Pensioners, Eddie Mabo
E & O E – PROOF ONLY
CARY: One wanted the specifics, and we’ve talked a lot about the pension over the last few days, wanted specifics on how they arrived at how much the pension would be for singles and couples. To that end I’m joined by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Service and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. Good morning to you, Minister.
MACKLIN: Good to be with you, Greg.
CARY: Just on that, if you could answer that then we could get into a few other issues as well.
MACKLIN: There has been some – quite a bit of research done on these issues over a long period of time and that’s why the rate for the single pension is higher than if it was for couples. The couples don’t get double what the singles get, it’s slightly less because, of course, people can make sure their utilities, like gas and electricity and those sort of things, are shared. So quite a bit of research has been done over the years to measure it, to try and make it fair between couples and singles.
CARY: A lot of our emailers and callers are suggesting that the single pension is too far away from the couples, that they need to be brought a little closer into alignment, using the argument you just used, really.
MACKLIN: I think the people who are under the most pressure are those on the single rate and even more so if they’re renting. People in the private rental market, if you’re on a pension, particularly a single rate pension, are the people under the most financial pressure, in my view. That’s why we’re doing a few things. One is to increase the utilities allowance to $500 and that’s been done and the first quarter payment of that has already been made, in March, and, of course, we’re also delivering a $500 bonus to every single pensioner, to make sure that they get that by the end of June, to also help with their bills. And just talking about the people who are renting, because we do know the pressure they’re under, we’re also going to build, with the private sector and the non-government sector, 50,000 new, more affordable rental properties so whether they’re homes or units, to really significantly expand this part of the rental market because we know the pressure that very low income earners and particularly single seniors are under.
CARY: Notwithstanding all of that, have you gone far enough? And I suppose in asking that, have you been surprised at the national outcry, really, about the inadequacy of the pension, at this point?
MACKLIN: We really do understand the very significant pressures people are under. That’s why we’ve made these big moves. We know there’s further to be done but I think it needs to be said, and seniors and pensioners need to know, that they are getting about $900 extra this calendar year…
CARY: Eighteen dollars a week, two dollars a day.
MACKLIN: That’s right, from the new government, but it’s $900 more than they’d previously got.
MACKLIN: And I think that needs to be recognised. But we do know that even that said people are under a lot of pressure and that’s why Wayne Swan, the Treasurer has announced that as part of our major tax review that the future of the pension and retirement incomes will be central to our examination.
CARY: Okay, I think it’s unfair that some people are trying to politicise this because, in a sense, you’ve been in there, you know…
MACKLIN: Six months.
CARY: A wink, yes, six months. The previous government was in a long time and the problems have been ongoing and getting worse for some time but it is important,
and I’m sure you’d agree, that we have this national discussion.
CARY: About where the pension and the benefits properly sit.
MACKLIN: That’s exactly right.
CARY: Philosophically, what do you think about that? Where should they sit? What is our responsibility to our older citizens?
MACKLIN: The aged pension really sits at the heart of the social security system and I think we, as a nation, recognise the enormous contribution that older people have made to this country, through their hard work and particularly for those who are retired now. Many of them, of course, were born in very, very difficult times and grew up in some of the much tougher economic times than we face now and so I think we do have an obligation to them but we have to get it right. So we’ve done some things immediately…
CARY: And what is right? You see, this gets to the kernel of the question. What is right?
MACKLIN: That’s why we’re doing such a proper review and looking at this issue as part of our tax and social security inquiry, because the aged pension…
CARY: Do you have an opinion on that?
MACKLIN: Well, I certainly think that we have to look at the adequacy, just the basic issue, the adequacy of the base rate of the single pension but we’ve also got to understand that a lot of other allowances and concessions hang off that base pension rate. So the responsible thing of the Government to do is to make sure we get that right.
CARY: Okay. Ben Chifley, it was, who said many years ago now that older Australians had a fear of poverty, generated by two world wars and the Great Depression. He made the point and he swore publicly that no aged Australian would ever fear poverty. We can’t really say that all these years later, can we?
MACKLIN: That’s why we’ve made the decisions that we have, to put an extra $900 a year into people’s pockets. We’ve done that in our first six months because we understand the financial pressures people are under.
CARY: But they’re fearing poverty, Minister.
MACKLIN: And that’s why we’ve acted. We can’t…
CARY: But not enough that they’re not fearing poverty. That’s my point.
MACKLIN: Well, I think – I think the thing is to…
CARY: And that’s not – you know that’s not just aimed at you.
MACKLIN: I know.
CARY: This is aimed at governments over a long period.
MACKLIN: That’s right and that’s why it’s our obligation to both act and deliver immediate assistance which we’ve done but to also then look at the detailed issues about the adequacy of the pension and then some of the service issues as well. One of the other big things in this budget was the re-establishment of a Commonwealth dental health program and that’s really targeted at making sure that pensioners in particular can get decent dental care without paying through the roof.
CARY: At a political level I suppose many were surprised, amazed, that the pension didn’t rate much of a mention in the budget. I’ve heard the argument subsequent to that, that it will be part of that wider review, but in your pre-budget discussions, as you were outlining what you’re outlining to us now, what was the response from others around the table? Why wasn’t it in the budget?
MACKLIN: Well, it is in the budget. We’re actually providing $5.2 billion for senior Australians over the next five years so it’s not right to say it wasn’t in the budget.
CARY: It wasn’t a bit ticket item, though, was it? It was…
MACKLIN: Well, $5.2 billion is quite a – is quite a big ticket.
CARY: No, it was a few lines, with respect.
MACKLIN: Yes, but I think the important thing is to recognise that it is a substantial increase. I know that a lot of people have waited a long time for these improvements and so I can understand why they are pressing in the way that they are, but to provide an additional $900 is something that will help.
CARY: A lot of our listeners, by the way, just on that, sorry to interrupt, but a lot of – I’m really pushed for time – but a lot of our callers are saying they already received the $500 so you’re really only giving an extra $400.
MACKLIN: Well, they hadn’t received the $500 in an ongoing way from the previous government. They’ve only received that twice so I think it’s important to acknowledge we are providing the $500 bonus but we’re also – we’ve also significantly expanded both the utilities allowance and the telephone allowance so in total that’s going to give all of our pensioners an extra $900 this calendar year.
CARY: You wouldn’t want to live on it, would you?
MACKLIN: I think it is tough. We acknowledge that and that’s why we know that this can’t be the end of it.
CARY: So if this is not the end of it, when will be the beginning of the new dawn, related to our senior citizens?
MACKLIN: We’re having the tax review come back to the Government in February next year so that we’ve got good advice about the way forward as quickly as possible.
CARY: Just on another matter, and I only have a minute before the news, and we’ll talk again hopefully in the near future – maybe next time you’re in Brisbane, come into the studio and take…
MACKLIN: That would be great.
CARY: Take some calls from our listeners.
CARY: But yesterday you opened the new library at James Cook University, the Eddie Mabo Library. Remarkable story and sadly we only have a minute but, you know, his name’s famous for that judicial decision but he started as a gardener. This is a great story.
MACKLIN: It is a great story and his wife and some of his children were there yesterday too. He started as a gardener back in 1967, at the James Cook University, spent a lot of time self-taught in the library, going to lectures, listening in from some of the staff at James Cook University and ended up, of course, taking the case for native title to the High Court. An extraordinary man and I think a wonderful honour that James Cook University has bestowed on him and his family to name the library after him. I think what it demonstrates is that education’s really the way forward for everybody and wonderful that a man like him who was a gardener can tell that story through the naming of the library.