SPEECH: Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment and Pensioner Concession Card) Bill 2017

May 31, 2017

Mr CONROY: (Shortland) (10:43): It is good to have an opportunity to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Energy Assistance Payment and Pensioner Concession Card) Bill 2017 and to join with my Labor colleagues in highlighting and condemning the appalling record of the coalition relating to their treatment of the pension. I am proud to be a member of the Labor Party—a Labor Party that, through the great Prime Minister Andrew Fisher introduced the old-age pension over 100 years ago. The age pension is a compact with senior Australians that says that we commit to giving you a dignified retirement. It is a compact that says that we commit to ensuring that every Australian has the ability to retire and live their final years in some dignity and not be left to starve on the streets, as still occurs in some other nations around the world today. It is a compact that the Liberal and National parties do not understand. It is a compact that they repeatedly attempt to break, and without the Labor Party holding them to account they will try and break it at every opportunity.

Before discussing the energy assistance payment, I want to highlight the asset test changes introduced by the Liberals and Nationals, which is related to the concession card aspect of this bill. This change cut the pension for 330,000 elderly Australians. Approximately 3,000 of my constituents in Shortland had their pensions reduced or cancelled, and one quarter of the residents in Shortland are over the age of 60. So these changes had a very significant impact on the electorate that I represent. I am very proud to have voted against this legislation, to have voted against the pensions asset test change that cut the pension for 3,000 of my constituents. This policy shifted the goalposts for tens of thousands of pensioners who had in good faith planned for their retirement, and nearly 100,000 retirees lost their pension completely. The government should know that my constituents who were affected by these changes are still incredibly angry about this issue—and I know this, because I have met with them and seen how distressed and upset they are. In fact, at every single seniors expo I hold in Shortland, this is still raised as a massive issue.

These changes are even worse because of the direct betrayal of a promise the government had previously made relating to the pensioner concession charge. When these asset changes were introduced, Joe Hockey stated very clearly that those who lost their pension as a result of the change would be able to keep their concession cards. He said:

Anyone who currently has a Pensioner Concession Card will continue to receive a concession card that provides the same benefits …

This was a blatant lie. As I said previously, my constituents are very angry about it. So Labor welcomes the provision in this bill which provides for the reinstatement of the pensioner concession card for those who ceased to be eligible for the card as a result of the asset test changes on 1 January this year. But it should be noted that the government has only done this with the utmost reluctance and only after concerted pressure by pensioner groups and the Labor Party. This is another clear example of how out of touch the Prime Minister and his government are with the realities of the day-to-day lives of pensioners, retirees and, indeed, all ordinary Australians. As I have noted previously, given the background of the Prime Minister and his substantial wealth, this is not surprising, but it is still no excuse to attack the living standards and quality of life of the pensioners that I represent in this place.

Let there be no mistake that the government is cutting the pension. The introduction of the energy assistance payment is a blatant attempt by the Liberals and Nationals to disguise the fact that they are cutting the pension by abolishing the energy supplement. This bill provides a one-off energy assistance payment of $75 to single pensioners, while attempting to take $365 a year from single pensioners by removing the energy supplement to new pensioners. This might not be a significant amount for the Prime Minister but it is a very substantial amount for pensioners in Cardiff, Windale and Lake Munmorah—in fact, every suburb that I represent. I state again that the Prime Minister and his government are so out of touch that they do not comprehend the harm they are doing to pensioners, who deserve to be treated so much better.

The truth is that the $75 one-off payment to single pensioners is welcome but it does not begin to touch the sides of the energy crisis and the rise in energy bills that pensioners and, in fact, all Australians are confronting right now because of this government’s incompetence. Wholesale energy prices have doubled on the coalition’s watch and the cost of energy is a major concern for my constituents, particularly those on fixed incomes. The government is trying to con them with a one-off payment of $75. If this government were truly worried about the impact of energy prices on pensioners, they would do two simple things: firstly, they would support an emissions intensity scheme for the electricity sector—an emissions intensity scheme supported by basically every single stakeholder in the energy sector, whether it is the networks, the generators or the consumers. In fact, the government’s own regulator supports an emissions intensity scheme. Basically anyone with a pulse who has any knowledge of the electricity sector, other than this government, is supporting an emissions intensity scheme. Why are they doing that? For two simple reasons: firstly, it will provide investment certainty that will unlock $48 billion of investment in the energy sector, which is so vitally needed; and, secondly, it will place downward pressure on electricity prices. Because of the way an EIS works, it subsidises the marginal producer in the energy market, which is gas. Gas sets the price for electricity, so by subsidising gas an EIS will actually reduce electricity prices.

Modelling commissioned by the government’s own regulator and conducted by the government’s favourite energy modeller, Danny Price, has found that an EIS will reduce electricity prices by $15 billion—$15 billion! So if the government were really interested in reducing electricity prices for pensioners and all Australians they would embrace an EIS, because that is the quickest, simplest and most efficient way of reducing electricity prices in this country.

The second thing they would do is to solve the gas crisis—a gas crisis that has seen incredibly high increases in the price of gas both for Australian manufacturers and Australian consumers of energy through gas. The government have been asleep at the wheel on this issue. For four years they have done nothing about the gas crisis, which has been barrelling down the line. In fact, they have made a couple of headline announcements recently on this issue: Prime Minister Turnbull promised that that he would halve the price of gas in this country. He said that he could get the price of gas down from $20 a gigajoule to $10 a gigajoule overnight, but he has not done anything concrete to achieve this promise. He has made a lot of hot air but he has done nothing to solve the gas crisis that the government have played a role in contributing to. So while I welcome these one-off energy assistance payments, if the government were really serious about solving the energy crisis and reducing electricity prices they would embrace an EIS and solve the gas crisis.

But whilst discussing energy assistance payments provided by the government, I want to note that Labor will still oppose the government’s attempts to remove the energy supplement from the most vulnerable Australians. The 2017 budget papers confirm the government’s determination to abolish this payment. The Prime Minister and his government are intent on creating a two-tier system for social security payments relating to the aged pension. That goes so very much against the fundamental Australian values of equality and a fair go. Creating two classes of aged pension is just wrong. Those Liberals and Nationals in this House who will vote for that change should be ashamed.

When I speak with pensioners affected by this change I proudly tell them that I and the Labor Party will continue to vote against these cruel cuts to those on fixed incomes. I recently ran a series of budget forums, briefing my constituents about what was in this budget. When I highlighted that the two zombie measures from the 2014 budget that remained in it were, first off, increasing the pension age to 70—the highest in the developed world—and, secondly, creating a two-class pension system, they were aghast. This was not just pensioners who were going to be affected by this change, or potential pensioners, it was existing pensioners, who were horrified that there would be a two-tier pension system.

The government has been unable to answer the question about why there should be two classes of pensioners. What will a new pensioner face in terms of reduced electricity prices that an existing pensioner does not face? It is blatantly inequitable and it is blatantly an attack on the universality of our social security system. It breaks that compact that I talked about previously, about providing a dignified retirement for all Australians.

Labor will continue to work with pensioner groups and the crossbench to ensure that the government does not prevail with this significant and unfair cut. I dare all coalition members of this House to actually go to their constituencies to explain why there should be a two-tier pension system, why new pensioners should be treated as second-class pensioners and why Australians need to work to the age of 70 to receive a pension. I would submit that the people who support this clearly do not know many manual labourers—or nurses, for that matter. Anyone whose job requires intense physical activity is going to be very unlikely to be able to work until the age of 70.

Labor will continue to work with pensioner groups to oppose this. The crossbench should also know that Labor will hold them to account if they side with the government and vote to cut the pension, because the crossbench has a pretty sordid history on these issues. The Greens were the only reason the government got through the reductions in the pension assets threshold. The Greens did a dirty deal—

Mr Perrett: Shame!

Mr CONROY: The Greens, shamefully, did a dirty deal with the coalition to cut the pensions for 300,000 Australians—and for what? What did they get in return for this sellout of some of the poorest Australians in this country? They got a commitment to an inquiry. That was worth reducing the income of 300,000 Australians and throwing 100,000 Australians off the pension.

In speaking on this bill, I also want to draw the attention of the House to the government’s disgraceful and shameful record relating to social security payments. In their first budget, the government tried to cut pension indexation and leave pensioners $80 a week poorer. This is from a mob who is currently giving millionaires and big business a tax cut. It clearly identifies who they govern for and the priorities they have. I am proud that we defeated that change. In fact, I am proud that was a key reason the Liberals rolled their Prime Minister and replaced him with the member for Warringah. We will continue to fight for a fair treatment of pensioners.

I have already referred to the asset test changes. The government now wants to cut payments to retirees after six weeks of travelling overseas. Surely, elderly Australians who have worked hard and saved are entitled to a holiday. The government has said that their most recent budget is about fairness, but their most senior ministers—the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the finance minister—have all confirmed that the only reason they are not pursuing their draconian cuts to other measures is they cannot pass them in the Senate. Let us be clear on this matter: the Liberals and Nationals still believe in these cruel cuts to the pension, but they have been stifled from enacting them by the Labor Party in the Senate. They have, all of a sudden, discovered the concept of fairness. Australians will not be fooled by the government. They know that this government discovered the concept of fairness through a focus group and that the Labor Party is the only political party that delivers a fair go.

In concluding, let me reiterate that I am proud to be a member of a party that supports the pension, that created the pension, that defends the pension, that protects the pension against the inequitable attacks by the coalition. In conclusion, the Labor Party does welcome the government’s backdown regarding the pensioner concession card. We will continue to highlight that the government are cutting the pension. They would have made even more severe cuts over the previous years but have been prevented in doing so by the Labor Party. The provision of the age pension and social security payments in general is incredibly important to ordinary Australians. The government just do not understand this.

I commend the bill to the House.

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