Adjournment: Federal Assistance Grants, Pensions and Benefits, Veterans' Affairs

In this last adjournment speech before Christmas I wish a very Merry Christmas to all the parliamentary staff who make working in this place a pleasure and safe. To the Hansard reporters, Senate workers, security personnel, cooks, cafe workers, Comcar drivers and coordinators and in particular the cleaners, who I support in their industrial actions, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. I also extend my Christmas greetings and best wishes to fellow senators and their staff.

I have received warnings from members of Tasmanian local governments about the significant reduction in services to their rate payers brought about by the reduction in federal assistance grants. The correspondence I received in part reads:

Federal Assistance Grants to Local Government have been frozen for period of three years, placing financial pressure on Councils and their rate payers in regards to having to either reduce services and or increase rates to cover.

Local Government has lost millions due to this freezing.

I commissioned Parliamentary Library research on the issue to verify the facts on the freezing of federal funds to local government. The report says:

The first series of grants to local government bodies occurred for the 1974-75 year and were provided for by the Local Government Grants Act 1974. In 1991-92, the Commonwealth began to provide additional amounts to the local government bodies with respect to local roads. Grants to local government are now provided for by the Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995.The freeze to the indexation of FAGs was announced by the current government in the 2014-15 budget.

The government will achieve savings of $925.2 million over four years by pausing indexation of the local government Financial Assistance Grants program for three years commencing 1 July 2014. The savings from this measure will be redirected by the government to repair the budget and fund policy priorities.

How much money has been lost to local government? The Parliamentary Library supplied me with a chart which details the amount of money per year lost to each state by the freezing of FAGS federal assistance grants. I will attach the chart to my social media and website for all to see. However, I will detail tonight Tasmania's losses. In total, over the four-year forward estimates Tasmania will lose over $18 million in federal assistance grants—$1.9 million for 2014-15, $3.9 million for 2015-16, $5.9 million for 2016-17, and $6.1 million for 2017-18.

These figures are a disgrace for the Liberal members of this parliament from Tasmania. Indeed, they are a disgrace for all the Liberal and National members of this parliament from every Australian state. You are in government. You should have the influence and courage to change this rotting leftover policy from Tony Abbott's horror budget of 2014-15. It must be changed—or else all National and Liberal members of this parliament will be directly responsible for the rate rises forced on local government by the Turnbull-Morrison reduction in local government assistance grants. I invite Tasmanian rate payers to send copies of their rate rises to their local federal Liberal members of parliament and demand an explanation and also a refund. This matter is once again another example of the Tasmanian Liberals not standing up for their state and putting a political party before the people they represent.

In summary, the Parliamentary Library research shows that over the forward estimates almost $1 billion has been lost to all Australian local government authorities. This is at a time when the government, over the forward estimates, will borrow $16 billion in order to give it away in poorly targeted and managed foreign aid. I call on this Turnbull-Morrison government to unfreeze the federal assistance grants to our local governments.

In today's Australian Financial Review there is an article which reinforces and reaffirms why the government should support the JLN policy of establishing an enhanced pensioner loans scheme based on a reverse mortgage principle. The article in part reads:

The Productivity Commission will recommend that retirees should tap into their family home to fund their retirement.

This is thought to be worth $1 trillion.

Retirees would enjoy a higher standard of living and save billions in the budget.

The Commission found 40 per cent of single pensioners and 33 per cent of couples live on less than the yearly amount the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia says is needed for a modest lifestyle.

The Commission found by tapping into the family home, they would live above the standard of living and still have money left over for the next generation.

The Federal government is likely to use this report to gradually change the living and spending habits of older Australians to reduce their reliance on state subsidies, free up housing and make the retirement system more financially viable.

Scott Morrison is considering allowing the elderly to sell their homes and switch to smaller properties without reducing their pension.

At the moment only 2 per cent of older Australians unlock equity in their home to fund their retirement.

The Commission found older Australians were afraid of running out of money and were misinformed about the cost of residential care, which is why there is a lot of precautionary saving and people refusing to tap into their family home as a source of income.

Quite clearly, the Productivity Commission, when they recommend that retirees should tap into their family home to fund their retirement, were referring to a policy very similar to the pensioner loan scheme that myself and other crossbenchers again call on the government to establish. The government should be bringing in the pensioner loans scheme before it starts taking entitlements away from families just before Christmas. Whoever thought of introducing legislation to parliament which guaranteed a reduction in family payments just before Christmas obviously had never heard of Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge. If our new Liberal Treasurer does not want to develop, or enhance, a reputation as a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas, then you would think he would withdraw his legislation, which is not a budget saving but simply a theft of entitlements from hardworking, struggling Australian families. This week my office received correspondence from ACOSS in Tasmania which supports my argument that our Treasurer needs to change his ways and stop the cuts to welfare, or else—if Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is anything to go by—Treasurer Morrison runs the risk of being visited by a number of ghosts in the near future. The message from ACOSS, in part, reads:

You would no doubt be aware that the Government has announced further minor changes to its family payments reforms, including protecting grandparents and single parents over 60 years from any cuts to Part B.

ACOSS believes that the changes announced this week will do nothing to ameliorate the harshness of the changes for the majority of low income families.

Our analysis suggests that less than 4% of those receiving FTB B are over 60 years, and about half of those are single parents so it is a very small cohort.

We urge Senator Lambie to vote against the legislation.

I have attached our submission and supplementary evidence to the Community Affairs Inquiry into the family payments bill.

Analysis of the changes to family payments proposed in the current Bill shows that, when all of the changes have come into effect in 2018:

â�¢   A sole parent with one child over 13 years will lose roughly $2500 per year and a sole parent with two children will lose roughly $3000 per year ($48 per week and $58 per week respectively);

â�¢   A low income, single income couple family with one child over 13 will lose $3500 and with two children will lose $4000 per year ($67 per week and $77 per week respectively);

â�¢   For those families with children under 13 not affected by the Part B eligibility age changes, most will be worse off compared to their current position due to the loss of supplements.

The Part A supplement is $730 per year per child and will be offset by the Part A increase of $262 per annum (a loss of $468).

The Part B supplement is $354 per family. Therefore a dual income family with one primary school aged child will be $468 a week or $9 a week worse off.

A single income family with a child under 13 years will be $822 a year worse off, or $16 a week.

I will not be supporting any cuts to family payments. You will recall that I put out a press release last week describing my plan to reform the Pensions Loans Scheme, the PLS, which read:

New costings from the Parliamentary Budget Office show the government could help retirees boost their own incomes at nearly no cost to the budget by making the Pension Loans Scheme (PLS) available to all who wish to use it.

In May 2015, Senators Xenophon, Lazarus, Lambie and Muir called for the PLS to be expanded and made available to all who wish to use it, as proposed in a report from The Australia Institute last year.

Costings requested by Senator Lambie and released today show expanding the PLS could help retirees unlock more than $2.8 billion to boost their retirement incomes at a cost to the budget of only $23 million over the estimates period.

With the new costing, the crossbench Senators have today renewed their call to expand the PLS.

What is the PLS? The PLS is a long-running but little known government scheme allowing retirees to unlock their home equity on a voluntary basis and draw a fortnightly income through loans secured against their house.

The PLS interest rates are set below market rates, making them an attractive way for retirees to unlock home equity while they live in their home. The loan balance is settled once the house is sold.

Currently only those who are not eligible for the pension can access the PLS. In addition, maximum fortnightly payments are capped at the full aged pension rate.

What do the costings show? Because PLS payments are loans secured against property, they can be offered at little cost to the government, and yet also at below market rates The costings include two scenarios. In Option one, the maximum payment rate is increased to triple the Age Pension rate, allowing payments on average at 'what is required for a comfortable retirement'.

Option One would give all pension recipients access to the Pension Loans Scheme in addition to their pension. In 'Option Two' eligibility is opened to all retirees.

While the PBO costing notes it is very difficult to estimate uptake of the voluntary scheme under the changes, its costings, show that whatever the uptake, it could be done at low cost.

Higher uptake is likely to reduce administrative overheads further.

In addition to the many benefits the Pension Loans Scheme would bring to our elderly Australians, a boost to our economy for additional grey power spending would be significant and it certainly cannot be dismissed. Last week I started my name and shame campaign against the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the bureaucrats who work in this dysfunctional and dangerous department. I continue my campaign by bringing to the attention of the Senate the plight of a former member of the Australian Defence Force, Danielle Khan, who because of proven Department of Veterans' Affairs incompetence and maladministration now has a $16,000 legal bill which the minister, Stuart Robert, refuses to acknowledge or even address in my letter. Danielle writes in one of her letters to me:

My name is Danielle Khan and my solicitor Jim Paterson whom you have dealt with previously has given me your details to get my story out in the public arena.

I have been dealing with dva and their maladministration for the last 16 years, since injuring my back while serving.

I and Mr Patterson put in for a review of my disability which should normally take 6-8 weeks. We are now going on 2 years and going to a third aat meeting, due to dvas incompetence and in legal speak "denial of autonomy of delegates decisions". Put simply they admitted making a mistake so are now trying to change decisions made by their delegate 10years ago. As you could probably imagine the stress this has caused to both myself and my family. My husband is still serving and is my full time carer, also full time carer to our 2 special needs children. To the point my brother has been living with us full time for the last year to help out.

Not only the stress of the above matter this time last year dva sent me a letter citing I owed in the region of S182,000. This I did not owe and after me Patterson looked into this dva admitted the letter should never have been sent due to their maladministration.

I have spent time in hospital dealing with this. As I also lost my daughter's father to suicide in 2002 after army incompetence after his return from East Timor. After there blatant disregard for me and Mistakes to the extreme, I almost left my daughter a Double orphan in 2005 after a suicide attempt leaving me in a coma.

So after receiving this letter cleverly ignoring the fact all correspondence had to go through my legal team, I thought my only option was to take my own life as I cannot go on after 16 years of their blatant disregard and poor administration So after yet another hospitalisation and a year to finally sort the mess out on their end and withdraw the request for owed funds admitting maladministration. But when I was left with a $11,000 legal bill to fight this horrendous mistake of theirs, I was told by a dva staff member they were not allowed to tell me how to go about claiming this from them and also admitted that I should not have this bill to pay.

At this I have spent weeks trying to track down how to have dva pay this bill, as I don't have the money. Also contacting minister for veterans affairs office, whom will not return my calls.

I have no idea where to turn but to the media to expose dvas incompetence. I know many others have received similar letters trying to claw back funds mostly for amounts up to $30,000 and are shocked to hear of the $182,000 they requested from me.

I am asking you please to take this story and make this horrendous life of mine dealing with dva public so we can show what government and dva are doing to people like me …

For anything further you can please contact me …

Obviously the number is there, but I will not read that out. Danielle goes on:

I would really appreciate you help with blowing this whistle as loud as possible for myself and all other veterans who are no longer able to fight. As I full well know of the 6 veterans I spent time with in new farm hospital with in 2005, I am the only one still alive. All where clients of Mr. Patterson and all ended their lives for the same reason "dva utter incompetence".

So please I am not doing this just for me. Please help me do this for them, my daughter's father and many more out there that no longer have a voice. Also the ones still breathing to fight and hope they will not get to the brink of the abyss for which dva are happy to wipe their hands of.

I truely believe that dva and government have blood on their hands pushing these people to the edge and this needs to come out.

Thank you, I anxiously await your reply as I really don't know how much more I can take.

I raised this issue during estimates on 21 October this year, and I have written to this Liberal government's DVA minister and asked that the Department of Veterans' Affairs fix this problem by paying for their mistake. But the new veterans' affairs minister, Stuart Robert, who served in Bougainville as an Unarmed Peacekeeper, prefers to put another black mark against his Prime Minister, and to discredit his political party, by ignoring this very serious complaint from Danielle Khan.

Out of desperation, Danielle has given me permission to make her name public in order to try and force this government to deliver her some justice. I should not have to do this. Former members of the ADF and veterans should not have to go through the added trauma of making their story public. But they will. The list I have of veterans who are willing to join my list—to name and shame the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the defence officials and the medical practitioners out there that are doing the wrong thing—is growing enormously. And I can assure you that this is just the tip of the iceberg, because of some of the stories that we will start hearing from February next year are absolutely shameful.

I will take every opportunity I have to speak in the adjournment debate in the last 20 minutes of the night, and I will spend 10 minutes naming and shaming the delegates and the practitioners out there who are killing our veterans. And I will not stop shaming this government until justice is delivered for Australian veterans; until those politicians, Australian defence officers, and DVA workers, who are responsible for the harm and deaths of our veterans, are brought to justice. I will say this: it is now Christmas time coming up, and this girl has a $16,000 bill over her head which is not her fault. It is a simple procedure: give her the $16,000 so she can pay out her lawyer. This is maladministration because of veterans' affairs. I have begged the veterans' affairs minister to fix this up. For goodness sake, before we lose another life—please. Please ask your Minister for Veterans' Affairs to fix it. Enough!