Adjournment Speech: UK Pensions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

This evening I would like to address two separate matters. Firstly, given that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is in the country and has been for the last couple of days, I think it is appropriate to raise once again, as has been raised many times before, the failure of the UK government to index the value of the pension for former UK citizens and residents who are now residing in Australia. For those senators or listeners who are not aware of the facts of the matter, people who are residents of the UK pay into their social security fund and are entitled to an age pension. Many move to Australia and retire here. The practice of the UK government for many years now has been to freeze the value of their UK pension at the level it is when they leave the United Kingdom.

As a result of that, the real value of that UK pension declines over time. Because they are permanent residents of Australia and sometimes citizens they are entitled after a period of time to receive income support payments from Australia. Because the income from the UK pension is not sufficient it is the Australian taxpayer who is topping up the gap between what the UK pension is and what it should be, because the UK pension is counted as income for the purposes of determining their eligibility for Australian income support. Recent figures suggest that over $100 million a year in income support, predominantly through age pension payments, is paid to former residents of the UKover 150,000who now live in Australia and who would not need to be paid if the UK government maintained the proper value of its pensions.

Our two countries have, amongst many shared histories, ties and agreements, a social security shared agreement, as we do with many other countries, but the value and integrity of that agreement is significantly undermined because of this continuing practice of the United Kingdom. It makes it all the worse that it is a practice that is selective. It is not applied to UK residents who go to live in other European countries. Despite all the talk of our Commonwealth ties and heritage, as demonstrated in the Commonwealth Games just recently, it is a practice that does not apply to former UK residents who move to many Commonwealth countries such as Australia.

This is an unsatisfactory arrangement. I have not heard too much noise about it lately. I certainly recall former minister Senator Patterson expressing frustration about this a number of times. It does not seem to have been mentioned much latelyindeed not at all despite the fact the UK Prime Minister is in the country. That has made me feel it is appropriate to mention it once again. These issues are difficult to resolve but they are certainly far less likely to be resolved if we do not keep pressing them. There is no time more ideal than this moment to press the UK Prime Minister about this inadequacy.

The second matter I wish to address is the report brought down by the Social Justice Commissionerit was tabled in this parliament a month agoregarding Indigenous affairs in Australia. In the time available to me I will make a couple of brief points. There is a couple of aspects of that report that do need particularly strong emphasis. The Social Justice Commissioner, Mr Calma, specifically emphasised as a matter of urgency the need to develop regional representative bodies and Indigenous representation at local, regional and national levels.

This is something that has been lacking in recent times.
The commissioner takes a balanced approach, I might say, in looking at the various significant and wide ranging changes that have been made in implementing arrangements for Indigenous affairs from the federal level. He highlights positives as well as negatives. It is important in this area to highlight advances where they occur and to try to remove the ideology and the political partisanship. If there is one area where all of us in the political arena have failed dramatically in over many yearsleft, right, centre or whatever other label you like to useit has been with regard to Indigenous Australians. None of us really has much to be proud of in that regard. I do not think partisan finger pointing is going to help the matter much. That does not mean that we do not criticise inadequacies that are occurring or criticise when misleading impressions are created about what is happening.

That is why the Social Justice Commissioners report is so important. It takes a balanced view of the facts of the matterthe various changes that have been made and are being made in how Indigenous programs are being delivered. Whether people believe that change is for the better or for the worse, the fact is it is happening and it is imperative that all of us try to make sure that it operates in a way that delivers results for Indigenous Australians.

The Social Justice Commissioner has identified a gap that does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, and that is the lack of Indigenous representation at local, regional and national levels and, of particular importance to me as a Queensland senator, the fact that no mechanisms have been established to ensure the distinct issues of Torres Strait Islanders who live on the mainland are being addressed. The commissioner identifies as a first priority to establish regional representative bodies which can link into local as well as state and national levels. He suggests that regional partnership agreements can provide a solid basis for this to occur. An essential part of success in this area is to ensure there is Indigenous involvement, Indigenous representation and meaningful and genuine engagement with Indigenous people and communities in implementing programs and arrangements and in developing new approaches or specific programs. Unless that is there, we are almost guaranteed to continue to repeat the failures of the past.

I would point to the specific words of the commissioner. He makes a statement with regard to share responsibility agreements, which was only one part of the approach that the federal government is now taking, but it is a statement that, frankly, can apply across the board to state governments, federal government and indeed, I might suggest, political parties and community organisations.
The commissioner says:
There are many lessons from the past that show that when governments force change onto communities, the change is often ineffective or not sustainable.

That is a fact and a lesson that does not just apply to Indigenous communities, but I think it applies tenfold to Indigenous communities because of the range of cultural and historical factors that have produced the current situation. The commissioner says:
To make change long term and successful, communities must have a sense of ownership and participate in all decision making processes. This is upheld by human rights principles.

I recognise that there are some Indigenous communities around the country that can only be described as dysfunctional, divided and facing enormous burdens. In those circumstances, phrases like what I have just read out are more difficultI acknowledge thatbut that those wanting that sort of participation are able to be involved is a key part of getting those communities into a more sustainable, viable state. I should also say that, whilst there are some communities in that state, there are many that are not. It is understandable to focus on the problems and Indigenous issues, but we should not forget that there are many success stories out there and we need to do more to highlight those and build on the lessons that each of them can teach us.

The principles that are outlined in the social justice commissioners report are ones that I think we need to turn to and use as a reference point to assess the progress not just of the federal governments actions in this area, although that is particularly relevant for this chamber, but also of all of us being engaged in what I think is a policy issue that must be given one of the highest levels of priority if we are genuine about providing a united nation.

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