Pensioners on the Bread Line
By Ross Fitzgerald, The Australian
October 6, 2008
The sign of a civilised society is how its government looks after the marginalised, needy and impoverished. By any meaningful definition, many Australian pensioners are living below the poverty line. Yet unless political pressure is brought to bear, our pensioners don't look like getting a much-needed pay rise any time soon.
The changing of the guard in the federal Opposition allows for the possibility of Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition taking a principled stand and, in so doing, embarrassing the Labor troika of Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard.
Opportunistically, but cleverly, Brendan Nelson portrayed the plight of our aged poor by producing a tin of baked beans and a pot of jam on the floor of parliament to highlight what many older Australians now eat in order to survive.
The desperate plight of our pensioners could be a useful platform for Turnbull to carve a new image for himself and the revamped Coalition.
Pensioners are now in desperate need, and it does not matter who the leader or what the motive, so long as a much-needed rise in pensions can be delivered sooner rather than later.
If Rudd's Government can unlock $20 billion to fast-track infrastructure spending, Australia can certainly afford a $30-a-week rise for single pensions, at a cost of $1.4 billion.
If Turnbull can press to deliver such a rise, it would demonstrate that he is a parliamentary leader of care and conviction. It is now in Turnbull's court.
Does he pursue the matter with gusto or lie doggo until next May?
In direct contrast to the Rudd Government, which remains steadfast in its refusal to increase any pensions, at least until next year, Turnbull ought to pursue all and any options to make life a little more tolerable for older Australians.
Despite the financial meltdown stripping $10 billion from the federal Government's surplus, Rudd, Swan and Gillard continue to collectively pat themselves on the back for allegedly insulating the Australian economy in this time of financial crisis.
Yet their self-congratulation appears to be primarily directed at the big end of town in the hope of getting business and entrepreneurial approval for the Government's supposed fiscal responsibility.
As far as the Government is concerned, the fight for pensioners' rights to live above the poverty line seems to have died on the vine. Let's hope that, as part of attempting to make Rudd a one-term prime minister, Turnbull and his troops will direct their will and attention to the plight of our aged poor, who continue to suffer mightily.
As a community, Australians do not want this desperate situation to continue. The findings of an exit poll taken at last November's election demonstrated that 62.6 per cent of Australians thought aged pensioners deserved more money. Almost 62 per cent said those receiving disability payments deserved a meaningful increase, while 78.6 per cent of Australians favoured more income and other support for carers. There is nothing to suggest that Australians have changed their minds in relation to the plight of our pensioners.
Australia doesn't need yet another Rudd review, or a committee, or prolonged budget consideration, to realise that if we have funds for infrastructure spending at home and for humanitarian aid overseas, then a one-off adjustment to our pensioners as well as carers is affordable right now.
For many Australians, the latest round of tax cuts this year either went out the exhaust pipe because of surging fuel prices, was left behind at the supermarket to cover the spike in food prices, or went on interest rate hikes.
Turnbull and the Coalition should also pressure the Government to look at ways of protecting future pension rises from predatory gouging. Investigating the feasibility of establishing a pension protection plan based on a tax rebate mechanism or electronic pension card that can return at least the GST component to pensioners and carers would be a useful start.
That would go a long way towards preserving the value of the pension, limiting the inflationary effects of pension rises and reducing the prospect of benefits gouging.
There is no argument that pensioners are suffering and that many older Australians are now in dire straits. The immediate question is: how long will it be before their avoidable misery ends?
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