Self-Funded Retirees Concessions
Mr ROBERT OAKESHOTT (Port Macquarie) [12.14 p.m.]: I move:
That this House:
(1) recognises that self-funded retirees in New South Wales do not receive access to the concessions that self-funded retirees in Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia receive.
(2) urges the Government to accept the Commonwealth offer of financial assistance to provide equity in concessions for self-funded retirees in New South Wales, thereby recognising their contribution to the State.
An election advertisement in the most recent edition, the spring 2004 volume, of the Independent Retiree states, "Mark Latham and Labor Opportunity for older Australians". Part of the election pitch from the Labor Party in the magazine was to extend financial concessions to holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. An election promise at the Federal level was "Labor supports the extension of concessions to Seniors Health Card holders. Labor has a strong track record in this area. In government we introduced the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card [CSHC] and successfully negotiated with the States to extend pensioner concessions to self-funded retirees receiving a part pension." Here is the good bit: "Labor will examine a range of options to ensure additional concessions are delivered to CSHC holders." If it is good enough for Federal Labor, the question we ask today is why is it not good enough for State Labor and the New South Wales Government. There is a range of inconsistencies. One is the lack of recognition of the savings culture needed in New South Wales.
The Port Macquarie electorate has 2,100 independent retirees, all of whom are discriminated against financially because they have chosen to save and plan for their retirement, although concessions are offered to others who, for whatever reason, have not put in place savings plans. If we are to encourage a savings culture in New South Wales and Australia I would have thought that we should provide incentives for, and encouragement to, those who want to plan. Although compulsory superannuation has been introduced in Australia, which forces saving on all of us, the current retired generation who chose to put in place their own savings schemes are now being discriminated against financially.
For this generation of older Australians, I would have thought it is only a matter of fairness and equity that this Government would recognise their contribution and their foresight in planning and saving for their retirement. There are three types of Commonwealth concession cards. The Pensioner Concession Card is provided mainly to pensioners, for example aged pensioners and people on disability support pensions. Holders of the Pensioner Concession Card are able to access subsidised pharmaceuticals through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme [PBS] and core State concessions on transport, utilities, rates and car registration. They are entitled to boating discounts and subsidised concessional travel on the Great Southern Rail. The State Government and private providers give discounts to holders of the Pensioner Concession Card.
The Health Care Card is provided primarily to people on allowances, such as the Newstart allowance. The basic concession is that it gives people access to the PBS. Those on sickness benefits have access to subsidised hearing services, but people with a Health Care Card do not have access to the core State concessions of subsidised utilities or car registrations. The Commonwealth Seniors Health Card is provided to people of age pension age who are not in receipt of the age pension, but have an income of less than $50,000 a year for a single and $80,000 for a couple—the self-funded retiree group. Holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card have access to subsidised pharmaceuticals under the PBS, subsidised rail travel on the Great Southern Rail, and a telephone allowance. As everyone would be aware—this is the point of the motion—a couple of years ago the Commonwealth extended some of the core concessions and, as the budget papers indicate, negotiations are continuing.
The recently re-elected Federal Coalition Government is committed to contributing $200 twice a year as a way of meeting its part of the 60:40 agreement, but I do not think that absolves the State Government from its responsibility to contribute. On the grounds of equity and fairness, the State Government should put an end to this financial discrimination. I know that other States and Territories, such as the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia, have entered into an agreement with the Commonwealth Government, and the South Australian Government has given in-principle support to the arrangement while it closely examines the proposal.
Throughout New South Wales and Australia this is a burning issue for the peak lobby group, the Association of Independent Retirees. Over several years the association has undertaken a very strong campaign to exert pressure on the New South Wales Government to recognise the needs of older Australians, particularly independent retirees. In view of the forthcoming by-election in Dubbo, I will read one of the letters I have received from the association on this issue. The Dubbo-Orana branch of the Association of Independent Retirees wrote to me during the State election campaign in March 2003. This letter is one example of concerns felt by a group of independent retirees who have been lobbying for assistance. The branch president, Brian Semmler, stated:
I write on behalf of the members of the Dubbo/Orana Branch of the Association of Independent Retirees to ask that you and your Government might give favourable consideration to the concept of those persons who are Self Funded Retirees (SFRs) or partly SFRs … being granted benefits equivalent to the benefits provided to other retirees who are in receipt of the full Age Pension.
In the view of members of this Branch the present situation whereby one class of retirees receives certain benefits and another does not is both unfair and discriminatory.
Given that the Commonwealth Government has offered to meet 60% of the cost of providing these benefits, we believe it is not unreasonable nor beyond the means of the State to provide the other 40% so that SFRs become equal partners with those retirees who are being supported by the Age Pension and other concessions granted by both Federal and State Governments.
Many SFRs … are not wealthy people; in fact, many are not well off at all, but because there is, in our opinion, an incredible discrepancy between the Commonwealth Incomes Test and Assets Test for receipt of the Age Pension, they do not qualify for the pension under the Assets Test even though they would qualify with ease under the Incomes Test.
There are two main reasons for this; the first is that many so-called 'assets', such as furniture, motor vehicles, caravans, jewellery, art works etc are counted in the Assets Test but are not income producing, and the second is the incredible downturn in incomes because of poor investment market performance.
I might also add, ironically, low interest rates. The letter goes on to state:
This grossly unfair situation has led and will continue to lead to SFRs fast becoming extremely disadvantaged and in the poverty bracket; they are clearly the new poor.
Our Association recently undertook a survey of members, and one of the results showed that of the respondent couples 26.8% had an income of less than $29,000 pa and another 41.7% had an income of between $30,000 and $49,000 pa. For singles the figures were 50.2% and 32.0% respectively—not what one would call wealthy. In fact many would have incomes below what is commonly accepted as the 'poverty line'.
Your [State] Government has been generous to many in this State who are in need, and we believe it is not too much to ask that those persons who have contributed, many at a relatively high level to taxation over the years, and to a very considerable extent to their own maintenance in retirement be assisted to have a quality of life in their latter years that would be enhanced at least a little by your Government supporting the Commonwealth initiative, as has been done in [other States and Territories].
Those views are held right throughout the State by the entire network and membership of the Association of Independent Retirees. The association's views have the support of many council bodies. Hastings Council in my electorate held a workshop on 16 August, and according to the council there are 2,079 eligible self-funded retirees who live within the council's boundary. Based on that number, the total cost of the concession in that area would be $883,573. The State's contribution to that would be $353,430. Councils have expressed their support for the proposal that the State Government should contribute. I therefore encourage the State Government to conclude negotiations that have been going on for far too long, recognise the need for fairness, and support self-funded retirees in New South Wales. [Time expired.]
Mr TONY STEWART (Bankstown—Parliamentary Secretary) [12.24 p.m.]: It is commendable that the honourable member for Port Macquarie has brought this important issue to the attention of the House. However, I wish to lend some perspective to the concerns he has raised. I am somewhat perplexed by what the honourable member said, because he has a reputation for doing his homework. He deserves credit for drawing attention to this important issue, but appropriate research would have led him to conclude that there are real problems with the manner in which the Commonwealth Government deals with New South Wales in terms of funding arrangements, and that that is source of the difficulty.
On numerous occasions the Carr Labor Government has approached the Commonwealth Government about equitable funding distribution. I will deal with that matter in more detail later, but I briefly make the point now that earlier this year the Howard Government used the Commonwealth Grants Commission to rip $345 million out of New South Wales each year for the next five years—a fact that provides a wider perspective on the concerns outlined by the honourable member for Port Macquarie. The Commonwealth Government cut a huge chunk from the level of funding that New South Wales expected as part of revenue disbursement and ripped off the New South Wales economy. Furthermore, it is widely recognised that the Howard Government short-changed the New South Wales Government in funding for Health, Disability Services and Housing. Over the recent years of the Howard-Costello Government, Commonwealth Government funding to the State of New South Wales has been diminishing.
The Commonwealth Government currently offers concessions to holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, but there is a catch: the concession applies only if the New South Wales Government matches Commonwealth funding. There are some real difficulties associated with the proposal, and I will explain what they are. The commitment was made by the Howard Government so the Commonwealth should fund the proposal. After all, the concession relates to income for older Australians and that is a Commonwealth responsibility. However, again the Howard Government has sought to avoid its responsibility and has tried to pass the buck to New South Wales. Despite having already ripped $345 million each year for the next five years out of this State by stealth through the Commonwealth Grants Commission—a move that has had a devastating impact on the New South Wales budget—the Commonwealth Government made the commitment, and, as I have said, the Commonwealth Government should provide the funding to meet its commitment, if it wants the concession to work.
I understand that the Commonwealth Government offered to the New South Wales Government $35.4 million, which represents an increase from the original offer of $29.4 million, toward meeting the cost of extending pensioner concessions to holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. The offer deals only with core concessions for services such as water, rates, energy, motor vehicle registration fees, and drivers licence fees. The Commonwealth Government claims that its offer meets 60 per cent of the estimated full-year cost of providing the concession. Treasury estimates that the cost will be $80 million, so there is already a huge shortfall because at best the Commonwealth's offer meets only 44 per cent of the cost, resulting in a cost to New South Wales taxpayers of at least $44.6 million per annum. As the Commonwealth did not consult New South Wales in making its calculations in any way, shape or form, the Deputy Premier, Dr Andrew Refshauge, wrote to the Prime Minister in June 2004 and requested the basis of the Commonwealth's calculations. The letter stated:
My dear Prime Minister
I write with regard to the extension of state pensioner concessions to holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.
The Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Kay Patterson, wrote to the Premier on 25 March 2004 offering the NSW Government $35.42 million in the 2003-04 financial year for this purpose. The Minister advises that the offer constitutes 60% of the cost of extending pensioner concessions to NSW Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders.
As NSW Treasury estimates the Commonwealth's offer is substantially less than 60% of the cost to New South Wales, I would be interested to receive further information on how this figure has been calculated.
It nevertheless remains the position of the NSW Government that this proposal should be fully funded by the Commonwealth, particularly since it relates to income support for older Australians.
As the Commonwealth's proposal seeks to assist those older Australians most disadvantaged by the current concession arrangements, I reiterate the Premier's proposal to you of 24 September 2002. The Commonwealth's goal would be met by establishing a separate category of concession card for seniors with assets less than 15% above the eligibility for the Pensioner Concession Card. The additional costs of state concessions for this group could be fully met by the $35.42 million offered by Senator Patterson.
I look forward to your response to this proposal.
We waited and waited.
Mr Malcolm Kerr: You should not be reading other people's mail.
Mr TONY STEWART: This is the people's mail. On 24 September 2002 the Premier wrote to the Prime Minister, John Howard. It was an important letter, because our Premier was acting to help the people of New South Wales, particularly older Australians, and we are still waiting for the Prime Minister to reply. The Premier's letter stated:
Dear Mr Howard
I am writing regarding my letter dated 3 May 2002 to yourself, in response to your Government's proposal that pensioner concessions be extended to include holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.
It si noted that your Government's intention is to offer funding of $29.4 million in 2002-03 by way of a specific Purpose Payment, to partially meet the cost to NSW of extending these concessions. This amount represents 60% of your estimate of the cost in 2002-03.
The Treasurer recently met with a delegation from the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association who suggested a separate category of concession card was necessary for those aged people whose asset values lay less than 15% beyond the eligibility for Pensioners Concession Cards.
As the goal of your proposal is to address those older Australians most disadvantaged by the current concession arrangements, the NSW Government suggests that the Commonwealth may wish to consider establishing and administering a separate classification of concession holder. The eligibility criteria for these new concessions could be such that the additional cost of supporting the concessions are fully met by the $29.4 million that the Commonwealth proposed to contribute to extending pensioner concessions.
I would like to reiterate, it remains the position of the NSW Government that your original proposal should be fully funded by the Commonwealth, particularly since it relates to income support for older Australians.
That letter outlines the situation. The Carr Government has demonstrated its validity in supporting older Australians in this great State. However, we are confronted with the situation that the Commonwealth Government has consistently refused to adhere to its responsibility in this area. It cannot walk away from that responsibility. Clearly it is a Commonwealth responsibility to support the income needs of older Australians. It is not doing that: it wants to pass the buck back to the States. This State has been cruelly dealt with by the Grants Commission, which will rip $345 million out of New South Wales every year for the next five years. It is easy to work out the repercussions of that, and they have been mentioned often in the past.
At present the New South Wales Government provides concessions on transport, water, energy, vehicle registration, drivers licences, local council rates, and many other essential services. In 2004-05 the New South Wales Government will provide more than $700 million worth of concessions. Those concessions are available to recipients of the Commonwealth age pension and holders of the Department of Veterans Affairs gold card. Transport concessions and discounts on many services are available through the popular New South Wales Seniors Card scheme to all New South Wales residents over the age of 60 who do not work more than 20 hours a week. The Government is doing its bit and is delivering, and it is now asking the Federal Government to demonstrate that it will be accountable and responsible and help older Australians, particularly the self-funded retirees who, as the honourable member for Port Macquarie pointed out, deserve its support and are simply not getting it.
Mr PETER DRAPER (Tamworth) [12.34 p.m.]: I am delighted to support the motion moved by the honourable member for Port Macquarie. The New South Wales Government should recognise that self-funded retirees in New South Wales do not receive access to the concessions that their counterparts in Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia receive. The New South Wales Government should accept the Commonwealth Government's offer of financial assistance. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate because the issue of equity in concessions to self-funded retirees is relevant in my electorate of Tamworth. The Tamworth branch of the Association of Independent Retirees supports a strong membership of 180 senior citizens.
I am frequently approached by members of that association regarding concession equity. It would seem that the only service really offered to self-funded retirees by the State Government is the Seniors Card, which is available to any permanent resident of New South Wales over 60 who is employed for less than 20 hours a week. The Seniors Card provides concession fares on public transport and concession entry to museums, art galleries, et cetera. It also provides cardholders with discounts at various private businesses. The Federal Government provides a Seniors Health Card, but that is means tested. Pensioners, on the other hand, get discounts on electricity, water, gas, ambulance services and motor vehicle registration, discounts that are not available to people who are not in receipt of a pension.
Self-funded retirees are not asking for special treatment; they are asking for fair treatment. They ask only to procure the equivalent benefits, rebates and concessions as those provided by governments, health organisations, business and commerce to pensioners. As the association pointed out, self-funded retirees are a unique community group in that they chose to fund or partially fund their own retirement needs long before it became government policy to encourage the working population to do so. Far from being penalised, they should be made eligible for the benefits afforded to those who, for whatever reason, are not able to fund their retirement out of their own pockets. The extent of sacrifice of self-funded retirees includes forfeiture of the pension entitlement, resulting in a substantial saving to the national economy, zero or severely limited access to Federal and State- resourced age concession assistance, and differentials in the costs of travel, hospital fees, access to carers where required, and access to taxi transport when driving licences are revoked.
Self-funded retirees do not choose to support their own retirement because they are wealthy. Very few retirees have a large income; indeed, most would probably fall into the middle-income bracket. Many live frugally, economising on every dollar so their hard-earned savings, accrued through a lifetime of toil, will last the distance. For the current generation those savings are needed to stretch further than they did for previous generations, thanks to greater life expectancy achieved through medical and lifestyle advances. Self-funded retirees have planned for their future so they will not be a burden on taxpayers or on Government. It is completely unfair that self-funded retirees who have worked hard and paid taxes all their life are penalised through a denial of benefits when help is needed most, later in life, unlike those who have lived on benefits for much of their lives. The Federal Government has offered to help address this inequity by offering States and Territories a 60:40 split in the cost of extending Federal and State-funded pension type concessions to self-funded retirees.
The Government has offered the States and Territories $75 million per annum, which is $10 million more than its previous offer in 2002, to assist with a range of State and local government charges to Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders. Earlier the Parliamentary Secretary spoke of equity and raised the tired old rhetoric of the same cuts the Government quotes to justify cuts across a range of issues, including health, police, education, and anything else it is criticised on. That line has come to the end of its tenure. The offer from the Federal Government focuses on providing concessions that attach to the card for energy, rates, water and sewerage, and motor vehicle registration costs. Western Australia and Victoria already offer concessions to their Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders. The Federal Minister for Family and Community Services, Kay Patterson, is now appealing to the New South Wales Government to accept this offer, which could save cardholders an average of $700 a year across a range of charges.
The National President of the Association of Independent Retirees, Joan Heard, has pointed out that in the current economic climate the association's superannuant members are finding it hard to remain self-reliant with rising health costs and other service costs increasing rapidly in local government areas. Mrs Heard rightfully highlights the fact that in addition to paying taxes and providing for their own retirement, self-funded retirees also contribute to community life through educational and social services. I believe it is only fair that all retirees of pensionable age be treated equally by all levels of government. I urge this Government to recognise the lifetime of contribution to taxes self-funded retirees have made and to stop penalising them unfairly. We are in a regime of low interest rates, which is great for young home buyers but certainly not for people relying on income from investments. People have planned and saved all their lives. It is discriminatory that they are being penalised, and the Government needs to recognise that fact.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE (Lismore) [12.39 p.m.]: Like every member in this House, I have an independent retirees association in my community. I am surprised that the Government produced only one speaker to participate in debate on this important issue. The Association of Independent Retirees on the far North Coast has strong support. The honourable member for Ballina, other members who represent that area and I also support that organisation. The president, Bob Smith, the secretary, Delma McDonald, Bob Swords, State President, and other members of the organisation do a tremendous job in organising meetings and taking part in the community. The retirees association issues a quarterly magazine in which it provides advice and fellowship, and it also arranges trips. Members of that association also provide support for each other.
I am surprised that Parliamentary Secretary Stewart attempted to blame the Federal Government for the lack of funding for self-funded retirees. I remind him that prior to the last election the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. John Brogden, and the then Leader of The Nationals, the Hon. George Souris, supported the Federal Government's initiative to provide retirees with many of the benefits that they have been trying for some time to secure. However, retirees have met with problems when they have attempted to obtain support from this State Government.
The Coalition recognises the enormous contribution of self-funded retirees in the electorates of Ballina and Lismore—and, I am sure, in the electorates of every honourable member. They do a tremendous job and they save local, State and Federal governments a lot of money. The Commonwealth Government has put its funding offer on the table. I commend the honourable member for Port Macquarie for moving this motion. Prior to the last Federal election the Federal Leader of the Opposition published a two-page advertisement in the magazine produced by the Association of Independent Retirees. That advertisement is headed "Mark Latham and Labor. Opportunity for older Australians". The Federal Leader of the Opposition saw the benefit of doing that.
Mr Robert Oakeshott: Ease the squeeze.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE: He was going to ease the squeeze.
Mr Malcolm Kerr: He provided a ladder of opportunity.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE: He provided John Howard with a ladder of opportunity, and John climbed to the top. I commend the Federal Leader of the Opposition for easing the squeeze. Labor governments in both Western Australia and South Australia have implemented similar proposals. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary: Why has this Government not done the same thing? Labor governments in Western Australia and South Australia did not depend on the Federal Government to do that for them. Why is this Government not implementing similar proposals? It is entitled to do that and it has our support, but it is trying to blame the Federal Government for this lack of funding.
Mr Tony Stewart: Tell them to give our $345 million back and we might be able to look at these things.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE That amount of $345 million will be just a drop in the ocean in comparison with our State deficit. However, we will not go into that argument. This Government must take on board the requirements of self-funded retirees. The Commonwealth Government has made its offer. The policies of the New South Wales Coalition at the last election would greatly improve the quality of life for self-funded retirees by providing concessions on rates, electricity, water, sewerage and car registration costs. I remind honourable members of what the Auditor-General said yesterday in relation to electricity and water costs. This year retirees will be looking for, and they will need, those concessions. I support the motion. I call on the Carr Government to support the motion and to provide concessions for the independent retirees of this State, who rightly deserve that support.
Mr MALCOLM KERR (Cronulla) [12.44 p.m.]: I support this motion, as I supported the Coalition's policy when it promised that if it were elected it would introduce these concessions and accept the Commonwealth Government's offer. All honourable members would remember that the Premier said, "I will not match that offer." There was no mention of that amount of $345 million when the Leader of the Opposition made that announcement well over a year ago. Even before the Premier started on his campaign he did not refer to his alibi defence of $345 million. Earlier we heard the outrageous response to debate on this motion by the honourable member for Bankstown.
Mr Tony Stewart: Be fair.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: The honourable member for Bankstown said, "Be fair."
Mr Tony Stewart: I am never nasty to you. I always back up the shire.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: All right, we had a relatively outrageous response from the honourable member for Bankstown. He said that the honourable member for Port Macquarie had not done his homework. No doubt he will threaten the honourable member for Port Macquarie with detention for speaking out against discrimination. I hope that the member for Port Macquarie is not intimidated into withdrawing his motion, and that he sticks with his motion and ensures that it is put to a vote. I wish to speak briefly about the amount of $345 million to which the honourable member for Bankstown referred. We have just had a Federal election.
Mr Paul Gibson: Have we?
Mr MALCOLM KERR: The honourable member for Blacktown would not want to know about it. Ignorance is bliss, and he should remain in a state of ignorance. Did Mark Latham say, "If I win I will convene a meeting of the Grants Commission and the Premiers and ensure that the people of New South Wales get their $345 million"? It is not the task of the Howard Government to do that; it is the task of Grants Commission and the Premiers. In Australia we have a majority of Labor Premiers.
Mr Thomas George: They don't like Bob.
Mr MALCOLM KERR That is right. The Premier went very quiet in relation to that issue because it was going to cost Labor too many seats in Queensland.
Mr Thomas George: It is a State of Origin competition.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: It is a State of Origin competition. Queensland is the State in which the money cuts originate.
Mr Thomas George: Queensland won.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: Queensland won the State of Origin game. So that argument is completely fallacious. Even before the Grants Commission argument was put forward by members of the Coalition the Premier rejected it out of hand. Earlier the honourable member for Lismore and the honourable member for Port Macquarie referred to a two-page advertisement that was published by the Federal Leader of the Opposition in an attempt to fool retirees in relation to Labor's policy. He said that if he were Prime Minister he would not change the grants formula and that the same argument would apply.
Mr Peter Draper: It did not fool them.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: It did not fool them at all, as the honourable member for Tamworth said. It is ridiculous. I wish the Federal Leader of the Opposition well. I understand he is writing a new book on the campaign called "How to increase your minority". Let me return to some of the arguments that have been put forward in this debate. Earlier the honourable member for Bankstown should have declared a conflict of interest. He said that the Carr Government was very generous to older people and that it was giving them hundreds of dollars in concessions, after having just made the point that it was the Commonwealth's responsibility to provide those concessions. If it is the Commonwealth's responsibility to provide concessions for aged pensioners and veterans, it is also the Commonwealth's responsibility to do that for independent retirees, pensioners and everybody else.
Mr Robert Oakeshott: Consistency.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: We need consistency.
Mr Peter Draper: He shot himself in the foot.
Mr MALCOLM KERR: As the honourable member for Tamworth said, he shot himself in the foot. In fact the people against whom this Government discriminates are the very people who have spent their lives as tax earners and not tax eaters. They are the very people who have provided a great deal of the wealth of this community. They and members of their families fought in wars to ensure that this country remained safe. Those people, who provided the basis of our prosperity, are least deserving of discrimination. It is about time there was a bit of equity and equality in relation to this whole issue.
Mr GREG APLIN (Albury) [12.49 p.m.]: I support the motion. We are all familiar with the plight of independent retirees. During my time as a member of Parliament I have been approached many times by numerous independent retirees in the electorate of Albury who are concerned about the continuing discrepancies they notice between the situation for retirees in New South Wales and those in other States. These discrepancies are not being addressed. During the last State election campaign the Coalition parties indicated that we would address the concerns of independent retirees by extending to them some of the concessions that are available to the State's pensioners.
Over the years independent retirees have paid their taxes and saved to provide for their retirement. It seems grossly discriminatory that when they are in a position to retire and sit back and enjoy the fruits of their hard labour over many years, they are unable to access services in the same way as others who, for various reasons, are not in a position to provide for themselves. I think particularly of travel, medical and other concessions that are offered through the Seniors Card. The discrimination is even more obvious to those who live on the State's borders, because they can contrast the difficulties they experience in New South Wales with the benefits enjoyed by their colleagues, friends and relatives who live just across the border in Victoria, for example.
It is galling indeed to hear about the problems people face accessing medical services. It is much easier for those who live along the border in the Albury, Corowa and Mulwala areas to access specialist medical services in Melbourne rather than travel more than double the distance to Sydney for treatment. Yet they are denied the opportunity to enjoy concessional travel on the Victorian rail network because there is no reciprocity between New South Wales and Victoria. This ongoing problem is the fault of the State Government, which has refused to accept the Federal Government's offer to subsidise that rail travel. Other honourable members commented also about the State Government's refusal to accept the Federal Government's 60:40 proposition. That is the root of this problem.
Independent retirees are regular visitors and complainants to me because they do not understand why the New South Wales Government cannot solve a problem that has been addressed by the Victorian and Western Australian governments. It does not make sense. The current system is discriminatory. I support the motion and urge the Government to tackle this problem and address the issue in favour of the people who have made this State so great. They should not be penalised for doing the right thing over the years and not becoming a drain on the State. It is incomprehensible to me that those who have worked hardest to make opportunities for themselves and who have put money aside are then unable to enjoy the fruits of their labour in the same way as others in this State. Can this be equitable? I think not. I urge the Government to address that issue and to support this motion.
Mr DONALD PAGE (Ballina—Deputy Leader of The Nationals) [12.53 p.m.]: I record my very strong support for this motion. The plight of self-funded retirees was a big issue at the last State election. The Coalition parties made it clear that if elected we would accept the Commonwealth Government's offer and adopt an initiative similar to those taken by the West Australian and Victorian governments.
Madam ACTING-SPEAKER (Ms Marie Andrews): Order! The number of speakers provided for in the standing orders have contributed to the debate. The honourable member for Ballina is out of order.
Mr ROBERT OAKESHOTT (Port Macquarie) [12.53 p.m.], in reply: I thank the honourable members representing the electorates of Tamworth, Lismore, Cronulla, Albury and Ballina for their valuable contributions to this debate. I also thank the two members for Bankstown who participated in the debate: one who argued the case that the State is not responsible for the incomes of older Australians and one who argued that the Government is doing a lot for the pension benefits of New South Wales citizens based on the Commonwealth income test for older Australians. The confused honourable member for Bankstown presented a most inconsistent argument on behalf of the State Government. The Government's practices are discriminating against the current generation of older Australians who have saved and planned for their retirement. That is the essence of this debate: The Government treats differently those who plan and save for their retirement and those who do not.
A retirement income system has been established for my generation. Superannuation is now compulsory. The figures I have seen suggest that in the next 20 or 30 years the number of independent retirees will increase from about 18 per cent to more than 25 per cent. The number of those on part-rate pensions will increase from 28 per cent to more than 40 per cent, and the number on full-rate pensions will decrease significantly from about 54 per cent to 35 per cent. Financial discrimination is not such an issue for my generation because we are all forced to save through the income system. But a generation of older Australians are taking up the fight. They are being discriminated against because they did one simple thing: they planned and saved for their retirement.
The honourable member for Bankstown argued strongly that the State Government is providing benefits to those who did not save for their retirement. That is laudable. Yet my simple question remains unanswered: Why is the Government discriminating against those who planned and saved for their retirement? This Government seems to be comfortable about walking away from those people. The Government usually amends motions such as this but that has not happened today. So it appears that Government members will simply vote against this important motion. That is an indication that the Government is quite happy to continue its discriminatory practice of not providing assistance to those who have planned and saved for their retirement.
All speakers in this debate mentioned the situation federally. In an attempt to ease the squeeze the leader of the Federal Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, promised at the last election to assist this category of older Australians. South Australian Labor has offered in-principle support to entering an agreement with the Commonwealth Government on this issue, and the West Australian Labor Party has done likewise. The Australian Capital Territory, which has a Labor government, was the first State or Territory to enter into an agreement with the Commonwealth Government about the 60:40 concession. The Commonwealth Coalition made this commitment in recognition of the current discriminatory situation. I note that during the Federal election campaign the Coalition parties promised to pay $200 twice a year to self-funded retirees who hold a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. The State Coalition also made a commitment at the last State election to recognise the needs of independent retirees throughout New South Wales.
So the squeeze is on the New South Wales Labor Government. Labor and labour organisations in other States and the Coalition parties in New South Wales and across Australia are saying one thing: There is discrimination against those who planned and saved for their retirement. The Government has drawn a line in the sand between funded and unfunded retirees. That situation is unfair and should be resolved. On behalf of independent retirees throughout New South Wales, I again urge the Government to act. [Time expired.]
Question—That the motion be agreed to—put.
The House divided.
Mr J. H. Turner
Mr R. W. Turner
Question resolved in the negative.
|Mr Hartcher||Ms Saliba|
|Mr Roberts||Mr Yeadon|
[Mr Speaker left the chair at 1.07 p.m. The House resumed at 2.15 p.m.]