Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Lifting the Income Limit for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2022; In Committee

6:22 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury) Share this | Hansard source

So we are at the end of the day back where we were at the beginning of the day. The matter before us is the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Lifting the Income Limit for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill. At the outset, I think it's very important to restate the coalition's position, and that is that we support the substantive matter that is in this bill in large part—actually, in 100 per cent part—because it is the coalition's initiative carried over from the previous government and now adopted by this government. Congratulations to the new government for bringing forward what was a coalition initiative. Indeed, I think Senator Ruston, as the then social services minister, was responsible for that.

We would hope that the same level of spirit, the same level of foresightedness, shown by the government in regard to this matter will now be shown in regard to amendments that the coalition is bringing to this bill. These are amendments that don't subtract from the substance of this bill but will make the bill better and, more importantly, will deliver much-needed cost-of-living relief to age pensioners and, in doing so, will provide an immediate remedy to the many small and medium-sized business across our country, whether they are in capital cities or regional locations, that are suffering from labour shortage issues.

The amendments that the opposition has tabled and that we would like to see adopted today do three things. Schedule 1 of the amendments deals with the suspension of benefits and entitlements instead of cancellation. Let's call it a red-tape reduction initiative that many, many senior Australians will and have embraced. The second schedule extends the qualification for pensioner concession cards, an idea that older Australians enthusiastically embrace. Most importantly—and I suspect this is the reason that the government is wanting to delay a vote on this—it brings and puts into the law tonight the initiative that will increase the work bonus for pensioners, lifting it from $300 a fortnight to $600 a fortnight and, in doing so, removing the financial penalty that older Australians incur when they move beyond the current $300 a fortnight work bonus limit.

This is an initiative that many people across our country are calling for. They've called for it in Senate committees. They've called for it in dialogue with members of parliament across our country. In the last minutes of parliament today—remembering that the next parliamentary sitting day is actually the day of the budget, which is over a month away—Labor could send a very clear message tonight that it wants to provide older Australians with cost-of-living relief and that it has understood and will treat with urgency those very real labour-shortage issues that businesses are facing across our country.

I asked Senator Farrell this morning whether the government had yet brought forward legislation to give effect to its Jobs and Skills Summit initiative—a Jobs and Skills Summit that happened on 1 and 2 September. Today is 28 September—so, almost a month before the government could get its act together and introduce its own bill to provide relief to older Australians and to provide a remedy to those labour shortages across the country, but not the same bill, because Labor's bill is temporary. Labor thinks it only needs an answer that will last until 30 June next year. It says, by definition, that our labour-shortage issues will expire on 30 June next year. We know that's crazy. I'm sure Senator Lambie in Tasmania knows about real cost-of-living pressures on older Australians in Tasmania as well as very real, severe, acute labour shortages being felt across our country, probably more pronounced in Tasmania.

What I can't understand is that by Labor's own admission today in the House of Representatives it is saying that there is a problem with cost-of-living pressures. They're saying that there is a problem with labour shortages. But they're expecting our country, our parliament, to wait for another month, which makes it two months since the jobs summit, when tonight they could put in law a more generous and more permanent remedy. This is what Labor's social security minister said in the House of Representatives this morning: 'It's been widely reported across the country and understood by this government'—that is, the Labor government—'that businesses across Australia are experiencing skill and labour shortages. ' I don't disagree—tick, Ms Rishworth, the Minister for Social Services. She says that those labour shortages are constraining productivity and economic growth—tick; that's two out of two. We agree. Then she says, 'Implementing a range of policies designed to address labour market issues across the country is important.' We agree with that as well—three ticks. So why, Senator Farrell, will you not support these amendments, brought by the opposition, before you? Why will you not support them? Why are you saying to older Australians and small businesses, 'We want you to wait another month'? 'We've had a Jobs and Skills Summit, we've got a lot of positive media and now we want you to wait two extra months.'

On this matter, the coalition will happily sit down and have nothing more to say if Senator Farrell is about to get on his feet and say, 'You're right: older Australians deserve a remedy now; small businesses deserve a remedy now.' If that is the contribution Senator Farrell is about to make, this might end up being the most productive day this Senate chamber has seen for a very long time. The time is now, Senator Farrell. The time is now, Senator Pratt. This is the opportunity.

I hope that when Senator Farrell gets to his feet he will do three things. I hope he will explain why Labor's measure is temporary, explain why Labor's measure is less generous and say to the Senate: 'Yes, you're quite right. Let's do something now. Let's do something immediately. Let's make this a high-water mark of these last three sitting days.' I don't know if that is a challenge that Senator Farrell can live up to. I'm hoping it is.

In a contribution earlier today, the Australian Greens said that—I'm paraphrasing Senator Rice—this was an important first step. They did not say it was the only step. They said it was an important first step in bringing relief to older Australians to help deal with their cost-of-living pressures and also to address labour shortages. Remember this. This week, Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer, said that cost-of-living pressures were skyrocketing. That's not my word. It's Jim Chalmers's word: skyrocketing.

Senator Farrell is going to filibuster so that those skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures for older Australians—he's saying that older Australians can wait another month. They've already waited one month, and he's now saying they can wait another month. I doubt that Labor will legislate their initiative in budget week, and they're going to stand in the way of this initiative. This is not new news. Anyone who has been paying attention to the debates around the cost of living and labour shortages knows that National Seniors Australia and others—grain producers, agricultural organisations and chambers of commerce and industry in Western Australia, Victoria, and, I suspect, Tasmania—have been saying that this is an urgent issue. Treasury themselves said last week that labour shortages were severe. The time to act is now.


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