Lifting the Income Limit for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card

House of Representatives 4/08/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (12:53): Over the first sitting fortnight of parliament, the Albanese Labor government has taken real action on issues that affect everyday Australians, and this particular bill will lift income limits for the Commonwealth seniors health card, seeing more self-funded retirees become eligible. The action of this bill would ease the increase in cost-of-living pressures that so many senior Australian face. It is something I am committed to in my electorate of Wills, and I know all my colleagues are on this side. In particular, this will ease the cost of concessional medicines and medical services, the importance of which we are all conscious of anyway, but even more so during the pandemic which we’ve experienced. This will mean an increase in the income limit to $90,000 for singles, up from $57,761, and $144,000 combined for couples, up from $92,416. This will expand access for more than 44,000 people from September this year, increasing to more than 52,000 people in the year 2026-2027. I commend the Minister for Social Services for introducing the legislation in the first sitting fortnight, showing that the Albanese Labor government understands the real cost-of-living pressures of Australians.

I also want to take this opportunity to speak more broadly to the economic concerns of retirees and senior Australians in my electorate of Wills. As an urban electorate in the heart of Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Wills has seen a lot of change over the decades. More and more families, students, young professionals and emerging migrant groups have moved to the area and created the wonderfully diverse community I’m fortunate to represent. This has coincided with a significant increase in house prices and associated costs, like council rates and land taxes. Whilst homeowners accept that there are costs associated with homeownership, senior Australians are undoubtedly feeling the pinch as costs continue to rise. Whilst many of these senior Australians may have assets, likely bought decades ago at much less than their current value, they are often income poor. It’s a common problem: asset wealthy, asset rich; income poor. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the southern half of my own electorate—in Brunswick and Coburg in particular.

Decades ago, back when former Prime Minister Bob Hawke represented the seat of Wills—I have illustrious predecessors—they were not the highly sought after suburbs that are now known for their cultural and economic opportunities. They were much more working class, and a much lower socioeconomic demographic was represented in those suburbs. They were working-class suburbs, effectively—and they still are to a certain extent, but were much more so 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They were home to working families and new migrants who worked exceptionally hard to give something back to their country, have a good life for themselves and their children, and set themselves up.

Like any Australian, they dreamt of owning their own home, and many of them at the time were fortunate enough to do so after decades of hard work. But today they face a situation where their home value has increased but their income has not. In fact, it has very likely declined in retirement. Now, I know what many people—in particular, younger Australians and those unable to buy their own home—may think: ‘So what?’ And that might be a fair response, as the prospect of homeownership remains so far out of reach and they are often met with ridicule, with suggestions such as ‘Give up the avocado toast,’ or, ‘Don’t eat kale for breakfast,’ or, ‘Just get a loan from your parents’—we heard that from the previous government’s ministers—often coming from those on the other side of this House.

In my job as the member for Wills, I represent an electorate that is home to both a lot of young and a lot of older Australians, and I don’t think their interests should always be framed as competing interests. I think that’s false; it’s a false dichotomy. It shouldn’t be the case that we expect older Australians to be so pressured by the cost of living that their only choice is between poverty or selling their family home. For many, it’s the first and only home they’ve ever known, the home they raised their family in, the home that they’ve celebrated in, the home that they have cherished memories of. They are not big developers or property magnates. They are everyday people facing the prospect of being forced out of their home. That is what is happening by stealth in many communities across the country as a lot of inner city councils continue to increase rates and fees. This is something I’ve raised on numerous occasions on behalf of my community, including with representations to local councils and the state governments as well. At the end of the day, these people are not asking for a free pass but for common sense and compassion that considers decades of context rather than just the challenges of the day.

At the same time, I know that when I speak to senior Australians they are often worried about the unfairness facing young people, whether it be the staggering cost of homeownership, the insecure nature of the workforce or the threat of climate change. These are such important issues, ones that the Albanese government has taken action on in the first sitting weeks of our government, including the passage today of the first genuine plan in a decade to tackle climate change. These are issues that senior Australians are talking about all the time, because it is an electorate which is compassionate, regardless of your age group, and an electorate where people do look out for one another.

When we make decisions in this place, and indeed at all levels of government, we need not pit groups of Australians against each other as if they have competing interests. The choice is not between allowing senior Australians to stay in their family home or supporting homeownership for young people. That’s false. It’s a false choice. The choice is about taking real action to make both a reality and to ease the cost of living and other challenges facing Australians from all walks of life and backgrounds. As the Prime Minister has said, government should be about bringing people together—less about conflict; more about getting things done. This is what we are doing by expanding access to the Commonwealth seniors health card. And it is what we will continue to do in this government, with massive investments in education, housing, renewable energy, jobs, aged care, health care and child care.

For the seniors in particular, we will freeze deeming rates at their current levels for two years, protecting around 900,000 age pensioners and other pension recipients from interest rate rises—making sure pensioners can keep more of their money in their pockets, making medicine cheaper, cutting the cost of medication on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from the current maximum of $42.50 to $30, delivering more affordable housing so older Australians who don’t own their own home won’t find all their pension eaten up by rising rents, delivering 50 bulk-billed Medicare urgent care clinics. We will also put the ‘care’ back into aged care by ensuring registered nurses are on site 24/7. It’s about improving standards of care and nutrition and ensuring better oversight of aged-care funding.

These are just some of the measures that an Albanese Labor government will take to ease the cost of living and improve the quality of life for older Australians, because older Australians deserve respect in their senior years. They deserve a government that will be on their side when it comes to easing the cost of living and accessing quality health- and aged-care services. And they deserve a government that will recognise their decades of contribution to our society and to our country by looking after them, by meeting the obligation that we have as a government to make sure that we fulfil our commitment to them, in the same way they have committed to this nation.

It is not just what we should expect in an egalitarian country like Australia; it is what we should champion as creators and passers of public policy and legislation. I know this is a priority for the Albanese Labor government. We see that today with this bill and the other legislation debated this past fortnight. I, for my part, will continue to advocate for real action that makes a positive difference for my community as we deliver a better future for all Australians, young and old.