I rise today to speak on the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2009. Our senior citizens and those people who have served in the Defence Force have contributed enormously to our nation and they deserve to be respected and looked after. The Rudd government is committed to giving these people what they deserve—that is, respect and an easier way of life. The Rudd government knows some people are doing it tough and is committed to helping pensioners and seniors to make sure that they get the maximum help they can.

This amendment will help make the lives of these important citizens better. Anything that improves their way of life is a worthwhile exercise for the Rudd government. The Rudd government genuinely cares for seniors and will continue to make improvements in their lives. One way is by refining the adjustable taxable income test for those people holding a Commonwealth seniors health card. In this situation, the Rudd government is making life fairer and treating similar sources of income in a similar way. The amendments will ensure that the income test is applied consistently for all cardholders.

In the 2008-09 budget, the Rudd government made a promise to create a fairer system for eligibility for the Commonwealth seniors health card. This program is just one of a number designed to create equality among Australians. There are processes in place to review the pension, and there have been one-off bonus payments. As I have stated, this is a government that cares for seniors.

The budget estimated that the cost of creating a fairer system would be more than $19 million for administrative purposes over four years. It is predicted that $12.3 million will be spent in 2008-09 but with significant savings being made over the next three years. A net saving of $84.8 million will be made, with $34.6 million coming from the 2011-12 year.

The Rudd government is spending money now to save money in the years to come, investing in the future—something the Howard government failed to do. We know they failed to invest in schools and in skills training. They should hang their heads in shame for their lack of action over the 12 years they were in government.

This amendment legislation applies to Commonwealth seniors health cards issued under the Social Security Act 1991 as well as those issued within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. The Commonwealth seniors health card was a Keating Labor government initiative introduced in July 1994. Its original intent was to help those people who failed to qualify for the age pension. It was to help people who lacked resident qualifications or whose assets meant they did not qualify for the age pension.

In 1999 eligibility for the card changed when the previous government abolished indexation on the adjusted taxable income test. Currently the Commonwealth seniors health card is available to men and women who are of the right age to receive the age pension but are not eligible because their income is above the limit. In order to be eligible for the Commonwealth seniors health card, people must have an adjusted taxable income of less than $50,000 for singles and $80,000 for couples, and they must be an Australian resident or hold a special category visa. As of 1 July 2009, adjusted taxable income will be determined by adding the taxable income, employer provided benefits, target foreign income and net rental property loss, superannuation, money that is salary sacrificed and net financial investment loss.

Currently superannuation income is not considered when determining eligibility for the card, provided the individual is unable to access the money. Money that goes into a superannuation fund as part of a salary sacrifice scheme is also excluded when determining eligibility. This bill will change these provisions and will ensure that income received by seniors is always treated in the same way, therefore creating a more consistent and just approach. For example, if you are a member of a defined benefit superannuation scheme and receive income, it is treated as income; however, if you receive income from a private, industry based or retail based super fund, it is no longer taxable and is not counted as income for the purpose of the card.

If you work in the retail sector or do some relief teaching or gardening, your income is taken into consideration. This is obviously a disadvantage, and we believe that it is inequitable. The income test will be changed to include income from a superannuation income stream with a taxed source and income that is salary sacrificed to superannuation. This will make it fairer for all Australians. This is, after all, what the Rudd government is about: making life better for all Australians and ensuring that people are treated equally.

The card is available to women who are over 63.5 years of age, but the age limit is gradually increasing so that all women must be 65. The progressive change in the eligibility age of women will see 65 as the age for all women to access the CSHC from the beginning of 2014. Men are eligible from the time they turn 65. Increasing the eligibility age for women to 65 to receive the age pension and in turn the Commonwealth seniors health card will create greater equality between men and women.

If you are eligible for a Commonwealth seniors health card under the Rudd government, you will also qualify for some cash payments such as the seniors concession allowance. We increased this allowance in May 2008 to $500 per year and we pay it quarterly, which helps people meet ongoing costs as they arise. Also, under the Rudd government’s Economic Security Strategy, Commonwealth seniors health card holders received $1,400 for singles and $2,100 combined for couples. This is a government that not only cares for seniors but acts for them.

Veterans are eligible for the age pension at the age of 60. It is most important to look after our retired servicepeople, as our nation would not be what it is without their sacrifice and hard work.

In June 2008 there were 278,738 Commonwealth seniors health card holders. This figure will most likely have increased and continue to increase with the change in the global financial situation, meaning that previously ineligible people may now be entitled to the Commonwealth seniors health card. Even more people will become eligible once this bill becomes legislation. Holders of the card are entitled to discounted prescriptions listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. They are also eligible to be bulk-billed by participating health professionals, and the government provides incentives to practitioners who will bulk-bill. In addition to this, cardholders can also be helped out with hospital expenses through the Medicare Safety Net program.

It is also possible to access a range of other services at a discounted price through local, state and territory governments and the private sector. These services include areas such as transport, education and recreation. This makes it cheaper for the elderly to participate in life whether it be by undertaking an adult education course or going to the cinema, and in my state of Tasmania the elderly are a very active group of the population. As I have said already, certain cash payments are available through the federal income support system, including the seniors concession allowance which is paid in quarterly instalments. Telephone services, including the internet, are also subsidised to the value of $138.50 per year. The card will now target a larger group of people who need government assistance.

The changes in these provisions will see eligibility for the seniors card come in line with the requirements for the age pension. This will limit any confusion that currently exists. Seniors will be able to access some of their superannuation fund for medical expenses and to pay the costs involved in going into an aged care facility. In order to do this, people will be able to request that the lump sum they need be exempt when an assessment of their eligibility for the card is made. One-off payments can also be excluded from the assessment in order to prevent people from being disadvantaged by unexpected payments. In order to receive an exemption the individual must put in a written request to Centrelink. The request must provide information on the payment and the reason it is a one-off payment and give an estimate of the income for the current financial year. Centrelink has the discretion to grant an exemption based on the information provided. Centrelink will also take into account the person’s disposable income for the previous few years.

By giving people the opportunity to apply for exemptions the Rudd government is stating that it understands that there are exceptions to the rule and that cases need to be considered on their merit. Since coming to office the Rudd government has given single pensioners an extra $2,337 and couples receiving the pension an extra $3,537. This is a considerable amount in less than 18 months. Approximately 290,000 older Australians will receive additional funds as part of the $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan. Eighty per cent of the 2.8 million people in Australia over 65 years old are benefiting from the Rudd government’s Economic Security Strategy, and I know many senior people in my home state of Tasmania are pleased about this.

Self-funded retirees who lodged a tax return for 2007-08 and people who receive a partial pension will be given a tax bonus of a maximum of $900. Almost 3.5 million Australians will receive an increase in their pension and other financial support from 20 March this year. The government will continue to support our elderly citizens through further pension reform as part of the 2009-10 budget. The findings of the pension review will be released in due course. The Commonwealth seniors health card requirements will be continually reviewed to ensure that the card is only available to those people it is intended for. This ensures that the money is being spent on the people who need it the most and saves government funds for other purposes.

I believe in helping Australia’s older citizens and veterans of Australia’s defence forces and making a difference to their lives. I believe they have earned all the support the nation can give them. The Rudd government believes in equality, and I am pleased to see a system that introduces equality in another area of life for these members of our community. I am proud that the Rudd Labor government continues to help those who need it the most and is working towards a more just Australia.

I reiterate that this bill is just one of many moves being made by the Rudd government that will help our senior citizens and veterans live the more comfortable life which they thoroughly deserve. The Rudd government will continue to support the elderly people of Australia in as many ways as possible. The Rudd government will continue to deliver for seniors. This is important legislation that needs to be passed. It is in stark contrast to the way the opposition treated seniors and pensioners. In fact, it is in stark contrast to the way they still want to treat them. Earlier in the year we saw feigned concern for pensioners and the then opposition leader calling for $30-a-week pension increases. Then there was a change of leadership on that side—and we all know that is not settled yet—and we saw, firstly, support for our stimulus package and then a change of heart.

Almost everything we hear from the opposition involves opposing the stimulus package, so I ask: where do they stand, especially in relation to pensioners? They have moved very quickly from, ‘We care for seniors,’ to: ‘We do not support the one-off payments. We do not support a review of the pension or whatever that review might recommend. We do not think it can be afforded anyway.’ I presume they saw some political gain in their comments earlier in the year. They continually show a callous disregard for pensioners and deserve to be condemned. Older Australians are one of Australia’s greatest assets. They have helped shape modern Australia and continue to make significant contributions to society. I commend the bill to the Senate.