SOCIAL SECURITY AND VETERANS’ AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (ENHANCED ALLOWANCES) BILL 2008 – Second Reading

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (9.36 a.m.)—The Democrats support the Social Security and Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Allowances) Bill 2008. As the Liberal Party speaker outlined, it is uncontroversial and provides beneficial assistance to millions of Australians—the vast majority of whom are in significant need of assistance such as this. But it is important at a time such as this to ensure that we do have some honest debate with regard to the issues we are talking about as we move into the budget. Once we remove the first few sentences of Senator Bernardi’s speech and he got into the rhetorical flourishes and all of the political point-scoring, we see why we have ended up in the economic situation we have today.

We have had this repeat line from the coalition and we have seen it through some of the media about the new government’s plan to ‘axe the lump-sum bonuses’, which is the phrase that Senator Bernardi uses. It is a simple fact that these bonuses are not there to be axed because they were one-off bonuses. The fact that they were one-off bonuses four years in a row shows how dishonest the rhetoric of the previous government became in their desperate search to buy voter blocks with each budget. For four years in a row they trumpeted their wonderful largess and kindness by handing out one-off—that was the term they used repeatedly, budget after budget—lump-sum bonuses. It is a simple fact—it is there in the budget papers, or more accurately is not there in the budget papers—that this payment is not there to be axed. It was a one-off. It was a one-off last year as well. If the coalition was genuinely concerned about providing ongoing reliable assistance to Australians who needed it such as carers, they would not have made it a one-off; they would have put it in the budget so that it was definitely there to be relied on by people year after year. This would have been in the interests of good economic management. We have had all this rhetoric about how wonderful the economic management of the coalition was when they deliberately created this expectation, and we have now seen them fan this expectation that people would be entitled to receive so-called one-off lump-sum bonuses every year, but they did not put it in the budget. So you have got literally billions of dollars of expenditure that is not accounted for but that everybody is expecting to receive, purely because of the former government’s desire to paint themselves as some sort of benevolent hander-out of largess leading up to elections.

People do not want to say this of course, because anybody who stands up and says the lump-sum one-off so-called bonus payments are bad policy immediately gets labelled as uncaring: ‘You want to leave carers in the lurch.’ I do not; the Democrats do not. As I have said repeatedly in this place, if there is one group in the Australian community who deserve all the extra support they can get, it is carers. They relieve the rest of the community of an enormous burden by caring for people in the home. They do need extra support, so I do not begrudge them receiving it. But it is a simple fact that if you make that support an annual drip-feed that is not built in then you are always leaving them vulnerable to that being taken away down the track, whether for legitimate economic budgetary purposes or for political purposes. If the opposition had been genuinely concerned and had cared about ensuring that they got that extra support, they would have locked it into the budget year after year in an ongoing way rather than pull it out of the pocket as an ever increasingly tired trick every year and say, ‘Here is a one-off special for you’, four years in a row.

The other aspect that needs to be explored is whether, when we are wanting to provide extra support to carers, as we need to do and as the Democrats have repeatedly argued, so-called one-off so-called bonus lump-sum payments every year are the best way to provide that support. It is obviously the best way to make a big splash in the media. It is the best way to get people’s attention if they get a nice big bonus, and that is all good to try to get their support come election time. But does it actually provide the best bang for the buck, the taxpayers’ dollar, in providing support that is needed in a way that is going to be of most benefit to carers and is actually going to get best value for money? That apparently does not matter. That sort of analysis has never been done, and one of the reasons it has never been done is that it has always been presented as a one-off, so-called, even though it has been four years in a row. This is the mess you get into when that sort of bad policy becomes locked in because of the short-term vote-buying desperation of the government of the day. I spoke about this on at least one occasion and I think on two occasions when the so-called one-off bonuses legislation was being put through. A couple of times legislation to enable these bonuses was even called the one-off bill. The first time, in 2004, it was the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Bill 2004, to be followed on by the one-off payments to increase assistance for carers and other measures bill the year after. This is the sort of completely misleading language we got.

There are a couple of factors here that need to be emphasised. As I said in the chamber on at least one of these occasions, I am certainly not going to oppose extra support being provided for carers, but I do think it is important to step back from shrill and, frankly, exaggerated and distorted and sometimes dishonest populism. It is not just the coalition engaging in this; some in the media see the opportunity to create one of those controversies that gets lots of attention and gets lots of people concerned, and then they can all pat themselves on the back at the end of the week and say, ‘We stopped the government doing it,’ though it is something it might not have been going to do anyway. The simple fact is that in many circumstances one-off lump-sum payments are not necessarily the best way to help people. They are particularly not necessarily the best way to assist in circumstances where we are trying to fight inflation. In a circumstance where there is inflation, extra support for pensioners, for carers, is all the more important—they need that extra assistance to help them deal with the consequences of inflation. But doing that by releasing large piles of money all at once does run the risk of having a sudden surge in demand, a sudden flood of money into the economy, and an extra likelihood therefore of a greater flow-on effect to inflation than would otherwise have occurred if it had been provided in a more measured way.

Where is the evidence that says that a one-off lump-sum payment of $1,500 or so is actually going to be best used and be of most benefit for the carer and, even more importantly, for the person who is being cared for, compared with, say, a $50 a fortnight increase spread out over the year with a much smaller lump sum once a year? Where is the research to demonstrate that this is the best way to help people? It has not been done, because that is not what the focus of it is about. The focus of it is about how to make a bigger splash. Here is a constituency, here is a clearly defined demographic: let us throw a big pile of money at them that they will notice and see if we can buy their support. It is that sort of electorally driven policy that created to some extent the poor economic management that we ended up seeing from the government over a long period of time.

The other point that needs to be made is that bonuses did not just go to carers—and, as I said, if there is one group that needs extra support it is carers. I probably will not avoid misrepresentation because that is the currency of political debate in Australia but, nonetheless, to try to minimise misrepresentation I repeat that I believe extra support should be provided to carers. The fact that the previous government did not value carers enough to lock that extra support into the forward estimates in the budget is a poor reflection on them, but I believe that extra support should continue to be provided for them. I am not convinced that the best way to provide it for them is through one-off, lump-sump payments. I think it is completely appropriate for the new government to re-examine whether or not so-called one-off, lump-sum payments, or even permanently entrenched lump-sum payments, is the best way to provide extra support, whether for carers or for anybody else. Let us see some research; let us see some evidence about that being the best way to provide assistance. So I do believe that that extra amount of money should be provided to carers and those they care for, but, on behalf of the Australian taxpayer, I would like to see it spent in a more effective way, a way in which there is better value for money—and, I might say, in a way that might have less of an inflationary impact, which is obviously counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve.

There are also a range of other so-called one-off bonuses, particularly to seniors across the board, that are frankly much less justifiable. The fact that all of us here are scared to say anything about that because we then get slammed with populist rubbish that we are trying to take money away from the mouths of pensioners et cetera means that this sort of bad policy continues. Undoubtedly significant groups in the Australian community who are not in most need have nonetheless received these sorts of one-off, lump-sum payments in recent years and, as a broad group, seniors are one of those. Now undoubtedly there are significant groups within aged Australians who are suffering significantly and who need extra support but, in some cases, the support that has been provided has not been targeted towards those who most need it. It has been targeted towards those who are recognised as potentially the most valuable electoral demographic for the coalition.

So let us ensure that we use taxpayers’ funds—whether for carers, for older Australians or for people with disabilities—in a way that actually targets those who have the most need and not just have a grand, big bang, grandiose handout of money, as was famously noted last year, when we even had former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam receiving a bonus payment in the mail from the former government of, I think, $500 in recognition of his contribution to the country as an older Australian. I am sure he has made a great contribution, but it was a bit ironic, particularly given that Mr Whitlam is usually held out as the most economically irresponsible and profligate Prime Minister in history. But the previous government was so desperate to buy votes that they were handing out big cheques to anybody and everybody over a certain age group regardless of their income bracket. That is what we degenerated into, and we need to step back from that now and have a little bit of backbone to resist the populist, and frankly inaccurate, media campaigns that are waged from time to time.

I do not know what is planned by the new government. I certainly will always, whether inside this chamber or outside, continue to criticise them if they do not provide the support that is needed to Australians who are most in need. As I say repeatedly, carers are clearly just about at the top of that list for all sorts of reasons as people who are most in need and merit more and more support. But let us make sure we get value for money out of that and let us at least have a little bit of honest debate. Let us not just have these huge beat-ups months out from budgets that panic everybody in the community and lock governments into ongoing bad policy, which apart from anything else may mean that carers do not get the support in the most effective way possible. It is quite possible that the same amount of money could be spent to far greater effect for carers. For example, some of it could be spent on providing more respite hours, more relief for them; extra resources could be spent towards specific equipment; payments could be targeted towards and, required to be spent on, specific relief for the person being cared for; it could be spent in a whole range of different ways.

They are not one-off payments. Let us make it clear now that they have not been one-off in any real, honest sense of the word. Lump-sum payments are not necessarily the best in many of those cases. Certainly, in some cases—not for carers but in other cases—they have gone to people who frankly have not needed it. That is the circumstance we have got into. We do need to step back from the terrible situation we ended up in, where in some cases we ended up with not just a massive expansion of middle-class welfare; we actually started providing upper-class welfare as well, and we do need to start unpicking that. It does not in any way mean that carers should not get support—and I repeat that—but it does mean that we do need to start unpicking and unwinding some of the irresponsible approaches of the previous government.

Where there is a case for providing more support for a group in the community—and carers are definitely one of those—then let us lock it into the budget and not just do a so-called one-off year after year. If we actually do care about these groups—as I am sure we all do—let us make it reliable for them so they can plan for it and let us make it economically responsible for the country by ensuring that the expenditure is accounted for next year, the year after and the year after, rather than governments having to pull $2 billion extra off budget at the last minute because of the need to continue to provide so-called one-off payments that are anything but. It is a perfect example of how, as soon as you provide assistance to any group in the community, as soon as you provide any sort of payment, it immediately becomes seen as an entitlement and as something people should receive in an ongoing capacity. It does not matter whether or not you call it one-off. That makes it hard to withdraw. If there is any time when we should start trying to withdraw it, it should be now. As I said, I am always going to be critical of whoever is in government when they are not trying to support the people who need it. But, if the government are actually taking not only economically responsible but socially responsible steps to redirect government expenditure towards those who are more in need in the community, then I will support them even if it does mean getting swiped by inaccurate populist rhetoric from some in the media or others in politics who want to falsely accuse me of not caring for the aged or not caring for carers. It is because I do care that I want to see public funds spent more effectively for them. It is time that we put this debate back on a more honest footing. One of the best ways to do that is to stop using one-off payments and describe them as what they are and account for them as what they should be, which is ongoing payments—hopefully payments that are developed on the basis of research and evidence as providing the best assistance to people who are most in need.

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