In a report by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs published on 4 February 2016, the Labor and Greens Senators rejected the Government’s changes proposed in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Budget Repair) Bill 2015. These include a measure whereby age pensioners, who spent less than 35 years of their working life in Australia, would have their pensions reduced once their overseas travel duration reached six weeks – down from the currently allowed limit of 26 weeks per year.
Schedule 1 to the Bill proposes to reduce, from 26 weeks to six weeks, the length of time for which recipients of Age Pension, and certain recipients of Disability Support Pension, Wife Pension and Widow B Pension, would be paid the basic means tested rate while outside Australia, from 1 January 2017. The Explanatory Memorandum states that this measure would ‘reinforce and strengthen the residence-based nature of Australia’s social security system’.
While the majority report recommended that the Bill be passed, the Labor and Greens Senators on the Committee rejected this recommendation and expressed their views in dissenting reports.
‘Measures fail the fairness test’
In their dissenting report the Labor Senators on the Committee, Senator Carol Brown (Tasmania), Senator Katy Gallagher (ACT) and Senator Claire Moore (Qld), outlined “the overwhelming and near unanimous evidence provided to the Committee rejecting the measures.”
In the view of the Labor Senators, “to recommend passage of these measures would be to recommend the imposition of harsh and unfair cuts to low and middle income individuals and families. This legislation makes it harder for migrant pensioners to continue to receive their pension while they are overseas. This is a cruel and unfair cut. There are many older Australians who left family or fled conflict on the other side of the world to build a better life in our country. They have spent decades working hard, paying taxes, raising families and making Australia a better place. They deserve the pension, just like any other eligible older Australian.”
The Labor Senators further state that “this legislation will also remove important supports for age pensioners, disability support pensioners and other low-income Australians who are seeking to improve their opportunity in life by getting an education. These measures fail the fairness test.”
Refering to the submissions made to the Senate inquiry, the Labor Senators wrote that “it is clear that these measures do not carry the support of the vast majority of the submissions made to this inquiry. The submitters’ comments outlined in the majority report are unequivocal: these measures are fundamentally unfair. They should not be supported.”
‘Unfair, and will have a significant impact on Age Pension recipients’
In her dissenting report, the Greens Senator on the Committee, Senator Rachel Siewart (WA), referred to the various submissions made to the Senate inquiry.
“The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia (FECCA) argued that the measure would disadvantage a significant portion of the Australian population who were born overseas. These concerns were shared by a number of other submitters, including the National Welfare Rights Network (NWRN), the Refugee Council of Australia, the Welfare Rights Centre Sydney (WRSC) and the St Vincent de Paul Society. The Council of the Ageing (COTA) has also expressed its opposition to this measure. COTA stated:
COTA believes that this measure is excessively punitive and inequitable in its impact on Australians not born in this country and who maintain cultural and familial ties to their place of birth. As around 40 per cent of Age Pensioners were not born in Australia the impact of the measure is likely to be significant and unfairly borne by one segment of our community.”
Senator Siewart noted that “there is already a limit in place which restricts pension portability, based on AWLR. This measure is a tightening of an existing restriction, rather than addressing a gap in the system. It is poorly targeted, and does not recognise the range of circumstances in which pensioners may need to travel for more than 6 weeks outside Australia.”
She referred to a number of submissions, including the NWRN, Refugee Council of Australia and WRCS, who “noted the need for pensioners to spend extended periods overseas, particularly in cases of illness or bereavement. In their submission, the NWRN said:
They are more likely to have humanitarian and compassionate reasons for travel (e.g. to visit parents and family members overseas who may be elderly and require care or other assistance). Reducing the rate of Age Pension after just 6 weeks is too short a period in such circumstances.”
In her dissenting report Senator Siewart concluded that “the Australian Greens do not support this measure. It is unfair, and will have a significant impact on Age Pension recipients.”
For more details, click here to download a copy of the Senate Standing Committee’s report.
[Report by: Edwin Borg-Manché]