bill before the House, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, and I support the amendments moved by the member for Barton—namely, that these changes to the bill are necessary due to the tens of thousands of Australians who remain stranded overseas, including many Australian pensioners; Australian pensioners stranded overseas have been let down by this government due to delays in the vaccine rollout and the lack of specialist quarantine facilities; and we're calling on the government to do more to bring those stranded Australian pensioners home, by accelerating the rollout and having those quarantine facilities in place. Our amendments also call on the government to not cut the pension.
As we've said, whilst we support the bill, we don't support the Liberals' and Nationals' relentless, sustained attacks on our pensioners over the last eight years. Whether it's the cuts to pensions, changes to the assets test or the expansion of the cashless welfare card, this is a government that Australians just do not trust.
This bill seeks to make some administrative changes in terms of pension portability, and we support this because the rate of pension available to pensioners who travel or live overseas needs to be looked at, and the legislation seeks to address areas that may have been outside a pensioner's control. So having changes to that portability is vitally important. And it's important, of course, in the context of the pandemic and the many challenges that has created. Many of us have been contacted by those stranded overseas, including many of our pensioners.
Of course, the government's consistent bungling of the vaccine rollout has created this situation. The government's absolute refusal to have dedicated quarantine facilities means we're in this situation. We've consistently called for the rollout to happen—it's just been consistently bungled. We've also called for those specialist quarantine facilities, but, due to the arrogance of the Prime Minister, they just won't do that. If we had these in place, we perhaps wouldn't be in this situation. So we'll continue to call upon the government to do that. This is the government's responsibility—vaccine rollout and quarantine facilities. We've seen so many Australians stranded overseas in the pandemic, as we've said, particularly our pensioners. As it stands with this bill, it seeks to extend some arrangements so there is greater discretion in terms of extending that portability in particular circumstances.
As I've said, our seniors and our pensioners have worked hard and contributed all their lives, and they deserve respect and dignity. When Labor was in government, we did increase the pension by $30 a week. But the fact is over the past eight years the government has, time and time again, tried to cut—or has actually cut—the pension. We saw in August last year the government was caught out on its pension freeze for 2.5 million pensioners. We fought this cruel pension freeze because the reality is, as we know, pensioners plan for their twice yearly indexation. One is on 20 March and the other is on 20 September. The Morrison government's cruel freeze took place in September, and they made pensioners wait until October, until the budget, before announcing any kind of relief. This only came after intense pressure, because they were caught out with this pension freeze. The government then backed down and announced two one-off payments for pensioners of $250. One was in November and the other in February.
Of course, the government have tried to short-change pensioners through deeming rates as well. Deeming rates are used to determine how much pensioners can actually earn from their assets, typically their savings, for the purpose of determining their eligibility under the income test for the pension. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent and the lower rate is 0.25 per cent. Of course, with the cash rate nearing zero per cent, it's difficult to see how pensioners could safely earn 2.25 per cent on their savings. So, with the government deeming pensioners to earn more than what they really are, pensioners are in fact receiving less for their pension. It's another example of pensioners being short-changed by the government's unrealistic and unreasonable pension deeming rates.
One of the biggest issues that pensioners continue to raise with me are their concerns about the Morrison government's cashless welfare card. Pensioners across the country know that the Prime Minister and the Liberals and Nationals want to expand the cashless welfare card to all pensioners right across the nation. These people know that if the Morrison government is re-elected they will force all pensioners onto the cashless welfare card, and this plan will put 80 per cent of their pension on a card that will limit what they can spend and where they can spend their own money. Under the Liberals and Nationals, all pensioners could soon be saying goodbye to cheap food and drinks at their local club, pub or RSL, or saying goodbye to being able to take out cash for their grandchildren on their birthdays or at Christmas time. Even buying a simple lotto ticket will be banned under this system. The fact is this plan of forcing all pensioners onto the cashless welfare card is insulting, demeaning and downright wrong.
We know the Morrison government's plans about this because they keep talking about it. They keep saying they want to make it universal. The minister says, 'Let's have a conversation about making it universal.' We've had many, many government MPs talk about how they want to expand it. We know it's on their agenda. Most importantly, pensioners know it's on their agenda. Right across the country, they are speaking out about this unfair plan. Pensioners really have a right to be very, very anxious about this, because the government's actually got a working group with the banks about their plan to make it universal and force all pensioners onto it. We saw the government signal in their recent legislation about putting income management in place for pensioners. They want to do it and put people onto this privatised card. As the government prepares for the national rollout of this pensioner welfare card, they've already blocked the cashless card at many pubs, RSLs and clubs across the country. Make no mistake, they are preparing to roll this out across the nation.
Labor will scrap the cashless welfare card, because pensioners must not be forced onto this nasty, unfair scheme. The fact is Australians should not have their spending controlled by the government—that's the fact. This government's agenda is all about privatising welfare and giving millions to a company to run the cashless welfare card. That is their entire agenda. But pensioners are onto them. They're onto this government and what they're doing.
I would also point out that recently my electorate office received a phone call from a senior ministerial staffer in the Morrison government demanding I take down my Facebook post in relation to the Morrison government's cruel plan to force pensioners onto this cashless welfare card. For the record, I have not and I will not be removing this post. In fact, I will be posting more about this issue. I will continue to speak out every day in every forum about the Morrison government's cruel attack on pensioners, as well as about their cuts to Medicare and the aged-care crisis. I will continue to speak out and I will not be silenced by anyone in the Morrison government, not by any of them or by any of their MPs or their ministers or, indeed, not even the Prime Minister; I will not be silenced when it comes to these important issues.
As I say, Labor stands with our pensioners. We will scrap this cashless welfare card because pensioners should not be forced on to it. But pensioners know you can't trust the Liberals and Nationals after the years of attacks they've had to wear from this government. Let's look at some of the things they've done over that time. Remember, these pensioners do not forget the government's horrendous record on cutting the pension. Why do they keep doing it? It is because they're obsessed with it; they are obsessed in every budget of trying to find another way to cut the pension.
Let's have a look. In 2014 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. In 2014 they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, which are designed to support and help pensioners with the cost of living, and we know one of the biggest issues for our pensioners is the increases in the cost of living for them. Also this Liberal-National government, in 2014, axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. In 2014 they tried to reset deeming rates thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. We all remember in 2015 when the Liberals and Nationals 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. We saw those massive changes to the assets test, thanks to the Liberals, the Nationals and the Greens—can't trust them at all. Then, with the Liberal-National government in 2016, they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel to pensioners to six weeks.
The list of these attacks goes on and on. In 2016, again, we also saw them trying to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners; they just do not give up with their attacks on pensioners. Indeed, in that case, the government's own figures showed this would have left over 500,000 Australians who currently receive a pension or an allowance worse off. Over 10 years, in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would be worse off. Of course, no-one—absolutely no-one—forgets this government has spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70.
One of the things that those of us on this side of the House are very proud of is that the age pension is very much part of Labor's legacy because we understand how important it is. We've always fought for it. We established it. It was introduced by the Deakin Labor government to ensure that our older Australians could live with dignity. We have always sought to defend it. We increased the age pension. We have fought this government every step of the way and we will continue to fight them at every turn when they try to cut and slash the pension. Anything that impacts our senior Australians, we will always stand with them and always fight for them because all we've ever seen from the Liberals and Nationals are consistent attacks in trying to chip away.
Our senior Australians have had enough. They have just had enough of this government and what they're doing. The prime example of that is their outrage about the government's plans for the cashless welfare card or the pension welfare card and their plans to roll it out for all pensioners. Our senior Australians have said, 'Enough is enough. We've had years and years and years of cuts and now you are going to introduce a card that tells us where we can spend our money, when we can spend it, what we can spend it on.' This is outrageous and insulting. These people have managed their money, lived their lives, paid their taxes, raised their families; they don't need this. It is outrageous to have it rolled out across the country. All those studies have shown how these cards do not work. We have seen so many reports to say they're ineffective and that they should be scrapped. Labor will scrap that because we know, in any format in those trials, they just have not worked.
The government is trying to be sneaky in terms of this rollout. There is heaps of evidence to say they want to make it universal. They want to roll it out. The minister keeps saying it. We've heard a lot of the National Party MPs talk about how: 'This is great. We'll roll it out everywhere'. The fact is they then insert it into legislation about its application for age pensioners as well. We know it's on their agenda. We know they want to do it. Whilst the cashless welfare card exists, the threat is always there that it will go to all pensioners.
The government can lie and attack us and try to silence us. We'll stand with Australian pensioners every step of the way until we get rid of this cashless welfare card, because it is unfair. They can say whatever they want. The government can keep telling untruths about this. We know what their agenda is. It is essentially about privatising welfare. The millions that are going into this company to roll out this privatisation of welfare are quite frankly outrageous. The government should not be privatising welfare. They should not have plans like the cashless welfare card in place.
We will continue to stand with the community, with our pensioners, with our seniors and with all of those who are subjected to the cashless welfare card to scrap that. We will always defend those vulnerable Australians, always making sure we can provide for them. Labor has a long history of doing that, and we will fight this government every single day, right up until the next election. We're standing up for those who need a Labor government to make a real difference in their lives.
I will start by saying that, even though we will be supporting these measures, what the member for Richmond has said about the cashless welfare card is right. Regardless of which minister or minister's office decides to call on members of this side of the House to take down a particular post or not to advocate or not to put their views forward, we on this side of the House won't be silenced, as you heard the member for Richmond say. No member on this side will be. We know the cashless welfare card system, which we heard the member for Richmond speak about, is a system about privatising our services and making cuts to pensioners, making it harder for them. I commend the member for Richmond for not taking down the post. I guarantee you that no-one from this side of the House will be bullied into not advocating on behalf of their pensioners in their electorates.
We say these things because, as I said, even though we're supporting this bill, unfortunately this government has a very bad track record when it comes to pensioners. If you go back in history, you can see the many governments that have come to this place, whether it be Labor or Liberal. In 2008 the Labor government was the first government to ever increase the pension—that is, an actual increase, not through the CPI and systems that increase the pension for cost of living or other mechanisms that are in place. They actually put a lump sum into the pension to increase it. It was Labor that did it. Labor is the friend of pensioners and always will be.
I know this bill is about pension portability and that it refers to the rate of pensions available to pensioners overseas and the secretariat having the ability to make decisions in circumstances that are different et cetera, but, as I said, you've got to look at the record of this government. Currently we're hearing the debate about the changes to Medicare. That's something that affects pensioners more than anything else. When I speak with pensioners, one of the things on their minds is always health and health services. You can see the damage that this government has done to Medicare. I know this bill is about pension portability, but it affects pensioners' lives.
When this government came to fruition in 2013, one of the very first acts in that very first budget was to cut billions of dollars away from health. We're seeing the outcome of those cuts trickle down into the states where you see emergency departments absolutely chock-a-block with not enough beds or rooms to put patients in, not enough doctors and not enough nurses. You can't make billions of dollars' worth of cuts to health through the federal budget and not expect it to have an adverse effect in the states, where the money is being administered, put into hospitals et cetera. We're seeing this in South Australia right now, and it has an enormous effect on pensioners.
Talking about pensions, the member for Richmond talked about deeming rates and how this government tried to change them. The assets test affects pensioners who have perhaps accumulated a few savings or perhaps have a second house. The value of the assets threshold has always gone up, keeping up with inflation. This is the first government that has cut it and brought down the threshold for assets, affecting hundreds of thousands of pensioners who have lost money on their pension.
As I said, we're supporting this bill because it will allow pensioners who are stuck overseas a certain period of time in which they can continue to receive their payment before they have to be back here, before their pension is cut off. The pandemic has been a great example of this. The bill will enable the secretary of the department to make decisions based on individual circumstances.
For many Australians who were born overseas, and for Australians who were born here, being able to spend extended periods of time with relatives, with family, is extremely important. Currently, pensioners who have 35 years of working-life residence can receive the full base pension indefinitely while overseas. Pensioners with less than 35 years receive only a proportional rate. I've always been of the belief that, if you've worked and are eligible for the pension, it is your choice when you retire and, as a pensioner, decide to go from Melbourne to live in Queensland because it's sunnier or to go from Adelaide to live in Broome because of the weather. That is your right. But it is also your right to go and live in Italy or Greece or Serbia if you want to. It shouldn't be any different. This discriminates. I've always been of that belief, and I'll continue to be of that belief, because people who have worked and have paid their taxes should have the right to earn their pension and live wherever they want to. In fact, Australia saves when that happens. We've seen figures over the years that show that while pensioners are overseas there are health costs, medicine costs and a whole range of other benefits that they may not get when they're overseas. It is actually a cost saving for Australia, and it's about time we started thinking about these things and not putting pressure on pensioners.
This government has one rule for one and another rule for another. We saw in here yesterday in the debate on JobKeeper that some of the multinational companies and multimillionaire business people in this country have received millions and millions of dollars of government handouts, taxpayers' money, for JobKeeper. Yet, at the other end of the scale, we're constantly pursuing pensioners and trying to see how we can cut the pension. That's wrong. It's not on. Our pensioners, who have worked all their lives and paid their taxes, deserve the ability to retire and be confident of their pension, wherever they decide to live.
This bill will give some flexibility. We've seen during the COVID-19 pandemic how many Australians were stranded overseas through no fault of their own and couldn't come back to Australia. Some are still stranded overseas, despite the Prime Minister having said he'd have every Australian home by Christmas last year. As a result, temporary arrangements were introduced to allow extensions to pension portability—in other words, to be able to receive your pension wherever you are—meaning pensioners would be able to retain their full rate of pension whilst they were overseas for longer than 26 weeks. There are many reasons not only during a pandemic but even without a pandemic as to why people are forced to stay overseas. There could be a serious accident, for example. You could have been planning to go overseas for six, eight, 15 or however many weeks, needing to be back owing to your Centrelink obligations et cetera, but have a serious accident and be unable to leave.
We were getting calls in my office over many years from people who were stranded overseas and were fearful of their pension being cut—serious illness, the death of a family member, custody proceedings in a country in which the person is located or a legal requirement for that person to remain in that country, outside of an Australian connection with proceedings and other things. Robbery is another great example. You could be ready to leave but you're robbed and lose your passport and have to stay for an additional week or two.
So these changes are the right thing to do, to provide the ability to look at the actual circumstances of that person and why they're still overseas. But the government's taken a long time to enact measures that assist pensioners. This is a measure that will assist them. As I said, we've become very used to seeing this government trying to chip and cut at people's age pensions. Pensioners have worked very hard all their lives. Many of them have even fought in wars on our behalf. We should be making their lives simpler.
The pension is a very proud legacy of Labor. It was introduced by a Labor government so that we could ensure that older Australians could live with dignity. Pensioners have worked hard. They've contributed all their lives. They deserve dignity and respect, and they deserve a government that's on their side, not constantly looking at cutting, at chipping, at manoeuvring themselves with cashless welfare cards and a whole range of other things just so they can cut money from pensioners for the budget. On the other hand, we have a government that's given out billions of dollars to multinationals and millionaire businessmen under JobKeeper, and they turn a blind eye; they're not even interested in following up to see how they can recover some of that taxpayers' money. And pensioners paid taxes through their working lives—to be handed over to millionaires and billionaires. It just doesn't make sense to me.
On this side of the House, as we heard the member for Richmond say earlier, Labor will fight for pensioners. We will stick up for pensioners, and we will ensure that pensioners get the dignity they deserve through the systems we have so we can not only acknowledge what they've done for this nation and for the next generation but also allow them to live in dignity. Only Labor will fight for that. As I said at the beginning of my speech, when Labor was in government we were the first government to ever increase the pension—not by the CPI or other mechanisms but to give pensioners a lump sum every fortnight from thereon.
Over the past years all we've seen this government do is try to cut the pension, and we've seen it time and time again. It seems to be a national sport for the conservative Liberal-Nationals government—continually, no matter when they are in power. Whether in the Fraser years or in the Howard years, the government was always attacking pensioners first. And, as I said earlier, it's not just through the pension. Health is also very important. We've seen proposals to change Medicare, which will make it harder for pensioners to get hip replacements, shoulder replacements, knee replacements and a whole range of other things. That will have an effect on them. That is part of the pension scheme that we have, to ensure that we have a universal health system for those people who need it more than anyone. As we all know, as you age you become frailer, and illnesses set in, so older people are reliant on good government health services.
There are a whole range of things that we need to do in order to assist pensioners. We've seen this government cut the energy supplement. I know, through the pensioners I speak to in the federal electorate of Adelaide that I represent, that the supplement had been a big help to them. It was a huge help to know that you'd be getting $90-odd every so often to assist you with energy costs, with payment of bills et cetera. That is gone. With the changes to the assets test, as well, we saw pensioners who had a few savings on the side, to supplement their income, missing out on payments that they had planned on—and no-one retires and goes onto a pension or a part-pension without planning their future.
Then you have a government like this Morrison-Abbott-Turnbull government that comes in and pulls the rug out from under your feet. You can imagine someone who is retired and is getting a part-pension or a full pension, with a small accumulation of assets, and then a government comes in and changes it all. When you were planning to live on X amount of dollars for the rest of your life, all of a sudden you just get a great big chop. That's not on.
They axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. That's another one. They tried to reset the deeming rates thresholds. That would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. So you've got a government that is continuously trying to cut and chip away at pensions yet on the other side is handing out billions of dollars to the richest businesspeople here in Australia and turning a blind eye to it when it's realised that that money that was given to those millionaires and billionaires was for a specific purpose: to keep people in jobs—and many did. But in some instances there was no need for it, because their businesses grew 10-fold during the pandemic. That money should be paid back into the coffers of Treasury so pensioners can have more money to live on and we can do more for pensioners with some of that money.
In 2016 we saw this government cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit the overseas payment to pensioners to six weeks. As I said earlier, if you're a pensioner and you decide to retire in Adelaide, in my electorate, and you want to go and live somewhere else, you should have every right to do so. This is a cruel government that's never looked after pensioners. Only Labor will look after pensioners. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021 and to speak in favour of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Barton. I listened to what the member for Barton said in her remarks to the House today, and at the conclusion of her comments a phrase rang true for me. I wondered where I'd heard it before and I rang some family members. She said, 'A penny saved is a penny earned.' That is a saying my grandmother used to use all the time.
My grandmother, Evelyn Margaret Budden, was the sole parent of four children and she was a retail worker. In her later life she worked at David Jones in Queen Street in Brisbane. She worked up until the age of about 70, and one morning, when she was getting off the escalator, she broke both her wrists and was forced to retire, so she went onto the pension. That was about when I was born. I remember when going to my nan's house and catching up with her that she had a little book in her green handbag. She would go to this a couple of times a day. That was her pension book, where she would write down exactly what she was spending, how she was going to spend her money and what she was spending her money on. She was a very proud woman and a very trusted and honourable person. People on the pension have to rely a lot of times on their wits, on their abilities, and they have to watch every penny.
She was also a very strong Labor supporter, and I remember that as kids we asked her, 'Nan, why are you such a strong Labor supporter?' She always said one thing straightaway. She said, 'Labor, when I was a young mum and when child endowment came in'—I think it was about 1941 or 1942—'it was five shillings paid directly to the mother.' It was the first time it was paid to the mother. She remembers clearly that payment coming in for her four kids when she was on her own, raising those children. It was the first time they could afford to buy golden syrup. She said, 'Under a Labor government, that's what allowed our family to go ahead.'
So I'm really proud to speak on behalf of the pensioners in my electorate as well as all those pensioners who have gone before us in this nation, who have helped build our nation, like my grandmother, who if she were still alive would be terribly embarrassed that I was talking about her. She would just say, 'Get on with it,' so I will. I speak on behalf of the almost 20,000 people, in the Oxley electorate, aged over 65 to 70 and the 12,850 people on the age pension that I represent, making sure that their voices are heard in this parliament. A lot of those pensioners go week to week, fortnight to fortnight, making sure that they look after every penny.
I want to raise my voice on a number of issues in support of the bill today. It's a pretty straightforward bill. Administrative changes ensure that the pension rate is available to pensioners who travel or live overseas and, in certain circumstances that are outside of a pensioner's control, allow the secretary to make a declaration that prevents pension rates reducing in line with usual rules. I want to focus on the record of this side of the chamber versus the government's appalling record when it comes to dealing with pensioners.
I also want to talk about this issue that's been raised today, and that pensioners are also discussing with me, about the cashless pensioner card that the government has not successfully ruled out as an option for the 12,850 pensioners I represent. Around 67 per cent of people aged over 65 in my electorate are, directly, on the age pension. When I talked to some pensioners on the weekend, at the Blue Fin Fishing Club, and explained that the government may be using this as an option, they were horrified—but also embarrassed that a government in Australia may take away their ability to spend their own money.
As the member for Jagajaga said, it's judgemental, it's wrong and it's offensive to pensioners, and I won't stand for it. The member for Richmond has been leading the charge on this, side by side with the member for Barton. Labor is the party of pensioners. Labor is the party that delivered the pension in the first place and delivered the first historic increase for the pensioners of Australia. Labor will also be the party that fights the government's plan to introduce this shameful debit card to pensioners, forcing them onto it.
Don't take my word for it. I'll quote what Minister Anne Ruston's—I had to google who she was!—lines were on this. When she was asked about it, she said:
… whether there is a conversation that the Australian public would like to have about the broadening of the use of the card.
Why is she raising this in the first place? If I was asked that as the minister for social services in this country, I'd say, 'Not over my dead body.' That's exactly what I would say, and so would the member for Barton if she was privileged to be the minister in this parliament. She should be the minister in this parliament, to make sure that pensioners' voices are heard and that those issues are raised. In 2020 the Prime Minister's social services minister said:
… I see from the cashless debit card becoming a more universal platform …
What does 'a more universal platform' mean?
This government's great at ripping into the vulnerable. It is always weak against the strong but strong against the weak. We know this government is not on the side of pensioners, and I know there are members on the other side getting the same feedback that I am receiving from pensioner groups in my community and my electorate. They would be getting the same concerns in emails and telephone calls and the social media campaign that's being run around this. I pay tribute to the advocates. It started in Bundaberg and is spreading out across Australia. I know every single member of this parliament would have pensioners contacting them through the various platforms. We saw the social services minister, last week—this is the person in charge of running the social security system in this country—go onto the member for Richmond's Facebook page and start trolling her because she was standing up for pensioners. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament should somehow be chastised for speaking out on behalf of pensioners.
If the government has its way, pensioners won't be able to buy second-hand goods. They may not be able to give cash to grandkids. They may not be able to have a cheap meal or a roast at the local RSL if they're not signed up to it. If the government has no plans to roll this out to pensioners, why are there venues right across this country already listed, already banned? Why is it in the legislation that it can apply to pensioners? Why is it in there? Why did the government do that? I voted against that legislation, and so did every other member of parliament on this side of the chamber.
Look at my home state of Queensland, which has hundreds of thousands of pensioners. In the electorate of Dickson, there are around 13,288 people on the age pension. In the electorate of the member for Petrie, who is at the table here—
Mr Howarth interjecting—
I will—through you, Deputy Speaker—talk about how the member for Petrie and members of the government have a plan to roll this out to pensioners. They should get up in this chamber, speak after me, and deny it. The member for Petrie, in his electorate, has 20,823 people on the age pension. I tell you what: there's one person who will be fighting it, and that's the Labor candidate for Petrie, Mick Denton, a blue-collar worker, a frontline worker, who's fighting for pensioners in the Petrie electorate. Here they go, Madam Deputy Speaker!
You can set your watch by it, Madam Deputy Speaker. They've all got glass jaws. They like to dish it out but they don't like to hear it. We know that, if they were truly not interested in this, he'd jump up and deny that the government's got any plans, but he remains silent, just like the government.
In the electorate of Longman, where there are 23,937 people on the age pension, Rebecca Fanning, the Labor candidate, is speaking out on behalf of pensioners. In the electorate of Bowman—as if the electorate of Bowman don't have enough to deal with with their sitting member at the moment—there are 20,016 people on the age pension. Sixty-five per cent of people over 65 are on the age pension. It is disgraceful that this government has a secret plan to consider rolling out this plan across pensions across Australia. The minister hasn't denied it. The Prime Minister hasn't denied it. They have said on record that they are looking at expanding this across Australia.
This government has form when it comes to pensioners—cutting the pension in every budget. The Liberals and Nationals are obsessed about cutting the pension. They have attempted to cut the pension at every budget, every year. In 2014 they tried to cut pension indexation. In 2014 they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions. In 2014 they axed the $900 senior supplement. In 2016 they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners, as part of the plan to limit overseas travel. In 2016 they tried to cut the pension for 1½ million Australians, by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. They have spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. You go and talk to those nurses who work with my mother, who is a midwife, and the people who work as teachers alongside my sister. Those women do physical, hard work, and this government wants to raise the pension to 70—time and time again.
On this side of the chamber, we're going to stand up for pensions and pensioners, because we always have. Our record speaks for itself when it comes to standing up for pensions. I am proud to be a member of the party that delivered a record increase in pensions and that delivered the pension in the first place. We know the ideological extremism of this government, who are completely obsessed with cutting pensions and cutting welfare. We on this side believe in an inclusive and tolerant society that will always look after those who need to be looked after, and that is exactly what we will do. You betcha—through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the member for Petrie—I'm going to speak out. I'm going to stand up in this parliament and speak every day for pensioners. They helped build this country. We stand for them and we stand by their side as well.
This bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Portability Extensions) Bill 2021, makes amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 to include a permanent discretion to provide portability extensions for pensioners who are temporarily overseas—or who usually live overseas and are temporarily in Australia—and are unable to return home as planned for reasons beyond their control. Allowable reasons include unforeseeable and emergency events such as a serious accident, the death of a family member, a natural disaster or a public health crisis. The measure will assist pensioners who are away from home due to unforeseeable and emergency events beyond their control by ensuring their rate of payment or grandfathering status is not affected after 26 weeks.
I would also like to respond to the misleading and untrue claims raised by the Labor opposition in respect of the cashless debit card during this debate, which we just heard from the members opposite. They are entirely unrelated to the legislation being debated. I call on Labor and the shadow minister to end their campaign of lies and fearmongering when it comes to age pensioners. It is completely false to claim that this government has a plan to force pensioners onto the cashless debit card. Let me repeat that for the shadow minister and for the member for Oxley: it is completely false to claim that this government has a plan to force pensioners onto the cashless debit card. There you have it. This government has no such plan—let me repeat this for the shadow minister—and it never will have such a plan.
The cashless debit card is for people on working-age payments, to help them stabilise their lives, become job ready and get back into the workforce. As the Assistant Minister for Youth and Employment Services, I think that's very important. It's shameful that you people didn't support that on another piece of legislation. It's a shame. At the end of the day, I believe the opposition want to keep people down. They want to keep them on the hand of government. They don't want to see people being able to improve their lives. That's the problem with members like the member for Oxley and those opposite: they don't care about other people.
I think I've made my point. In fact, the most recent sites in which the card was introduced were Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, where it applies only to young people—those aged 35 and over. According to the member for Hinkler up there, it has the strong support of the community and it's working and helping people there. It has nothing to do with pensioners at all. Labor's claim simply has no basis in fact, and they really should be ashamed of themselves. I commend this bill to the House.
The original question was that the 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 other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.