Payment Integrity BillSpeech
I rise to oppose this bill. It was first introduced in 2017. As the member for Barton has said, it was a bad bill then and it is still a bad bill now. It has as much to do with the integrity of social security payments as the defeated 'ensuring integrity' bill had to do with protecting Australian workers: absolutely nothing. Hopefully this misnamed bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019, will meet the same fate. This bill contains more cuts to vulnerable Australians who simply can't afford it. It will increase residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years for those born outside Australia; stop the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks overseas; and extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances.
If there is one consistent theme from this government it is their absolute commitment to be Robin Hood in reverse—that is, rather than taking money from the rich to give to the poor, this government consistently takes money from the poor and struggling in order to give it to the wealthy. We've seen that billions, the bulk of the tax cuts legislated last year, will flow to those on incomes of over $100,000 a year and disproportionately to those on incomes of over $200,000 a year, but those on social security get none of this largesse. In fact they are being asked to pay for it to keep the budget in surplus. Catholic Social Services Australia said in 2017:
… this Bill places 'the burden of budget repair on those who can least afford it, while providing tax cuts to the wealthy and businesses, [which] is wrong morally and economically.'
It if implemented, this bill will rip out over $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners. You have to ask: why does this government want to punish pensioners? Why do they want to make it harder for older Australians who want to visit family overseas or to spend an extended time caring for relatives or grandchildren? Migrant pensioners who have worked hard in Australia and who have built a life and a family here should be able to get the pension; they shouldn't lose the supplement simply because they go overseas for an extended period, often through no choice of their own. Making people wait longer to get the pension will only force some older Australians to go without, struggle or live in poverty.
Of course, pensioners won't be fooled by this government. Attempts to cut the pension and social security are the raison d'etre of this Liberal government. They have tried to increase the pension and increase the pension age to 70 in every budget, including in three budgets where the current Prime Minister had the job of Treasurer. In the 2014 budget they tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 a week less within ten years. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of Australia's pensioners. In that budget they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living—and they also axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. In the 2014 budget the Liberals tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen 500,000 part pensioners made worse off. In 2015 the Liberals did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. In the 2016 budget they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. They also tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show that this would have left worse off over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowance. On top of this they spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. To top it off it took five consecutive interest rate cuts before they even adjusted the deeming rates, and then only after enormous pressure from seniors groups and from Labor.
So this bill is part of a history of attempts to cut pension and other social security entitlements. Part of this bill is aimed at stopping the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks overseas. Currently the pension supplement is reduced to the basic rate once a recipient has been overseas for six weeks. This bill would cease payment of the pension supplement entirely once a recipient has been out of Australia for six weeks or immediately upon a permanent departure. There are no grandfathering arrangements for these changes. They will apply immediately upon the commencement of the schedule, even to pensioners who are already overseas.
In the 2017 Senate hearing, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council said:
For the individuals who have to survive on the age pension, that additional supplement is critical. They would have also suffered in terms of having to save up to go overseas in the first place and probably for a long period of time. Every dollar counts when you're living on the age pension so it is punitive and cruel to take away that additional amount just because someone, for very good reasons, is having to spend an extended period of time overseas.
What was true in 2017 is still true today—the federation regards this proposal as 'unfair' and 'discriminatory', and so do I.
The bill also seeks to extend the period needed to qualify for age and disability pensions from 10- to 15-years residence for those born outside Australia. As a result of the change, around 2,390 people will have to wait longer for the pension. This means that, at best, these people of age-pension age will be able to access a special benefit equivalent to Newstart allowance. This will mostly affect people who have moved to Australia close to the pension age, perhaps to be with family. This change has no policy rationale except to make a saving from recently arrived migrants of pension age.
The Federation of Ethnic Communities Council told the Senate inquiry in 2017:
...older migrant Australians will become more reliant upon their families to support them...but as with any family, young people now in Australia...have to move often in order to secure employment, and they're not often in a position to take care of their older relatives, either practically or financially.
Part of the new requirement will be that a person must not be in receipt of an activity tested income support payment for more than five years of a continuous 10-year period. This introduces a dangerous new precedent. As ACOSS has said:
… it starts to introduce an approach to social security which says that, because you had to come here for help in the past, you've had enough.
The National Social Security Rights Network's experts on our social security system told the Senate inquiry in 2017:
The Australian system is based on residence and need. It has a very strong emphasis on residence already. Most of the older migrants who have the misfortune to need to access our system within the first 10 years in Australia are covered by an assurance from their families. So there is no cost to the taxpayer because the money is recovered from the family. So it's hard to see the case for strengthening the requirements. It's particularly hard to see the need or benefit that comes from introducing income support history into the test. It's a departure from a very fundamental principle.
Labor sees no need for such a change. It is unacceptable.
Finally, I turn to the aspects of the bill which propose to effectively double the liquid assets threshold and the waiting time for Newstart and other payments for couples from around $11,000 to $36,000 and from a maximum waiting time of 13 weeks to 26 weeks. In other words, applicants will need to spend down more of their assets before becoming eligible to receive a payment. As a result, they will be less able to make financial commitments, such as pay for a bond or a rental property or replace a broken appliance as they will not have sufficient savings to do so.
The Department of Social Services estimates that around 13,800 claimants would be affected each year by the extension. Of those, the department expects that around 11,000 would be required to wait the full 26 weeks and, on average, people would have to wait an additional 11 weeks before they would start to receive a payment. There is no rational for increasing the liquid assets waiting period for people who lose their job or are made redundant.
As many of my colleagues have pointed out, this is nothing but a cash grab and is taking money out of the pockets of workers at the very time when their savings matter the most. The current waiting period, up to 13 weeks for people with modest savings, is already more than enough. While many people will find another job in the 13-week period, it's important that those who do not are not forced to run down their savings to the point where they become vulnerable to losing their home or are unable to meet unexpected expenses.
A longer waiting period is counterproductive. It means people have less money to seek employment, undertake retraining, keep the car on the road—indeed, simply to deal with the emergencies that life throws up. If a person's circumstances spiral because they run out of savings, if they lose their home or their car, this just makes it harder to get back into employment.
During the Senate hearings in 2017 into this same bill, St Vincent de Paul said:
By increasing waiting periods and reducing access to support payments, the proposed measures would further erode an already fragile social safety net, contributing to inequality and disproportionately impacting on people on low incomes. Such proposals are morally, socially and economically indefensible …
The government should be stimulating the economy and lifting people out of poverty, not taking money out of the pockets of pensioners and workers who have been made redundant through no fault of their own. Nor should they be punished—punishing those who go overseas for longer than six weeks after having contributed to our society for many years.
It seems like this government's only plan is to improve the budget position. Under this government now in its third term, Australia has the slowest growth in a decade—stagnant wages, productivity in decline, record household debt, high underemployment and declining living standards. The government needs a plan to turn the economy around to make it grow, but all we see are constant efforts to take money away from those that can least afford it. Rather than develop a real plan to revitalise the economy, the government has simply recirculated the same bad idea. This is why Labor, quite rightly, opposes this bill—a bill that gives integrity a bad name.Share Tweet