Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019


Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019. I join my colleagues in opposing this bill in its current form. In the first instance, the bill is mean-spirited, illogical and cruel to hardworking Australians. We already know that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have a skewed perspective on social services. When this bill was first introduced in 2017, it was a bad bill then, and it’s still a bad bill now. If it’s passed, it will do three things to vulnerable Australians. First, it will increase the residency requirements for age and disability pensioners from 10 to 15 years. Second, it will stop the payment of the age pension supplement after six weeks of that person being overseas. And, third, it will extend the liquid assets waiting period that applies to Newstart, youth allowance and other allowances.

The Prime Minister will rip $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners, punishing pensioners who have worked so hard for all of their lives and are entitled to their pension. This is not just out of the blue. In 2015, the freshly-minted Treasurer, Scott Morrison, made comments stating that the age pension should not be regarded as an entitlement for all. The Treasurer also outlined the then Turnbull government’s vision for an overhaul of the country’s retirement income system by both reducing expenditure on welfare payments and limiting the amount of revenue foregone through tax concessions. To that comment, and in strong contrast to those particular views, I say to the pensioners in my electorate, and indeed pensioners across Australia: the pension is not a privilege, unlike what the then Treasurer, the current Prime Minister, stated. It is not a privilege and it’s not an entitlement; it’s a right and you have worked for that right, you have earned that right to the pension. You had a social contract with the government of this country, you paid your taxes, you worked hard for decades, and the pension is part of that contract.

Let me talk about a particular demographic of migrants: migrants who are now pensioners—people who migrated to Australia post World War II in the fifties and sixties; people who came here and helped build this country into the wonderful country it is today. They worked hard in factories, in business or the post office. My dad worked for Australia Post. It’s a common story; it’s not a unique story. Millions of Australians who came to this country to build a better life for themselves and their children worked so hard, paid their taxes and were great citizens of this country. They built up this country. They’re at an age now where they’re receiving a pension. Instead, the Prime Minister is making people wait longer for the pension, forcing older Australians to struggle even more than they already were and to go without.

Pensioners won’t be surprised by this bill. They’re not fooled by this government. It’s in this government’s DNA to cut pensions. The Prime Minister, in 2015, when he was doing such a fantastic job as Treasurer, tried to cut the pension and increase the age of entitlement. In every budget that this government have passed they have tried to cut welfare payments.

In 2014 the government 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. This unfair cut would have ripped $23 billion from the pockets of every single pensioner in Australia. In the infamous 2014 budget, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions—support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. Again, in that same infamous budget, they axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees in receipt of a Commonwealth seniors health card. They also tried to reset deeming-rate thresholds—a cut that would have seen 500,000 part-pensioners made worse off. These are facts. I don’t think you can dispute them. The other side can’t dispute them.

In 2015 the coalition did a deal with the Greens political party to cut the pension for 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 by pensioners to six weeks. We fought that at the time—I remember. They also tried, in that budget, to cut the pension for over 1½ million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. By their own figures it would have left worse off the over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or an allowance.

We now before us have a bill that, in its current form, will punish pensioners who want to visit families overseas or need to spend time caring for relatives or grandchildren. You might be someone who has worked for 40 to 50 years in this country and you’re now on a pension, and you want to go to Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Vietnam or wherever it is you migrated from, for the Northern Hemisphere summer. Is this government really saying that someone who’s 80 or 75 or whatever it might be is going to get on a plane and travel to the other side of the world to visit family—having saved up for years to make this trip—for just a couple of weeks, after the time they spent getting there? Is the government saying that they have to get back on the plane and come back or their pension’s going to get cut? Is that what you’re saying? Are you telling tens of thousands of Australian pensioners that they can’t visit their family, their friends, loved ones, sick ones, for a couple of months in the Northern Hemisphere summer? You’re going to cut off their pension—a pension which they earned through the taxes that they’ve paid and through the decades of hard work and toil that they have gone through to build their lives in this country and in the social contract they made with this government. You’re going to cut it because they want to go overseas for a trip in the twilight of their lives, in their retirement. That’s what you’re telling them. It’s an absolute disgrace. It was a disgrace when the government tried to pass it a couple of years ago, and it’s a disgrace now.

I can tell you, all the pensioners in my electorate were up in arms. When I went to the Italian pensioners club, and to the Greeks, the Lebanese and all the different migrant groups, they were absolutely shocked that the government would be trying to do this them after all the work that they’ve put in.

There’s also nothing rational about the government wanting to increase the liquid assets waiting period for people who have lost their jobs or been made redundant. It’s just another attempt by this government to take money out of hardworking Australians’ pockets when they need their savings the most. It’s nothing but another cash grab by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer.

People who have probably very modest savings already have to wait 13 weeks—a waiting period that is already long enough—and now they’re going to have to wait 26 weeks. That’s six months. It’s half a year. Some people will find a job within that period, but some won’t be that lucky. In particular, as the previous speaker, the member for Fowler, was saying, people who are of an older age group or demographic, who have limited English skills or who might have worked for decades in a factory find it more difficult now to get another job. It’s important that we note that these people shouldn’t have to run down their life savings to the point where they’re vulnerable to losing their home or other important assets or are unable to meet any unexpected expenses. At that age in life, there are a lot of unexpected expenses that come up around health and so on.

This bill will unfairly affect older Australians. It’s already difficult enough for them to re-enter the workforce, given their situation. I don’t understand it. I’d love to get an explanation from one of the government speakers on the bench as to why they think it is so important to take money from people who are already doing it tough. They are already doing it tough. You’ve got to have, if you lose your job, somewhat of a buffer so you can support yourself and your family as you re-train or look for work. This bill is just going to make it harder for those people. But isn’t it a wonderful way to prop up the government’s surplus! Along with going after the most vulnerable people in society with their robodebt scam, along with underfunding the NDIS by billions of dollars, they’ve said, ‘Oh, let’s go and rip some more money from the most vulnerable people in our society so we can tell everyone we have a surplus.’ That’s what the government are doing. Stopping the payment of pension supplements will give the government $154 million. The changes to the liquid assets test will give them another $105 million.

As I said, mine is a very diverse electorate, and there are people in my electorate who are going to be absolutely horrified by this bill. In my electorate about 48 per cent of the population either were born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas. It’s a very diverse electorate. A lot of people migrated to my electorate post World War II. A lot of Greeks, Italians and Lebanese people came to call Australia home. These are people who will be disproportionately affected by this bill, by this law. All of them, as I said, go back to their country of origin to visit family. They’re retired now. They go back and visit people they have not seen in years or decades. They save up and do this special trip. Are you telling me you are going to cut their pensions after they’ve saved to go away and visit family they haven’t seen for years and that they will lose their pension because of this trip? These are older Australians who have worked hard. They deserve a break to visit family or to even go on a holiday overseas for more than six weeks. At that age, it takes you a couple of weeks to get over jet lag anyway. Are you then going to jump on a plane and come back before you’ve even had time to spend time wherever you were going? Of course, every dollar counts when you’re living on the age pension. A lot of these people have worked all their lives. They have one property—the house that they bought in the sixties or seventies. It’s their family home. They worked in factories, they worked hard and this is what this government wants to dish up to them. It’s an absolute disgrace.

While this government is busy worrying about its budget bottom line, literally taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the pockets of pensioners and workers who have been made redundant through no fault of their own, while this is all going on, we have seen stagnant wages, the slowest growth in a decade, productivity in decline, high underemployment and declining living standards—all under a coalition government, the supposed great economic managers. What a myth! What spin that is, because the facts don’t add up. The facts give you a completely different picture of this government. The facts give you a picture of incompetence, underperformance, meanness of spirit and an obscene obsession with going after money from the most vulnerable people in our society.

On top of all that, they have no plan going forward. They don’t even know what their next step is. They have no plan to turn the economy around. The Treasurer keeps holding on to the rope of monetary policy, which is fast running out, refusing to look at any fiscal policy. It’s all about political tactics. That’s what it’s about. It’s about trying to wedge us and blame Labor—’We can’t govern this country in any meaningful way, so let’s just blame the opposition. That makes more sense.’

There’s nothing in this bill that will help vulnerable Australians. Everything in this bill will punish those vulnerable Australians. It will rip money out of the pockets of pensioners and vulnerable Australians who have been made redundant and are looking for work. It’s an absolute disgrace. This is why we on this side opposed this bill in the past and oppose this bill today.