Breaking Politics - Transcript - Monday, 10 March 2014

At the start of the week I spoke with Fairfax Media's Breaking Politics host Chris Hammer and Andrew Laming about what's making news, including speculation the still secret Audit Commission report has recommended making it harder for Australians to be eligible for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. Here's the full transcript:


SUBJECT/S: Pension age; Commonwealth Seniors Health Card; Relaxing media laws.

HOST CHRIS HAMMER: At just what age should Australians be able to retire and what age would they be able to access the old age pension? At the moment that age is 65 but in a few time, by 2023 it will rise to 67. Now there's speculation the Government may raise it again to 70. Joining me to discuss that and other issues, in the studio is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Labor member for Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh and from Brisbane, the member for Bowman, Andrew Laming.

Andrew Laming, good to see you. Where are you this morning?

ANDREW LAMING: Well I'm down at my local quarry where I was hoping to show off a vigorous economy but at the moment there are no customers, so you'd just have to trust me.

HAMMER: Okay, very well. To the topic at hand, Andrew Laming can the Government defend or should the Government even be looking at raising the pension age to 70?

LAMING: Well Chris, we're certainly looking over a decade ahead now, so it's pretty hard to predict what living standards and expectations will look like then. But I think it's important that the Government, given the history of the pension age, continues to debate about where an appropriate age setting should be. I'm glad that's not a topic too hard to the Coalition to discuss and look ultimately we are, as a health expert I know, slightly fitter and slightly better able to contribute to the economy and Andrew Leigh would admit, that the longer keep people in the workforce the better it is for Australia's long term future.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, we are living longer. It does make sense?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMPETITION: I certainly agree on the importance of participation Chris. But you've got to remember there are two key ages. There's the age that people can access their super which is 60 and the age people get the pension which will eventually be 67. The Government is only focusing on the latter of those ages and that's of course the time at which manual workers get their pension. And so, to say to manual workers, 'look you're going to now have to wait ten years longer than more affluent people who've got money in superannuation' and doing that in an environment where you know that manual workers, sometimes their bodies just give out, say if you're a bricklayer. We also know that low-income Australians die younger. So, it doesn't seem particularly fair to be pushing out the pension age for people who do hard physical labour and who in many cases die at younger ages.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, this is a good point isn't it that someone, a wealthier person can retires and access their super at 60 and a pensioners has to wait much longer, maybe up until 70, especially given that superannuation is subsidised by the Commonwealth's tax system?

LAMING: Two points there Chris. Obviously with every year that passes, more and more Australians will have super. The second point is that I am very sympathetic to Andrew's point about people who really have broken down lower backs at the ends of their career and we have a disability support system for that and an excellent Medicare system for that as well. But keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people at 65 are currently able to continue to keep working if they choose to. I'd certainly support a sympathetic look though at those who are physically unable to keep working. I know that most people in public life would.

HAMMER: So, you're saying essentially, we shouldn't be looking at the pension to support them but some kind of bridging disability allowance to get them to pension age?

LAMING: Well, I didn't want the debate to be derailed by our clear vision for people with bad backs not being able to work. That shouldn't undermine our pension debate. Those people do need all the health care possible. They also can obviously alter jobs in many cases so they can continue working but in less physical capacity. But all of these things are not beyond the width of government services. We just have to make sure that if a nation can support a slightly older retirement age, that that debate occurs -

HAMMER: Okay, to another somewhat related issue, and that's access to the Seniors Health Card. The Government is looking at reforming that, perhaps indexing it to the CPI. The big concern is who is and who is not eligible and whether superannuation payments should be considered in that means-test. Is the Government considering knocking a fair group of people off the seniors health card?

LAMING: Well it is kind of speculation that you see in the media first. I'm really completely in the dark. Obviously tinkering with these kind of thresholds do represent significant savings but any government needs to be mindful that it will affect a substantial amount of people who are right on the threshold and often are least able to be able to afford out of pockets in health care which we know are climbing. So it's a very sensitive issue. Of course I can't confirm and deny anything. I don't even know what discussions there are pre-budget but it's pretty important people hold their health care cards and value them that they need to make that very clear to government that they want to keep them.

HAMMER: You may not know what the budget committee is considering but as a health care expert you'd know on one hand how valuable seniors health cards can be to some of your constituents. On the other hand you'll also know how much costs are growing in that sector, like in the BPS. Is there pressure to reform... is the system we have at the moment sustainable?

LAMING: I think every discussion starts with 'it's not sustainable'. But we need to remember that health is an extremely complex economic system and very briefly, Tony Abbott was the person who pioneered a range of these safety nets that have been very effective and continued by Labor. That includes the extended Medicare safety bet for out of pocket. There are ways around this but I think a simple debate around health care card indexing is tinkering at the edges but has longer term effects than does eligibility changes. We'll just have to wait and see Chris.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Leigh, your view on this?

LEIGH: Tony Abbott's been, I think, a little tricky on this one. He was asked yesterday at a news conference whether or not he would change eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card and he said quite carefully that the Coalition was committed to indexing the thresholds. What he didn't rule out was changing the definition of income in such a way as to ensure that many Australians were no longer eligible for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. That's a live option on the table and I think that will make many Australians concerned.

HAMMER: But isn't it necessary to have it as a live option on the table given those increasing costs in our health system?

LEIGH: If the Government wants to make a case for excluding a large number of senior Australians from a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card then they need to come out and argue that case strongly. We found in government something like, for example, limiting the private health insurance rebate and excluding some of the most affluent Australians from that rebate, that we were able to win that public debate, and in the end we saw there was none of the drop-off in private health insurance coverage that had been predicted. I think that if the Coalition wants to make an argument, well [it should] go out there and make it with vigour and passion and be honest with the people who are going to miss out as a result of the change. But don't do these sort of Nixonian word games where you're asked if you'll change eligibility and you say you'll stick to your commitment to indexation. Australian people are smarter than that.

HAMMER: Okay. Let's move on, finally to media laws. Andrew Leigh, first, is this the right time to be relaxing media laws in Australia? Malcolm Turnbull has made the point that there is far more diversity in media access in Australia now, particularly in regional areas because  of the Internet.

LEIGH: Malcolm Turnbull is fond of floating thought bubbles and I think his main focus yesterday was on making very clear to Rupert Murdoch that his reference to a 'demented plutocrat' had nothing to do with him. When it comes to media laws, I think the view that now we've got the Interweb, we can just throw away all our media regulations, is a little too glib. Labor brought out the Convergence Review which discussed many of the ways in which these platforms are moving together but you need to have a carefully thought out proposal to put before the Australian people, not simply float thought bubbles on Sunday morning talk shows.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, the Internet is certainly becoming more widespread. People are accessing different types of media. Yet, it is premature to talk about relaxing these kinds of media rules. Wouldn't it be better sometime in the future?

LAMING: Chris, I'm pretty open minded about relaxing media ownership rules but I don't think the Internet is really the excuse. People who most need diversity of news but often can't access it are those in regional Australia. They'll be a very keen eye on those parts of the country where people want locally produced news and local content where possible. The bigger picture is that I enjoy at least having two providers of diverse news and I like to be able to get that on all the different channels. I can remember back to 2009 was Kevin Rudd was named 'Man of the Year' and it felt like there were no friends in the media anywhere for the Coalition. But times change. You're not always loved by the media but I think if there are at least two voices then there's a chance of some diversity and you wouldn't want to see that lost in any part of this country.

HAMMER: Your concern about news sources in regional Australia wouldn't allow the merger of big metropolitan owners with regional media drive that kind of localism in regional areas down even further?

LAMING: There's no doubt you can have localism even with a single owner, so it all depends on what the drive is by the owner themselves and then what local content can be supported by both providers, local news and investment in local areas. Ultimately you'd like some people working in local and regional Australia so you can report on it... [audio breaks up]. I just want to make sure that when you turn your TV or radio or open a newspaper there's more than one available. It's really a practical test at the time not really one for blanket decisions right now at national level.

HAMMER: Okay gentlemen, thanks for participating this morning.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.